When NASA engineers need to test instruments they plan to send to Mars, they hop a plane to Chile and drive north to the Atacama Desert, where the earth seems to be imitating its celestial neighbor. A 600-mile strip of salt and sand squeezed between the Chilean Coastal Range and the Andes, the Atacama is the oldest continuously arid region on Earth – three million years ago, this area was a desert. Though the area gets a not exactly drizzly average of 1/2500 inches of rain a year on average, there are some spots that haven’t seen a drop of rain in recorded history. Far from barren, the Atacama is a subtly varied landscape rimmed by smoking volcanoes that reach upwards of 22,000 feet. The whole area is great for exploring on foot, bike, horseback, or all-terrain vehicle.
Travelers bound for the Atacama inevitably end up in the small town of San Pedro de Atacama, a quaint village of 2,500 people sitting just under 8,000 feet. This is the heart of the local tourism industry and well-established base camp for self-guided tours. A few good restaurants like La Casona serve typical Chilean dishes, and Las Delicas de Carmen is well known for its home-cooked meals. There are a few hotels in town, but the best sits about a mile down the road.
The Alto Atacama takes a minimalist, eco-friendly approach without sacrificing any amenity or luxury. Modeled after a traditional adobe settlement, the hotel blends elegantly into the surrounding landscape so well it sometimes seems to disappear behind its herd of resident llamas and garden of native crops. More than half of the staff has local indigenous roots, and the hotel offers 30 different excursions to geysers, hot springs, volcanoes, mountain biking trails, slot canyons, and ancient Incan ruins filled with petroglyphs. There are horses on hand if you want to play Lawrence of South America on the dunes. Just be sure to catch the sunset in the aptly named Valle de la Luna, where the clearest skies in the Southern Hemisphere turn elaborate pastels every evening.
After a day feeling like an astronaut, spend the night looking towards the stars. The altitude, dry air, lack of light pollution, and dearth of clouds make the Atacama one of the best places in the world for astronomical observations. The Alto Atacama has multiple decks custom built for stargazing as well as research-grade telescopes so you can check out what Mars looks like from a distance after seeing what it looks like up close.
More information: The closest airport to San Pedro de Atacama, El Loa in Calama, is serviced by LAN, Sky Airline, and PAL. Rooms at the Alto Atacama begin a $660 per person per night and go all the way up to $4,000 for the more luxurious suites. The Puri Spa, on site, is worth a visit after a long day of biking.