Made of traditional adobe walls and rammed earth, the eco-tourism retreat disappears into the landscape of Atacama, the driest desert in the world
The Atacama Desert
Perched sixteen-thousand-and-four-hundred-and-twenty feet above sea level, Atacama is the driest desert in the world. Stretched across a thousand kilometers, its landscape encompasses canyons, hot springs, dunes, as well as salt flats that run beneath the Andean altiplano. Made of rock and sand, scientists use the soil here to simulate the experience of stepping on Mars. The Atacama Desert is located in the water-scarce ‘shadow of rain’ zone, determined by its geographical location – between the Andes mountain range. This blocks the humid Amazonian air, and the Coastal mountain range, which interjects between the air currents that come from the Pacific Ocean.
A popular destination among tourists and backpackers, travelers arrive at this beguiling terrain to partake in adventure sports – scaling rugged crags, hiking up volcanoes and dunes, and soothing their muscles in mountaintop mineral springs. It is also home to myriad historical and geologic sights. These include, dune-peaked Valle de la Luna – which displays jewel-toned sunset colors, amethyst to rose quartz – Puritama hot springs – a series of eight pools of geothermal spring water located at the bottom of a canyon in the desert – and the Domeyko mountain range.
Further, clear skies, the lack of light pollution, and its staggering altitude make the Atacama Desert a sought-after spot for astronomy observations. Guests, therefore, can indulge in stargazing at night, enjoying the views of Orion and Gemini in the Southern Hemisphere.
Tierra Atacama in San Pedro
Tierra Atacama is on the edge of the desert oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama. The hotel is fifteen minutes by car mining village of Calama, with the nearest airport. Built around a centuries-old cattle coral, originally Argentine herds used the site while pausing for refreshment after crossing the Andes and continuing to the Pacific.
Michael Purcell envisioned Tierra Atacama. Purcell is an avid climber and outdoor lover. Among his many expeditions, he has climbed the K2, the second-highest mountain on Earth. He was also a part of the Chilean Olympic ski team. The mountaineer worked in hospitality in San Pedro before initiating his venture. He acquired the land for his dream project in 2000, but the hotel construction got off the ground only in 2008.
After a construction period of eighteen months, Tierra Atacama launched in January 2008. Subsequently followed by the opening of the other two properties that encompass the Tierra collective. These include Tierra Patagonia in 2012 and Tierra Chiloé in 2014. The group’s sister hotel, Ski Portillo, is the oldest ski resort in Latin America. Michael’s father, Henry Purcell, established it. Harry, in fact, arrived in Chile from North America in the sixties.
Lampoon review: Architecture at Tierra Atacama
Rodrigo Searle and Matias González is the due behind the architecture of Tierra Atacama. Made of traditional adobe walls and rammed earth, the hotel disappears into the landscape. It enfolds a rectangular compound of low, angular villas made of red-stained wood. Arriving via the cattle corral, a ramp walk takes you to the main building. Reception on the right adorns an image of the Algarrobo tree hand-painted on canvas adorns the space.In front of it is the living room with a fireplace and sofas. While, next to it, on the left, lie the bar as well as the dining space. «It’s a fluid space with a natural flow for people to come and relax after long excursions». A huge excursions map on the wall also presents itself as the centerpiece. Further, the common terrace areas are lit with open firepits for sunset views.
The property occupies three thousand square meters of space spread across five hectares. Built on one level, the hotel houses thirty-two rooms. They all share the views of the Licancabur Volcano and come attached with a private terrace. Divided into two wings, flowers, herbs, and fruit trees characterize the aisle between the rooms. While, the other end of the building presents a spa and some pools.
Design at Tierra Atacama
Carolina Delpiano and Alexandra Edwards, interior designers, have orchestrated the aesthetics at the property. «They spent a lot of time researching the local communities around San Pedro. Then, they hand-picked and curated everything». Tierra is brimming with an assortment of traditional artifacts. Carvings in stone from Toconao, a hand-painted map by Claudia Peña, hand-carved lamas and donkeys made with a local pumice stone. «Things that you cannot buy on amazon or stores», adds Martin. These include textiles, throws, blankets, handwoven by village weavers from the alpaca and llama wool.
The landscape architect, Chile’s Teresa Moller, preserved many of the corral’s original walls, as well as the indigenous Algarrobo and chañar trees. The volcano plays the protagonist in the hotel aesthetics. Lincancabur, in fact – a twenty thousand feet high volcano – looms over everything. «We want people to focus on what’s outside rather than what’s inside».
