CAROLINE HURRY reviews Explora Atacama’s Hotel de Larache in Chile’s remote Atacama Desert
Dotted with stonewalls and adobe buildings, Explora’s Hotel de Larache is a totem of luxury in the world’s driest wilderness. Situated on 42 acres in the San Pedro de Atacama oasis on the Ayllu de Larache plain once inhabited by an ancient Atacameño community, it’s an area of surprising natural and cultural wealth.
To get there, you take a domestic flight from Santiago to Calama, where an Explora pick up transfer drives you through the desert to San Pedro de Atacama, about an hour away.
The eco lodge has the Scandinavian feel of a hip house party with blonde woods, high ceilings, open-plan interiors and trapezoid-shaped fireplaces. A double roof enables air to circulate, keeping interior spaces cool with no need for air conditioning. The living room, restaurant and other public areas of the hotel are raised four metres above ground level to afford ample views of the volcanic mountain chain of Atacama while slatted boardwalks lead guests around the property.
Accommodation: Tastefully designed with wooden ceilings and stone tiled floors, 46 comfortable rooms and four suites open onto a central courtyard. Each has a small living area, a hydro-massage bath, king-sized beds with crisp linens, down duvets and ultra comfortable pillows to ensure a deep, pleasurable sleep after a day of exploration.
A wall-to-wall, rectangular window affords panoramic views of the orchard, the Cordillera de Sal (salt plains) or views of the distant smouldering Volcano Licancabúr. Bright blue doors, green chests of drawers and splashes of yellow wicker echo colours found in the adobes of San Pedro. Apart from roomy dressing gowns, slippers, unlimited drinking water, a safe and toiletries, little pots of mint and lemon lip balm were a welcome touch.
Eating and Drinking: The main restaurant that can accommodate up to 100 diners offered a daily set menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner with every meal as show stopping as a closet full of Bolivian folk dancers. Think deliciously unctuous, svelte, sophisticated food with silver service and top Chilean wines. All meals and drinks are included. Floor to ceiling windows maximise the view of the volcanoes or you can eat outside on the broad terrace.
Maps, photographs depicting the Atacama wildlife, and satellite images of the area decorate the walls of the wrap-around bar area, where you can enjoy a traditional pisco sour or a tasty snack between meals. We also enjoyed a barbeque in the “quincho” – a type of boma – where Atacamenian performers in traditional masks and costumes entertained us with music and dancing.
Business Facilities: Three meeting rooms can accommodate 100, 40, or 12 delegates. Computers and wi-fi Internet are available for guests.
Explora’s Corporate Adventures & Executive Retreat Program offers great experiences for incentive trips including daily desert explorations with multi-lingual guides and the largest private astronomical observatory in Chile. The Atacama is the best place in the world for star gazing with neither light pollution, nor cloud cover and more stars to see in the southern hemisphere.
Leisure time: Explora Atacama own the Termas de Puritama situated on 17,297 acres where you can relax in natural hot spring pools, with aperitifs included. There are also four elegant outdoor pools – two of which are solar heated – plus a sauna, steam bath, open-air Jacuzzi, massage salon and shaded sitting areas with deck chairs. Hotel de Larache is the only lodge in Atacama that offers its own stables with 26 sweet-tempered horses especially trained for excursions. Guides provide basic training for beginners.
Guests are encouraged to go on at least two explorations a day, on foot, mountain bike or horseback. Everything is included and there are at least 40 outings to choose from including salt flats where three species of flamingo live in shallow lakes, early morning geysers, desert walks, sunset hiking to the Moon Valley, photographic safaris, volcano climbing and much more. You plan your daily journeys with your guide in the “Explorer’s Room” with an extensive library and large-scale maps. A gift shop and art gallery feature Atacama Indian crafts.
Waste Management: All the hotel’s water is recycled. Says hotel manager Silvio Bernasconi: “All grey water goes into our own sewerage plant where it is treated and then re-used to irrigate the grounds. Our wormeries recycle food waste and horse manure from the stables is used to fertilise our gardens. Thanks to the harsh, dry climate we have no rats or vermin so that has never been an issue.
“We no longer use plastic water bottles – drinking water in the rooms is served in glass decanters and guests are given brushed aluminum water bottles to take on excursions. We recycle all our cans, cardboard, batteries and glass bottles. A machine on our premises crushes the glass into powder that is then mixed with sand and concrete, which we use to build our walls and patio floors.
“We plan to install even more solar heaters to take advantage of the abundant sunlight and in 2008 though the Explora Foundation, we set up a conservation project to protect the fauna, flora and rich archaeological heritage of the area.
We teach the local children in the San Pedro village how to speak English to give something back to the community.”
Verdict: An oasis of extreme civilization off the beaten track in the high Andean desert. If you like your wilderness served with hot showers, cold plunge pools, chilled beers, gourmet food and efficient, smiling service, then the Hotel de Larache offers all of the above. I’d rate it nine out of 10 stars.