When you think about unmissable food experiences in South America, some places rank more highly on the list than others. Savouring succulent steak in Argentina? Sure. Chowing down on ceviche in Peru? Obvs. But, dining in the driest desert in the world? Perhaps not.
San Pedro de Atacama: Then
The people of San Pedro de Atacama don’t have it easy. Both the climate and altitude of the Atacama desert provide agricultural challenges. The first settlers were thought to have arrived as early as 9000bc, and to this day desert-life requires creative solutions and ingenuity. For example, the Aymara tribes invented the Papa Chuño; a freeze-dried potato which could last for years. A potential life-saver in tough times. The traditional Inca diet was based on many types of potato and corn. Quinoa, long considered the grain of the middle-classes in the western world, is a staple. The crops had to adapt to their surroundings, as much as the locals did – and still do.
San Pedro de Atacama: Now
The arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500’s changed everything. The Spaniards bought chickens, cows, goats and sheep to the desert. They introduced rice, wheat and rye as well as initiating the process of frying food. Even the original Quechuan language is almost extinct; now typically limited to food types such as papa (potato), palta (avocado) and choclo (corn).
Our Taste of the Atacama
There is no shortage of activities to keep you entertained in San Pedro and the surrounding areas. Hiking in Valle de la Luna. Stargazing in the middle of the desert. Bathing in the Hot Springs. The list is endless. With a couple of ‘active’ activities under our belts, we turned our attention to the culinary delights of the desert. We met Nora, German-born tour guide and founder of A Bite of Atacama, who took us on a tasty tour of San Pedro.
We sampled the infamous Coca Tea for the first time – think hot, leafy water. It tasted a lot like green tea, but leafier.
After a filling breakfast of French pastries from La Franchuteria, a French-owned bakery in the middle of the desert, Nora took us to a local market away from the main plaza.
One of the best things about doing a personal tour with a local is the hidden gems you are introduced to. The market was buzzing with Chilenos buying and selling colourful fruit and veg – as well as entirely random items like batteries and clothes pegs.
There was a bright blue food cart selling Mote con Huesillo, which was to be our second stop on the tour. Mote con Huesillo is a typical Chilean refreshment, made by soaking and then poaching peaches in a light syrup with caramelised sugar before chilling and serving over a tender wheat grain (mote). It’s sweet, but not heavy; refreshing under the scorching sun of the desert.
Already full, it was time for a little walk before our pre-lunch snack. Nora took us back into town, but away from the main tourist street of Caracoles – lined with tour operators and very average eateries. Along the way she explained more about the history of the food scene in the Atacama, and how she came to start her business taking tourists off the beaten path to get a taste of desert life. We arrived at Ayllu, a small locally-run restaurant with its own micro-brewery. Nora gave us a brief overview of the beer-brewing process before we sat down to a delicious Llama empanada washed down with a glass of the home-brewed craft beer. Having never tried Llama before (I was sure it would taste like chicken), we were pleasantly surprised! The empanadas were light and fluffy and the meat was tender and flavourful; more like lamb than chicken…
By this time we were totally stuffed, but Nora assured us our next stop wasn’t for another 45 minutes so we had time to walk it off. What she didn’t mention was that along the way we would be sampling some of the natural produce that San Pedro has to offer – literally! We tried a nut-like fruit from the Chañar tree; and the muña muña herb which has medicinal properties.
All the walking was thirsty work so we stopped for a little tipple in the form of flavoured Pisco. Nora had four to choose from; Green chilli, Rica Rica, Coca and Chañar. My favourite was the Rica Rica flavour, in the pink bottle, made with the evergreen Rica Rica herb commonly used as seasoning in Northern Chile.
After a leisurely walk through a beautiful and quiet tree-lined alley, we arrived at our next destination. Here, we were greeted with yet more Pisco – my kind of tour! This time, our Pisco was served as a cocktail, so we could savour the flavour at our leisure.
Chile is known for its ceviche, although perhaps not quite as famously as neighbouring Peru. Our first try of ceviche was everything we’d expected it to be. Fresh and punchy. As poster-people for the anti-coriander campaign, I thought the dastardly herb would overpower the tang of citrus, but it politely took a back seat. The delicate texture of the fish was perfectly juxtaposed by the crunchy corn. It was a delight, and got us excited for further experimentation with this sassy dish.
The last dish of our tour (there’s more?!) was a light quinoa sushi. Not what I had expected to be dining on in the desert, but it was delicious. Quinoa really is the queen of the crops in Northern Chile and Bolivia. I have no idea where they had sourced the fresh salmon from, but it was fabulous. And so pretty!
Having eaten and drank our way through the desert for the last four hours, we were ready to burst. Nora’s tour gave us a new-found appreciation for the food we so often take for granted. Living off the land in a place like San Pedro is challenging, but rewarding for those hardy enough to try. It was a pleasure to have A Bite of Atacama with Nora, and we would thoroughly recommend her tour to hungry visitors! Follow Nora on Instagram and Facebook for more culinary delights from the desert.