High and Dry

The recently opened Explora en Atacama is the gateway to a new frontier of adventure travel—the 8,000-foot-high mountain desert of northern Chile.

It's a bit over an hour's drive from the airport at Calama to the village of San Pedro de Atacama, in northern Chile. Most of the way I sat cocooned in the vehicle's air conditioning, gazing out as the stark desert landscape scrolled uneventfully past. After 45 minutes, however, the ground began to rise gently and, rounding a bend, I found myself abruptly confronted by the western cordillera of the Andes. A procession of bare volcanoes, a number of them perfect Fuji-like cones, rose 20,000 feet into a sky unblemished by even the speck of a passing bird. It was a stupendous if slightly scary panorama. At my request, the driver pulled over and turned off the engine. We both climbed out. At midday the temperature was close to 100 degrees, and I could feel more moisture being sucked from my face with every passing moment. Although we were parked beside one of the principal highways from the Pacific coast to the Chile-Argentina border, no vehicles passed—or seemed likely to pass in the immediate future. Nothing disturbed the eerie and intimidating silence that surrounded us.

The Atacama is among the world's driest deserts—a fearsome landscape that stretches close to 800 miles, from the Copiapó River up to and across the northern border with Peru. What the first conquistador, Diego de Almagro, must have thought when he passed this way in 1536 is difficult to imagine. It all must have seemed implacably hostile and inconceivably remote. Of course, today the Atacama Desert is just two hours by jet from Santiago (one of the bizarre aspects of modern travel). The runway at Calama was constructed at the behest of Chile's influential copper industry, which wanted easier access to their nearby mines. Suddenly, the end of the world could conveniently be reached between breakfast and lunchtime.

San Pedro de Atacama itself is a cluster of whitewashed houses built along a narrow strip of irrigated land, a place of just 1,600 permanent inhabitants, most of them indigenous Atacameño Indians. From a distance it appeared an insignificant and vulnerable outpost of human life, hemmed in on every side by the desert waste. In fact, as soon as I found myself within its grid of narrow streets, I was struck by an atmosphere of cheerful self-confidence. San Pedro seems presently to exist at that magical and precarious moment when tourism has brought increased prosperity without having yet damaged its social structure or altered it beyond recognition. In the center of town the most prominent buildings are an exquisite little 17th-century church with a roof made from strips of cactus and the Museo Arqueológico, which holds an astonishing collection of mummies, textiles, and assorted pre-Columbian artifacts.

Bumping down a corrugated dirt road that runs along a wall apparently made of volcanic boulders held together with mud, we soon reached the southern outskirts of the village, where the new hotel, Explora en Atacama (which opened in August 1998), has been built amid tranquil farmland. The original Explora is in Chilean Patagonia and over the past six years has earned an international reputation for its singular combination of high style and strenuous activity. Each day guests hike or ride horseback in the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park, returning in the evening to standards of comfort and cuisine more customarily associated with a top resort than a remote alpine lodge. (See Departures November/December 1996.) I was interested to see whether this formula had been replicated at its sister hotel, 2,000 miles to the north.

Despite having received generally enthusiastic reviews, the Patagonian Explora has not been without detractors, criticism having focused on the deliberately aggressive, uncompromising, and sterile design of its exterior, the work of Chilean architect German del Sol. If the principal attraction is the pristine splendor of the setting, or so the argument goes, then why not seek an accommodation with nature rather than imposing on it a structure which is at best insensitive and at worst little more than an egregious expression of architectural ego? It quickly became apparent that exactly the same objections could be applied to the Explora en Atacama, which likewise is militantly modern and assertive—a gleaming white complex able to accommodate up to 100 guests, nearly double the number of its celebrated cousin.

I was met by the excursion manager, Giovanna Ranieri, to discuss my program for the forthcoming days. "The philosophy of Explora en Atacama is that of its owner, Pedro Ibañez," she explained in admirably fluent English. "He loves riding and mountain biking, but he also enjoys comfort: a proper bathroom, clean sheets, and the kind of food you might expect to find back in Santiago. And that's precisely what this place provides."

I expressed some misgivings about the intrusiveness of the architecture in a place as tiny and unassuming as San Pedro, as well as about the unexpected size of the new hotel. "It's the activities that are really important," Ranieri replied somewhat evasively. "If people come here just to stay at a luxurious lodge they may be disappointed. But actually this place is much better for older, less active people than the Explora en Patagonia, where you might want to be a bit more fit. Here it's possible to do quite a lot by vehicle. You can go to the geysers and hot springs, as well as to the salt flats to see the flamingos. And then there is the town and the archeological museum." Spreading out a map on top of the bar, she proceeded to outline the various options for my stay. "We have ten guides, and every day we put up a list of excursions. You just sign on for whichever you want. "

Having studied a large blackboard beside the main entrance which proposed an extensive menu of activities, I chose to begin with a simple two-hour escorted walk that afternoon. San Pedro de Atacama is more than 8,000 feet above sea level, so it is advisable to proceed fairly slowly at first.

Accommodations at the Explora en Atacama are in two single-story buildings that form sides of an irregular triangle, the base of which is the main two-story hotel building. Although my room was spacious and comfortable, and a functional environment to which I was pleased to return after a period of physical exertion, it didn't really possess a great deal of intrinsic appeal. The bathroom was light, with a shower and Jacuzzi bath; there was an ample supply of large, white towels; rugs partially covered a handsome slate floor; bright-colored blankets and cushions were piled on each of the two beds. From the large window there was a green and soothing view across the surrounding fields, in one of which an alpaca and some goats were contentedly grazing.

The following morning, rested and partially acclimated, I strolled over to the adjoining stables for my first serious foray into the desert. As with all activities at the Explora en Atacama, the daily rides follow routes which vary in length and degree of difficulty. "Ultimately, we are restricted by the absence of water," my amiable guide, Mauricio, explained. "We can't go very far because there is nowhere for the horses to drink and no grass for them to eat. In this heat a ride of three hours is about the maximum." There are no fewer than 28 horses at the Explora en Atacama—all of which seemed to be in fine condition—and clearly no expense has been spared on either the infrastructure or the riding equipment. I chose a Chilean saddle, which rests on a sheepskin (like those used by the gauchos in Argentina) and creates the general sensation of being carried aloft in a deeply padded if slightly precarious armchair. For purists, the tack room contained a couple dozen superb English saddles, all of which were in such pristine condition that it was hard to believe they had ever been used. Leaving behind the irrigated area that surrounds the hotel, we crossed the dry bed of the San Pedro River and set out for some nearby hills. As the sand was quite soft and littered with baseball-sized rocks, we were obliged to let the horses pick their way with care, and progress was slow.

Mauricio proved to be a refugee from the city who at age 28 had decided to settle in San Pedro with his wife (a photographer), build a house, and pursue a lifestyle that was tailored to his temperament and inclinations. As we gained height and the landscape opened up around us I asked him about the absence of water. "In fact, there's no shortage of water," he replied. "The hotel has a 120-foot borehole, and we can draw off just as much water as we like. There are huge underground reserves." And the river? How often did it flow? "The river itself flows all year, but the local farmers divert it into their irrigation channels," Mauricio responded. "The water comes from springs, and also from snowmelt. Although it hardly ever rains in San Pedro, during the wet season in the jungles of Bolivia and Brazil we get heavy snowfall above 5,000 meters [16,400 feet]. The weather always comes from the east. In the western Atacama Desert there is no precipitation at all because of the Antarctic Humboldt Current, which flows up the coast of South America."

After about an hour we finally came to a stretch of clean, level, firm sand, and the horses abruptly awoke, straining and jostling to be off. In spite of the heat they required no inducement to gallop and were pulled up only by the increasing steepness of ascent. Giving them time to recover their wind, Mauricio and I jumped down and stood contemplating the San Pedro Valley, by now 1,000 or more feet below.

