Chile's Atacama: Desert Flower

Author: kendall hill
Photography: chris chen

I first arrived in the dusty desert township of San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile five years ago during a blackout. Through the window of a packed minibus I saw lights flicker warmly from candle-lit cafés, illuminating the silhouettes of diners nestled inside low mud buildings. The hotel I'd hoped to stay at was full, but the owner kindly directed me to a basic and cheerless alternative for a scurrilous $120 a night.

For three days in the Chilean desert, I did not shower once, though not by choice. There was simply no running water. And what I anticipated would be the highlight of the stay - an outing to the famed Salar de Atacama salt lake to witness three of the world's five flamingo species - was a grave disappointment. Protective barriers and the birds' natural shyness put 500 metres between them and me. From that distance you can't tell the difference between a flamingo and an ostrich, though you'd probably have more luck catching sight of the latter.

My return visit this year began far more auspiciously. At Calama airport, 100km from San Pedro de Atacama, I was met not by a tatty minibus but a gleaming 4WD. My handsome chauffeur was Gonzalo Barros, a Venezuelan who was raised in Uruguay and had been lured north to the Atacama desert by the peace and silence of this alien landscape. He was a guide at the new Awasi resort, where I would spend the next two nights. As the most upmarket hotel in San Pedro township, running water and constant power were assured.

'Wasi' in the local Kunza dialect means 'home'; Awasi can be roughly translated as 'going home'. And it did feel like I was returning to a familiar place as Gonzalo and I set off in air-conditioned comfort through the barren highlands.

We journeyed to San Pedro de Atacama along a solitary road that is at times monotonously straight, at others treacherously winding. The surrounding landscape in this, the world's highest, driest desert, features parched valleys and ragged ranges in muted tones of beige and pink, the hues changing hourly with the light. It reminded me of space, but this is a common reaction. Part of this region is known as the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) and NASA road-tested its Mars Exploration Rover here before sending it to the red planet.

The only life Gonzalo and I encountered at 2500 metres above sea level was a handful of grey-faced guanacos, wild camel cousins to domesticated llamas and alpacas, grazing on low shrubs by the roadside.

The volcanic peaks of the Andes, the snow-dusted Licancabur, Juriques and Lascar, are visible in the distance. Lascar, the most active of Chile's northern Andean volcanoes, had a small fit earlier this year, according to Gonzalo, and even as we drove, a vaguely threatening smoke plume was visible above its cone.

In contrast, the two mountain ranges we cross en route to San Pedro, the Domeyko and the Sal, look decrepit and spent. Their friable, jagged spikes seem to be crumbling back into the earth.

The oasis of San Pedro de Atacama emerges out of these badlands as a low-rise town flanked by pink mountain folds. Its two rivers, the San Pedro and the Vilama, are mere pebbly trenches, their waters diverted into a system that irrigates this settlement of some 5000 people. In fact, it is not one settlement but eight related ayllús (neighbourhoods) sharing a patch of the Andean Altiplano.

At first encounter San Pedro can seem slightly wretched. Its only shade comes from scraggly chañar (or Chilean palo verde) trees, whose fruit is prized as a cough medicine, and willowy algarrobo trees (similar to European carob trees), which supply the base ingredient of a rough moonshine favoured by the natives. The sleepy village looked virtually unchanged since I last visited in 2002; commerce on the small grid of streets was still dominated by tour guides, cafés, foreign exchange bureaus and handicraft stores, punctuated by hostels and hotels.

At the top of the accommodation stakes are the award-winning Explora Hotel de Larache, located just beyond San Pedro proper, and newcomer Awasi, two blocks from the main street. Explora, opened in 1998, offers architecturally striking accommodation and can cater to 100 guests in its 50 rooms. The more intimate Awasi, which opened last year, has just eight cottages set in two neighbouring compounds cloistered from the street by high adobe (sun-dried brick) walls. With 35 staff for a maximum 16 guests, including a dedicated guide for each couple, the hospitality is highly personalised and always thoughtful.

