Chile: Awasi, Relais & Chateaux
Though the wildfires that have been spreading just beyond the hills in the valley of Rosaria, the smoke spreading steadily across the horizon, the peaceful air about Metatic seems incorruptible. The crew has ventured off on bicycles to explore the lands, and I have decided to get my exercise in the pool, being weary of my still tender, pink skin. The UV saturation is quite strong, and though the sunlight is welcoming and the cool breeze is pleasant, the ray's effects are unforgiving.
Evening comes, as the smoke spreads across the east, slowly encroaching. It is carried on a breeze that calls for long sleeves and warm company. Dinner at the hacienda is a slightly muted version of the night before. We toast to our newly found Canadian friends with a bottle of local Brut Champaigne that they left us that morning as they continued on their own adventure. Salute!
We start with ceviche of sole, avocado, and ginger. Refreshing and bright, this dish opens the palate and my heart. Ceviche is a dish that is either fantastic or it is not, not at all. So, I enjoy, even relish, in the chance to truly enjoy it. From this we all pass around the choices of entrees, each tasting the others dishes. Sharing is the best way to experience good food. It is the way the culinary arts is meant to be experiened, in a collective of "ooh, you must try this!" And "bring that back over here, for a second round!" Local beef filet, tilapia, followed up with cheesecakes and espresso. The small trio of cocinera, assistant, and James our waiter, do a wonderful job of filling our stomaches and bringing a close to our time in the peaceful valley of the grape.
We are up, far too early the next morning yet the sun and James, with more cheesecake and coffee, are there to greet us. Today, we head to the desert, Atacama. Flying an hour and a half north out of Santiago, we pass over relentless mountain ranges, inhospitable dessert lands, isolated ice flow lakes and mining facilities that dot the landscape. This place is no joke.
Everything about the farthest northern region is dramatic. Calama, the city at the airport lies at 8,000 feet above sea level (FASL). Atacama is a vast desert that is bordered by the Andes mountains to the north, and that unforgiving landscape of Salt flats and mountains that we flew over, to the south. This is a mining community. Giant open pits are surrounded by mountains of earth that have been piled up, pulled out of the ground. Small towns have been built nearby to the airport to support the workers.
We drive South East, a hundred kilometers, going up and down several thousand meters in elevation along the single lane highway. Depending on the elevation, the landscape it either barren rock, flat and endless seeming, or outcrops of salt rocks and sand, dotted with flowery shrubs. In the distance, North East, at the edge of the Andes lies Lankubar, "mountain of the people". This volcano stands apart, slim and tall, ever present. We are heading to the Oasis, or Oyllia, of San Pedro. Wakkuna, wild llamas, have decided to make a rare appearance along the sides of the road, all along the drive.
San Pedro, is a protected aboriginal heritage site, with the roads lined with Adobe mud and stone walls, tall acacia trees and locals. There are only a dozen small oases in the Atacama dessert. Water is the single most important aspect of this community. In fact the Chilean word for oasis, Oyllia, is used synonymously with 'community'. If there were not these pockets of well water, there would be nothing here, but the moon like landscape.
Settling in at the Awasi Lodge with some Pisco Sours, we are entertained by our eccentric Croat bartender. Very excitable about all things Croatian, he is also extremely passionate about his wines and liquors. Awasi, is a very special little place. A Relais & Chateaux property, this adobe fashioned haven, with its thatched roofs, desert clay walls and ever delightful staff, is pure luxury, an oasis, within the Oyllia. The lodge has 8 rooms, each one circular with high, conicle thatched roofs. The bathrooms tiled with deep bronze fittings, indoor and outdoor showers, a bath, marble top sinks and the best stock body care products made from local ingredients. Having worked for three years for a Relais & Chateaux property, I am not surprised by the impeccable attention to detail. This is all about comfort. When we leave the room, someone has slips in, tidies up a bit and resets everything. All of the staff are pleasant, engaging and professional. Nothing is left to want, as it seems that someone is always considering your needs.
The Cocinero (Chef), Compalo, is young and enthusiastic with his menu. He was trained in Santiago, Chile major city, and his cuisine displays a sophistication of dynamic flavors, textures and color. Though he only changes the menu annually, each dinner has five items And every evening these choices are rotated out and nothing is repeated for the guests. Tonight, we start with hot/cold corn and avocado soups garnished with toasted almonds. Then, avocado and shrimp with a grain salad. The grilled pork with a creamy polenta and grilled vegetables was well presented. The grilled red onions and peppers, julienne, sincerely added a depth to the dish that I found surprising. The polenta is very smooth and the local cheese used is so mild that it allows the texture to take front and center. The pork is well seasoned and is tender, dark skewer like strips. The Chilean Pinot Noir is from the same valley where we had first stayed. With a surprisingly full body, this Pinot remains light as finishes clean.
Though, we have had quite a few adventures here, a bout with elevation sickness, and we are on to other exciting regions, Awasi is going to be difficult to leave.