If you are fascinated by the thought of faraway galaxies, make sure you visit the driest desert in the world -- Chile’s Atacama Desert.
A rare set of factors in this arid lunar landscape – very
little rainfall, crystal-clear skies, high altitudes of 2,410 to 4,270m and
low-to-zero light pollution – have created an unparalleled stargazing haven. It
is no coincidence that the Atacama is a major hub for astronomical research and
home to a clutch of cutting-edge observatories. While many are off-limits to
visitors, a handful of observatories offer guided tours, and many of the area’s
hotels feature star-gazing as part of their program. Just make sure you check
the lunar calendar before heading out, and for the best viewing, avoid full
moon nights .
First stop is Cerro
Paranal, where you can tour the futuristic facilities of this ground-breaking
complex, run by the European Southern Observatory. In the world of high-powered
telescopes -- where rival institutes compete to claim “most powerful” specimens
-- Paranal’s is one of the best. The three-hour tour (make sure you book ahead) stops by the centre’s literally-named
Very Large Telescope -- made up of four 8.2m diameter telescopes -- which
allows astronomers to see details up to 25 times finer than with an individual
The tour also pops
into the space-age lobby of the on-site hotel, where portions of the James Bond
flick, Quantum of
Solace, were filmed. The entire surreal experience feels a bit like
landing on the moon -- and, in fact, you are pretty high up, at 2,664m above
Next year, Paranal and the other observatories in the
Atacama will be overshadowed by the most ambitious radio telescope the world has
ever seen – the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter
The ALMA (meaning “soul” in Spanish) is the largest
land-based observatory ever built. Situated 40km east of the oasis town of San
Pedro de Atacama, on Chajnantor plateau at a dizzying altitude of 5,000m, ALMA consists
of 66 enormous antennas, which, when finished in 2013, will simulate a
telescope 16km in diameter. More
powerful than the Hubble telescope, it will look out to some of the most
distant galaxies, and observe the very first stages of formation of planets and
stars. Plans are also afield to open a visitor centre.
The town of San Pedro itself showcases several options for observing galaxies
glittering thousands of light years away. Explore the wild black yonder at desert
outpost Hotel de Larache by explora, where
an all-inclusive stay includes a series of night time sky-watch sessions through
their first-class Meade 16in telescope. Guests gather beneath an observation dome and gawk at supernova remnants, faraway planets,
globular clusters and misty nebulae. And you can even photograph the stars – digital cameras can be mounted onto the telescope for spectacular astro-photography.
Those with an insatiable appetite for astronomy can book
a tour with French astronomer Alain Maury, who runs the San Pedro de Atacama
Celestial Explorations, known as SPACE.
He takes travellers into the desert, far from any light contamination, to enjoy
the star show in all its glory through a series of telescopes. Run in Spanish,
English and French, the two-and-a-half-hour tours leave San
Pedro nightly, except around the full moon.
Looking for another fix of star-gazing? Check in at Tierra Atacama, a boutique hotel and
spa on the edge of San Pedro. They can book a stellar star-watching experience
for you, with the new Ahlarkapin observatory just across the road. These
personalized observation tours – which run nightly and last two hours – feature
another twist on the Atacama’s star-awash night skies: their focus is on Andean
cosmology, an ancient system of belief that claims we are connected to both physical
and immaterial world around us.
As Hernán Julio, scientific journalist and owner of Astronomy Adventures said during
a recent tour of Paranal, "We are just a bunch of very complex cells but
made of the same matter as our sun. When we observe the universe, we are
The article 'Starry-eyed in Chile’s Atacama Desert' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.