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"Chilean Oasis: Heaven on Earth"
Travel + Life v. 21.0 2004

by Mary Heebner
Photos by Macduff Everton

see Mary's Laguna Salada series

SOME SEE THE ATACAMA as a barren wasteland, while others gravitate toward it as a study in vivid, conservative beauty. I myself have doubts about sojourning there, in possibly the most alarmingly beautiful region of Chile – its torn, twisted, uplifted body ribbed with active volcanoes, gouged, mined, parched. In a place where rainfall is said to be measured not in inches but in drops, San Pedro de Atacama beckons in my imagination like the oasis it is.

The 90-minute van ride from the Calama airport to San Pedro, a pueblo of 2,500 people supported by farming and tourism, covers 62 monotonous miles of dry arroyos, volcanic rock, bare sandstone, and grubby plants in blindingly bright light, the lone standout for my attention being the numerous small piles of stones, an offering called an apacheta, along the road. One builds an apacheta with the left hand, the driver tells me – the hand of the heart – stone by stone, as a repository for one’s fatigue and a prayer for continued safe passage.

My destination: 18 miles east of San Pedro awaits Hotel de la Larache, which presides at 8,015 feet above sea level within Explora de Atacama, a 42-acre estancia known for championing the desert’s beauty. To at once appreciate and respect the limits of the land was the goal of Explora when the company built the property in 1998. I concede that its success is already in evidence when, nearing the estancia, we turn down a dirt road and come within welcome sight of its low-lying structures: I can see only the rooftops.

From the swimming pools, I can see Licancabur Volcano in the distance, as well as the estancia's variegated roofline, which seems to allude to the contrasting, fractured terrain. "Spare but lush" comes to mind.

Entering the compound we pass stables and watering troughs, parking beside a wide set of stairs. The hotel itself embraces me with an immediate feeling of spaciousness and ease. (What a relief not to be sealed inside a desert hotel lobby bathed in the antiseptic chill of air conditioning.) The reception area is open and airy in the face of late-morning temperatures of 80° F and rising. Explora’s double-tiered roofline, the vision of its award-winning architect, Germán del Sol, uses passive ventilation to regulate heat and light, and an overhang of slatted wood wraps around the rooftop veranda, softening the light to a pattern of dancing stripes. The Santiago-based Chilean also designed the estancia’s sister retreat Explora en Patagonia, with its lakeside Hotel Salto Chico, which opened in 1993.

Of the Atacama, del Sol once commented, “My point was not to build a pueblo-style, thick-walled adobe compound, but something as light as the desert itself.” Although I find his an intriguing description, it would not be what comes to my mind for a barren expanse of sand and baked soil that stretches north from the town of Copiapó for 700 relentless miles. Some parts of it have never seen rain.

From the veranda my eye follows the land to several spare white cubes: sauna cabanas and swimming pools. The sculptural shapes beckon. Anxious to stretch my legs, I set off toward them along a red wooden boardwalk that courses through pastures where, thanks to well water, horses stand ankle deep in blossoming alfalfa. Pear trees, heavy with its ripening, and chañar trees, with peeling bark and hard, round fruits, line the boardwalk.



The chañar trees, native to the area, look somehow familiar. Looking back at the hotel I recognize the mustard yellow inner bark and moss green outer bark of these trees as the hues del Sol chose for the estancia’s rafters, posts, and beams. A subtle palette of desert mesquite and brea stains the hotel’s deliberately distressed doors. Human-made structures virtually dissolve into the landscape here, freeing guests to commune with the desert air; from where I stand, it feels as soft as organza.

From the swimming pools, I can see Licancábur Volcano in the distance, as well as the estancia’s variegated roofline, which seems to allude to the contrasting, fractured terrain. “Spare but lush” comes to mind. In the desert, this is not a contradiction. Nor is the notion of vacation resort as base camp.

Explora encourages its guests to experience the beauty and power of the Atacama and environs, to use the hotel primarily as a resting place at day’s end. There are no TVs in its 52 rooms, the better to get outdoors and visit with llamas, listen to bees buzzing over the alfalfa, search for owls, or soak up the nighttime stars. I ponder the detailed list of guided activities the estancia offers: horseback riding, bicycling, hiking, volcano climbing … An eight-hour trek to the altiplano sounds intriguing, with its lagoons and promise of wildlife sightings, though the 13,000-foot altitude gives me pause.

