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In Chile, Desert Adventures Deluxe

Vigorous pursuits in the surreal Atacama, with pampering on the side

June 09, 2002|AMANDA JONES

SAN 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 16, 2002 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Features Desk 3 inches; 133 words Type of Material: Correction
Chile information--In the June 9 cover article, "In Chile, Desert Adventures Deluxe," an incorrect tourist office was listed in the Guidebook. For information, contact the Chilean Embassy, 1732 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20036; (202) 785-1746,

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.

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