The agony and the ecotourism

Two progressive resorts in Chile exemplify the baby-boomer shift from bare-bones backpacking to pampered adventure.

Published December 4, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Deep at the bottom of a red-walled canyon,
half a dozen travelers soaking in a meticulously landscaped hot spring
watched a tray of sun-struck Pisco Sours floating their way.

It was one of the most decadent things I've ever seen. And to my
guilty dismay, all I could think was: These people really know
how to camp.

Only later did it strike me that my sympathy for this scene, arranged
by thoughtful minders from the luxurious new explora hotel in Chile's
stunning Atacama desert, showed not just how much I have changed, but
how much tourism has changed in my lifetime.

For me, like many of my baby boom peers, the 1970s and '80s were years
of cheap and easy exploration. I rode a battered jeep through African
plains, camped on Asian beaches, even followed a ragged band of Huichol
Indians in Mexico on their annual peyote pilgrimage.

Now, at 42, I've got a lot more baggage: a husband, two babies and editors who have kept me on a tight leash. No longer do I -- if, frankly, I ever did -- look forward to long bus rides or sleeping on the ground. Yet while I have grown rather less carefree and brave, my hunger for nature has become more intense as pristine wilderness has turned into a scarce commodity.

I'm not alone, of course. My generation of travelers is distinguished
by both our surplus of cash over free time and our nostalgia for the
plentiful open spaces of youth; clean lakes and clear skies are now
a kind of luxury good, as exotic as Asian temples. We'll travel farther
for our nature and pay more to enjoy it, supporting the kind of
$2,441-a-week "ecotourist" binges offered by Chile's quirkily elegant
explora firm (which insists on its lower-case e), as well as the increasing array of similarly priced, carefully catered ventures offered by U.S. firms --
such as the Tierra del Fuego sea-kayaking tours advertised by Berkeley's
Wilderness Travel.

Just how did we get here? It's been a long, strange trip. Until the
middle of this century, long-distance travel was an elite pursuit,
engaged in by scholars, soldiers and the then-tiny group
referred to as the leisure class. But with World War II's end, global
tourism began taking off; and in the 1960s and '70s, more and more middle-class travelers ventured to Europe and beyond, while backpackers clogged the Asian overland trail. By the 1990s, tourism had become the planet's biggest business.

In 1997, international tourists took an estimated 595 million trips,
spending $425 billion, according to the World Tourism Organization. Those numbers are expected to grow by an average of
4.3 percent a year over the next two decades. Already in 1994, Richard
Barnet and John Cavanagh were reporting in their book, "Global Dreams," that one in 15 workers worldwide was employed "transporting,
feeding, housing, herding, cosseting or amusing tourists."

Traditional tourist haunts have long been showing the resulting wear and tear. Bali's beaches are packed with inebriated Australians. Yosemite National Park is a human stampede. Trekking in Nepal increased 255 percent from 1980-91. "There isn't a rock between Bangkok and the beaches of Hispaniola that does not recoil from suntan oil, and the gurgle of Coca-Cola," Noel Coward was lamenting even 30 years ago.

But in the late 1980s, the advent of "ecotourism" promised a conscientious enjoyment of the earth's last wild, clean corners.
Environmentalists championed it; even international bankers extolled its
potential for drawing hard currency to developing countries, the
traditional supplier of raw materials to industrialized yuppies.

Still, the concept has been liberally interpreted. Having lived in Mexico and Brazil for the past 12 years, I've watched the
wave of hype, as ECOTURISMO! signs have beckoned travelers to anything from a simple nature walk to an air-conditioned stay in a 200-room hotel. Off the coast of Florianopolis, an island in southern Brazil, I once, by awful accident, took an "ecotourist" trip on a boat full of
dancing young women in penguin-print bikinis; our tour involved chasing dolphins while blasting loud AM-radio hits.

This made me all the more grateful when, in 1996, I got a chance to visit explora's first hotel, in the middle of Chile's Torres del Paine park.

