The Edible Plants of the Atacama Desert : New Worlder

When I asked Rodolfo Guzmán, the chef of Santiago restaurant Boragó, what he thought the next big thing was going to be in Chilean cuisine, I was surprised when he said the Atacama Desert. I had only been there once, a decade ago, and the food in San Pedro de Atacama was less than memorable. Plus, the Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on earth. Hardly anything grows there. Or so I thought.

Through Boragó I was introduced to several ingredients from the Atacama, like rica rica (Alcantholippia deserticola), an aromatic plant that can be drank in teas or used in sweets, and airampo (Opuntia soehrensii), a cactus whose bright red seeds could be used as an edible dye or drank in infusions. They are unlike anything I have ever tasted. So I immediately went to the Atacama, in the far north of Chile to explore.

At Alto Atacama, a posh lodge that was designed to blend into the surrounding rocks a short drive from San Pedro de Atacama in the Catarpe Valley, I met with Veronica Poblete, a renowned botanist and anthropologist. Poblete created Andescape, a desert gardening philosophy based on the region’s ancient agricultural practices, which she has applied to the hotel’s terrain.

“This is the hardest place on earth for life,” she told me as we walked around the Alto Atacama’s gardens, which were curiously thriving. “It’s almost impossible for plants to grow here.” She explained how the soil is saturated with salt and that it only rains about 0.6 to 2 mm a year. Yet, it is because of these highly unusual conditions, what does grow here does so in a way unlike any other place, resulting in plants with unique flavors. She showed me several of them that she was growing.

First there was chañar (Geoffroea decorticans), also called the Chilean Palo Verde, a leguminous 10-meter-high tree that produces an olive size fruit, along with algarrobo (Ceratonia siliqua), a nitrogen capturing tree, a type of carob, with long roots that produces a long pod-like fruit. “Without these it would been impossible to survive here,” Poblete said. Both fruits were essential in times of drought. Chañar seeds could be turned into a syrup (arrope de chañar), while algarrobo pods were used to make aloja, a fermented drink, as well as flour.

Elsewhere on the property there were broad beans and rica rica. Everything grown there was used in the hotel’s kitchen or spa. They also sourced tiny bright purple potatoes from the indigenous village of Socaire, as well as quinoa and multi-colored corn from another. Dishes on the restaurant menu weren’t traditional, but native ingredients like chañar or airampo found their way into things like panna cotta or ice cream.

Despite the hostile conditions, small Aymara and Atacameño herding and agricultural settlements have existed in the region for several thousand years ago. They built elaborate trading networks that extended to the coast and the edge of the Amazon, still, like the plants, survival here has developed in a unique way. Poblete told me an indigenous woman once told her that whenever there was a birth in their village the husband went out and hunted a fox. They made a soup from the bones and later ate the meat. There was a spiritual connection to the practice. She asked a physician about it and he said that was probably exactly the nutrients that are needed for a smooth labor. As strange as it might seem to an outsider, there was a reason.

In town, I wandered around from restaurant to restaurant looking for anything native. There wasn’t much. At San Pedro’s better restaurants like Blanco, Adobe, and Baltinache, they had pisco sours using rica rica and used a few other local products like guanaco in the dishes, though preparations were more international. A couple of heladerias like Tierra del Sol and Babalu had ice creams flavored with quinoa and chañar. In the market, a few of the stalls sold small plastic bags of some medicinal herbs, though they seemed as if they had been there for years. If I wanted to really find what was here I needed to look beyond San Pedro.

As he does with foraging communities around Chile, Guzmán keeps in contact with a yerbatero named Patricia Perez Gonzalez in a remote indigenous village called Talabre, about 70 km southeast of San Pedro near the 5,690 meter high Lascar Volcano. This is the source many of his Atacama ingredients. He gave me her number and I tried calling but got no answer. So, I just went to the town to see if I could find her.

When I arrived to the small plaza I called the number again and she answered. Twenty minutes later she pulled up in a pickup truck. We walked a few blocks through the tiny adobe village to her garden, a family plot with stone wells and irrigation channels that date back five hundred years. There are apples and pears, plus patches of cultivated herbs. Despite being in the Atacama, the garden is lush and beautiful. The rotation of plants and the irrigation system has been time tested over many generations. The wild plants, the rare ones I was seeking, were all up on the volcano. We got in her car and headed up a dirt road that few ever travel.

“There’s a form of energy in this pueblo that you are going to feel,” Perez says as we climb higher in her pick up. “Pachamama gives this place lots of power.”

Higher up on the mountain, at Tumbre, there is a community of 14 families. Beyond that point she must tell them everything she cuts. It’s a sacred place and she knows not to disrupt the natural balance.

There are approximately 550 species of vascular plants that have been discovered in the Atacama and a good amount of those appear to be right on this volcano. Every hundred meters brings a new set of plants, though I couldn’t tell them apart from the window. They all look the same: large, whiteish green shrubs with dry, brittle branches. We made a dozen stops to seek out specific plants. She knew the ranges of altitude of each and could sense where each plant would generally be.

There was tolilla (Fabiana imbricata) and tola (Colletia spinosissma), related medicinal plants that have never really seen the inside of a modern kitchen or even left the region at all. Tola is more citric, while tolilla is bitter. They look similar so many get them confused. Guzmán had figured out that if he blends them they expand to three times their mass. He also discovered that when heat is applied, there is a smoky volcanic rock aroma released, much like the scent of the air on the volcano.

“Where did you learn about all of these plants?” I ask her.

La escuela de mi madre,” she says. Her mother taught her everything she knows about the plants here. And her grandmother taught her mother. When she has trouble looking for a particular plant, her mother, now 69 years old, can usually find it. She still comes with her up the mountain.

At 2,900 meters, there’s lampaya (Lampaya medicinalis), which she says she cooks with meat. Then there’s copa copa (Artemisa copa), which is drank in an infusion to ease stomach pains, and pingo pingo (Ephedra andina) to increase metabolism.

At 4,000 meters, there’s chachacoma (Parastrephia teretiuscula), which can ease headaches and the affects of altitude.

At 4,500 meters, the wind is howling. It’s bitterly cold and intense, shoving us around as we walk. The volcano hovers behind us. We’re looking for tie tie, but cannot find any.

“If you want to find a plant that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world you come here,” she says. As we descend back to Talabre we make several stops, when Perez eyes a particular plant out the window. She never takes more than she will use for herself or what she sends to Boragó. The plants are abundant if you know where to look, though there’s no commercial value to any of it. At least for now.

We stop at her house back in Talabre and she shows me her small workshop where she bottles rica rica and rosa del año, the petals of an Atacama flower that rarely blooms and tastes like a rose. She sells them in some gourmet shops under the label La Atacameña, or through Etnia, another small label. She gave me a package of herbs to take back to Guzmán.

A few months after I was there it rained in the Atacama Desert, bringing about 24 mm of rain – about 10 years worth of rain – in one day. The dessert, seemingly devoid of life for so long, was now full of it. The entire Atacama, hundreds of square miles of pink, purple, red, and blue flowers bloomed, a vast carpet of color. Giuliana Furci, the renowned Chilean mycologist, told me that the phenomenon is so rare that no one has ever even searched for mushrooms during one of these periods of rain. There may even be truffles. Anything could be there. No one has really studied any of it.

The Atacama is like a locust: though there is no continual cycle of growth, the potential for life is always there, hidden beneath the earth, just waiting to awake.