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Explorer’s Journal: The allure of Atacama with Destination Expert Shaina

Expedition Atacama to Uyuni Part 1 of 2 – As a team of explorers first, our Destination Experts (DEs) are constantly on the move. In this two-part edition of our Explorer’s Journal, Shaina, Jeanie, and Julia embark on an expedition from Chile’s Atacama Desert to Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flats. Tag along as they begin their journey roaming the otherworldly grounds of Atacama.

Greetings from Chile! It’s SA’s Destination Expert Shaina here, along with my fellow DEs Julia and Jeanie. After not seeing each other in almost a year, the three of us finally reunited at the Santiago airport. Let the adventure begin.

A moment to acclimate

From Santiago, Chile’s capital, we took a quick 1.5-hour flight north to Calama before driving another hour to the Explora Lodge, located just outside of San Pedro de Atacama. Upon arrival, we were greeted with smiling faces and superb hospitality. We knew we needed to spend some time acclimatizing to the altitude – at approximately 8,000 ft, the Atacama is the highest and driest desert in the world! We decided to spend the first day enjoying the property by lounging time by their pools, enjoying a phenomenal three-course lunch and dinner (with celebratory champagne!), and relaxing in our uber-comfortable rooms.

While the Explora property has a modest luxury vibe, their true expertise lies in preparing the little details for their guests, such as personalized notes in our rooms, turndown services in the evenings, and one-on-one meetings with their wonderful guides to best customize one’s time in the region. On our first meeting, our guide told us about Atacama and its history, as well as the history of Explora in the region.

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Explora’s cozy rooms and heated pools truly set the mood for relaxation in the quiet desert. (Photo: Shaina Molano)

We then discussed possible tour options for the following day and were told how to best prepare. Explora does a lovely job of involving the whole group, hearing everyone’s interests, and planning time accordingly. They even have maps on all their tables so the guide can draw out exactly where you are going, the distances, what to expect, and more. Since we had two full days and a final half day to fill with tours, our group decided to do two half-day excursions on Day 2, a full-day excursion on Day 3, and a morning half-day excursion on Day 4.

Basking in the hot springs

We started our second day in Atacama with a morning hike to the nearby Puritama hot springs. Before setting off, Explora laid out a healthy spread of nuts, dried fruits, and other goodies for everyone to make snack bags. Our guide then took us to a large map of the region to once again show us exactly where we were going.

The hike was simply stunning. It was a great way to stretch our legs after long travel days and to better acclimatize to the altitude. Our guide introduced us to local flora and fauna, pointed out archaeological sites along the way, and was incredibly personable. Once we arrived at the hot springs, we were blown away! The lodge had bathrobes for us to wear down to the pools, where a full spread of snacks, beverages, and wine awaited us.

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A well-deserved, refreshing, and revitalizing dip in the naturally warm waters of Puritama. (Photo: Shaina Molano)

We highly recommend this excursion for anyone visiting! The water was magical, clear, and very welcoming for our tired, jet-lagged bodies. After lunch and a bit of relaxation time back at the lodge, we headed out for our afternoon excursion to the Cordillera de Sal to explore the unique geology of the region. With the ever-present Licancabur Volcano towering over us, we played amongst the unique rock formations, collecting cool rocks and crystals.

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The Licancabur Volcano watches over the Atacama Desert at 19,400 ft. above sea level! (Photo: Shaina Molano)

Landscapes, lagoons, and the mystical Licancabur Volcano

For our third day in Atacama, we decided to take Explora’s full-day excursion to the nearby altiplano. With our snacks and picnic lunch packed (courtesy of the phenomenal Explora kitchen staff), the four of us departed with our private guide and driver, and truly got to see more of the otherworldly-looking landscape. We passed by the towering Licancabur Volcano, fascinating altiplanic lagoons, and got our first glimpses of flamingoes on this trip. Fun fact: there are three different types of flamingoes that call Chile (along with Bolivia) home!

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The Licancabur Volcano (left) and a frozen lagoon (right) at Chile’s remarkable altiplano. (Photo: Shaina Molano)

While we had a phenomenal time exploring the landscape, don’t let the clear, sunny skies fool you – traveling in the sunny altiplano during South America’s winter months (June-September) is COLD. We highly encourage all visitors to pack and dress in layers. It was so cold in the late afternoon that we decided to forego our picnic lunch outside for a much cozier meal inside our trusty Explora van. Can’t beat hot soup in mugs with delicious Chilean wine to warm you up after a long, cold day of exploring!

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Jeanie, Julia, and Shaina didn’t let the cold spoil their trip. (Photo: Shaina Molano)

After resting and warming up in the Explora Lodge’s many pools, we went on an evening excursion to the on-site observatory for our astronomy tour. Due to the combination of high altitude, low humidity, and little to no light pollution, the Atacama Desert is one of the best places in the world for stargazing. While the landscape of Atacama is often described as otherworldly, the skies above this remote desert might be the most striking of all.

Exploring the Atacama Desert on a horse

On our final morning at the Explora Lodge, we were able to squeeze in one last excursion – a horseback ride through the town of San Pedro toward the outskirts of the Valle de la Luna. None of us were new to riding, but we were sincerely impressed by Explora’s attention to detail, safety, and the overall ease of the experience. We were escorted to the stables where we were outfitted with helmets, chaps, sunscreen, and coffee. We were assisted as each one of us mounted our respective horses and the amazing crew reviewed simple commands.

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Julia (left) and Jeanie (right) in all their grace. (Photo: Shaina Molano)

The Explora property is located a mere ten-minute walk from the main town of San Pedro, and it was lovely to take a leisurely stroll through town on horseback. We then took off towards the Cordillera de la Sal and got one last view of the stunning landscape we had grown accustomed to over the last several days. After saying goodbye to our new friends back at Explora, we were transferred to the Chile/Bolivia border where we prepared to start the next chapter of our overland journey.

Click here to keep reading, ‘Explorer’s Journal: The Salt Uyuni-verse with Destination Expert Jeanie’

In addition to Atacama, Explora also offers an exclusive experience in Patagonia called Explora Connects. Explore Connects consists of three different programs that link their three Patagonia lodges – including their new Explora Lodge in Patagonia National Park. Their newest luxury offering involves a private chartered plane transfer, drastically reducing travel time and maximizing adventure time. We’re delighted to have partnered with Explora and greatly support their ongoing conservation projects in Patagonia and Atacama.

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Left to right: Kevin, Shaina, Julia, and Jeanie

Feeling inspired? Immerse yourself in the mystical worlds of Atacama and Uyuni! If you opt to explore other captivating regions of Chile like Easter Island or Patagonia, this country will surely leave you mesmerized. Chat with a Destination Expert to start planning your dream trip.

About the author: Shaina Molano is an archaeologist by trade, and in addition to specializing in crafting custom travel itineraries for her clients, she’s a spa hound, bookworm, and dog mom to Thor the adventure husky.

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