My husband and I had always wanted to see Patagonia, the southern, windswept region famously described by Bruce Chatwin as the "last place on earth." And when we heard of the comforts of the new hotel, we figured we might as well bring along our 14-month-old son, Joe. Given the reception we'd been promised -- with hot baths, three generous meals and a crib -- this certainly wouldn't amount to child abuse, we told ourselves. Joe simply had to endure the three-hour flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas and a six-hour van ride to the park.

We had some second thoughts, of course, after watching our little
bundle of love throw up four times on the windy, storm-swept
roads, to the endless tune of the "Sesame Street" theme song on
his miniature, Bert-and-Ernie tape player. But by then it
was too late. When we pulled up at the strange wooden 30-room inn,
perched on a wild and empty cliff, we were bedraggled and worn out
and guilty and smelly as only new parents can be, and were wondering if we had made a terrible mistake.

Inside the hotel, a huge fire was burning in the grate and white-jacketed waiters were scurrying back and forth with plates of lamb,
salmon and ceviche and carafes of fine Chilean red wine. One paused to
place a gleaming champagne bucket under a small leak in the roof. The
huge picture windows in the dining room looked out on Lake Pehoe and
the snowcapped, 6,300-foot "horns," or Cuernos del Paine, above it. Not
a single other man-made structure -- or man, for that matter -- was in view.
Later that evening, bilingual guides assembled to describe the hikes and horseback rides we might take the next day, to visit spectacular glacier
fields and valleys full of wildflowers. Joe napped, and we all began to
feel better.

Other guests must be feeling pretty good as well. Recently, I heard that the Patagonia explora is almost completely booked into 2001.

The setting for the larger explora hotel, which opened just last year, is equally striking. It sits on an 8,000-foot-high plane in the Atacama desert, the driest place on earth, surrounded by active volcanoes. The resort is
within easy traveling distance of a Diane Arbus gallery of freaks of nature,
including the Crying Grandpa geysers, the Valley of the Moon's
craggy lunar rock formations, and a warm, dead lake with a freezing cold
surface, surrounded by squawking flamingos and so full of minerals that
you float. Yet it's also just an hour's drive from the nearest
airport, which was good news for Joe.

Until he quit the company in a design dispute this year, German del Sol,
now in his early 50s, was explora's chief architect, and he
still serves as an unofficial spokesman for its concept. His exuberantly
romantic style, with its affection for sweeping staircases, enormous
windows and splashy colors, has won international praise.

Del Sol also bears primary responsibility for explora's pampering style. He fervently believes, along with the Wallace Shawn character in "My Dinner with Andre," that life in general is "abrasive," and that
nature offers an antidote, as long as one takes care to soften nature's
rough edges. (At the firm's two hotels, this includes heated pools,
Belgian chocolates on the pillow and van drivers who rush to place a
little stool under the toes of descending guests.)

"Backpackers have told me this is not the true experience of
wilderness," del Sol told me, without a trace of irony, in his airy
studio in a hydrangea garden in Santiago. "Only if you have to pick up
your tent and fix your own meals can you have the full experience. But I say, to the contrary: If you are worried all day about surviving, you don't have time to just be. With explora, you can go out in the rain all day
and not care because you know you can be in a Jacuzzi in the evening."

Of course, there are travel options available between bare-bones backpacking and the explora's extreme-luxury approach. Even in the Atacama desert and Patagonia, one can find modest and reasonably comfortable three-star hotels -- if you don't mind a little mildew smell and some disappointing meals.
But del Sol understands that my generation loves its SUVs and gourmet olive oils.

During my stay at the Atacama hotel, I ran into a tour group of a couple
dozen U.S. travel agents. They predicted the resort would be a major hit with harried but adventurous North Americans of a certain age.

"Boomers want the class, the comfort, the Jacuzzi and the wine --
especially the wine -- and they also want to be outside," said Betsy
Donley, a Phoenix-based adventure travel specialist, who was still a bit
breathless from her gallop over sand dunes in the Valley of Death.

