San Pedro de Atacama – Chilean Desert Chilling
Back to civilisation: a famous Chilean town in the high Atacama desert… one of the driest places on Earth. Hot, cold and..did I mention that it is dry?
Thankfully having been collected from the freezing and remote Bolivian border, we approach San Pedro down a long, long hill. There is a great sign at the Bolivian frontier: a single green marker in a sea of nothingness. Chile right, Argentina left. The Chilean border control sits at the entrance to the town and is stringent: X-rays, sniffer dogs, lots of staff. Woe-betide those who don’t declare their food-stuffs. It seems strange that this control is 40km from its Bolivian counter-part, but once you’ve seen what’s in between and understand the day- and night-time temperatures, you realise they’re probably not worried about illegal immigrants. They’d be unlikely to survive long.
San Pedro de Atacama Quick Facts
- Founded: ~1450
- Population: ~4000
- Altitude: 2,407m (7,900ft)
- Rainfall: < 42mm (1.6in) per year
- Ave High temperature: 24C
- Ave Low temperature: 0C
San Pedro is low slung: single story buildings hunched as if protecting themselves from strong desert winds. It seems like something from a 21st century western with its dusty streets and sparse vegetation. As we set upon looking for our hostel we’re really not sure what to expect in this remote outpost.
After wandering lost for approximately 45 minutes and bickering as to the likely whereabouts of our hostel (Hostel Tuyasto), we finally located it, settled in, and then immediately ventured back out. The centre is bustling. The Western theme continued into the main streets, laid out in a grid: white-washed walls, ornate wooden doors, old-fashioned street lamps attached to the buildings. A small white-washed Adobe church sits beside the main plaza. But beneath this gold rush era veneer it’s clear we’re back in an enhanced level of civilisation (the 4G Wi-Fi dongle at the hostel should have clued me in): shops accept credit/debit cards for purchases, they have product displays (not iron bars), Alison finds Soy milk, pharmacies all have cash machines inside, the internet actually internets, oh and prices are higher!
It’s a nice place to hang for a couple of days, relaxing in the sun during the day and installing ourselves next to roaring fires in the bars/restaurants in the evening. In our hostel a charm of English teenage girls is taken back into control by one of their mothers, who has arrived with a mildly glamorous wardrobe ill-suited to this barren place. When did 18 year olds get so young?
San Pedro offers a mirror image of the Salar de Uyuni tours: Chilean flats, Chilean Geysers, Thermal Springs etc. We’ve come with two tours in mind: Valle de la Luna (there’s another one here, as well as the ones in La Paz, Bolivia and somewhere in Argentina) and a night-time star-gaze. The altitude, lack of light and clear atmospheric conditions make this, possibly, the best place in the world to check out the night sky…more of Alison’s extreme planetary photography later!
So we go from dry to drier. Some parts of Valle de la Luna haven’t seen rain for over a hundred years. Space agencies test Mars Rover prototypes here. You’ll have guessed from the name that this place is meant to resemble the moon; and it does more so than it’s namesake in La Paz (he says based on his intimate knowledge and many visits to the moon).
Bundled into a bus with glam-mum and her cohort of university-bound young ladies, we head into the Valle and explore salt caves. We listen to the salt cliffs crack and creak like mini-glaciers. We climb a ridge above huge dunes to find ourselves painfully sand-blasted as we stand in front of amazing lunar vistas.
Our shuttle-bus races the descending sun to deposit us at Coyote rock, to watch as the Cordillera in the distance is bathed in red light, along with the valley to our right and volcanoes to our left. Another surreal, arresting, other-worldy place. I really, really hope I don’t ever become inured to such things.
Occasionally you come across somebody that is a walking documentary. Not one of your modern documentaries that repeat a few facts with no details, slowly with stock footage and have Brian Cox (photogenic and super-knowledgeable as he is) banging on about billions of this and that, for an hour fully capable of being condensed into 2 minutes. No, I’m talking about an Attenborough-style documentary, where detail is gone into, humourous and history-girded answers to questions provided and where you’re left feeling educated, overwhelmed, enthused and (mostly) ignorant of the freezing temperature and your now almost-detached toes. May I introduce Alain Maury, a nocturnal astronomical engineer who relocated to Chile to look at the sky and take others with him on a stellar journey.
The tour heads out from San Pedro into the desert where Alain and his wife have their observatory, a series of many different (20cm to 60cm diameter) telescopes laid out and prepared for sky-watching on a large scale.
Many of the details of what we saw elude me now but we covered some of this: the historical role of technology in opening up our eyes, how to recognise the night sky and constellations, the ecliptic solar and planetary plane, why planets are called planets, how the sky moves, speed of light, distance to stars and much much more.
As we moved from scope to scope, we saw planets, shooting stars, nebulae, the jewel box star cluster and more. With the naked eye the night sky comes alive in a way that it cannot in most towns/cities. The Milky Way clearly visible, tearing across the sky.
Rounded off with seats encircling the fire, hot-chocolate, more historical tales and super interesting, detailed answers to simple questions, those few hours passed in the mere blink of an eye. So here it is: Alison’s first foray into planetary photography: Saturn in super hi-def, techni-color (ok, fuzzy black and white) glory! And the moon! Contrary to previous reports, it isn’t made of cheese.