The Alto Atacama, Photo by Kyle Dickman
Chile is South America's New Zealand, which is to say, it's an adventurer's paradise. And the most popular destination is San Pedro de Atacama, a dusty 400-year old village on the northern edge of the Atacama desert, the driest place on earth. At 7,000 feet, the city is hemmed in by the 19,000-foot Andes to the east, the altiplano to the north, and the Valle de la Luna National Park, a wind-and-water sculpted badlands, to the west.
Lounging by the salt flats in the Atacama desert
Visit all these places with the guides at Alto Atacama, a hacienda-style lodge two miles from downtown in one of the desert's rare green valleys ($2530/week; all inclusive; altoatacama.com). The hotel's low-adobe architecture blends into the landscape and even its six pools and llama stables are subtle. Book a room facing southeast and you get a shaded porch with views of the Andes rising across the desert. Spend three days acclimating, then climb a volcano with one of the hotel's local guides.
The Alto Atacama from above
When I was there in December, my objective was Toco. At 18,045 feet it's taller than all but three peaks in North America, and lucky for me, it's as easy as high-altitude hikes come. The trip started at five a.m. and with the guide and one other guest we drove an hour and a half through cactus fields to 17,100 feet. Twenty feet from the summit, I stumbled to a perch on a boulder and panted, light-headed, until the guide produced a cup of coca tea, "It'll help with the elevation," he said. It did. We spent the next half hour lounging on the summit, gawking at the alpine lakes in Bolivia to the northeast, the altiplano to the north, and the Atacama and three smoking volcanoes to the south. I'd never been higher in my life.