The straw-colored silt of Chile’s Atacama Desert stretches out across the plain until it meets the Andes Mountains, the natural splendor at odds with the noisy buses and trucks cantering across the lunar-like landscape. In the nearby transportation hub of San Pedro de Atacama, dreadlocked backpackers and couples sporting designer sunglasses shuffle through tiny shops, fondling llama key chains and multicolored hats. To them, the desert might seem, well, deserted. But one woman sees life everywhere: flowering shrubs, purple cacti, hallucinogenic leaves, Andean roses, stevia leaves.
Patricia Pérez spends her days foraging for dozens of these plants and carefully drying them in her workshop. With her company, La Atacameña, Pérez has made a name for herself among Chile’s best chefs and food artisans, who use her foraged herbs in everything from the rose-petal cookies at Boragó, a widely acclaimed high-end restaurant in Santiago, to the minty shampoo at the nearby five-star Hotel Cumbres in San Pedro de Atacama. It’s a job that Pérez sees as a calling as much as a career, a way to preserve indigenous traditions that date back thousands of years.
Pérez lives about 30 miles outside of the town of San Pedro de Atacama in a 12,000-year-old pueblo called Toconao. Her family has been there for as long as the mountains can remember. As we head out in her black truck to visit one of her favorite foraging sites, Pérez tells me that as part of the indigenous Lickanantai nation, they used to speak a language called Kunza. But now, most people only know a few words. “The Spanish would cut out our tongues if we spoke it,” Pérez says in Spanish, rolling her R’s. Mark Gerrits, owner of Santiago bean-to-bar brand ÓBOLO Chocolate, who uses Pérez’s herbs in his chocolate, translates for me from the front seat.
Now we are far from town, and the lumpy dogs lazing in shop doorways, with fur matted like rattan baskets, have been replaced by signs for donkey crossings along the road. Pérez explains that she learned how to forage from her grandmother, who would bring her out into the desert as she looked for different plants. Pérez noticed that her grandmother would select the exact leaves she wanted right then and there, rather than picking everything and bringing it back to their pueblo. What she didn’t take with her, she buried and replanted so that it would continue to grow. “I learned that everything the earth gives you, you take care of it,” Pérez says. “What we collect is from our earth, our environment, our people.”
Pérez uses these methods, combined with some of her own. During the five or so months of harvest season, when green rises out of the cracks, she treks to her grandmother’s preferred patches of desert and prunes the plants. She talks to them, waters them if needed, sustains them. Almost every day of the year, she also picks up plastic bottles, wrappers, and other trash that people have tossed onto the land. “I am a defender of nature,” Pérez says. “Us humans can be stubborn in throwing away waste that doesn’t belong to nature.”
Finding her beloved plants within the vast sand landscape, however, requires concentration. Fortunately, Pérez’s grandmother has left her a very old, hand-drawn map with which to navigate the desert. Pérez tells me about it as we drive to one of her favorite spots to forage. But she won’t let me see it, not even for a second.
Before we can visit the plants, we have to honor the land with a specific shaman-led ceremony involving wine and coca leaves. Since Gerrits and I are first-time visitors, this ritual is vital, but everyone in the community participates in them almost weekly: The ground at the quarry near Toconao is covered with wine stains and stray coca leaves.
Pérez is one of the only people who forages on community-owned land — land that’s completely inaccessible to an outsider. While Chileans and tourists alike can visit Toconao, it’s illegal for them to adventure into the surrounding desert or pick local plants, as this area has been set aside for indigenous peoples. In some places, even Pérez has to ask permission from the tribes still living there before she can forage. Other members of the Lickanantai sometimes gather herbs here, but Pérez is the only person to run a sustainable, professional business based on these particularly sourced plants.
She traces her company’s origins back to a meeting with Rodolfo Guzmán, the chef/owner of Boragó, who’s known for championing Chilean ingredients. She’d been selling dried herbs locally for several years, when he approached her at a fair and bought some to use in his dishes. From there, the idea caught on, and she started selling to other chefs. Pérez views it all as kismet, saying that if she’s meant for a certain path, it will happen.
As Pérez pulls off the main road onto a patch of sand, she rolls down her window to say hello to the shaman, who is just getting out of his car.
“El Burrito!” she cheers, rolling those R’s for everything they’re worth.
“The Donkey?” I ask.
“The Donkey!” Gerrits replies, a bit incredulous himself.
Jorge Bautista Soza, a.k.a. El Burrito, is a young adult with hair shaved close on the sides but long on top, pulled into a man bun like so many Brooklynites back home.
“We have rituals for everything,” he says as we unfold a colorful cotton blanket against the wind and secure it in place with two ceremonial cups, two big bottles of wine, and a green plastic bag full of fresh coca leaves. “From the first communion all the way to death.”
He explains that in this ceremony, we’ll be honoring Pachamama (Mother Earth) by pouring wine onto the ground with our right hand, and then honoring their Andean ancestors by letting it flow out of our left hand. We’ll repeat the ritual by breathing on the coca leaves, then burying them in the soil. By drinking out of one of the ceremonial cups, El Burrito absorbs and nullifies all of our impurities, allowing us to enter the land without disturbing it, but we are encouraged to drink and chew leaves as well.
“Take more, Megan! More!” El Burrito says, holding out the bag and gesturing how I should grab them by the fistful, then wedge a big hunk between my bottom teeth and lip.