Sustainability at Tierra Atacama
The hotel’s mission is to minimize the impact on the environment. Tierra Atacama therefore drives its sustainability strategy through three-sixty degree measures. Their efforts encompass the use of renewable energy, protection of natural resources, overseeing waste management and securing a strong relationship with local communities. «We are one of the first hotels in South America to produce solar-powered electricity, with a hybrid system that meets the hotel’s energy demand», adds Martin. Owing to their solar system, Tierra Atacama avoids burning almost one hundred thousand liters of fossil fuels annually, reducing their carbon footprint by over two-hundred-and-forty tons of CO₂ every year.
Located in a water-scare area, the hotel keeps a strict tab on their water consumption. «Every day we extract water from our well. The water is then treated by a reverse osmosis plant, enabling us to provide our water for the hotel’s needs». Greywater is re-used for gardening. The property also remains mindful about incorporating circular economy measures in its day-to-day operations. «We offer horse riding to our guests through a guy in the village who rents his horses. We give him our alfalfa to feed the horses, and he gives back horse manure».
Tierra Atacama’s aim is to preserve the archeological elements of Atacama as a cultural sustainability measure. «Before building the hotel, we carried out an archaeological study and discovered more than four hundred pieces of pre-Hispanic materials. These were mainly pottery fragments. We decided to donate the best ones to the Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum, in San Pedro de Atacama. In addition, as part of our architectural project, we incorporated an ancient bullpen, whose adobe walls were built one-hundred-and-fifty years ago using age-old techniques».
Tierra Atacama shares a special bond with the mountains, manifested in its aura. Outdoor expeditions are seamlessly woven into the stay experience. Guests can dive into the wilderness of the Atacama Desert terrain through curated expeditions. Organized by Paula Valdés, manager at Tierra Atacama, the excursion guides are qualified geologists and archaeologists. «Paula Valdés previously worked with Michael and has been organizing outdoor excursions for us for many years».
Excursions abound: Sunrise at Tatio Geyser, Altiplano Lagoons, The Salar de Atacama, Lascar Volcano Climb, Biking in Death Valley, Atacama Desert stargazing, Full Moon Hiking, Cejar Lagoon, Petroglyphs Rainbow Valley, Cornisas Hike, Cerro Toco Volcano Climb, Machuca and the Rio Grande.
Spa activities at Tierra Atacama
Tierra Atacama also presents the pleasures of spa relaxation commingled with the physical activity of outdoor adventure. For example, Saddle and Soak – horse ride followed by water circuit and jacuzzi. The desert climate, native flora and ancient therapies influence treatments at Uma Spa. After an adrenaline-fuelled mountain excursion, guests can, in fact, cosset in the spa. Reboot your chakras with native crystals, or reboot your mind, body, and soul with a selection of the myriad therapies you may find at your disposal.
Further, local herbs, clays, and medicinal plants mark the wellness treatments at the spa. An example is foot exfoliation with Rica Rica – an indigenous plant-medicine with cosmetic properties. «Traditionally, it was used to relieve stomach aches and heart diseases. It is antiseptic, anti-inflammatory». Red, white, and black heated lava rocks massages and a solitary soak in a Plein air hot tub in the hotel’s rosemary garden represent other activities. The foot massage uses a hydrating cream made from Chañar, known as the ‘Altiplanic jewel’, owing to its healing properties. The hotel also offers an indoor and outdoor infinity pool service. Couples reserve Tierra’s secluded hot tub at sunset for marriage proposals.
Culinary proposals at Tierra Atacama
The restaurant interiors exhibit floor-to-ceiling windows for a sun-lit experience. It is fashioned with light-as-air white drapes and raw stone walls. A bleached branch of a fig tree adorns the ceiling of the dining room. «During the landscaping the architects found a big branch of a fig tree bleached with the sun. They decided to use it as a decorative and hung it on the ceiling».Taking into consideration the arrival of the guests from the plains to the mountains, the kitchen team has devised an altitude-sensitive menu. «When the people arrive, to get used to being at two-thousand-and-four-hundred meters above sea level, we serve light food».
Chef Francisco Valencia runs the kitchen operations at the hotel’s restaurant. «He came to Tierra from our other property Ski Portillo as the head chef and has been with us ever since». The food exhibits terroir cuisine, bringing to the spotlight Chilean classics with a touch of Mediterranean flavors. Indigenous Chañar tree fruits become ice cream tasting of caramel. This is made using Chañar syrup, locally crafted by Atacameños. During breakfast, the dining area is filled with the fragrance of traditional bakes, such as homemade empanadas and sweet kuchen cake to accompany your morning brew.
Due to the global pandemic, the hotel had to shut its operations in March 2020. «Luckily for us, the company thrives on building and sustaining employee relationships, none of the staff were sacked during the pandemic, only a few were suspended». Tierra Atacama opened again for international clients in September this year.
San Pedro de Atacama, Antofagasta, Chile
Tierra Atacama is a boutique eco property on the periphery of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.