San Pedro de Atacama Travel Guide
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10 Starry Sites for Astronomy Buffs in the Atacama Desert and Beyond

From crystal-clear night skies to world-class observatories, for astronomy fans, the Atacama Desert is out of this world.

Miles above sea level. No major cities. Arid weather. Almost zero rain. More than 300 cloudless nights a year. These are the ingredients that, when combined over the stark desert-scapes of northern Chile, make the Atacama Desert perfect for stargazing and astronomy. The driest non-polar desert on Earth, the Atacama is home to some of the biggest and most powerful telescopes and observatories in the world, and its wide-open spaces and pristine skies are a siren call for amateur stargazers, especially during the winter months of June, July, and August when the sky is at its clearest. And this July, astro-tourism hotbed Elqui Valley in Chile’s Little North—a semiarid region on the southern border of the Atacama that divides the desert from the more fertile central zones—will be treated to a total solar eclipse, making the Atacama and northern Chile the place-to-be this summer.

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PHOTO: Chr. Offenberg/Shutterstock
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ALMA Observatory

WHERE: San Pedro de Atacama

Sitting more than 16,000 feet above sea level in the shadow of the Licancabur Volcano, ALMA (which stands for Atacama Large Millimeter Array and means “soul” in Spanish) is one of the highest observatories in the world. Built by a consortium of nations to the tune of $1.4 billion dollars, the array of 66 radio telescopes use millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths to study the formation of stars and planets inside distant gas clouds and capture images whose clarity surpasses those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. As a working observatory, it isn’t possible to tour the facilities at night, but pre-arranged visits from nearby San Pedro take place Saturday and Sunday mornings to tour the Operations Support Facility. Only authorized personnel can actually visit the telescope fields, but it is possible to catch glimpses of them on the drive up.

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PHOTO: Jonathan Hood(CC BY-ND 2.0)/Flickr
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Meteorite Museum

WHERE: San Pedro de Atacama

Inside a pair of stark-white, lunar base-esque geodesic domes, San Pedro’s Meteorite Museum houses a collection of 77 meteorites, gathered from the surrounding desert and authenticated by NASA. This small but well-curated museum provides multi-lingual audio tours and signage to guide visitors around the exhibit, giving background on each meteorite and its interstellar makeup, as well as the history of the cosmos and the Atacama’s role in modern astronomy. There are even a few interactive exhibits where you can touch the actual meteorites. The museum also offers a day hike to Monturaqui, Chile’s biggest and best-preserved impact crater, and Meteorite Hunting tours to scour the nearby valleys and plains for fragments.

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PHOTO: Leandro Neumann Ciuffo(CC BY 2.0)/Flickr
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San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations (SPACE)

WHERE: San Pedro de Atacama

You can’t throw a space-rock without hitting a stargazing tour in San Pedro, but SPACE is the best around. Launched in 2003 by French astronomy Alain Maury and his Chilean wife Alejandra, an evening with SPACE starts with a drive out of town to their adobe lodge, where Maury kicks things off with an astronomy lecture that’s equal parts informative and fun (he’s a joker). The rest of the tour is spent observing planets, stars, constellations, and other celestial bodies through their collection of 20- to 72-centimeter telescopes, which make up South America’s biggest public telescope park. And get those wishes ready: you’re bound to see tons of shooting stars. With the exception of the full moon, SPACE runs nightly tours in English, Spanish, or French that last about two and a half hours. Reservations and bringing warm clothes (it gets chilly in the high desert) are strongly recommended.

 

 

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PHOTO: European Southern Observatory(CC BY 2.0)/Flicky
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Paranal Observatory

WHERE: Cerro Paranal, Atacama

A five-hour drive north from San Pedro down the Pan-American Highway brings you to the Paranal Observatory. Surrounded by Martian-red hills, the most famous of Paranal’s “eyes on the skies” is the aptly-named Very Large Telescope (VLT), whose four individual optical telescopes are responsible for capturing the first direct photo of an exoplanet. Paranal has even been a star on the big screen: the observatory’s futuristic ESO Hotel, used exclusively by observatory personnel and was featured in the 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace. Operated by the European Southern Observatory, Paranal is open for free tours on Saturdays at 10:00 am and 2:00 pm, but reservations need to be made well in advance. Most working observatory tours don’t permit telescope access, but this tour gives you the chance to actually see the VLT telescopes for yourself and go inside one to see its primary 26-foot mirror.