Awasi's manager, Carolina Raineri, welcomed me with a pot of tea made from the leaves of ricarica (a local herb) and chachacoma (a type of daisy), an infusion devised to help guests acclimatise to the altitude. Then she pressed a small pot of lip balm - lemon, mint and Chilean hazelnut oil - into my hand and urged me to use it often to counter the intense aridity of the Atacama. Humidity is less than 10 per cent here and the air fairly crackles with dryness. Hence, Awasi's lush bathroom toiletries double as a high-altitude pharmacopoeia. There are lemon and hazelnut lotions for the hands and body, and soaps infused with chocolate powder and leaves from the canelo tree, sacred to the indigenous Mapuche people and also valued by Atacameñans for its healing properties.

Such attention to detail and respect for indigenous traditions and customs are typical of the resort. It has been constructed almost entirely from local materials: the wall surrounding the hotel is made from rocks from neighbouring Ayllú de Quitor, while the stones surrounding the tranquil pool are from the San Pedro River and the rooves are thatched with esporal (a local hay from Ayllú de Sequitor), a handy bush that repels ants and spiders. Bathroom floors feature pale, sand-coloured marble from Chiu-Chiu, near Calama, and handsome furniture has been crafted from mimbre (basket willow).

The combined effect of such interior features is hedonistic rather than homespun. My stunning circular room is surprisingly vast and dominated by a king-sized bed with two woven trunks at its base and a rustic aguayo (the traditional patterned textile of the Andes) baby holster brightening the wall behind it. A striped mat at the base of the bed echoes the pattern on a chaise lounge set beside double windows overlooking a private garden. A dresser displays terracotta llama figures, basketry, a dish of dried chañar fruit and vibrantly coloured cloth dolls from Bolivia, about 70km away over the mountains.

The bedroom leads to an almost equally spacious bathroom, with a sunken, marble-lined bath and a metre-wide mirror above the dual vanities. The shower is a separate tiled recess whose entrance is fringed with a beaded flyscreen that reminds me of Gilligan's Island, only Gilligan never knew the luxury of heated towel rails or generous jars of bath salts.

A door off the bathroom leads to a tiled patio shaded by chañars and furnished with sunloungers and alfresco shower. Enclosed by smooth adobe walls, this is a tranquil sanctuary with a songbird soundtrack provided by chincoles (rufous-collared sparrows), who trill in the branches all day. While indigenous expertise is showcased in the adobe and stone-work, high-tech additions, such as heated floors and nightlights to help locate switches, provide pampered comfort.

Interior designer Paula Domínguez spent three years researching regional materials and design, while her architect husband and co-owner Francisco Rencoret oversaw the resort's construction. This is their first foray into hotels, borne of the frustration (familiar to me) of not being able to find decent accommodation in San Pedro. "We were looking for a place to stay in an intimate, comfortable environment where every detail would be in perfect harmony with the surroundings and which would invite us to contemplate ancestral scenarios and cultures," the couple say by way of explaining Awasi's origins. "As we couldn't find it, we decided to create it."

Their concept of desert decadence has also infused the restaurant, a relaxed space of brightly cushioned alcoves overlooking a courtyard. Manager Raineri and I sit down to a lunch of tabouleh made from quínoa (ki-nwa), a unique Andean seed revered by the Incas as the 'mother of all grains'. To follow, a hot-pink plank of very good grilled salmon on broad bean purée. Raineri reassures me fish is not unusual in the desert; San Pedro has been for centuries a crossroads where produce from the coast was traded for goods from the highlands. (Today, Awasi's seafood arrives fresh twice weekly from the coastal city of Antofagasta.)

I walked off lunch with a stroll along the sunbaked, sandy streets, past an extremely pretty llama with eyes like Anne Hathaway, to revisit La Iglesia de San Pedro de Atacama. The church is a simple but striking whitewashed structure whose first mass was celebrated in 1557 and which continues to offer succour to villagers. While I stood admiring the roof beams of cactus and carob, a villager came in and sank to her knees in a pew near the altar, and began praying, head in hands.

The most interesting landmark in the village is the Padre Le Paige Archaeological Museum. It houses a significant collection of mummies, some said to be more than 6000 years old, as well as drug-related artefacts used by mind-bending Incas. But on this visit, like the last, it was closed.

In 2002 I spent my time in the Atacama on memorable excursions to drowsy villages with terraced orchards, and to impossibly coloured lakes in the middle of the Altiplano. I went to see petroglyphs (rock carvings) whose meaning has been lost with time and visited the magical, mystical El Tatio geyser field where the minus-10 temperature was amply compensated for by the symphony of steam that erupted when the sun's first rays hit the earth.

This time around I asked Paula Valdes, the hotel's chief guide, to choose an outing for me. She picked the three-hour trip to Ayllú de Catarpe, which combines history with scenery and is not too taxing on recent arrivees still adjusting to the altitude. We set off in a 4WD and spent a morning exploring the Cordillera de la Sal, or Salt Mountains, tramping through the grimly named Devil's Gorge to the little church of San Isidro and mooching about the village of Catarpe, previous population one, but now zero. I thought I had experienced much of the Atacama's charms when I was last here, but this excursion exposed a more private side to the desert and the individuals who exist among its extremes.

We ended the outing by climbing to the ancient fortress, or pukará, at Quitor, which for centuries provided a strategic vantage point for its Atacameñan and Inca custodians. From the summit we had a fine view of the Licancabur volcano, which Valdes said was worshipped as sacred by the Incas. When I asked her why she thought that was, she said, "Perhaps because you can see it from everywhere. It is always there, like a god".

That evening I had a spiritual experience of my own. The Atacama is famous for its observatories - run by the European Union, the US and Japan - but I was at another, much more intimate observatory in the backyard of Frenchman Alain Maury and his Chilean wife Alejandra. Huddled against the bitter chill with fellow tourists from Brazil, England, America and Canada, I followed Maury's laser pointer as he deciphered some of the 3000 celestial bodies above us. I saw Jupiter for the first time in my life and became acquainted with half the zodiac. The silvery smear of the Milky Way appeared closer and sharper than ever before. After our introductory lesson we were led to a field of five telescopes that Alejandra had trained on celestial points of interest. There were beautiful nebulae, the double glimmer of Alpha Centauri, a swan-shaped galaxy and a supernova.

At the end of my notes about this extraordinary evening, I've written, "mysterious, bewildering, wonderful. An excellent time". It's an apt description for the entire Atacama experience. And now that San Pedro has sorted out its water and power - not to mention its accommodation - I can't wait to go back again.





THE FINE PRINT

Getting there
From 20 December, LAN Airlines will operate daily flights between Sydney and Santiago via Auckland. LAN connections to other South and Central American destinations - including Calama for Awasi and the hubs of Lima and Buenos Aires - can be picked up at Santiago. See www.lan.com or call 1800 221 572.

Stay
Doubles at Awasi cost from $440 a night, including airport transfers and breakfast, but most guests opt for all-inclusive packages. Two-night packages cost from $1000 per person, twin-share, and include all meals, drinks, outings and transfers. The circular rooms (one to five) are the pick of the accommodation; room one is the premier circular suite and has two private patios. Awasi also offers the services of a private plane. Tocopilla 4, San Pedro de Atacama, II Región, Chile, +56 55 851 460, www.awasi.cl.

Travel tips
The high-altitude desert climate is extreme. Night temperatures plummet below freezing in winter and are very cold most of the year, so warm clothing is essential. Day temperatures range from the low 20s in winter to the low 30s in summer, but at this altitude the sun is punishing year-round. Strong sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, cooler clothes for the daytime and warmer ones for the colder nights are essential. Light rains are usual in February. Awasi recommends stays of at least three days so guests can acclimatise to the altitude before tackling the more challenging excursions to the higher reaches of the Altiplano.



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