They remind me of small, firm bay leaves, and they taste grassier than the greenest matcha tea, like sunlight turned feral. Pérez laughs at the look on my face, and I smile back as my gums and tongue begin tingling. Here, coca leaves aren’t associated with illegal drugs but instead are a part of everyday life. They can quell both altitude sickness and hunger, and Perez says her mother chews the leaves every night as she sits on her porch and gossips with friends.
“I love the smell,” she says, breathing deeply into her hands, her long, black hair covering her face.
Pérez takes painstaking care with everything she does: For example, she harvests rica rica, which tastes like a blend of mint and rosemary, from more than 400 different locations, carefully cutting the stalks by hand, which she then slowly dries in the shade at her workshop. Rica rica is hardly unusual in this part of the world: Hotel gift shops and airport tiendas teem with bottles of the dried leaves, all packaged almost identically. Outside of Chile, several of these herbs are lumped together as “Andean mint” (cue that aha moment when you notice the outline of mountains on that familiar green Andes Mints wrapper).
But chefs, hoteliers and artisans throughout South America flock to Pérez because of the high quality and alluring fragrances of her herbs.
Other plants that Pérez harvests are practically unheard of outside her community. In other words, she’s maintaining traditional ways of life that otherwise might disappear, a fact that she’s all too aware of. She says it’s a big part of why she continues to do this work.
For thousands of years, locals have used these herbs not as food but as medicine. Healers pick them fresh and make teas to treat various ailments. For example, muña muña, a kind of wild mint, is said to help digestive issues, especially constipation. Other herbs are used directly on the body, like tolilla, whose sap is applied to the skin around a broken bone to help it heal. Yet others are part of the local religion, which blends Catholicism with ancient practices. Rose del año (“Andean rose”) is added to the bath water at a baby’s baptism or first communion. “It connects your body to your soul,” Pérez says.
Women have passed this information from one generation to the next, ensuring that the local traditions survive. Pérez’s grandmother would sell the herbs fresh, but when she started foraging on her own, Pérez began drying the herbs “so they’d last longer and retain their flavors longer.” Now her 12-year-old daughter Eva (who was recently featured in a local cartoon show) helps her collect herbs in the desert, and her 23-year-old daughter Isadora helps her make thousands of teabags for La Atacameña, when she’s home from college, where she studies industrial engineering.
Pérez is studying too. For more than a decade, she’s worked informally as a landscaper on projects around San Pedro de Atacama, with the goal of creating “landscapes of our culture” using local liparita volcanic stone and native plants. (Her house’s well and irrigation channels, for example, feature this stone and date back 500 years.) A few years ago, she got her big break, helping to design the natural landscaping at Hotel Cumbres. But a sign at the hotel notes merely that it was created by “a landscape gardener from the community of Toconao.” So now she’s pursuing a degree in landscape design at the Catholic University of Chile in Santiago. Pérez repeatedly says that she wants to get credit for her work, especially as the first woman from her indigenous community to pursue this degree. “I want to be able to sign my name,” she says.
As she walks about 10 feet away from us to bury some leaves, El Burrito apologizes to his ancestors for not being as authentic as he should be. He tells me that the men in his family have all been yatiris, or healers, and could capture the essence of nature and the seasons. He hasn’t felt this magic yet, but he keeps practicing the rituals in the hopes that he will feel it someday. For now, like so many dudes, he is focusing on his band.
Pérez comes back, and as Gerrits grabs the bag of leaves and walks into the desert, she whips out her iPhone and opens YouTube. Staticky drums start beating out of the device’s speaker into the clear air. Will it be heavy metal? Punk rock? Suddenly the voices of reedy flutes chime in, and the music takes on a different tone.
“We’re called Renacer Andino,” El Burrito says. “Andean rebirth.”
Then it’s my turn to walk into the desert alone. I step over the wine-muddled dirt and find a spot that feels right, then kneel on the ground and breathe into my hands, hoping my modern prayer will somehow still belong in this ancient place. I cover the leaves, then walk back to the blanket. It’s time to visit the herbs.
Over the next few days, Pérez will pick a ripe cactus for us to taste the fruit (and get prickles stuck in our lips), point out a hallucinogenic called copa copa used for certain rituals, trim a few pieces of fresh rica rica to admire and dry, and even use the seeds of another cactus’ fruit called airampo to make an aromatic ice cream that tastes like honey and warming spices. Traditionally used to dye clothing, the airampo will color the treat bubblegum pink and cap a near-perfect meal of fried fish, quinoa and Coca-Cola at Pérez’s sister’s restaurant.
Pérez will be back at the site of these plants — the largest of all of her collection sites — every few days to tend to them. As the season progresses and she’s ready to snip their stalks, she’ll walk across the area, harvesting from one end to the other. At her workshop behind her house in Toconao, she’ll dry them in the open air over the course of two months and then either bundle them to deliver to restaurants and or package them in tiny glass bottles to sell under the label La Atacameña at gift shops and to her own community.
Of course, with COVID-19, the clients she’d normally send herbs to — all of those high-end restaurants and hotels — have closed for the time being. Though her business is suffering, she calls it an “epidemic of reflection” and, as a healer, she feels a huge responsibility to make sure everyone stays healthy.
So for now, she’s tending to her plants, gathering up all evidence that she’s been there, and driving back to her llama-adorned casita, Lady Gaga rebounding across the timeless dunes.