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PHOTO: Astrofireball/Dreamstime
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Cerro Tololo

WHERE: La Serena, Elqui Valley

In the indigenous Aymara language, Tololo means “at the edge of the abyss”, which is fitting: perched above cloud-filled valleys, the isolated telescopes and buildings of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory look like a scientific base on some distant planet. Situated beneath the vast expanse of the world’s first dark ski sanctuary (named after the poet Gabriela Mistral) and arrayed across two mountain tops at 7,200 and 8,900 feet, Tololo’s high-powered telescopes, which include the 13-foot, silver-domed Victor M. Blanco Telescope, are primarily used to study the central areas of the Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds but have also discovered a supernova and several asteroids. Reservations for the two available tours on Saturdays (at 9:00 am and 1:00 pm) must be made in advance and passes picked up from the observatory’s offices in the beach resort town of La Serena, 50 miles away.

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PHOTO: Samuel Norero(CC BY-SA 3.0)/WikimediaCommons
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Vicuña

WHERE: Elqui Valley

The gateway to Elqui Valley, the historic town of Vicuña is the ideal jumping-off point for your astronomical adventures. At the tourist offices, you can make reservations for tours to nearby public observatories and book stargazing tours like those offered by Alfa Aldea, who opt for a more natural approach by hosting their tours in an outdoor amphitheater. Some hotels and hostels in town even offer their own stargazing sessions right on the premises; that’s how clear the night skies are. And this July, Vicuña will be the epicenter of the Great South American Eclipse when, just before sunset on July 2nd, a total solar eclipse will take place. But there’s also plenty to do during the day, like visiting the honorary museum for Chile’s first Nobel-winning poet, Gabriela Mistral, or touring the surrounding pisco distilleries, where Chile’s favorite spirit is grown and distilled.

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PHOTO: Jess Kraft/Shutterstock
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Mamalluca Observatory

WHERE: Vicuña, Elqui Valley

The most popular tourist observatory in the area, Mamalluca specializes in large-group stargazing and astronomy tours while still providing a friendly and conservational atmosphere. Several tours are done per night, lasting roughly two hours, and if you don’t have your own car, you can book a seat on a transfer van to the observatory, which is a short 6-mile drive from Vicuña. Tours start with introductory talks inside a planetarium before moving outside to the hilltop observation deck where the guide uses professional-grade telescopes to get you front-row seats to Saturn’s rings or the multi-colored swirls of the Magellanic Clouds. For lovers of history and mythology, the “Andean Worldview” tour explains the night sky through the eyes of ancient Andean cultures. Mamalluca also boasts of some of the most eye-catching facilities around, such as a huge, red-and-white platformed dome protecting its primary telescope, a 16-inch Meade model.

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PHOTO: mauritius images GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
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Pangue Observatory

WHERE: Vicuña, Elqui Valley

Housing two of the biggest telescopes open for public viewing in Chile (a 28-inch Newton and 25-inch Dobson), Pangue is a small operation with only a handful of telescopes, but it’s gained a reputation for its in-depth and engaging tours. Run by a passionate group of Chilean and French astronomers, they limit their two-hour nightly tours to a maximum of ten people, allowing them to really get into the nitty-gritty of astronomy through personalized talks. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and you walk away from the tour (available in English, Spanish, and French) with a new-found appreciation for the field of astronomy. Roughly ten miles from Vicuña, the only other human structures in sight are other observatories like Cerro Tololo, so the night skies here are about as pristine as you can get. Pangue is also popular among astrophotographers, so if that’s an interest of yours, bring a camera.

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Elqui Domos

WHERE: Pisco Elqui, Elqui Valley

Designed with starry-eyed lovers in mind, at Elqui Domos you don’t even need to leave your bed to stargaze. Comprised of seven two-story geodesic domes and four modernist cabins, each comes with skylights and observation decks from which guests can watch the nighttime skies. All the lodgings are chicly outfitted in tan wood and hip furnishings, and the hotel’s secluded location inside a tree grove guarantees privacy. The hotel even has its own private observatory and can provide telescopes and private astronomy tours for hotel guests. During the day, you splash in the pool, enjoy regional specialties at the on-site restaurant, go horseback riding or hiking, or drive the short distance to the town of Pisco Elqui to tour pisco distilleries.

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PHOTO: Erlantz Perez/Dreamstime
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Cochiguaz

WHERE: Elqui Valley

Lying in the shadow of Cerro Cancana, a mountain said to emanate special energy and off-the-charts electromagnetic readings, the steep, rocky slopes and lush floors of the mystical Cochiguaz Valley are reminiscent of Tibet (there’s even an authentic Buddhist stupa). A haven for New Age believers and practitioners of crystal healing and chakra therapy, here it’s all about the natural: you’ll find no high-tech, modern observatories (the most you’ll find is the petite Cancana Observatory with its two 14-inch telescopes). Far from big cities and sitting upwards of a mile high, the night sky takes on an incredible clarity perfect for natural stargazing from campsites along the Rio Mágico or at a recreated Inca observatory. And don’t raise your eyebrows if your hosts start talking about UFO sightings; here they’re just a regular occurrence and skepticism is not welcome.

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