“Moonlight drowns out all but the brightest stars” J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Lord of the Rings’
The Atacama Desert in the north of Chile is the world’s driest desert. Some parts of the desert have never recorded rainfall. It is a fascinating region of barren, rocky wilderness, and vast sand dunes stretching out mile after mile.
A dry, lunar landscape.
The small town of San Pedro de Atacama—the gateway between Chile and Bolivia—has become popular on the Gringo trail. Hundreds of travellers stop by this picturesque desert town as a start or end point of a jeep tour across the Altiplano to the Bolivian Salt Flats of Uyuni.
The town itself is a charming, albeit dusty, maze of narrow alleyways and tourist offices catering mainly for gringos—the first we had seen in South America. With a central plaza that boasts a few lovely outdoor restaurant terraces, a pretty church in the centre, and a range of souvenir shops that seem to offer more Bolivian produce than Chilean, it is easy enough to laze around for a few days. After travelling around Argentina and Chile, it was a shock to encounter such a tourism-orientated environment: less of a shock if you are travelling from Bolivia. Prices in San Pedro are higher than in Bolivia, so it’s best to wait until you are across the border before buying any alpaca sweaters.
There are a number of things to do in and around San Pedro, but one that is definitely worth checking out is the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations Star-Gazing tour—SPACE as it is known. As the tour is very popular and we were only in San Pedro for two nights, we were hardly surprised to find that the tour was already fully booked for our time there. We put our names down on the reserve list and hoped for the best. Luck was clearly on our side when two places became available for the midnight tour. Lasting 3 hours we knew that it would be difficult to get up for the 6am start to our three-day jeep-safari the following day, but we didn’t want to miss our chance to see the stars from the clearest skies in the world.
Guests are transported from San Pedro on a small private bus and taken the 20-minute ride into the desert, where the tour begins with a study of the skies as seen by the naked eye. Using a laser pointer, French astronomer Alain Maury enthusiastically highlights the constellations and various other stars: the South star and the Southern Cross being notable features. It is hard not to get swept along by his enthusiasm, and it is clear that you are in the presence of an expert. For those of us familiar with the Northern Hemisphere concept of the man-in-the-moon, it is strange to hear the Southern Hemisphere’s counterpart, the rabbit-in-the-moon.
Although to be honest, I can’t really see either.
What I could see, however, was the amazing views of Jupiter and the moon seen through the powerful telescopes. The moon was waxing towards the full moon phase on the night of our tour; in fact we got a place on the last tour before the monthly 6-night break when the bright light of the full moon obscures all but the brightest stars. The telescopes are fitted with devices enabling you to take a photograph of the moon with your own camera.
The tour was informative and fascinating. There were 24 of us: travellers from all over the globe, both Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Maury explains his vast knowledge in a simple, easy manner, and at the end of the tour you are taken inside for a hot chocolate, which is welcome as night-time temperatures in the Atacama Desert are close to freezing.
SPACE tours cost 18,000 pesos ($38) and are conducted in English, French or Spanish. The office is located on Caracoles street, San Pedro de Atacama. The tour does not run for 6 days over Full Moon.
Have you ever been on a star-gazing tour? Where did you go? Would you like to go on one? I would love to hear your comments. If you enjoyed the post then please share.