Explora journeys, to be sure, aren't risk-free. Visitors to Atacama
must sign away any intention to sue for accidental injury or death, after reading a warning presented in del Sol's quaint English style: "As you may have already notice, or will become aware shortly, you are in the remote, in the "finis terrae" of all explorations. Everything you shall see and
experience is the real matter of things. Nothing has been altered,
domesticated of softened. This is it, in itself."

At least three tourists (apparently none from explora) have died in the area, either by standing too close to geysers or slipping while
climbing volcanoes. As del Sol noted, Chile's nature isn't
"domesticated." The tall, steaming geysers, which would surely be fenced
and patrolled were they in the United States, simply appear after a turn
in the road on a vast plain a couple hours' drive from the hotel, with nary a warning sign.

Even so, with their sharp eyes, extra jackets and gloves and little
stools, our guides made us feel they would pamper away our most
unreasonable anxiety. When a middle-aged German insurance agent suddenly panicked at climbing down a steep, 5-foot-high rock path, for instance, during a long walk through the Valley of the Moon, one of the two guides assigned to our six-person group led him and his wife back to our starting point, two hours away, so that the van could later swing back and take them home.

Such treatment only stoked my own fear that a lightning bolt would hit
me any minute for so completely renouncing the hardy travel codes of my
youth. All I could do was remind myself of the bright side of
ecotourism, which at its best meets the definition of the
the Ecotourism Society in Vermont -- "responsible travel ...which
conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people."

Most mainstream environmentalists today are indeed convinced that
"responsible" travel is the best hope of protecting remote areas. And
there's no question the pursuit has imported hope to corners of Africa,
Asia and Latin America that have little to offer besides natural beauty.

Del Sol emphasizes his own responsibility when he discusses the
design of the exploras, especially the one in Torres del Paine. That
hotel, long and narrow, resembling a beached ship on its mountainside,
was designed with its own unique waste-treatment
system so as to avoid dumping into the lake. It processes the sewage not
with chemicals but with a complex system of chambers, filters,
ultraviolet light and two kinds of beneficial bacteria.

The relatively small hotel also uses some solar power, burns dead wood
bought outside the park and, in general, avoids the overall impact of your
average Sheraton.

Del Sol insists he also hired as many locals as possible in both
hotels, although all his guides are well-educated young urban Chileans and
Europeans. And in San Pedro de Atacama, the promise of gentrification
has clearly raised the spirits of local merchants, depressed by the
stream of penny-pinching backpackers -- mostly U.S. and European kids with more free time than cash -- who have made up the standard tourist fare for decades. Local and national archaeologists also hope the trend may help
help them win protection for the area's many important ancient sites, long
neglected by government officials who have yet to recognize them as
significant tourist attractions.

Still, the backpackers, who haven't yet been priced out of the
Atacama market, continue to enjoy it. They hang out in the numerous
pizza and pancake joints or art shops in San Pedro de Atacama's center.
I chatted with one of them, a blond young woman from Denver
wearing a bandana and blissful look, in the late afternoon shade of the
town plaza's pepper trees. She told me that she and her friends had
pooled their funds to take a couple of van trips to see the geysers and the
Valley of the Moon. "But the best thing I've done here," she added, "is just walk out in the desert with my boyfriend and listen to the silence."

I tried that the next day, during a rare childless moment at the rim of a salt lake. Beneath a deep blue, cloudless sky, the peace was uninterrupted but for the sudden babble of a flamingo and loud buzz of a fly.

Yet as the explora's air-conditioned bus led us gently out of the
desert two days later, I thought again of the backpacker -- and realized that, between the explora's scheduled meals and tours, lectures, films and happy
hours, I really hadn't gotten quite enough of that silence.

Which was too bad. It would have been priceless.

By Katherine Ellison

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize–winning former foreign correspondent and the author of seven books, including "The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes You Smarter" and "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention." She lives in northern California.

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