A new hotel in Chile's unforgiving Atacama Desert brings the good life to a very hard place.

Javier Pierini

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.

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.

The Facts
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.