“We started with three llamas, and now look at them,” says Florencia Oriolo, experiences manager at Nayara Alto Atacama, gesturing to an enclosure with half a dozen of the sizable camelids. Chewing slowly and eyeing their surroundings through hooded lids, they realize they won’t be fed any more of the algarrobo pods that fall just out of reach from the nearby tree and return to their business, unimpressed. The llamas are central to Nayara Alto Atacama, both literally and in concept.
Nestled in northern Chile’s Salt Mountains, red hulking geological wonders dusted with their white namesake, the sprawling adobe hotel mimics the layout of a traditional Atacameño home, which has llamas and alpacas in the centre along with a small garden of crops like corn and beans. At Nayara Atacama, the llama corral is flanked by lush alfalfa bushes. Nearby, a row of pomegranate trees is heavy with fruit. A combination of hotel rooms and villas surround the lagoon, each offering stellar views of the desert landscape; the villas are particularly stunning, with private terraces, complete with sizable daybeds, and outdoor showers.
Nayara Atacama is a place that pays homage to the local nature and culture, enhancing guest experiences with tradition rather than cookie-cutter hotel hospitality. A line of jagged rocks along the boundary of the villas mimics a common animal enclosure in the region. Teepeed stick sculptures with loops of fabric reference mothers going to work with babies on their backs. Landscape designer Veronica Poblete relied mainly on indigenous plants to create the garden oasis. The nods to local tradition are easily overlooked, but within the trend of performative eco-tourism, it feels the more genuine for it.
The fixtures of the hotel weave into the red ridges of the Atacama Desert landscape 2,500 metres above sea level. Its walls capture the quiet privacy of the desert, moments of perfect stillness, not even birds chirping, in a towering otherworldly landscape of rocky buttresses. There’s no better spot to embrace the mountain serenity than poolside. Around the outdoor Puri Bar, with its frequent asado barbecues, six in-ground pools at varying temperatures are puzzled together, each walled in white adobe and framed with pampas grass, with views of the looming Salt Mountains. The outdoor jacuzzi, tucked away up a few steps at the edge of the property, is especially serene.
Close by, Puri Spa centres its treatments around water, with a Scottish bath and mineral baths to counter the desert air, along with the expected menu of massages and facials. The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth, and throats, skin, and even eyeballs feel the effects of the aridity, so the sudden humidity of the wet sauna at Puri Spa offers welcome relief. After a day of trekking in the nearby mountains, a head massage while floating in a warm pool brings a divine moment of weightless bliss.
As well as the relaxation options on-site, there are seemingly endless excursions available. Thanks in no small part to the several mountain ranges—the Salt, Domeyco, and Andes—that fold together, along with a number of volcanoes, the area is incredibly diverse. Within a short drive, it’s possible to see gorges lined with towering cardon cacti, hike the spiny rock ridges of Valle de la Luna where NASA scientists tested a Mars rover, spot a flock of Andean flamingos preening in the wetlands, or explore the Atacama Salt Flat, one of the largest in the world.
A few kilometres away, accessible via shuttle or a rather dusty and strenuous bike ride, the sleepy village of San Pedro de Atacama serves as the main jumping-off point for most tourist activities in the area. Not far from San Pedro, Rainbow Valley is the convergence of several mineral-rich mountains, where a unique display of colours—vibrant red clay, a white crust of salt and green volcanic tuff—create a geological rainbow. Underfoot, specks of gypsum sparkle like diamonds.
A predawn wakeup call comes to visit El Tatio geyser field, 4,200 metres above sea level, the third-largest in the world. The 80 bubbling pools are best visited close to sunrise when the steam is most visible and the water jumps put on a particularly spectacular show. Though freezing early-morning mountain temperatures make the boiling water look almost tempting, step with caution and respect the somewhat laissez-faire stone boundary markings—the guide points out one geyser dubbed Killer. “The whole area could fall through at any time,” he says casually, referencing the constant cycle of emergence and dormancy within the geyser field.
A day spent in the desert makes the expansive offerings at Ckelar Restaurant even more tantalizing, paired with the best of what Chile’s vineyards have to offer. With floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing the gardens and mountains beyond, dining is best taken slowly. After dinner, stop and feed the llamas an algarrobo pod. Just be careful—they’re known to spit.
At night, the remote location, clear skies and expansive sightlines mean the star gazing is unparalleled. On a moonless night, the two Magellanic clouds hint at what galaxies far away hold. Stretched out on Nayara Atacama’s lounge chairs high on its stargazing hill, the outline of mountains looming in the darkness, it’s easy to forget worldly problems and surrender to the tranquillity of being a small player in a vast and ancient universe.
LATAM is the largest airline in Latin America and they offer direct flights from New York and Los Angeles to Santiago. From there, LATAM runs multiple flights to Calama every day. A shuttle can be arranged ahead of time for transport from the Calama airport to Nayara Alto Atacama, which takes just over an hour.