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Chile: Riding across a high-altitude desert

I remember when I last rode a horse — it was more than 10 years ago. In other words, I am an almost-novice on horseback, but my 2017 trip to the Atacama Desert included a half-day outing sitting a horse.

The horse and I were traversing a unique environment. The Atacama Desert, in northern Chile, is the world’s driest — some parts have never experienced a recorded rainfall — and it sits more than 10,000 feet above sea level.

This desert attracts tourists for its salt flats and their flamingos, a salt mountain range, saltwater pools, hot springs, geysers — and for stargazing in remarkably clear skies. The wildlife is nice, too.

Geysers in action, seen in the early-morning hours at Tatio Geysers, the central feature of a very popular excursion offered by most resorts and tour companies in San Pedro.

Geysers in action, seen in the early-morning hours at Tatio Geysers, the central feature of a very popular excursion offered by most resorts and tour companies in San Pedro.

Two vicunas spotted roaming near the Tatio Geysers. The animals also successfully negotiated strolls among the active geysers, areas we humans could not be trusted to traverse.

Two vicunas spotted roaming near the Tatio Geysers. The animals also successfully negotiated strolls among the active geysers, areas we humans could not be trusted to traverse.

Tourists — the more active kind — also come for cycling, trekking, mountain climbing as well as horseback riding.

My ride couldn’t be called overly active. It took me across the sands, up and down a couple of dunes, even across a river (very shallow) and up a tiny mountain (I could have walked it faster).

Rocky terrain rises dramatically before us, providing a modest sample of the scenery in the high-altitude Atacama Desert.

Rocky terrain rises dramatically before us, providing a modest sample of the scenery in the high-altitude Atacama Desert.

That was exciting enough for me, but, on the Atacama, serious riders have much more exotic options and could spend a lot of hours astride a horse.

Here is the deal:

In my capacity as a writer for a travel trade paper, I was a guest in April, along with other travel professionals, at Explora Atacama, an inclusive resort for active travelers who also like fine dining, nice wines and other comforts.

An outdoor dining option at Explora Atacama.

An outdoor dining option at Explora Atacama.

One of four swimming pools on the grounds at Explora Atacama.

One of four swimming pools on the grounds at Explora Atacama.

The resort sits on 42 acres at the outskirts — but in walking distance of — the oasis town San Pedro de Atacama. It also is meant as a retreat, meaning no TV in rooms, and WiFi only in public areas.

Area stables offer horses for riding excursions, but Explora is unique in that it owns its own mounts, 24 of them. Its stables are in plain view. We had to drive past the horses to get to the property’s main building and the check-in desk. The animals are specially bred for easy handling and for life in the Atacama’s high altitude.

The easy-handling part is important for someone like me. I was told my horse, Salvador, is a top choice for the children who ride at Explora (I refuse to blush).

A couple of the Explora Atacama horses at ease after our morning riding excursion. Salvador is not in the photo, sadly. I did not get a good one of him.

A couple of the Explora Atacama horses at ease after our morning riding excursion. Salvador is not in the photo. Sadly, I did not get a good shot of him.

However, Explora offers its guests a choice of 11 riding excursions, each limited to eight riders, and each designated as easy, moderate or expert, and all either a half-day or full-day outing. The most ambitious takes riders 10,170 feet above sea level in the Domeyko Mountains, passing an old mining settlement, providing views of ancient petroglyphs and entering an area famed for cave art.

Explora Atacama currently lists 44 excursions available to its guests. Those who live and breath horses can turn a stay into a riding vacation but it’s worth considering some of the numerous other choices.

Explora’s prices are inclusive and, in this case, that means all 44 activities are included in the rates, as are airport transfers from and to Calama, about an hour away; all meals and drinks, except for premium wines; use of swimming pools, saunas and Jacuzzis; plus guided stargazing using the property’s high-powered telescope. Massages are extra.

Public spaces, with wall maps of interest to the venturesome, inside the Explora Atacama.

Public spaces, with wall maps of interest to the venturesome, inside the Explora Atacama.

A veranda wraps around the public spaces at the Explora Atacama.

A veranda wraps around the public spaces at the Explora Atacama.

Nevertheless, choosing Explora is one of the pricier ways to see the Atacama. Rates start at $2,125 per person, double, for the minimum three-night stay.

There are other options utilizing area travel companies that provide all sorts of tours including riding excursions. There also are several not-so-upscale hotels in San Pedro. I passed by the courtyards of a few in-town hotels but did not enter any.

I walked around San Pedro, which charms with its low-rise adobe buildings painted white, a historic church and the attractive goods offered in numerous souvenir shops.

San Pedro’s church as it appeared this year, after it was refurbished and restored to its original natural reddish brown adobe.

San Pedro’s church as it appeared this year, after it was refurbished and restored to its original natural reddish brown adobe.

I had explored San Pedro in 2012 as well. Not much had changed, except the church, which was white five years ago. It has been refurbished and restored to look much as it had when built. Authentic is good. White makes better photos. Just my opinion.

San Pedro’s church as it appeared in 2012.

San Pedro’s church as it appeared in 2012. The church was white but the sky was less bright or, put differently, more dramatic.

 

This blog and photos are by Nadine Godwin, BestTripChoices.com editorial director and contributor to the trade newspaper, Travel Weekly. She also is the author of “Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia.” An earlier version of this blog is found at https://writinghorseback.com.