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.
We flew Latam from La Serena in Elqui Valley to Calama with a few hours lay over in Santiago. There is a direct flight with Sky Airlines which would have saved a lot of time. Once we landed in Calama, we picked up our rental car from Budget. It took a long time to get the paperwork done because of language barrier. We used Google translate app but everyone helping us was very nice and patient.
We landed in Calama at 5:45 pm but by the time we left the airport with the rental car, it was almost 7 pm and I was hungry. We still hadn’t tried Chinese food in Chile and this was the last part of our almost 3 week long vacation. Calama is a big city so we looked up a restaurant with decent reviews. It was a short drive from the airport to the Chinese restaurant. The Mongolian beef I had was good. It was one of the better tasting meals I’ve had in Chile.
After dinner, we drove to San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations, aka SPACE. The drive was about an hour and half long. By the time we got to the lodge we were tired and went to bed sooner than expected. I wish we had flown direct with Sky Airlines. The reviews I’d read about Sky Airlines were terrible but in hind sight, it probably would’ve been fine for one flight. Side note: if you stay at SPACE, make sure to bring a red flash light so it doesn’t interfere with star gazing. If you use regular flash light, you will get angry glares from everyone around.
Our plan for the first day in San Pedro was to explore the town center, get some information from visitor center, then go to Laguna Chaxa. We wanted to be back at the lodge around 6 pm so we could rest before the 8 pm star gazing tour at SPACE. I woke up with a mild headache but nothing that’ll keep me from checking out downtown San Pedro. We drove to the free parking lot at the corner of Licancabur and Guatin-Linzor. The town center has a very laid back vibe and it doesn’t allow cars.
We had breakfast at a cute little cafe called Peregrino then went to the tourism information office. Turns out Valle de la Muerte and Piedras Rojas were closed. They also told us to talk to a few tour companies before we picked one. Since we had a car, we only wanted to sign up for the tour to see El Tatio Geyser. We spoke with 7-8 different tour companies and got quotes.
There was one company that stood out to us mainly because the guy we spoke with said if he had a car for a week, he would only take two tours: El Tatio Geyser and an archeological tour. We talked for a while with Luis at Luna Dorada Tour about what we should see in a week. He’s from Spain and loved it in Chile so much that he’s been living in there for a few years. After getting all the info we walked around the town center. There’s a few hundred year old Catholic church in the town center. It was constructed in 1500s and is the second oldest church in Chile.
The bathrooms in the town center are inside Galleria El Peral and they cost 300 Chilean Pesos (about 50 cents), way cheaper than Western Europe. You get some toilet paper and the bathrooms are very clean. We walked around the artisnal souvenir shops and an over priced grocery store in the town center. One unique thing we noticed was the lack of liquor stores in SPdA. Restaurants served alcohol but there were no bars and only 1 liquor store in the entire town.
A few days later we learned, this is on purpose. The city doesn’t want young people coming to SPdA and getting drunk on their first night before they’ve had time to acclimatize to the altitude. Getting drunk while having altitude sickness can actually kill a person. There are some strict rules/laws about selling and serving alcohol in San Pedro. There are no clubs or bars and nothing that really promotes “night life”. It usually takes a few days to get adjusted to the altitude.
By this point in our trip we’ve realised that buying a few things at a grocery store and cooking it was not only cheaper but it also tasted way better than Chilean food. There’s an open air veggies market across from the free parking lot where the locals shop. It’s cheaper than the grocery store in town center. We bought enough groceries and other supplies to last us 4 days for about $18 USD.
After walking around for a few hours we were hungry again. My headache was getting sightly worse and I thought it was because of hunger. While walking around, we’d noticed a flyer for a restaurant advertising 2 course meal for 3,800 CLP (about $5.50 USD). The restaurant, La Pica del Perron, was a short walk outside the main town center. I had lentil soup and veggie omelet. I also wanted to try the fresh Rica Rica juice which turned out to be HUGE! I’m not sure exactly what Rica Rica is but it tasted delicious and very refreshing.
