San Pedro de Atacama is a dessert town in north-west Chile, it’s an easy 24 hour bus ride from Santiago, 12 hours from Salta, Argentina or you can start/end your multi-day trip to the Uyuni salt flats of Boliva here. The town is situated about 2400m above sea level and the area is one of the driest places on earth, its dry air and clear skies make it ideal for astronomy. Not to far from town, a bit higher on the plateau, is the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international array project that has been operating since 2013. The town itself is small and walking is really the only way to get around. There are lots of things to see and do although some of the tours can be a bit pricy. An afternoon trip to Moon Valley is a must (picture above) and so to is the star tour with spaceobs.com.
Valle de la Muerte y Valle de Luna
I did the Moon Valley tour with CosmoAndino who were fantastic. Unfortunately unless you have a car or some other form of transport, organised tours are really the only way to see things around San Pedro de Atacama. The tour offered by CosmoAndino begins at Death Valley, so named not because of the lack of life or countless murders but simply because of a translation error when the area originally opened up to tourism, sometimes it is also referred to as Mars Valley. The rock formations and geology here are stunning, shaped over millions of years by the elements it is like another world. We explored the area by foot for sometime, the guide was very knowledgable and explained a lot about the geology and weather patterns of the area. After circling the top of a ridge-line we then headed straight down a huge sand dune. The area here is also popular for sand boarding and at the bottom there were loads of tourist giving the dune a go.
From here it was a short minivan ride to Moon Valley where after an initial walking tour of many of the different geological formations and listening to the popping crystals exposed to the air we trekked up to an amazing view point for the sunset and the transformation of the valley from earth-like to alien. The changing light mixed with the salt littered ground gave the appearance that we were on a sic-fi movie set, it was amazing!
Tatio – The geysers
Heading out at 5am to catch the sunrise over the geothermal field was how I started my second day in San Pedro. It is an eerie place at dawn as the sun comes up with steaming, spouting geysers, bubbling hot mud and green, yellow and orange algae all around you. After breakfast on site which included hot chocolate, heated in thermal puddle (don’t get to excited, it was just cheap boxed chocolate milk), it was time for a relaxing swim and soak in a thermal pool. The way back through the Andes was a beautiful drive with breath-taking vistas, flamingos, llamas and finally a walk through a cactus-lined canyon. It was a nice trip but if you’re pressed for time and have seen geysers before this isn’t a must do and if you are heading to Boliva or even Salta you will see much of the same landscape on those trips.
My parents at a later date also did the full day Salar/Lagunas tour with CosmoAndino and said it was really worthwhile.
Whether you are into astronomy or not a visit to Alain Maury’s place on the outskirts of town is well worth it. He begins the tour with a naked-eye description/lesson/tour of the night sky which is really informative and he makes everything so clear and simple to understand. He also identifies constellations, stars and planets using a laser pointer and some history on them as well. After this its then onto his dozen or so telescopes that he has set up, each pointing to a different star, cluster, nebula, planet or other celestial body and you can take your time looking at all of them after he has given a description on each. Then finally it is into the warmth of his house for some tea, coffee or hot chocolate and general question and answer time with his wife. He and his wife are both professional astronomers, are very knowledgable and offer a great tour. There are other star tours in town that offer a very similar service but Alain’s is exceptional. Check out his website where you’ll find they have much more for amateur and professional astronomers than just this night tour.