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Now we are far from town, and the lumpy dogs lazing in shop doorways, with fur matted like rattan baskets, have been replaced by signs for donkey crossings along the road.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."
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.