The restaurant is near the Pueblo de Artesanos Market. There were lots of little shops with hand made pottery, clothes, and other souvenirs. I walked around the market while I waited for the food. After eating, I thought my headache would get better but by 3 pm it was one of the worst headaches I’ve experienced. I also noticed that I was out of breath and tired after walking for only 3-4 minutes. This didn’t make sense. I was able to go on a 9 hour long hike through the snow in Patagonia just 10 days ago and felt fine. Why did I feel tired after walking at normal pace for 3-4 minutes?!
Suddenly, it occurred to me that my headache had nothing to do with hunger. It was most likely altitude related. San Pedro de Atacama is at 7,900 feet (2,407 meters) elevation. It also explains why I was tired and out of breath after walking for a few minutes. My body needed to acclimatize and the best way is to relax, take it easy and not over exert myself. Gaurav bought Mate de Coca tea and Coca candy which is supposed to help with altitude sickness. We decided to visit Laguna Chaxa another day. We had an entire week in SPdA and altitude sickness can be fatal.
While we were sitting on the porch enjoying the view, Alain came to talk to us. We were scheduled for a 2 hour star gazing tour in English (cost about $40 USD per person) starting at 8 pm and I just hoped my headache would go away by then. Alain himself gives a tour in French at 9 pm and his wife gives a tour in Spanish at 10 pm. The last tour ends at midnight so he asked us to come back at 12:30 am and he would show us more objects in the sky on his largest 28 inch (72 cm) telescope.
Around 8 pm a big bus full of people came from SPdA for the tour. The tour is usually sold out even in August which is off-peak season. If you don’t stay at SPACE, make sure you sign up for the star tour at least a month or so in advance. The first part of the tour is observing the night sky with the naked eye, history of astronomy, and other interesting facts. My headache was a little better but I had taken a few pills which helped. I still felt tired after just standing around for 15 minutes.
During the 2nd part of the tour we looked through the telescopes. Each telescope is focused on a different object. Alain’s wife, Alejandra, and our tour guide Danelo were walking around making sure each telescope is focused and clear. I was amazed to see Cassini’s Division between the rings of Saturn, Jupiter and it’s moons, Omega Centuri, Alpha Centuri and more. Towards the end, there’s time to take pictures of the night sky and Danelo was there to help. The last part of the tour is in a warm room. We drank hot chocolate and asked questions to Danelo. Nights can get very cold and after spending 2 hours outside with a headache, the hot chocolate really hit the spot.
After the tour, we went back to our room and took a nap before meeting Alain at 12:30 am for more star gazing. We met him and 3 other guests staying at his lodge and started the private tour. The 5 of us spent the next almost 2 hours with Alain looking at various nebulas, galaxies, star clusters, and other objects in the sky from his largest 28 inch telescope. In between, I tried to take pictures of the night sky. Alain noticed and took a few amazing pictures of us using my camera. He did things with my camera I didn’t even know were possible.
He told us he’s getting an even larger 45 inch telescope soon. At around 2:15 am Alain said it’s his “dinner” time and we can meet again at 4 am to continue the private star gazing. It was really, REALLY cold so I was kind of glad to take a short break, go inside and warm up. At 4 am I didn’t feel too well so unfortunately I stayed in the lodge and slept. Gaurav went out and spent another hour or so star gazing. At the end, Alain left Gaurav with his 28 inch telescope to “practice” since we were renting one of his 20 inch telescopes.
I’m not sure if he does this with all his guests but we certainly had one of the best and most memorable nights and it only cost $135 USD per night during off-peak season to stay in his lodge. If you visit San Pedro de Atacama, spending a few nights at Alain’s lodge is absolutely A MUST!! You won’t be disappointed. I can’t stress it enough. His Lodge is about 6 km outside SPdA so you’ll need a car to get there but the effort will be worth it for the night sky. This was one of the most amazing vacation and experience of our life.