I had just flown half way across the globe, about to tick a new continent and two new countries off my ever-growing wanderlist.
A couple of planes and an automobile later, and I was in the midst of Chile’s ethereal Atacama Desert. This vast landscape has been declared the driest place on earth, so naturally I expected the strikingly beautiful Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa to overlook a stark desert vista, seemingly devoid of life. Think again. To my surprise, we ended up alongside a small river in the most unexpected little garden oasis.
Travel to learn
Travel often takes us to unexpected places and introduces us to inspiring people.
Every place we encounter, and indeed every person we meet, has a story to tell. The beauty of travel is the opportunity to uncover these enchanting stories — of far-fetched destinations, newfound friendships and time-honoured cultures — and retell them in our own way. Be it through photography, writing or even some festive dinner party storytelling.
I met Verónica Poblete that afternoon, purely by chance, during a quick moment of cappuccino indulgence and her story intrigued me. Remarkably elegant in her colourful Andean attire, with two long and perfectly-plaited braids, Verónica is soft spoken, proudly Atacamian and contagiously passionate.
I soon discovered that she is the lodge’s undeniably talented Landscape Architect (and llama whisperer I might add) and this lush desert oasis was entirely her vision.
We decided to take a sunny afternoon stroll through Alto Atacama’s verdant sanctuary so that I could learn all about Verónica’s lifelong dream, fiercely guarded Atacamian culture and beloved garden.
“Nature is harmony. It is never shocking, never cacophonic. It is always harmonious,” she explained. There we stood, in the world’s driest desert, surrounded — quite puzzlingly — by towering trees and a seemingly impossible explosion of lush greenery. How could this be?
“Well, it’s a very romantic story,” she beamed.
A desert playground
This is not only the driest, but also one of the highest deserts on earth. The breathtaking (literally and figuratively) Atacama reaches an elevation of 13 000 ft (4 000 m) in some parts, so one does need to take the necessary precautions to avoid altitude sickness. But for the adventurous at heart, this is a veritable desert playground.
On arrival, guests visiting Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa are presented with an action-packed “choose your own adventure” style menu of 30+ adventure activities at their disposal. These range from sedentary and soulful spa treatments and lazy afternoon soaks in plunge pools and Incan baths, to energetic cycling and vigorous hikes through the rugged, otherworldly terrain.
This is the doorstep to desert adventure.
Nearby, a hiking trail winds its way through the hauntingly beautiful and lunar-esque peaks, valleys and sand dunes of the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) and down into its almost snowlike salt caves and crevices.
Further afield, there are altiplanic lagoons, exploding geysers, expansive salt flats and snow-capped volcanoes. And at the heart of it all, the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, where you’ll find the peaceful Alto Atacama tucked away in a scenic, mountainous valley carved by the San Pedro River.
An area once dominated by agriculture, this extraordinary landscape is Verónica’s heart and soul. So when the lodge’s founder, a dear friend of hers, invited Verónica to instil her creative vision on the lodge’s exterior landscape, she accepted the mission with sincere passion and perseverance.
She had one caveat: “I told them I will come and help as soon as they promise that they will not touch a tree or harm anything that I consider to be the Pachamama’s [Mother Earth] and that they will respect the people that inhabit the area.”
The answer is in the mountains
Verónica’s mission was to create a scenic, relaxing and inviting exterior that would inspire guests to explore and enjoy their natural surroundings. “I wanted to design a place that would invite them to be at peace with Mother Nature,” she explained. “Without interfering with the pristine surroundings and also paying homage to the area’s rich cultural and agricultural history.”
A biologist turned botanist, Verónica lectured for Stanford University for more than a decade and eventually qualified as a landscape architect in Paris, of all places. Her esteemed qualifications aside, it is the Pachamama that remains her greatest mentor. “I admire the perfection and aesthetics of nature,” she revealed, and for this particular project she chose to draw all of her creative inspiration from the geography, ecology, culture and dramatic extremities of the Andean landscape.
