Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021

© Margo Pfeiff

The Quebrada Kari Canyon winds through a Tolkienesque labyrinth of gypsum grottos and salt pillars.

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Far side of the moon

Get way off the beaten track among the salt lakes, geysers and dunes of Chile’s Atacama Desert

If I wanted to enter the Crystal Canyon I would have to run down the side of a 100-metre-high dune. My guide, Jorge, threw himself down the slope with a shout I took to be a Chilean “Yee-ha!” and then I had no choice. I took a deep breath, yelped and leapt, sinking ankle deep with each step down the near-vertical sandbox, struggling to avoid a face-plant in the warm silky sand that filled my boots. When I reached the bottom my eyes and nose were encrusted and I wore a gritty grin from ear to ear.

The dune was the only way to reach the narrow entrance into Quebrada Kari Canyon, a winding cleft through a Tolkeinesque labyrinth of gypsum grottos and grotesquely eroded salt pillars, once a lake bottom where crystals now glittered from walls painted red by the approaching sunset. The salt-canyon walls clicked and cracked like ice cubes in a glass of water as they expanded and contracted with the warmth of the sun or the cooling of a breeze.

This was the middle of the aptly-named Valle de la Luna or Valley of the Moon in northern Chile, a landscape of stark, crumpled canyons with the distant 7000-metre sawtooth peaks of the Andes Mountains — two of them visibly smoking volcanoes — cutting a dramatic silhouette.

Desert heat

I love dry places and Chile’s Atacama Desert tops the world charts — in some places no rainfall has ever been recorded. The long, thin, dry patch is barely 160 kilometres wide between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, but stretches over 965 long kilometres alongside Bolivia and Argentina northwards to Peru. At the heart of it is the small frontier/adventure travel outpost of San Pedro de Atacama, a two-hour flight then a one-hour drive north of Chile’s capital of Santiago.

At 2440 metres above sea level, it is a quaint 17th-century town, all adobe and colourful shuttered wooden windows with real cowboys on horses herding the occasional pack of sheep or llamas down the dusty streets. Meanwhile, backpackers sign up with dozens of small operators for hiking, sand-boarding — substituting sand for snow — mountain biking, horseback riding and 4WD adventures to vast salt plains or mineral lakes.

I stayed at one of the Chilean-owned Explora lodges, Hotel de Larache, just outside of town. It’s a low-key and architecturally contemporary resort echoing a spacious hacienda to blend with the local environment. Surrounded by adobe and stone walls from centuries’ old farms, its rooms overlooked either a vast cobbled courtyard shaded with trees or pastures where the resorts’ famous horses grazed.

Explora is renowned not only for its great horseback expeditions — as is their hotel in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park — but also its highly experienced guides, important in a remote landscape of un-mapped dusty dirt roads, high altitude and sparse water. After dinner with accompanying Chilean wines every evening, guides sat down to chat with clients in the bar and lounges, signing them up for a roll call of diverse activities from photo safaris to hot spring treks.

Since I was still jet-lagged, I opted on my first very early morning to set out in the darkness of 5AM for the two-hour drive to catch the peak dawn action at the Tatio Geyser plain where dozens of powerful eruptions billow hot, moist steam into the cold air, a spectacular sight with the rising sun sifting through the shifting plumes.

Letting off steam

The next day, under perpetually clear blue skies, mountain biking was on my menu with a group heading across the desert to a string of super-salty lagoons. It was only 16 kilometres, but patches of deep sand made it seem twice the distance. But the rewards en route included spotting a flock of flamingos grazing a pink salt lake. When we reached the surreal turquoise waters of Cejar Lagoon with its shoreline encrusted with salt crystals, we stripped to our bathing suits and bobbed in water so salty we were buoyant and unsinkable as rubber ducks. Moments after emerging from our “swim,” we quickly dried into salty white beings.

I trekked through canyons, spotted vicunas and ate picnics atop sand dunes. On my third day, a small group of us were dropped at the Puritama River at an elevation of 3000 metres to spend the next two hours hiking up a lush valley amid man-sized cactus. It was an oasis where birds chirped and water burbled. Further uphill, as the stream gathered momentum from the increasing incline, we moved through groves of pampas.

Finally, at 3600 metres we were on a boardwalk zigzagging up a ravine past a liquid staircase of eight pools separated by low waterfalls. Honeymooners sipped champagne in one, local families snacked in another. We threw on swimsuits and lowered ourselves into the 32°C water of the natural Puritama Hot Springs. Nibbling smoked salmon canapés and holding a cold beer, I settled beneath a low waterfall that pummelled my shoulders with a much-needed massage.

The local Atacameño people used the hot springs for centuries for their healing powers, but by 1990 they had fallen into disrepair and the water rights were purchased by Explora as they began construction of San Pedro’s first high-end hotel. Boardwalks were installed to preserve the indigenous flora replanted around the springs, change rooms and saunas were installed and shaded terraces built alongside each of the pools.

When completed in 1999, Explora handed the keys to the Indian Atacamanian Community who charged entrance fees for the general public, the money going to local community projects. The hotel, completed in 1998, reserved the top two pools for its hotel guests.

Native trances

After a day in desert wilds I prowled the streets of San Pedro in late afternoons and evenings, through the peaceful 17th-century whitewashed church, chic art and jewellery shops, and the narrow warren that is the town market. One entire afternoon drifted past in the Museo Arqueológico. Surprisingly for such a small town, it’s one of the country’s best museums, started by a Belgian missionary who gathered pre-Columbian artifacts from 1955 to 1980. I followed the history of the Atacameño who managed to retain vestiges of their culture despite being conquered by the Incas and, shortly afterwards, the Spanish.

Besides the usual relics there was an astounding collection of intricately carved and designed tablets, grinders, hollow tubes and pipes used for the preparation and inhalation of various hallucinogens — very “Amsterdam meets Atacama.” Afterwards, I settled for my own drug of choice, a Pisco Sour, the national drink of lime juice, sugar and strong white brandy.

With the extremely dry air and more than 250 clear nights a year, a whitewash of stars smears the skies white above the Atacama Desert most nights, one of the best spots on the planet for star gazing and the site of some of the world's biggest telescopes. In 2008, Explora opened its own observatory 100 metres from the central lodge so that guests could peer deep into those dark, clear skies at Pleiades, closed clusters, double stars….

Cowboy culture

On my final afternoon I was outfitted with suede half-chaps, a riding bonnet and the reins to a big horse sporting a comfy Chilean saddle. “Those who want to gallop — over there,” explained the guide when we’d walked the horses out of town. “Those who prefer to walk on their horses — here.” Seemed pretty simple and an easy choice for a nervous rider such as myself. But discussions and horse-shuffling ensued as the wind whipped up dust devils around us.

Suddenly the guide clipped a rope from his horse to mine. He gave an encouraging thumbs-up and we were off… galloping! I inelegantly hung on for dear life as our two horses bounded across the dunes — it seemed I was in the “gallop” group. When we slowed again it was my heart that continued to canter on as we proceeded at a more relaxed pace to see the remains of a mountaintop Inca fort.

I limped in from the desert, my mouth tasting of dust, and stepped beneath an oversized rain shower. I watched a river of brown mud swirl down the drain then ended the day at Tturi Puri or the House of Water, Explora's spa housed in one of the remaining ancient old farm homes with metre-thick adobe walls. Candle-lit and warmed with a fragrant wood stove, I fell asleep as a therapist massaged the hiking, biking and horseback knots out of my body

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