We stood in a cluster of blankets around our guide Alain in the cold desert night. “Is anyone here 34 years old?” Alain asked. He turned to the man who answered yes and directed his gaze skyward. “This star is 34 light years away. The light you see now has been travelling every second of your life through the universe, just so it could meet you here on this night.” The collective smiled and marvelled at the thought.
Time travelling light and gargantuan orbs suspended in blackness are just some of the mind-boggling mysteries that make up our universe. We seldom get to lay eyes on its brilliance, but when we do, it leaves us with an awe-inspiring sense of our tiny fleeting existence.
I’m one of the many who have been bewitched by the night sky, and that’s how I found myself standing in the dark, looking up from the driest desert in the world.
The Atacama Desert
The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile extends from the coastal town of La Serena to the south, into Peru to the north, and parts of Bolivia and Argentina to the east. It’s nestled between the Andes and the Cordillera de la Costa which act as barriers to rain, thus causing its famed aridity.
San Pedro de Atacama is the oasis servicing travellers seeking out other-worldly sights; it’s our mission control.
The climatic and geological characteristics of the region make it one the premier astronomical sites in the world; both for hobbyists and scientific experts. But indigenous communities like the Atacameño have been observing the skies above the Atacama long before telescopes were planted in the desert. Their survival in the harsh environment depended on it.
The Atacama’s night sky is so clear that they were able to not only read constellations made of stars but also depict figures such as the Llama from dark nebulas obstructing parts of the Milky Way.
Seeing the Southern Sky
The first thing travelling astronomers should note when visiting is that the sky over San Pedro might look a little different. Not only is the sheer volume of stars visible with the naked eye enormous; but here, you are looking at the Southern Sky which is vastly different to the sky in the Northern Hemisphere.
You’ll notice the missing North Star; but also the brilliant centre of the Milky Way, the distant glow of other galaxies in the Magellenic Clouds, and the sparkling Southern Cross. The best way to get familiar is with a tour.
There are many stargazing tours on offer in San Pedro de Atacama, but if you’re inquisitive, then an outing with French astronomer Alain Maury and his Chilean wife Alejandra at ‘SPACE: San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations’ is a must.
They impart their impressive knowledge each clear night through tours in English, French and Spanish. A visit begins with Alain’s naked eye tour of the sky, which includes the history of celestial discovery, and introduces us to astronomy. The rest of the tour is spent jumping from scope to scope taking a close look at Jupiter’s moons, the Jewellery Box star cluster, coloured nebulae, Saturn’s rings and more.
The ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘where’ of the universe is explained with a balance of expertise and lay-speak and I walked away with a head full of knowledge and wonder. Not to mention a belly full of the most delicious hot chocolate I’ve had in a long time.
How to visit: Bookings can be made online, but it’s best to head to their office on the eastern end of Caracoles Street to make sure conditions are right for when you want to visit.
If you want to glimpse professional astronomy at work, then add a visit to the highest observatory in the world to your itinerary. ‘Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array’ (ALMA) takes advantage of the high, and more importantly dry conditions, to make observations on the ‘cold universe’.
Unlike optic telescopes, their array observes long light waves that are usually absorbed by water vapour in the atmosphere; but on the dry Chajnantor Plateau in the Atacama Desert, the telescopes can explore unobstructed.
ALMA works to answer some of the more pertinent questions in astronomy, such as the origins of galaxies, stars, planets and molecules that give rise to life. Scientists at ALMA first detected organic compounds near a star, which proved that certain elements necessary for life may have already existed in the Solar System when the planets were formed.
Visitors are unable the see the telescopes or live feeds, but you can observe scientific exploration in action at the ALMA Operations Support Facility (OSF), the control room, labs and antennas where ALMA personnel work.
How to visit: Visits are only available on weekends and all visitors must register online. Be sure to register for free well in advance as the tours quite often fill out. You can also join the waiting list if registrations for your date are full. If you miss out, check for spots on the day at the bus pick up location (Tumisa Street, close to the corner of Pedro de Valdivia Ave) in case of no-shows.