First things first, Verónica took to the mountains. For months on end. She climbed the steep slopes and explored the deep valleys, all the while getting a feel for the terrain and seeking guidance from the Pachamama. She studied the landscape intensely and walked great lengths to uncover the perfect materials for her project. She also spoke to the local Atacamian farmers, her “Andean tutors”, who taught her the Andean ways of caring for the land and encouraging fruitful cultivation in the driest place on earth.
A labour of love
Bear in mind that this is a high altitude and relentlessly dry desert. Anything that Verónica designed would need to withstand the extreme elements. Each day, there is a 30-degree temperature variation, not to mention harsh arid conditions, soil salinity, little to no annual rainfall and solar radiation from the clear and unpolluted atmosphere (which of course makes the Atacama Desert one of the best places in the world for stargazing).
Understandably, Verónica’s plan was met with criticism and trepidation. “The investors had never seen such a design,” she recalled.
“They couldn’t understand how the plants would grow, so I had to be brave and follow my intuition.”
Her original canvas was a sizeable stretch of bare, remote desertscape. Apart from a dozen trees and a few small shrubs, it was largely devoid of life. Seeking only to plant native trees, Verónica painstakingly collected ancient seeds in the neighbouring hills and valleys, with the help of some local Atacamian children that were curious to get involved. Then, clearly unafraid of getting her hands dirty, Verónica set about planting, cultivating and irrigating each seedling by hand.
This dream garden was certainly not shy of challenges. There were many, and the work was exhausting and labour-intensive. It took two full years of working around the clock. “But when you’re in love, you can do anything,” Verónica smiled. “Sweating can be sweet. They say that I am a land artist and I believe art has to have your blood in it. So I worked in all of these places, carrying the stones, collecting the seeds, planting them one by one. Putting my blood into the place. It is a labour of love.”
A carefully curated Andescape
Two arduous years later, Verónica unveiled what has now become her signature garden style. She calls it “Andescape” — a carefully researched, thoughtfully conceptualised and passionately curated Garden of Eden in the midst of the harsh desert. It is inspired entirely by the desert’s natural elements and is her own personal homage to the Pachamama and the local Andean culture.
“This land is so beautiful, all it needs is to be just what it is,” she beamed. “This place was already a work of art. From anywhere, you can see the mountains, the river and the stars. I simply wanted to celebrate those views and preserve the natural beauty.”
All of the labourers that helped Verónica turn her Andescape dream into a reality were local Atacamian masons and farmers. All of the time-honoured techniques used for building and cultivating are proudly Andean, and all of the materials used are natural and sourced locally from the Altiplanic region. “Everything you find here has a reason. Point to any plant, any stone, anything,” she challenged me with a gentle smile. “I can tell you where they are from, how I found them, and how we carried them here.”
I like to think of Verónica as Alto Atacama’s very own Pachamama. She conceived its unique garden design and she continues to cultivate it daily with unwavering love and passion.
“Can you believe those huge trees over there were planted just from seeds by me? It makes me feel like a mother. I have three children, and grandchildren even, but this is being a mother too,” She reached out to gently touch a white flowy strand of cortadera.
“Growing things, creating life and caring for it. I still look at the pictures from when these trees were just coming up as sprouts and I can remember gathering the original seeds with little Atacamian children helping me. I am so grateful. I could die right now and be so happy.”
As you walk through Verónica’s picturesque Andescape, take a moment to appreciate each of the thoughtfully designed elements. From the bountiful vegetable patches, quaint French/Andean garden and leafy walkways, to the water features, llama corral, rock garden and al fresco geological museum, everything has a sense of place.
“I wanted to create a design that will stay in the eyes of the people and never erase,” Verónica explained. “Even if someone came here by mistake, I hope that person would be shocked and fascinated by what they saw here.”
I believe Verónica has achieved this, and so much more. Her Andescape is an unexpected oasis thriving in the most unlikely of places. Yet it feels perfectly natural, the way Pachamama intended.
SEE WHAT LIES BEYOND
Book a Chilean adventure to Alto Atacama and meet Verónica in person.