Explora opens second hotel in Chile

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Carla Hunt visited the Explora Group's latest property in Chile. Her report follows.

SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA, Chile--The Explora Group opened its second Chilean property.

The Explora in Atacama combines a comfortable hotel with the natural and cultural attractions of the Atacama, the most arid desert in the world. The property offers views of the Towers in Paine National Park. The best views are from the public rooms and from the rooftop lounge deck, which comes complete with a telescope for hawk-viewing and star gazing. Below, buildings are linked by stairways and boardwalks and grouped around big courtyards of carob, oak and pepper trees.

Ecologically correct like its sister property, Explora in Patagonia, the new Explora has a nondescript exterior. The hotel sits low into a desert landscape of changing colors, framed by distant volcanoes. The rooms--there are 50 now and 50 more to come--are well-furnished, featuring stone floors, woven rugs, minibars, lots of storage space and big beds covered with thick down comforters that pick up the colors and patterns of the painted ceilings.

The public rooms have large seating areas, colorful modern furnishings and displays of regional folk art in glass cabinets. The informal bar sports an American West decor and serves up pisco sours (a brandy drink). The dining room is big and open, the food (breakfast was great) and service need a bit of breaking in. A big pool and Jacuzzi area, looking out on desert scrub and mountains, was nearly finished when I was there last month. With an ample runoff from the Andes mountains, there is plenty of water in this otherwise arid place.

At the entrance you run right into the stable area, happily, it seemed, occupied by 20 horses that play a major role in daily excursions, such as a ride to the dramatic Valley of the Moon and the 12th century Indian pukara (fortress).

Other day trip options include desert hikes; mountain biking; drives to wildlife areas, archaeological sites, local villages and museums, and dips in hot spring pools and sybaritic mud baths. The sleepy town of San Pedro de Atacama is about a 15-minute ride from the hotel or a half-hour walk.

Life moves at a slow pace around the village square, bordered on one side by the 17th century Iglesia de San Pedro, an adobe church whose interiors are interestingly decorated with cactus wood.

Another attraction is a covered bazaar of regional handicrafts, and the deservedly leading attraction is the Museum of Father Le Paige, a treasure-house of Atacaman history.

Father Le Paige's findings include paleolithic tools, mastodon bones, pre-

Columbian sculptures, ancient paraphernalia for eating and smoking psychedelic plants and mushrooms and more than 5,000 human skulls. The most striking displays are thousand-year-old mummies with skin, fingernails and hair all perfectly preserved in desert graves.

To date, the 96 mummies found are the oldest in the world, predating those in Egypt by two to three thousand years. On one excursion, hotel guests are up and out by 6 a.m., to drive with a guide and a group of no more than eight people to the El Tatio geyser field, 60 miles away.

Located atop a plateau field at 14,000 feet, this site is gorgeous as the early morning light hits the bubbling, multi-hued fumaroles pumping columns of white steam and bubbling mud into the cold morning air; the mud baths of the older geysers come in bright yellows, rich browns, ochers and siennas.

Along the route are occasional clusters of llamas, geese and rabbits, among other wildlife species. Another excursion takes guests 25 miles south to the Flamingo National Reserve in the middle of salt lake flats measuring 30 by 70 miles. The vista is extraordinary: There are flocks of flamingos reflected in the water or flying low over the desert, and the horizon is lined with giant volcanoes. The calm and silence is close to primeval.

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