Toward sundown I set off with a group for the nearby Valley of the Moon and a firsthand taste of the Atacama. Our progress is slow and precarious. It is a place of such sameness – of dirt clods, cracked earth, of low, scrubby brush. I tell myself that redundancy is really the gift of nature. I take notice that patterns are subtle here, rhythms slowed. The desert is deceptive: Sand seems oceanic; distances heavy with empty promises of rain. It’s humbling to move on foot through a place of such vastness.

Shadows deepen into distance as we scale a steep dune and happen upon a gathering of 150 or so other sunset-worshipping tourists. We perch on a ridge with them and watch the sky bloom pink. Later, in the half-light, all of us scramble and slide down to waiting cars, buses, and bicycles, kicking up laughter along with clouds of sand.

To luxuriate in a slate-lined shower bath after such a day is pure pleasure and my indulgence before a meeting about an outing to Puritama. This hot spring sounds doable at a 10,000-foot altitude. A more ambitious group is planning a predawn trip to El Tatio – at altitudes of up to 15,000 feet, the highest geyser field on earth. In the evening, the hotel restaurant fuels us up for tomorrow’s exploits with dishes such as braised lamb, quinoa salad, grilled shrimp, gazpacho, baked congrio (a delectable Chilean whitefish), fresh vegetables, peaches, strawberries. The bar is conducive to conversation over Chilean wines or pisco sours, a thirst-quenching cocktail made with lemon, sugar, bitters, and the grape-derived pisco, all shaken over ice in a tumbler to a delicious froth. Explora seems to operate an exotic menu of possibilities outdoors and in, day and night. I fall asleep musing about the hot spring, imagining that one might navigate the desert by swimming through it.

AT THE CONFLUENCE of the Pacifica and Puritama rivers five of us climb into a cool canyon, bouldering over sandstone outcrops. The sound of water dips and rises as the trail follows the Puritama’s course. I drift in and out of conversations, then lag behind in order to absorb the colors of the canyon in silence – a swirl of purples, mauve, sienna, ochre, volcanic black, and greens from gray to lime.

Two hours into the hike, I’m further rewarded for my efforts: We arrive at the hot spring, where our guides surprise us with a bounty of smoked salmon, ham, cheeses, skewered tropical fruit, avocados, wine, and fresh juices. A stack of towels and fluffy bathrobes add just the right touch of decadence. We take a delicious swim, feast, then swim some more before piling into a waiting van, only to return to the hotel eager (and improbably hungry) for lunch, a poolside nap, and afternoon riding across a sandy wash fragrant with menthol-scented rica-rica trees. Moving along on horseback, the wind in my ears, the sun on my arms, my body shifting to the rhythms of this big, breathing being, underscores a growing sense that the challenges of the desert are surmountable or, at least, not impossible.

Acclimatization comes at its own pace, escalated by Explora’s specialty in the outdoors. The next day I join up with four other recruits for the stroll at 13,000 feet in the altiplano. Happily, the 5,000-foot ascent between Explora and the altiplano and its lagoons means a road trip. Stepping out of the van, I stoop down to tie my shoe and reel from the thinness of the air. This, I understand, is to be expected; our guide proffers us cups of coca-leaf tea to clear our heads. I breathe steadily into air that makes parchment out of skin, and inhale a paradoxical desert world of stark simplicity, cavernous silence, needle-sharp light, unexpected sweetness.

Vicuñas, the Audrey Hepburn version of a llama, leap away on dainty feet at the slightest sound, their thick fur gleaming platinum in the bright morning sun. Here, land is the mirage. Terra firma is merely a blip between blue skies and blue water. From a distance, we watch pink flamingoes alight on glassy tourmaline lagoons ringed with salt so dense it looks like mounds of sea foam, like breaking waves.
When I reach the lagoons, my footfall breaks the silence. What from a distance suggests gentle movement and fluidity arises from shards of salt and dried clay. Crunching along, I bend down to collect flamingo feathers afloat in the pastel water. Across the lagoons, the land meets bare pewter and buckskin hills and, above, clouds of torn cotton in a denim sky. We traverse lava fields veined white with salt. I find bleached vicuña bones resting among the tundra grasses. I gather five small stones and, with my left hand, pile them up next to the bones. I place a flamingo feather on top and watch it take flight. My own apacheta turns out to be a tribute to the Atacama, less a repository for fatigue and a prayer for safe passage than an offering of thanks.

Note: returning to my studio these images of the salt-ringed lagoon became the inspiration for a series of paintings:



Copyright © Mary Heebner 2004