What to Eat in the Driest Desert in the World
Rica rica pisco sours, custard apple ice cream and a fish soup inspired by Pablo Neruda make Chile’s breathtaking Atacama Desert a worthy food destination that many tourists haven’t considered.
Culinary adventurers don’t often put the Atacama Desert on their bucket lists. Known as the driest non-polar desert in the world, the region of northern Chile is visited by travelers in search of sublime terrain (that, in certain cases, resemble lunar landscapes more than terrestrial ones,) starry skies and picturesque sunsets painted in celestial corals and purples. Yet, this region is an interesting—and often overlooked—locale for travelers looking to pair the luminousness of the Valle de la Luna, for instance, with the everyday deliciousness of typical Chilean fare.
There are two ways to go about eating in the Atacama Desert: the all-inclusive hotel route—a.k.a. the prix fixe—or the à la carte route, sampling the smattering of restaurants that dot the tiny touristy town of San Pedro de Atacama’s main thoroughfare, Caracoles. I chose a mashup of the two options while visiting the region during the Altiplanic winter in June.
San Pedro de Atacama offers several all-inclusive hotels that combine explorations through the area’s popular attractions—like the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), El Tatio geysers and the salt lagoons of Baltinache—with multi-course meals served at the hotel. At Explora Atacama, one dinner commenced with a delicate pumpkin soup followed by porcini and beef risotto topped with a filet of beef tenderloin and grilled grape tomatoes, served alongside Chilean Carménère wine: an exceptional meal, if not expressly Atacamian. Then came dessert: two scoops of a house-made cherimoya (custard apple) and rica rica ice cream. The custard apple, a fleshy fruit ubiquitous in the tropical Americas and West Indies, tastes like, well, a sweet custard, making for an indulgent juice blend when mixed with mango (cherimango.)
Rica rica, however, is the true star of the Atacama Desert. An herb with an essence at once minty and floral, it grows in wild bushels across the highlands and is used as a cooking herb for tea infusions and desserts like ice cream. Rica rica makes the most popular drink of the desert, too: the rica rica pisco sour. Pisco sours are the South American cocktail, but only in the Atacama Desert will you find them tinged with the herb, yielding a uniquely spicy flavor.
Pop into any of San Pedro’s quaint restaurants to try the typical Andean feast of patasca. Patasca is a hot soup made from white corn, beef, onions and potatoes, and restaurant Las Delicis de Carmen is said to have some of the best in town. Also worth a visit is La Casona, a charming restaurant with an inviting earthen fireplace and—when we stopped in—a pianist keying away at his rendition of “Fools Rush In.” Here, the rica rica pisco sours are delightfully tart and the pebre, the Chilean salsa-like condiment served with bread before most meals, packs an extra garlicky punch.
At Hotel Cumbres, a slightly more affordable choice than the all-inclusives, you’ll find the wonderful Kunza restaurant, where you can, yet again, enjoy patasca or opt for this gem: brochettes of spicy scallops followed by executive chef Diego Duran’s masterpiece conger fish soup “inspired by Pablo Neruda,” Chile’s Noble-Prize-winning poet who himself loved to cook and entertain.
Tourists remember the Atacama Desert for its quenching the thirst of senses other than that of taste: watching majestic sunsets, volcanoes in the distance and landscapes dusted in remnants of rare snowfall. Yet an image of a communal feast set up in a field of golden vertiginous grass will stay etched in my mind. The table was packed with travelers with whom I had only two things in common: we were all guests at the Explora, and we all partook in the two tier maracuyá cake the kitchen had whipped up in celebration of a visiting couple’s 25th anniversary. I never met the couple, nor could I even see them from my spot at the table, but I’ll always remember them—and the many bonds formed over sobremesa in the desert—thanks to indelible imprint of spongey crumbs of tart passion fruit cake in my mouth.