They say it looks like the moon, but they're wrong. It's Mother Earth, all right—she insists on showing her scars, centuries-old and self-inflicted. Noisy geysers, even the smallest blister of a puddle bubbling and moaning. Gorges laced with gypsum shards, like wrist-slitting pieces of glass. Salt flats, the skin of the land crusted in six-inch-high crystals. A smoking volcano behind a lake so still it must be poison; the reflection of the mountains so numbingly pretty that the story of Narcissus doesn't seem ridiculous at all. Mother Earth, sideshow attraction.
Am I going over the top?Well, pardon me. Northern Chile's Atacama Desert is just that kind of place. They call it the high desert for a reason: it's 8,000 feet above sea level, enough altitude to make you sick, enough weird beauty to make you wonder if the water is spiked with LSD. What water there is, I mean—as the world's driest desert, it gets an average of seven millimeters of rain a year.
Chile's Explora group doesn't fear places like this. Its first hotel, which opened five years ago, is deep in Torres del Paine National Park, a 21/2-hour drive from the nearest village. Explora en Patagonia, Hotel Salto Chico—that's its full name—is rumored to hire only couples because single people tend to go a little crazy (or, one presumes, flirt with the guests). Blending a stylish sensibility with respect for the land, it proved itself one of South America's best hotels. Last August, Explora came to the Atacama, on 35 acres in the town of San Pedro.
"What do you think of the hotel?" asked a man from Santiago.
"I like it," I replied blandly, not sure exactly where this was going.
"My wife and I think it should blend in more."
Suckers. Blending in is an impossible task, and even if it weren't, isn't it ultimately more condescending to build a rich man's version of the poor villagers' houses?No, the $15 million Explora en Atacama—a gleaming white Cubist hodgepodge designed by Chilean architect Germán del Sol—stands out. Fabulously.
At first I didn't quite get it. Santiago is a long flight from just about anywhere; then you have a 2 1/2—hour flight to Calama and an hour or so van trip to San Pedro. (Wherever you go in the Explora van—it also takes you on all excursions—the locals stare, amazed to see people able and willing to pay upwards of $430 a night.) With me on the ride from the airport were a Swiss tourist and two German travel writers; I was cranky because they had flown farther, so I couldn't even complain competitively.
We piled out of the van and trudged up one of the many staircases that lead to the lobby and dining room. The operations manager, Alejandro Goich, asked us to meet him in the bar at 8:30 to plan the next day's outings over a pisco sour (or, as it turned out, three pisco sours—call it dinner). The main building is light and airy, with big sofas, cylindrical baskets, and soaring ceilings. Maybe it was the liquor, but I liked it immediately. The 52 guest rooms, however—housed in single-story motelish buildings around a courtyard of leafless trees—struck me as dark, a bit cold; Crate & Barrel redux.
Two days in the desert's bright light and blazing sun and I realized that the stone floors were the height of comfort, the dated yellow curtains actually cast the room in a soothing glow, the furniture—wicker chairs, a dresser with cutouts, big beds with soft duvets—just worked. And the bathroom! If you stand in the enclosed shower and look through the window into the sink area, you'll find a perfect desert view framed in the mirror. The showerheads are more than a foot in diameter, hung way above the whirlpool tubs so the water comes down like rain. The big, fluffy towels smell of puppies or fresh-baked bread. Something nice, anyway.
Naturally, the hippy-dippy types in San Pedro—it has some of the New Age, crafts-happy feel of Sedona, Arizona—haven't exactly embraced their glamorous new neighbor (of course, most have yet to venture inside). One night, at a local bar, I asked the opinion of a woman next to me. "I hear things," she said darkly. "My friends—they talk about bombs." I made her promise to wait until after I left—amazing how good your Spanish gets when you're pleading for your life. Her skanky boyfriend, who kept taking the seat off his barstool and using it as a mock steering wheel, chimed in. "Mierda!" he said. "That's what I think."
I say he's a fool (though not to his face). San Pedro is no virgin when it comes to tourists, what with its dozens of tour guides, hostels, crafts shops, and restaurants. While local color still exists, much of it was leeched out years ago. If a major hotel was inevitable—and it was, the area is that stunning—San Pedro is damn lucky it was Explora.
When the company bought the land, Goich told me during a tour of the hotel, it inherited many old Atacameño buildings. These are being adapted rather than torn down: one now houses the head guide and her husband; another is the site of the frequent barbecues. Explora also purchased the Puritama hot springs, which had been going to pot, and built a boardwalk around them to help stop erosion. Water at the hotel, which is purified even though it comes from a well deep enough to avoid any bacterial contamination, is reused for irrigation.
A friendly guy—like everyone there—Goich said that "people in town claim the hotel was built on a cemetery, but it wasn't." Then why would they say it?"Well, it was customary to bury people in gardens, and maybe there was some of that." Right. Other questions linger: when Goich says area farmers will be allowed to graze their animals on the hotel's property, I believe he believes it, but I doubt it will happen.