Directly behind the village the perfectly symmetrical volcano Licancábur (19,455 feet) rose majestically into an empty sky. "We sometimes climb that one," Mauricio remarked, following my gaze. "But there can be a problem, as part of it is in Bolivia, so more often we go up the one immediately to the right." Although it was nearly 11 a.m. and a fierce sun was beating down on us, I didn't feel particularly hot. (With zero humidity it is possible to remain quite comfortable at temperatures which in another part of the world would be virtually unbearable.) I stood enraptured by the view, unwilling to descend. The landscape reminded me of both Ladakh, a high-altitude desert parched by the shadow of the Himalayas, and the Namib Desert, in southwest Africa, which is similarly desiccated by the freezing Benguela Current. But the Atacama Desert conveyed an impression of absolute lifelessness, which was much more unsettling than either.

Back at the hotel after a full three hours in the saddle, I was more than ready for a return to civilization, so—having taken a long, cold shower and noted with some annoyance that the SPF 25 sunblock on my nose had proved disastrously ineffective—I strolled over to the Explora's dining room for lunch. The food is unquestionably one of the high points here: light, clean, New World cuisine (actually the present chef is French), imaginatively prepared and presented. Throughout my stay I was also impressed by the corresponding excellence of the service, the staff in the dining room being consistently charming and helpful. The lunchtime menu offered two appetizers, two entrees, and several desserts. I ordered a tartare of salmon, pasta with baked vegetables, and raspberries with cream. Although San Pedro is but a tiny settlement smack in the midst of an immense desert wilderness, the paved road to the airport at Calama continues for another 130 miles to the main port of northern Chile, Antofagasta, so fresh fish is readily available, as is a full range of general supplies. Sitting in the cool shade of the dining room's raised terrace, I took a sip of crisp Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and gazed out at the majestic mountain view, utterly content.

"Basically this place is a kind of workout." It was just after three the following afternoon, and my new guide—Camillo—was doing his best to outline Explora corporate philosophy while adjusting the seat on my mountain bike. "In many ways it's for people who are into fitness. If you come here for a week and do some of the more physical activities, you'll go back home in pretty good shape."

Having unwisely opted for the longer of the two bike rides that day, I wasn't sure that I entirely approved of the general drift of the conversation. Camillo himself was tall, thin as a fence post, obviously in peak physical condition, and presumably about 15 years my junior. We swung out of the hotel gateway and set off up a dirt road that had been transformed into an eternal washboard by the elements and generations of agricultural machinery. After only a couple of miles my head ached so badly from the incessant vibration that I'd gladly have abandoned the excursion if a way of avoiding abject humiliation had presented itself. It was at this point that Camillo pulled over to the side of the road and pointed to a narrow track leading in the direction of a dramatic outcrop of red boulders. "Now we start to work," he remarked cheerfully. "Cycling on sand is incredibly good for you, but there are a few places where it's just too soft and you will have to carry the bike on your shoulders. We have three rivers to cross. Okay?"

Despite my somewhat dire misgivings, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that by making use of a small proportion of the bike's 28 gears, I could make reasonable progress, even if the front wheel did slip sideways at every bend in the trail. At least the vibrations had stopped and my headache was abating. For about an hour and a half we wound through the rocks, pumping through the soft stuff, scrambling over stones, and gradually gaining altitude. Eventually Camillo decreed we deserved a rest, and I gratefully dismounted (on purpose this time, unlike the three previous occasions). "Well, it's mostly downhill from now on," he said, with what seemed like a trace of disappointment. "But don't go too fast—and watch what you are doing," he warned. "You don't want to fall into the ravine." No indeed.

The subsequent 20-minute descent certainly provided plenty of opportunities for disaster, but it was so exhilarating that all thoughts of broken limbs were kept at bay till the flat had been safely regained. There were now just the three rivers to ford, all of which proved simple enough, since the water was little more than two feet deep. The final crossing was considerably enlivened, however, by a couple of wild-looking dogs, who seemed to think it would be enormous fun to take a nip out of us just as we were struggling to shore.

