Horseback Riding in Chile’s Atacama Desert

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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.

The Atacama 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. Tourists — the more active kind — also come for cycling, trekking, mountain climbing and, of interest here, horseback riding vacations.

Our riding group makes its way across a blessedly shallow river during a half-day outing in the Atacama Desert.

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

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I am an almost-novice on horseback, but my 2017 trip to the Atacama included a half-day outing sitting a horse for a ride across the sands, up and down a couple of sand dunes, even across a river (very shallow) and up a tiny mountain (I could have walked it faster).

That was exciting enough for me, but, on the Atacama, serious riders have much more exotic options and could make the entire stay a horseback riding vacation.

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The bar at Explora Atacama

In my capacity as a writer for a travel trade paper, I was a guest in April at Explora Atacama, an inclusive resort for active travelers who like their comforts, which at explora include fine dining menus and nice wines. The resort sits on 42 acres at the outskirts — but in walking distance of — the oasis town San Pedro de Atacama in Chile.

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An outdoor dining option at Explora Atacama

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).

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A veranda wraps around the public spaces at Explora Atacama

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 offered to its guests. Those who live and breath horses can turn a stay into a horseback riding vacation but it’s worth considering some of the numerous other choices when on holiday in this part of Northern Chile.

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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.

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, but after a day of horseback riding, you might want one.

Nevertheless, choosing Explora is one of the pricier ways to organize a horseback riding vacation. Rates start at $2,125 per person, double, for the minimum three-night stay.

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The main square in the heart of San Pedro.

There are other options, however, utilizing one of a few area travel companies that provide riding excursions. And there are quite a few not-so-upscale hotels in San Pedro.

I walked around the town, which charms with its low-rise adobe buildings painted white, a historic church and the attractive goods offered in numerous souvenir shops. I passed by the courtyards of a few in-town hotels but did not enter any.

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Three 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.


Explora Atacama
Domingo Atienza Sn

San Pedro de Atacama

Region de Antofagasta, Chile
+56 2 2395 2800

This guest post and all photos are by Nadine Godwin, contributor to the trade newspaper, Travel Weekly and author of “Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia.” She also is editorial director for, where she intermittently posts blogs, as well.

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