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Adventure and Hot Springs in the Atacama Desert

In a desert oasis beside a roaring river, the handsome young Chilean reaches for my hand to help me over the rocks. He smiles. “Gracias,” I say.

It’s not a dream. The long-haired, 29-year-old Chilean is Max Vera, our guide on a challenging uphill hike along the canyon floor. We scramble over rocks strewn along a sandy trail, large “fox tails,” and cacti that are 12 feet high with needles so sharp that local Indian women use them to sew and knit. We’re in the Atacama Desert in South America, walking along the River Puritama. Our goal: Seven pools of hot springs.

My daughters Reg and Mel, and Reg’s boyfriend Dan Foldes, are hiking behind us, bemused at my attachment to our guide. Whenever we get hot here in the Atacama, we seem to come closer to the coolness of the river. At points we push large green plants apart to find the trail—truly an oasis in the desert.

Though the Atacama region, less than two hours by air from Santiago, Chile, is one of the most visited in the country, Americans have yet to discover it. This despite the spectacular desert landscape, the chance to hike to an ancient village, taste a llama kebob (you’ll see them everywhere here), head to the top of a volcano (18,000 feet), or to the highest geyser field in the world—El Tatio (14,190 feet)—to watch Chilean flamingos at sunset over the Atacama Salt Lake. “Ninety percent of the days here are like this,” Max says pointing to the sky. “Blue sky. No clouds.”

“I just don’t think Atacama has hit the U.S. market yet,” says Chris Purcell, manager of the wonderful 32-room TierraAtacama where we are guests. The hotel is located in San Pedro, a sleepy town of just 4,000, which is getting new life as a tourist destination while retaining its charm—quaint sand streets, pedestrian walkways, open-air restaurants, and bars fashioned from old storefronts. We love the local’s favorite Cafe Adobe with a round fireplace in the middle of the restaurant. Our guide Max Vera is a member of the hotel’s stellar staff.

San Pedro and TierraAtacama are 1,000 miles north of Santiago and weren’t impacted by the earthquake. Chile is a country with a history of seismic activity. The country’s preparedness, including its strict anti-seismic building codes, the rapid emergency response from the government, as well as the help from a number of organizations, can be credited for managing the situation and minimizing the damage, officials said.

“Chileans are a resilient people and we are hard at work to get the country back on its feet quickly,” said Pablo Moll, executive director of Turismo Chile. “We look forward to continuing to welcome travelers, and are making every effort to making them feel safe and secure.”

While at the moment, the Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid tourism and nonessential travel to Chile, it is important to remember that as you consider where to travel in the coming year, regions like the North Desert and Patagonia in the south need our business and support in the months to come.

As for the TierraAtacama, Chris Purcell says it goes out of its way to cater to families and will entertain the kids if they are too young for some of the more strenuous excursions like climbing to the Toco volcano. Indeed, at dinner one night (king crab salad followed by filet with mushroom risotto) several families with kids laughed and joked. We’d seen them earlier in the hot tub, too.

At the hotel, we are happily ensconced in desert-like casitas, which boast outdoor and indoor showers. There is a spa and a pool overlooking the desert and mountains, with seating areas around the outdoor fire pits ideal for cuddling and especially welcome in the chill of the desert night. (Massages are welcome after all that exercise.) I love that the tiny resort—like others here—are all-inclusive ($900 for two nights) so your meals, guides, transportation and activities are all part of the deal. (Check the website for deals that include kids and teens up to 17 free deals and summer packages with Portillo Ski Resort, which is owned by the same family. American-owned Santiago Adventures can help you plan.)

I can’t think of a better spot for an adventure with teens or grown children. Chile, after all, is a stable, safe country that is attracting many American students studying abroad, and the weather here is pleasant all year. Jim Harbell, who is from Toronto, tacked on an extra week here with his 21-year-old daughter Charlotte after the rest of the family went home. “It is so cool. You feel like you are in the middle of nowhere with all of the comforts,” he said as he finished a first-rate lunch that included goat cheese empanadas, grilled salmon, lentil salad, and a mousse made with cherimoya—a local fruit.

The atmosphere is conducive to making new friends, whatever your age. We meet a music producer and his wife from Brazil who are grandparents, a couple on their honeymoon from the Netherlands, a young woman traveling on her own from London, some British farmers, and, at the hot springs, a suburban New York couple traveling with their two twenty-something kids. The young bartender entertains us all with his magic tricks.

“We get bored on beach vacations,” says 24-year-old David Held, traveling with his parents and sister. We met at the end of our hike. “What is the point of travel if you aren’t going to see something?”

My adventure-loving gang would certainly agree. The place where we hope to cross the river to the hot springs—our destination—is so high that we climb higher and higher until we find a spot where a small rudimentary bridge has been constructed at a much narrower point.

Those hot springs—spectacular pools, one after another—are a welcome sight after our three-hour trek, which required a gain of elevation from 8,000 to 9,000 feet. Just as welcome are the snacks our guides have waiting—everything from wine to smoked salmon to cheese and olives. A lot better than granola bars and water, that’s for sure.

While we hoofed it to the hot springs, others from the hotel simply took a 40-minute ride there. When we go to the Sejas Lagoon, where we can float in the clear salt water, we can choose to go via bike (about 10 miles) or van.

The Harbells, meanwhile, try to cram as much into their visit as possible—sand-boarding down the huge dunes, star-gazing with a French astronomer. One thing is for sure; you won’t get bored here. In fact, there is so much to do, “You’ve got to pick and choose,” says Jim Harbell.

Same goes for Chile’s famous Pisco sours—a cross between a whiskey sour and a margarita, which come in a variety of fruit flavors, including mango and reiki reiki (a plant we see while hiking). Watermelon or strawberry juice anybody?

Meanwhile, I’m angling for another hike with Max.

Have you ever explored South America? What are you favorite locations and things to do? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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