Monday, February 21, 2011
I love the desert. There’s something awe-inspiring about an environment so harsh that only the most impossibly adaptable species of flora and fauna can survive. There’s something beautiful about dry, hot landscapes, cracked earth, and mountainous sand dunes. And there’s something powerful in a night sky so full of stars that it makes you remember your insignificance in the universe.
I saw these things as a child in the deserts of Arizona when my family went to visit my grandparents. I saw them again in Namibia two years ago when I climbed over brilliant red-orange sand dunes in the first light of morning and slept under a sky that could barely contain all of its stars. This week I saw them a third time in Chile when I hiked, rode horse back, and drove through the variegated geography of Chile’s Atacama Desert.
The Atacama is the driest desert in the world, but this year has witnessed a departure from the normal climate. In the weeks before I arrived, heavy rains and flooding had taken the region by surprise. It had also left a beautiful cap of snow on the Andes in the background. But thankfully the rains had ceased by the time I arrived. My host welcomed me at the Calama airport under a bright blue sky and told me that I had brought the sun with me.
An hour later, I found myself in the town of San Pedro de Atacama, a small village oasis in the middle of the desert. My van pulled up at an address on the outskirts of town, where I had been invited to stay at a resort called explora Hotel de Larache for three nights.
Upon arrival I checked into my room, which was in the middle of a one-story whitewashed building in long outdoor corridor. After dropping off my bags, I was taken on a tour of the grounds, which spanned 17 hectares around the 50-room hotel. Four swimming pools, a massage area, horse stables, and the main lodge were all part of the complex.
After the tour I headed to my orientation with one of explora’s guides. In a room full of maps and educational information about the area, he gave a short presentation about the hotel and the region, covering not only the geographical highlights like volcanoes, salt flats, rivers, hot springs, geysers, lagoons, and dry desert, but also flora and fauna like cacti, mice, foxes, and wild cats.
At the end of the orientation, he explained that explora had 50 excursions that guests could choose from. These included hikes, biking trips, horseback rides, drives, and treks that lasted anywhere from two to eight hours. Every evening we could choose one or two activities to fill our time in the desert the following day. I couldn’t wait.
My first excursion was called Cornisas. It was a hike along the edge of a cliff that overlooked an area called Death Valley. Originally called Mars Valley, the area looked very similar to the burned surface of the red planet. Millions of years of volcanic ash and other layers of earth formed stunning rippled ridges along the valley. The snow capped Andes stood silent in the background, their cool white tops offsetting the heat of the desert.
My group consisted of around eight people and one guide, Victor, who took us along the ridge and pointed out various aspects of the geology and geography of what we were seeing. Chile is home to around 10% of the world’s active volcanoes, and one of the most active of these was visible in the distance. Its last eruption was five years ago, and it has a habit of erupting every four to five years. Victor laughingly assured us that if it erupted again now, we need not worry. The wind would blow all of the ash to Argentina.
At the end of the hike we walked down a giant sand dune into the valley and continued along the floor of the crater until we reached our van, which was waiting with water, juice, and other beverages.
In the evening I met with Victor in the lodge and sat at a table with a map on it. We discussed my interests for the next day’s excursions, and decided on a horseback ride in the morning and a trip to a nearby salt flat in the evening.
After that I sat in the spacious lodge with my laptop while a waitress from the bar brought me a Pisco Sour and a plate of pre-dinner sushi. Not long later I settled into a three-course dinner at the restaurant before hauling my exhausted self off to bed.
The next morning I had breakfast at the buffet in the restaurant and was at the stables by 9:30am. There were only two of us on this excursion, and we quickly hopped on our horses and got ready to go. I grew up riding a lot, but I hadn’t been on a serious ride in ages. I was thankful for the extra attention that the small group offered, and Victor and our gaucho were great about giving me pointers.
The ride was a two-hour trip through the town. Unlike most horseback riding excursions, though, it was done on great horses and offered the opportunity to trot, canter, gallop, and jump as opposed to just walking. Out of practice, I stuck with trotting. It was nice to know that I still remembered how to do it. As we rode through the desert towards the Andes, we passed by houses, stables, and even a rodeo arena before eventually making our way back to explora.
After the excursion I enjoyed my three-course lunch on the terrace and walked into the town of San Pedro de Atacama. It was a small village with one main street and a pretty square with a church. There was also a museum and a covered market selling every handicraft imaginable. Outside were several cafes that offered al fresco dining, as well as an abundance of tour operators offering trips all over the Atacama Desert.
Later in the afternoon it was time to meet my next group for a trip to the salt flat. This group was around 10 people, and included an inspirational woman named Mel Gee Henderson that was doing research for a PBS series on luxury travel destinations called Escape Seeker.
As our van drove us to a small town that would be our first stop on the tour, I got to know Mel and the others on the excursion a bit better. In addition to her group, there was a great English couple that lived in St. John’s Wood in London, and a very adventurous octogenarian couple from Atlanta that inspired us all with their adventurous attitudes.
We made a quick visit to the town to see the traditional adobe buildings and the local church square, then hopped back in the van for the short ride to the salt flats. When we arrived, we were surrounded by thick white-and-beige crystal rocks that covered the ground from mountain range to mountain range. As we walked through a trail that had been cut in the salt, we approached a shallow pool where pink and white flamingos grazed.
For the next hour, we watched the birds as they foraged for food and flew overhead. Eventually the spectacle of the flamingos was eclipsed by a greater one, that of a spectacular sunset that turned the sky pink and orange, and the mountains a deep purple.
We stayed for so long that the rangers came by to escort us out, and back at the hotel we once again consulted with the guides to choose the following day’s excursions before dinner.
The next morning I was up and out by 8:30am. My group of eight was going on a two-hour hike along a river canyon. Although the river was not far from either the Death Valley or the salt flats, it could not have been more different in scenery. The water from the river was buried under bushes of fox tails so thick that it could barely be seen, and all along the canyon were tall cacti.
The members of the hiking group had varying skill and fitness levels, which meant that we made frequent stops. It was a bit frustrating at times, but along the way we had a number of diversions, including three species of cactus, several picturesque waterfalls, and even a large black toad.
At the end of the hike we came to a cascade of thermal pools full of bathers. Wooden decks had been built around the water, and all of them were covered with pink and yellow and blue and green towels.
explora had reserved a pool and deck for us, and as my fellow hikers swam in the water, my sunburn-prone skin and I worked to find the shadiest spot on the deck. With one hand slathering sunscreen and the other holding a glass of white wine and some smoked salmon, I sat in post-hike bliss.
Back at the hotel, there was another three-course lunch to be had, and then an afternoon of relaxation before my final excursion of the trip: the Valley of the Moon. On this excursion I was the only participant, which meant that the pace could be quicker than the morning’s hike, and that I had my guide, Carolina, all to myself.
It was a great hike through a beautiful valley and dry lake. On the way Carolina told me about everything from the volcanic ash to the chips of gypsum that sparkled in the hillsides like so many diamonds. She also explained that the bright white salt that dusted the ground in a snowy powder was abnormally abundant due to the recent rains, which had pushed it up from underground.
The two-hour hike ended with a giant sand dune, much like the one on the Cornisas excursion during my first day in the desert. It was nice to have come full-circle, and to have seen so much variation in the landscape in between.
After my last dinner at explora in the Atacama Desert, I got a decent night’s sleep and was up early for the hour-long drive to the Calama airport. I was off to Santiago once again, and planned to use what little time I had there to visit the coastal cities of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. To be continued…