Situated bang smack in the middle of the Atacama desert in Northern Chile, it would be easy to describe the Alto Atacama hotel as an oasis, as it offers welcome and luxurious respite from what NASA has stated to be one of the most arid climates on the planet. However, on reflection perhaps "oasis" isn't quite the right word; as it conjures up images of lush, opulent green that is almost disrespectfully conspicuous amongst a sea of sand. Instead, the Alto Atacama is barely noticeable amidst the red and brown backdrop it has been created in, and is hard to distinguish which was crafted by man and which by nature.
Furthermore, the parts that have been sculpted by hands rather than the elements echo with ancestral notes; embracing the indigenous culture, history and wider way of life. In fact, the hotel's construction was only agreed upon after extensive discussions with the local elders and only under the proviso that it carefully manage the region's most precious commodity; water. Don't be mistaken into thinking that this level of sustainability makes for a unpolished experience. Quite the opposite, the Alto Atacama offers all the creature comforts you would expect from a world class hotel and spa. Perhaps "mirage" would be a more appropriate word to describe this place ; an optical phenomenon, especially in the desert or at sea. Yes, seeing is believing here at Alto and phenomenon is a truly fitting description. As soon as you arrive, the staff here at Alto encourage you to explore, to get out and discover the desert's moon-like landscapes, hit the road less travelled, get off the beaten track on foot, by bike or with guides. There are numerous trails and excursions to hit, including dawn visits to the geysers, hot springs and volcano climbs. And after mountain biking the Inca pass and trekking through the Valley Of the Moon you'll be gagging for an appointment at PURI spa, to dust off the desert and soak your sand-covered feet.
Given that NASA has already handed the Atacama desert the title of as the driest of all deserts, it's safe to say that the hotels six swimming pools are a welcome sight. The Puri Spa is hidden amongst the pools by stone walls made from the surrounding stunning Catarpe Valley of the Salt Mountain Range. The surrounds are outer worldly, so as you waft through the open plan spa, you truly feel completely disconnected from any other forms of human life. Water is a rarity in the desert and here the source is from glacial snow, making the Turkish bath, Finnish Sauna, Scottish showers, indoor & outdoor hot tubs that bit more special. All water is taken from a well beneath and later recycled so sustainability is the name of the game here. Try the cellular renewal body massage, the Gong Relaxation or the incredible Royal Quinoa and yogurt facial, literally good enough to eat.
If quinoa isn't your thing, fear not. The food here is exquisite. And once again Alto aim to give back to the local economy as they insist on working closely with local producers, so the food is guaranteed to be fresh and organic. You can even spot some of the plants used during one of your hikes such as locally grown Socaire potatoes and native quinoa. Sample a native Pisco Sour or one of the incredible Chilean wines on offer, by the poolside fire pit, before feasting on dishes like; grouper fish with creamy merken chilli chucocha, quinoa croquettes and octopus, ostrich carpaccio with emulsified lemon dressing, or a typical Andean stew. Be sure to finish off with homemade desert-herb-infused ice cream.
Whichever of the low laying 42 suites you are assigned, it's certain you will enjoy a deep serene sleep here. The colours of the interior were designed to protect eyes which have been exposed to the searing desert sun. Windows are covered with beautiful natural fibres in keeping with the flow of the hotel, to completely block out all light. The rooms are rustic, decorated with local crafts for decor, making you really feel at one with nature. No TV's ensure you enjoy every moment of the blissful silence the desert offers, and once the harsh Sun descends over the Martian landscape, the first glimmers of the night sky begin to appear. By the time darkness has completely fallen it is easy to understand why so astronomy fanatics make their pilgrimage to perhaps the most clear window into the universe on offer. Be prepared to sit on your private patio and have your breath taken by planets, constellations, satellites, meteorites, galaxies, nebulae and much much, more. There are nightly stargazing sessions hosted on the hotels Moon Deck and with a powerful telescope further enhanced my appreciation for the view that at last count was 13billion years in the making. As for the Alto Atacama, may it exist for many light years to come.
For the more adventurous tourist, the hotel offers maps, cycles and helmets to venture out and enjoy/endure the local biking trails through the Devil's Gorge. It goes without saying to take plenty of water and sunscreen but the rewards are worth the exertion as the trail is replete with hidden treasures.