SOUTH AMERICASAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA, Chile—I worship deserts. In my native New Zealand, a rain-free day is a small miracle, so my sodden soul soars when I feel that dry heat and behold those azure skies.
Imagine my bliss in Chile's Atacama Desert, a behemoth that stretches for about 2,000 miles and where, in some places, there has never been a drop of recorded rainfall.
By April of this year, I had spring fever and was ready for a break, preferably someplace exotic. So two friends and I signed up for some world-class pampering in Chile, which had enticed me for years. By night we would stay at a top-notch lodge, eat superb food and drink fine wine, but during the day we would engage every muscle in vigorous athletic pursuits.
Stephanie Tuck, a recently escaped music editor for a tragically hip New York magazine, and Wickham Boyle, an author whose book on 9/11 raised money for Ground Zero schools, and I flew into Santiago, stayed one night, then headed northward to Calama, an inland mining town and hub for central Atacama travel. The hotel van met us at the tiny, busy airport, and we set out for San Pedro.
At first glance, the Atacama looked lifeless, flat and gray. It reminded me of the moon, which I always thought desolate after the thrill of man's landing on it subsided. After 40 minutes of this monotony, the van crested a hill, and suddenly we were in the surrealist drama of the Chilean badlands.
Boulders bathed in red light, twisted escarpments and silky dunes exploded below. To the right, a gorge was populated with grotesque shapes, whittled by winds over eons of time. To the left were fields of cracked mud and fingers of ocher sand reaching across to the snowcapped Andes. And smack in the middle was a pod of greenery encircling adobe houses: San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis of 1,500.
San Pedro is perched at 8,000 feet in the central part of the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, about 50 miles from the Bolivian border. It gets minimal rain--a whole inch a year--but is endowed with springs, geothermal waters and rivers.
Thanks to the altitude, the weather is moderate. Daytime temperatures range from 69 to 76 degrees year-round; the warmest months are November through March, summer in South America. Nighttime temperatures can drop as low as 30 degrees in the winter months of August through October. The inch of rain comes mainly in January.
We were staying at the Explora, a place I had heard about from other adventurous friends. Although it was more expensive than the smaller, less glamorous hotels in San Pedro, we rationalized that when you factor in all the meals, drinks, transfers, equipment and guides, the tab for a four-day stay--$1,296 per person--was reasonable.
The Explora company is known for its singular lodges. Nine years ago it built the 30-room Explora Patagonia in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, a contemporary, upscale hotel that attracts active luxury travelers to the bottom of the world. In 1998 it opened the 50-room Explora Atacama, a haven of understated elegance from which to undertake explorations.
The Explora philosophy is environmental immersion through active journeying. The management likes to provide you with a serene but knowing guide, some gorp and water, and a method of self-transport and wave you on your way. And when you finish your excursion in some gorgeous location, staffers are there waiting for you with chilled beverages, antipasto platters, dry towels and an air-conditioned van to ferry you back to the hotel for your swim, your massage and your epicurean meals.
Arriving at midday, we were ushered into the bar to meet with Paula Valdes, Explora's charming head guide.
"There are five choices this afternoon," she said. "You can horseback ride, take one of two hikes, go on a photographic safari or mountain bike. If you want to climb the volcano, I suggest you do it near the end of your stay and work up to the altitude."
El Toco volcano, a one-morning ascent to 18,372 icy, oxygen-starved feet, is a source of fun for stalwart sorts, some of whom don't make it and have to be shouldered down to an oxygen tank in the van.
"Honey, that won't be me," said Wicki, ever the pragmatist.
"I'm going to do it," said Steph, ever the overachiever.
For that day, however, we chose acclimatization with a mild three-hour hike through the Kari Gorge.
To get there, we were required to bound down a steep sand dune like adolescents in a Mountain Dew commercial. Below was a cracked, flesh-toned plain covered with dazzling white salt crystals. The Atacama used to be under the ocean, and sodium chloride remains in the earth. When it rains or when the night air produces moisture, it rises to the surface, staying put like a permanent dusting of snow.
We climbed through the rocky corridors, grottoes and narrow, salt-crusted fissures as the sun sank and the rocks glowed a feverish red.
We intended to be at the Valle de la Luna, or Valley of the Moon, for sunset, a short drive by van from Kari Gorge.
