The spectacular Atacama Desert.
The spectacular Atacama Desert. Supplied

Chile: Sand, salt and Saturn

I NEVER expected to find a desert beautiful. A desert to me was hot, dry, windy and not somewhere I would have gone by choice.

But once I got to northern Chile and hit the open road that winds through the Atacama Desert, my opinion was quickly changed. We arrived as the sun was setting and the moon cast a brilliant light across the sandy terrain, the sky glowing a magnificent purple.

After a night nestled in the most luxurious bed I've ever slept in, at Explora's Hotel de Larache near the tiny town of San Pedro de Atacama, it was time to see the desert up close and personal.

The lodge itself is on a site once inhabited by the ancient Atacameno people. The original layout has been incorporated into the new lodge and some of the old adobe buildings have been restored and are in use.

At Explora lodges, expert guides meet guests each night to plan their next day's excursions. Half- and full-day explorations are available in Atacama, ranging from light trekking to mountain-climbing and horse-riding.

My first choice was a trek through the famous Valley de la Luna - or the Moon Valley.

The thing you have to remember about this desert is that it is at altitude. From the moment you get off the plane, you feel the difference in the air - as though the oxygen has been sucked out of it.

Because of that, Explora allows guests to travel only to certain altitudes each day. To avoid altitude sickness, you must acclimatise by building up to the higher-level excursions.

The Moon Valley is at about 750m, so was a great first walk in the desert. But I certainly felt the burn in my lungs as we hiked through the dunes and across a vast dry lake.

The lake bed is a combination of sand and salt, which underfoot felt like walking on broken biscuits. From there the view of the valley was superb.

Craggy and crater-like rock formations, layers on layers of dunes and a different view from every direction made the walk memorable.

There is not a shred of life in the valley; not a bird, not a bug - just intense silence and the occasional sound of salt cracking.

In the afternoon, our group piled into the van for a visit to the Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile and home to real-life pink flamingos.

On the way, though, a quick stop at the tiny town of Toconao gave us a taste of life in the desert. The dwellings are adobe style, made from sand, clay, water and straw or manure.

There are no shops apart from the equivalent of a corner store here and there. The roads are unpaved and everything is simple and plain - even the replica truck made entirely of wood, including the wheels. We headed further into the desert and over the salt plains. Walking on the salt was like walking on hard, frozen snow. It crunched under our feet and was all we could see for kilometres.

We spied on the flamingos - and even though I'm not a bird fan, I was impressed - then went to a lookout to watch the sunset.

Our guide, Creasna, had been extolling the sunset all afternoon, and it's a must-do according to everyone at Explora.

We were not disappointed. On one side of the plains, the sun dipped below the Andes mountain ranges, throwing strips of pink, reds and oranges across the sky. Behind us, the hills turned a brilliant shade of pink, lighting up the salt plains below them in spectacular fashion.

It was all over in about five minutes and we were left speechless and scrambling to put more layers on, because the temperature drops quickly as the sun goes.

We returned to the lodge as the moon rose behind us, creating the perfect setting for our last excursion of the day - stargazing in the lodge's private observatory.

The clear skies above the desert are considered the best in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Chilean Government has strict regulations on how much light can be used in the area, to prevent the sky becoming "polluted".

After a quick astronomy lesson, we took turns peering through the giant telescope, which was first pointed at the moon. The craters were vivid and we could see the surface so clearly it felt like we were only metres away.

But it was Saturn that blew us all away. You know it has rings, you've seen drawings of the planet, but seeing it for real is, well, unreal. It looked like a cartoon drawing of a planet on its side, the rings perfectly formed and moving around it.

The perfect end to a breathtaking day.

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