SANTIAGO, Chile – Cars honk, people yell and radios blare outside, yet Carmen Castillo is getting a rejuvenating midday nap in downtown Santiago, snoozing away her stress in a dreamland of scented candles, plush pillows and calming massages.
She's taking a siesta at the Espacio Siestario, which rents its seven Zen-like rooms to bank employees, lawyers and other professionals for 30- to 45-minute naps. The rooms cost about $10, but customers say being able to return to the office fully rested is priceless.
"This is an oasis in the jungle of Santiago," Castillo, a 32-year-old lawyer, said with a smile as she rubbed her eyes after a nap. "What can be better than sleeping? You rest, you burn calories and you recover neurons."
The afternoon siesta was once a treasured Latin American institution, with businesses of all kinds shutting down in the middle of the day. But nearly every aspect of modern life conspires against it. In a globalized, digital economy, bosses and clients can't be kept waiting during prime napping hours. Urbanization means long commutes that leave workers far from their beds.
And in a sped-up world, Chile is on overdrive, with one of the region's fastest growing economies and a committed, productive workforce that is an investor's dream.
Chileans work 2,068 hours a year, second only to South Koreans, among the 34 developed countries that make up the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The number far surpasses the 1,695 hours U.S. workers average each year.
All that work, and the stress that comes with it, means sleep suffers for many people. But on-the-job napping is frowned on, and siestas are viewed as a waste of time synonymous with sloth.
"I think when someone says: 'I'm going to take a siesta,' the rest brands them as lazy people who can't adjust to work hours," said Karin Schirmer, the owner of Espacio Siestario, which roughly means Siesta Place.
"We often feel like we need to spend a lot of hours at work to be socially accepted, but they're often unproductive," Schirmer said. "People assume that a siesta will be a waste of time but it's priceless. It's a bigger value than all the money you have at the bank."
Recent research has shown the benefits of a daytime snooze.
In its November 2009 issue of Harvard Health Letter, the university's medical school found that since 2000, researchers there and elsewhere have discovered "sleep improves learning, memory, and creative thinking."
"In many cases, the edifying sleep has come in the form of a nap," the article said.
Research has found that nighttime air traffic controllers improve their reaction time and vigilance when given 40 minutes for forty winks. A NASA-financed study by a team from the University of Pennsylvania found that letting people doze for 24 minutes increases cognitive performance.
Snoozing was widely debated in Chile when a lawmaker tried to implement legislation in 2003 to enshrine a 20-minute siesta as a right. He cited the napping habits of famous men such as Napoleon, Winston Churchill and Salvador Dali, and quoted Albert Einstein as praising the benefits of naps. But the project was scrapped and is ridiculed to this day.
Daytime naps are accepted in many parts of the world, however. Spaniards are known for closing shops for siestas. Chinese workers are allowed some catnapping on top of their desks in the middle of the day. In bustling New York, spas offer naps inside cocoon-like chambers and sleepers are treated to cashmere blankets and soothing music.
In Vienna, a new studio called Reflexia offers a half-hour power nap in a dim room where black leather loungers are separated by Japanese folding screens for 11 euros ($15). A one-hour snooze in a private chamber can be purchased for 40 euros ($60). Visitors are offered soft mood music; a heaping plate of prosciutto with chunky bread; coffee, tea and soft drinks, and a gentle wake-up.
Espacio Siestario is the first business of its kind in work-obsessed Chile. It opened five months ago, and is already getting more than 400 customers a month, from sleep-deprived mothers and retirees to young professionals and stressed-out stockbrokers.
Clients enter windowless rooms lighted by a scented candle and lie down on a massage table cushioned by fresh white towels and sheets. With travel pillows hugging their necks, they get a five-minute massage on their arms, shoulders and head. Then the lights are dimmed and nearly imperceptible music helps them nod off as the world hurries along outside.
"This was born out of a need. People needed a space where they could rest during lunchtime," Schirmer said.
On a recent afternoon, Javier Swett, a 37-year-old lawyer, woke up to green, ginger and cinnamon tea served on a wooden plate after a 30-minute nap. After some sips, he said it was his first time visiting the Siestario but wouldn't be his last.
"This is clearly worth it," Swett said. "I was fast asleep, and now I'm back full of strength. In Chile it's not approved of to sleep during the workday but this is a different option."
Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao