Frontier towns, stark desert landscapes and vast, arid plains are the backdrop for a journey through Atacama. Mark Chipperfield reports.

Bizarre, strange and comical. This is the only way to describe floating in a volcanic lake so salty that it feels more like lying on a waterbed than swimming in a lagoon. Had the water not been so freezing I might have luxuriated in this peculiar aquatic moment.

As it is I am only too happy to scramble from my icy swimming hole and into the care of our Chilean guide Trinia, who is waiting for me with a towel and a jug of hot water – another curious sight out here in Chile’s vast Cejar Lagoon salt pan.

“Look how thick the water is,” she says, swirling her fingers in the brine. “The upper levels are so heavy with salt that they prevent the warm water filtering up from below – where it is like a geyser.”

The salt crust – a heady mixture of salt and lithium – extends down almost 1km and the water on the Salar de Atacama is saltier than the Dead Sea, which is why locals call it the ‘floating lagoon’.

Trinia, one of the many wellspoken guides employed by Hotel de Larache, had said little on the 18km mountain bike ride from the township of San Pedro to the salt pan – a vast arid region lying 2300m above sea level and surrounded by jagged mountains.

But the sight of these brilliant turquoise lagoons in the vastness of the white saltpans seems to unleash a torrent of commentary, and an enthusiasm that had been absent during the ride. “I think everyone loves it here,” she says. “It’s very beautiful.”

A major drawcard for visitors are the thousands of pink flamingos that congregate on some, but not all, of the many lagoons that dot this stark, lunar landscape framed by the snowcapped Andes running like a spine down the length of Chile.

Even someone familiar with Australia’s limitless interior will take some time to adjust to the sheer scale and diversity of the Atacama high plains, place of big skies, searing deserts and mind-blowing emptiness – and one of the driest places on earth.

With its picturesque pise houses and dusty squares San Pedro de Atacama is everyone’s idea of the Chilean frontier town. While the regional capital Calama services the world’s biggest copper mine, this desert enclave is firmly on the ‘gringo trail’ – the perfect base from which to visit the Salar de Atacama, the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) and the El Tatio Geysers.

For those with limited time but an adventurous spirit explora Atacama offers the ideal combination of comfortable lodge accommodation (Hotel de Larache), delicious local cuisine and a superb range of outdoor experiences from hardcore mountain climbs to gentle hikes and horse riding treks.

Despite its obvious appeal, the picturesque hotel, whose 17-hectare grounds contain – a ranch-style communal lodge, 50 homely guest rooms, four outdoor pools, a spa and traditional Indian gardens – is only a fraction of the explora experience.

What sets explora apart is its wide choice of expeditions, around 50, and English-speaking guides – many bright young students from Santiago, taking a break before embarking on their careers in the city. Each evening guests sit down with a guide to plan the following day’s itinerary; given the challenging nature of some of these trips, such as high-altitude climbs, pre-planning is crucial.

These evening briefing sessions are also an excellent way to learn about Chile’s high plains region, its remarkable landforms, curious wildlife and equally fascinating human history. Once the cradle of an advanced pre-Columbian society, Atacama has always attracted adventurers who want to conquer its deserts or climb some of the famous peaks, such as the Corona Mountain (5291m).

While hardcore adventurers will head to the snow-capped mountains, there are plenty of low-impact treks, such as the half-day Quebrada de Jere walk which follows a crystal clear stream high into the mountains. Along the way are giant cacti, ancient shepherd’s caves and fields of swaying pampas grass.

For something even more leisurely, book the early morning trip up to the spectacular El Tatio Geysers, 95km north of San Pedro. We arrived just after sunrise and the mountain air was bright but achingly cold (minus 13C) – ideal for geyser watching.

The mountain streams are rich in birdlife, such as Andean geese, native duck, speckled teal and various types of coot; the red-footed Giant Coot has specially large feet for skating across ice. Wild flocks of guanaco, a large hairy creature related to the camel, roam the bare hillsides. Or just stand motionless.

Late morning finds us frolicking in the Puritama thermal springs, an oasis of steaming water and pampas grass high up in the mountains. A delicious lunch of salads, fresh bread and cold meats is spread out in the sun. It seems like the perfect metaphor for the unexpected delights that Atacama offers.