"Please," I thought, "let the latter be true."
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.