A different sort of reporter would have followed up, dug deeper, gotten the scoop. But there was so much to do: every day, in the morning and late afternoon, the hotel leads several excursions, which are included in the rate. In eight days, I saw enough to make an atheist turn agnostic. Science can explain the how of a place like this, but not the why.
Where do I start?At the beginning, I guess, even though in hindsight it was a letdown. When you're not used to being 8,000 feet up, you proceed slowly, so I signed on for an easy walk through a gorge called El Diablo. I took way too many photographs of things I wouldn't even notice two days later; forget souvenirs—I just kept buying film.
But with each subsequent excursion, the land got more and more odd.
I stood on a jagged salt flat, at the end of an unmarked dirt road in a broad expanse of desert. Before me was Laguna Sejar, an emerald spring, deep and crystal clear. I dived in and found it cold at the surface and hot by my toes. I rode horseback through the Valle de la Muerte. At sunset, I had a tough time taking a photo without getting my own shadow stuck in the frame. At El Tatio, I walked amid steaming geysers, 14,173 feet up, where water boils at 85 degrees Celsius. There were no railings, no signs, nothing. It was the earth ablister. I sat at the edge of a mirror lake, Laguna Lejía, on a high plain under a smoke-spewing volcano. The air was so thin matches wouldn't light. Cow bones lay by the water. (Only after I returned from a walk up a hill was I told that the area was still land-mined from a 1970's conflict with Argentina.)
You'd think nothing could live here. But I saw flocks of flamingos, flying above; I heard their wings pumping furiously. Like hang glider pilots, they take many little steps when they land. I stopped on a mountain road to let a herd of alpacas pass. A white one stuck its nose in my face. With colorful yarn tied to its ears, it looked silly, a piñata in progress. I hiked through a gorge to Talabre, a village decimated seven years ago by a mud slide. As our group passed a llama, we covered our faces with sweatshirts in case it spat. Bright green mountain parakeets darted around. I looked out the window of the van that took us to these places and saw an ostrich-like rhea wandering by the side of the road, nothing else around for miles. The bottoms of its feet were white.
You would also think no person could live here. I waited in a town called Caspana, in a canyon near the Bolivian border, for a ceremony to begin. The village—population 420—makes the most of its water, growing apples, garlic, and beans in terraced plots that hug the canyon walls. We happened to be there on St. Cecilia's Day—she is the patron saint of both music and Caspana—so there was a procession through the churchyard with four bands and a troupe of children. The girls were dressed up like cheerleaders in a two-school Texas town; the boys wore devil costumes. It was a scrap of joy in what must be a bitterly fought existence.
Because you hardly ever see another tourist, you'd think no one visits. Wrong again. I joined in what felt like a forced death march—is there any other kind?—through barren land. Then we dipped into a small canyon, along a stream among unnaturally green plants (except for the foxtails, that is, burned black by a shepherd because that's the only way the sheep will eat them). With no other sounds around, the stream babbled like a hermit who hadn't had company in 20 years. After 21/2 hours, we made it to the hot springs, where we found a handful of tourists taking the waters. At Valle de la Luna, I straddled a mammoth sand dune and watched the sun set. A steady line of schoolgirls from Santiago made their way up the dune; another line of tourists headed down. A post-apocalyptic escalator. Only on the drive out did the valley resemble the moon, once we'd gotten away from the other vans and tour buses; then I could finally believe that NASA had tested its Mars probe here.
The luxury of the Explora was in marked contrast to all this, and even more pleasant as a result. But I don't want to give the impression that the hotel is perfect. I found myself wanting the best possible version of what people in town were eating, not the watered-down Continental food served in the dining room. (I got it at the picnic lunches: barbecued beef, smoked salmon, the makings of a green salad, halved avocados waiting to be scooped out.) Another problem: guest room doors won't latch unless they're slammed, which annoys you when you hear one slam and makes you feel guilty when you slam one yourself. And it took me two days to find the pools, four to find the TV room. An introductory tour or a map would go a long way. Finally, I would have liked to know more about the excursions before signing up. No one had mentioned the pool at the geyser field, so I didn't bring my swimsuit. I will forever regret not being able to join the giggling Germans looking for the warm spots.
These problems will surely be smoothed out with time. A new hotel, no matter how good, is like a new lover—your wants must adapt to what it can deliver, and vice versa.
Speaking of lovers, let me just say this: In a way, the Atacama is like someone you meet on a trip and have a brief encounter with. You want to keep the spark alive, but you can't hang on to the exoticism (we all know what familiarity does to contempt). I loved the Atacama, but I will not go back. For all its beauty, its power is in its ability to surprise. If I returned, I would have the beauty without the surprise—attempts to duplicate astonishment are doomed to fail. And I wouldn't want this desert, which made my world seem so much bigger, to let me down.
To book at Explora en Atacama, have your travel agent contact Explora's Santiago office (56-2/206-6060, fax 56-2/228-4655). Stays are available in four-, five-, and eight-day packages. Rates start at $1,296 per person, double, for four days, including all excursions, meals, and drinks. I'm glad I chose to stay for eight days: there is a surprising amount to see. The best option is to piggyback a trip to Explora's other hotel, in Patagonia.
The weather tends to be beautiful (upper seventies) during the day year-round, but it can get very cold at night in the Southern Hemisphere's winter.
Since the hotel is so high up, it's important to bring plenty of sunscreen and many layers of clothes (you can skip the formal wear, as the hotel is thoroughly casual). Though Explora's laundry service is expensive, it's worth it: the desert dirt gets everywhere.