As we struggled up to a knife-edge ridge overlooking Valle de la Luna, the nearly full moon hung fat in the darkening sky on one side while the sun seeped behind a ridge on the other. The climb was only 300 yards, but the 9,000-foot altitude made it slow going.
It was worth every labored breath when we reached the top. The creased umber canyons lay below us, the lights of San Pedro glimmered in the distance and the Andes grinned gap-toothed from the horizon.
I rose early to bike the mile from Explora into San Pedro. On the outskirts of town I passed houses molded of adobe with thatched roofs and rows of corn in the garden. The Atacamaños sat in small doorways or leaned on gates crafted from crooked sticks. Gauchos on ponies stamped terracotta clouds from the dusty roads, and bowlegged grandmothers in flat-topped hats and woven shawls lumbered by laden with baskets of food.
In the tiny town center, established about 450 years ago by the conquering Spaniards, narrow alleys twist past bars and shops. The Iglesia San Pedro, a quaint, whitewashed 18th century church, stands on a colonial plaza opposite the entrance to the artisanal market, a row of dim stalls selling the local crafts--saddle blankets, cactus wood statuettes and alpaca sweaters. Despite its size, the town is clearly set up for foreign and Chilean tourism. Hip restaurants serving international and local cuisine line the streets, as do small hotels and adventure outfitters.
I stopped at the Museo Gustavo le Paige, El Dorado for pre-Columbian buffs. Le Paige, a Belgian priest with a penchant for archeology, helped the local people stake a claim to their artifacts and organize this museum, reputed to be one of South America's best. The San Pedro area was part of the pre-Hispanic Tiwanaku, Atacaman and Incan civilizations, and the arid air has preserved the museum's mummies, tools, textiles and pottery with spooky intactness. One diminutive mummy, the doorman told me, is nicknamed Miss Chile: "She's thin, she's got great hair, and people love taking her picture."
When I returned to the hotel, a fine-looking man on a fine-looking horse was riding out of the bar and through the lobby. He rose in the saddle, tipped his hat, said "Buenos días" and rode off into the lounge.
It occurred to me then that the hotel had been designed around horses. The Explora Atacama has won awards for its design, and I knew that Pedro Ibáñez, the wealthy industrialist owner, is an avid horseman. I now understood why there are ramps and immense sliding stable-like doors everywhere. Even the guest rooms skirted a courtyard, like the grand estancia stables of old, and the wall decorations were the tasteful, hand-loomed saddle blankets of the local cowboys.
Horses and the irregular angles of the Andes were the architectural inspiration. The hotel's fireplaces tilt in diagonal, and the roof lines are irregular and imperfect, like the seamless eccentricities found in nature. There are skylights in unexpected places, hidden rooftop patios with serene views and meandering pathways of quietude.
The horseman was Miguel Yarur, Chile's former national equestrian champion, demigod of the stables, horse whisperer extraordinaire. It turned out he was riding through the lobby to indulge a photographer, but, I was assured, the hotel was indeed designed for such whimsy.
I had forfeited a trip to El Tatio geysers that morning because I couldn't tolerate the four-hour round-trip drive. I later regretted it. A group left at 4:30 a.m. to reach the geysers by sunrise, when the fumaroles jet to life. When Wicki returned, she raved about the hazy extraterrestrial feel of the place and about a close encounter with a fox and several vicuñas.
Instead, Steph and I hiked four miles into the Guatín Puritama valley. We climbed past pre-Incan ruins, over small waterfalls and beneath the plumes of pampas grass and hoary cactuses, ending with a swim in Puritama Hot Springs. A chain of pools spilled subterranean mineral water down the mountainside, waters that have been used as elixirs for centuries. The Incas apparently used the Puritama as a place of peace to settle disputes and lower stress--the original day spa.
We returned to the hotel for lunch and siesta. Explora's French chef serves exquisite meals, balanced to be light on the stomach but high in protein for maximum energy. My favorite was pataska, a locally derived dish of corn and potato. On the highbrow end, the duck confit was heavenly.
That afternoon we went riding, something I have done sporadically since I was a girl. These days I seek destinations where you can escape the liability-limited, plodding trail rides of the United States. The Atacama has a reputation for genuine horsemanship.
