Atacama Desert

Important note about my frequent travel: these are my experiences and observations I share eagerly and enthusiastically. I receive no compensation in cash/kind/discounts, etc. of any kind from any business/locations I’ve visited. None of the businesses paid for my travel expenses or offered any free services.

Such perfect reflection at Laguna Chaxa

A few people asked me about the last part of our trip which was mostly astronomy based. So I’m writing about it first. I was looking for the best places for star gazing that also offered telescope rental. Every article I read online listed Atacama Desert at the top of the list. Many of the articles called it an astronomers paradise. Almost 50% of research observatories in the world are located in Atacama Desert.

Atacama Desert is west of the Andes mountains and it’s almost 1,000 miles long. It’s the driest, oldest, non-polar desert in the world with average rainfall of around 0.6 inches/year. It’s also the oldest continuous arid region on Earth. Some data suggests that there may not have been any significant rainfall in Atacama Desert between 1570 to 1971!

Milky Way is visible as soon as the sun sets

Atacama Desert is situated between two h​ug​e mountain ranges, the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range. The variety of landscape is unlike any other we’ve seen so far. There are pisco distilleries, spurting geysers, salt lagoons, stony terrain with sandy desert, and active volcanoes. There are two main regions I wanted to visit in Atacama Desert. Elqui Valley and San Pedro de Atacama. 

We visited in August which is winter so daytime temperature was warm in Elqui Valley and very comfortable in San Pedro de Atacama (SPdA). Although, our Elqui Terra B&B host said this was unseasonably warm for August. The night time did get cold, especially in SPdA. The temperature drops as soon as the sun goes down. I wish I had packed the hand and leg warmers like I did for Finland. It would have been easier to stay out longer at night for star gazing.

Elqui Valley has a lot of pisco distilleries and is home to a growing number of tourist observatories. There are at least a dozen tourists observatories that I came across with telescopes ranging from 10″ to 28″ and they offer tours in different languages. The tours are around 1-3 hours long and cost between $15-$35 USD per person. These tours are given by guides who stick to a script and a fixed order of objects. I​n​ most cases, the guide isn’t an astronomer but he/she can communicate well​ with the audience​, keep things moving and crack a few jokes.

San Pedro de Atacama is the best place for astronomy themed vacation. The population of the town is less than 5,000 which means there’s very little light pollution. It’s at almost 8,000 feet elevation which is great for star gazing but be aware of altitude sickness​. I’ll talk more about altitude sickness in another post​. Space Odyssey Voyage to the Planets was filmed around SPdA. There are parts of the desert where climate is so dry that no life has been detected. Not even microbes or tardigrade. Yungay region near SPdA is used by NASA to test instruments for future Mars missions.

Astronomy based tours in SPdA range anywhere from $20 for 2.5 hours to $1,500 USD for an overnight excursion. Just a few kilometers outside SPdA is one of the best places for an amateur astronomer​,​ San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations ​or ​SPACE. It’s a small lodge with only 5 or 6 rooms that’s owned and operated by an amateur astronomer named Alain Maury and his wife, Alejandra. Click here for pictures and video of SPACE.

If you want to spend a few nights at SPACE be sure to make a reservation well ahead of time. There are only 5-6 rooms available and during peak tourist season, they get booked very fast. To make a reservation, contact him through his website. On his site it says to make a reservation one month in advance but if you are going during peak tourist season (November through March), I suggest you email him at least a few months before your visit. There is also lots of useful information about Chile and SPdA on his website

The telescope quality at SPACE was as close as you can get to research observatories. He has the ​best quality and ​most number of telescopes​. Tours are given in multiple languages almost every night except for a few nights around full moon, and they help you take pictures of the sky if you have a camera. It’s also the only place I found where you can rent many different telescopes for a very reasonable price. 

San Pedro de Atacama is where we spent the most time. Besides the best place to stargaze, it also has much more to offer. As I mentioned, there are geysers, lagoons, salt flats, historical and archaeological sites from pre-Columbian societies, active volcanoes and more. The basic plan was to look at starts at night, wake up late and visit one of the many tourist destinations in day time. Click for more pictures of San Pedro de Atacama.

So, what should you pack:

  • Definitely take good quality sunglasses! Atacama desert is sunny and has hardly any clouds. It’s bright and you’ll appreciate not squinting all day long.
  • Layers are key to keeping warm in the desert. Day time was very nice and comfortable with a long sleeve shirt but as soon as the sun set, it got COLD. Even in summer, nights can get very cold in SPdA.
  • Bikini/swimsuits – especially if you plan on getting into the water at El Tatio Geyser (I forgot 😞) or try swimming in a salt water lake. 
  • Power outlet converter: Chile is very unique so make sure you have the right one. It’s only used in Chile and Italy as far as I know.
  • Hand and leg warmers. They’re going to be very useful if you stay outside all night for star gazing, regardless of the season. 
Route 27

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