Interstellar curiosities aren’t only available overhead in San Pedro de Atacama. If a one-way ticket on Elon Musk’s mission to Mars is out of your orbit, then a visit to San Pedro’s surrounding landscape is the next best thing (actually better, because you can return).
The dry, red surrounds not only look like a Martian landscape; they are in fact it so Mars-like in soil structure that numerous research projects are based in the Atacama Desert. It’s our Mars on Earth.
A project called the ‘Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies’ (ARADS) run by NASA, tests their tools and techniques for Mars exploration in the Atacama.
Researchers from Washington State University also recently discovered microbial communities thriving in the Atacama Desert’s harsh landscape. A discovery that takes scientists one step closer to learning about the possibilities of life on Mars.
Touring geological formations just outside of San Pedro township is the best way to get a sense of why this likeness to Mars exists.
Organised day tours offer trips through the desolate landscape and include visits to Chilean Salt Flats, El Tatio Geysers, Valle de la Luna and Los Flamenco National Reserve. But, to really get a feel for the Martian terrain, hire a bike and rove on your own.
A popular cycle is to the eroded moon-like formations of the Valle de la Luna. This trip takes a full day and includes a few steep uphills; but riders will be rewarded with views of the vast desert landscape, peculiar rock sculptures, and (if you stick around late enough) a multicoloured sunset over the valley and Licancabur volcano.
A less popular, but equally awe-inspiring ride is to the Valle de Marte and Quebrada del Diablo. Both are much shorter bike rides, but still reward with otherworldly desert vistas and in the case of the latter, a thrilling ride through narrow canyons.
If a four-wheeled vehicle is your preferred craft, these sights can all be reached by car available for hire in town.
How to visit: Most tour operators, bike and car hire companies are located on Caracoles Street and around Plaza de San Pedro de Atacama. When hiring bikes, be sure to check the brakes and ensure that a helmet, spare tyre and pump are offered.
When to go: The Milky Way is best seen in July and August, and January and February are slightly more cloudy. Although the number of clear nights in San Pedro can be upwards of 300 per year, a full moon and cloud can interfere with stargazing tours. Allow a few days in case of bad weather just to be sure you don’t miss out.
Getting there: Direct flights are available from Santiago to nearby Calama Airport. Some hotels offer a transfer service from the airport to San Pedro, which can also be reached by car rental, minibus or bus transfer. Long-haul buses from Santiago are more affordable for budget-minded travellers, but keep in mind that it is a 20-hour ride in a semi-reclined seat. San Pedro can also easily be reached overland from Uyuni in Bolivia, and Salta in Argentina; both of which offer spectacular views of the Altiplano.
Where to stay: Accommodation in San Pedro de Atacama is notably more expensive than most of Chile. There are a variety of options on offer that tailor to most budgets, from comfortable hostels like Mamatierra, to luxury options such as Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa. Book ahead if you have your heart set on a location, otherwise, there are plenty of options to choose from when you arrive.
Practicalities: There are ATMs in San Pedro, but on busy weekends they have been known to run out of cash, so arriving with enough is a good idea. Most operators accept credit card payments, but this comes with an additional fee.
There are no supermarkets in San Pedro, but there are many small ‘tiendas’ selling basic foodstuffs. If you are self-catering, the local produce market (a five-minute walk from the main plaza) is worth a visit. There are also plenty of restaurants in town that serve an affordable three-course ‘Menu del dia’.
Don’t forget to take the high altitude into account. San Pedro de Atacama is over 2,000m above sea level. Take it slow when you first arrive and sip on coca tea to help alleviate symptoms.
If you want to capture the night sky, you’ll need a proper DSLR camera with a long exposure, and a tripod. But if you’re more of an iPhone photographer, the Slow Shutter Cam App and small tripod can do an insta-worthy job. Just remember that there really is no substitute for strapping on your space suit, packing your curiosity, and simply slowing down by looking up.
Photographs by (from top to bottom): Johnson Wang (via Unsplash), Bram Koenen (via Unsplash), Julian Reyes, Diego Jimenez (via Unsplash), Julian Reyes, Julian Reyes, Jens Johnsson (via Unsplash) and Nathan Anderson (via Unsplash).
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