Miguel, who was leading the ride, strode out of the stables to meet us. He was compact and strong, with the kind of masculinity that seemed to discombobulate women of all ages. The effect was compounded when he dropped to his knees to strap on my half-chaps. Pure Latin chivalry.
"Hola, Amanda," he said as he knelt at my feet. "You ride, no?" It sounded more like a command than a question.
I equivocated. I ride adequately, but in the presence of a man like Miguel, it would not do to overstate one's ability. Further, Miguel trained the horses, and you could practically see them genuflect when he walked by.
He flicked his head, and a groom appeared with Mascota, a lanky, highly bred Chilean-English mix. Mascota handled with almost clairvoyant grace, possibly the best-mannered horse I have ridden. Our merry band was enamored of our mounts; we were enamored of the sunshine and the clear air and the empty plains before us; and we were all a little enamored of Miguel.
We rode for several miles into Valle de la Muerte, Death Valley, another expanse etched with shadows and clefts. We passed quite a sporting tableau: sand boarders, mountain bikers and hikers. We rode hard, Miguel's war horse Caesar leading the charge, galloping up sand dunes, splashing through streams and racing across the desert. It was challenging and intoxicating.
The riders gathered to drink heartily in the bar that evening. Pisco sours are the Chilean drink of choice, and Miguel poured a mean one. I had read that pisco, a 90-proof brandy distilled from wine grapes, "loosens tongues while sharpening wits."
"Please," I thought, "let the latter be true."
Javier, a gentle, ponytailed guide, was assigned to take the women mountain biking to Sejas Lagoon the next morning. (Steph, having to make hard choices, had given up on the volcano climb, preferring to go biking.) We packed our bathing suits and bathroom slippers, straddled the latest-model mountain bikes and headed across the landscape plains.
We cycled 16 miles past tussocked plains, pedaling furiously through deep tracts of sand and over crusty salt flats. And just as the landscape became utterly barren, we arrived at an aquamarine thermal lake, ringed in toadstool configurations of razor-sharp salt crystals--hence the slippers. The salt can cut skin to shreds. We dove in, slippers on, scaring off a flock of flamingos, which wheeled above us in disgust.
We bobbed about in the weirdly buoyant saline water, warmed by hot vents from below, soaking out the pisco.
It was our final day, and the mountain biking was merely the first in a crescendo of activities.
The previous night, Miguel had leaned over the bar with a smile and said, "You want a muy peligroso ride tomorrow, Amanda?"
"Why, yes," I, or probably the pisco sours, had replied, cavalier at the word "dangerous." "Muy peligroso. No problema."
"There will be--how you do say--saltar."
"Jumping," I said. "Right."
I hadn't jumped in 20 years.
After our morning excursion to Sejas Lagoon, a small group of us set off in midafternoon to Quebrada de Diablo, Devil's Canyon. We ran the horses across the desert and loped them through narrow box canyons. They jumped up rocky ledges and over small rifts. They climbed stolidly upward over moraine and along precarious cliff-side tracks. These were magnificent beasts, so well trained it was mind-boggling. The ride was dangerous indeed, and if just one of those horses had spooked there could well have been an ugly ending.
We climbed until we had a view like no other, a 360-degree panorama of ravines and volcanoes, lakes and salty wastelands, and green, green oases.
Hobbling off the horses at sunset, we gingerly mounted bikes and rode into San Pedro for a drink at Adobe, our favorite town bar, with a roaring fire under a palapa. At night the town comes alive. Chilean bohemians take to the streets; backpackers gather to swap dollar-a-day fables; ponytailed astrologers gaze into telescopes; locals sell silver jewelry; and hippies of every nation waft about in parachute pants and muslin head scarves.
The moon was full, so we skipped dinner and drove instead to Valle de la Luna to witness the desert bathed in sterling light. At the summit, Javier emerged from the shadows toting pisco sours. There was no escaping the stuff.
At midnight we returned to the hotel to find that Miguel, the gallant, had whipped up a platter of sushi.
I am aware that things taste better when you have been seduced by the magnificence of nature and have exerted yourself to the point of delicious exhaustion. I know that travel makes things more flavorful, more chimerical.
But that was the best sushi I have ever eaten. Right there in the middle of the driest desert on Earth.
Amanda Jones is a freelance writer living in Emerald Hills, Calif.