Throughout my stay at Explora en Atacama the guides proved pleasant, well-informed, and communicative, without exception. Certainly none was more so than Hilco, who took me hiking the following day. After a 45-minute drive, we were left at the end of a deep, narrow gorge. On the sheer sides of the gorge stood hundreds of magnificent, 15-foot cardon grande cacti, which are extremely similar in appearance to the saguaro. At the bottom of the gully a turbulent stream chafed at the rocks, and in places the vegetation was actually quite thick. The path was easy to see, however, and not very steep, and I soon found myself experiencing a familiar rush of well-being, one generated by moderate exertion in clean air, sunshine, and surroundings of uplifting grandeur. This was clearly an activity suitable not just for fitness fiends but for anyone in general good health who was predisposed to relish a little mild adventure. Hilco and I chatted, stopping occasionally to swig from a water flask or to examine overhangs in the rock for signs of ancient habitation. Despite its forbidding appearance, the Atacama has always had a small population, and even today there are people still living a simple nomadic life—sustained only by their flock of alpacas. A hundred years prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the Atacameño Indians had been absorbed by the Incan empire. Within the past year or so, sacrificial Incan burial sites have been excavated on the summits of the region's highest volcanoes. Owing to the extreme aridity of the climate, mummified remains and textiles are often preserved for centuries, and even millennia.

"If you like being at Explora en Atacama and decide to come back, you should definitely stay longer," Hilco remarked as we reached our destination, hot springs at the head of the gorge. "You need a week or more to acclimatize yourself if you are going to climb one of the volcanoes. And quite frankly, they're what's unique about this place. You can ride—or go mountain biking—back in the States. But you can't climb a 20,000-foot mountain. And there's something spiritual about them somehow. Don't take my word for it. Come again and see for yourself."

Just maybe I will.

Arid Climbs

Getting There
There are regular nonstop flights to Santiago from Miami, Dallas, and Los Angeles on American Airlines; there are also nonstops from Miami and Los Angeles on the Chilean airline LanChile, and from Miami on United (all flights are overnight and take eight hours and 30 minutes). From Santiago to Calama in the Atacama there are four flights daily on LanChile, which cost approximately $420 round trip.

When To Go
In the Atacama, skies are clear virtually year-round; the important factor is temperature. During the summer (December-March) daytime highs can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit (though the effects are mitigated by the extreme dryness of the air), while in winter (June-September) the nighttime lows often fall below freezing.

Chile's capital is a pleasant and relatively safe city, though it suffers from a chronic smog problem during the winter months. Most places of interest are to be found in the old Spanish city, where the best place to stay is the traditional, European-style Hotel Carrera. $260-$680. Teatinos 180; 56-2-698-2011; fax 56-2-672-1083. In the smart suburb of Las Condes there is the gleaming Hyatt Regency Santiago, with a vast atrium lobby that looks as if it might have consumed a significant portion of the world's marble reserves. $205-$2,500. Avenida Kennedy 4601; 56-2-218-1234, fax 56-2-218-2513.

Explora en Atacama offers three-, four-, and seven-night packages that include the one-hour road transfer from the airport at Calama, accommodations, all meals, house wine, drinks, and daily excursions (in groups of up to 10, accompanied by an English-speaking guide). Three nights (Friday-Monday), $1,296 per person; four nights (Monday-Friday), $1,706 per person; seven nights (Monday-Monday or Friday-Friday), $2,441. Prices are based on double occupancy.

Explora, Avenida Amárico Vespucio Sur 80, Piso 5, Santiago, Chile; 56-2-206-6060; fax 56-2-228-4655; Web site: www.explora-chile.com.

Andrew Powell, a London-based contributing editor, wrote about the Galápagos Archipelago in Departures' March/April 2000 issue.