Astronomy and adventure in Chile’s highest and driest desert

The sun is setting over an area of Chile’s Atacama Desert known as the Valle de la Luna, or the Valley of the Moon, painting the surrounding mountains into a brilliant wash of oranges, pinks, and reds, while cameras click nonstop in an attempt to capture a scene whose splendor cannot fully be captured. In a matter of minutes, the sun slips behind the peaks, the temperature plummets, and the tourists -- who are snapping photos and sipping wine -- pile back into vans as the last rays fade into dusk.

This altiplano, or high plain, is part of the world’s highest and driest desert – but in moments like these, it easily vies for the most beautiful, too.

While Chile’s wild Patagonia region, some 2,300 miles to the south, might be better known among adventure travelers, there’s a mystical, otherworldly appeal to the vast, dramatic landscapes of the Atacama Desert, a 41,000-square-mile expanse where the string bean-shaped country bumps up to Bolivia and Peru, with the formidable Andes Mountains towering to the east.

Here, shutterbugs are in ecstasy over the endlessly photogenic scenes: craggy peaks set against a robin’s egg-blue sky; miles of crusty white salt flats; curious creatures like pink flamingos, llamas, and vicuñas, their smaller, adorable cousins. The overall effect for a newcomer is that you’ve been plopped into a science fiction plot, set on some mysterious planet.

Not surprisingly, the harsh environment isn’t conducive to much human life: Parts of the Atacama have not received much rain since recordings of such measurements began. The mining town of Calama and the dusty, Wild West-like outpost of San Pedro are the only settlements for miles.

More On This...

But the landscape itself hums with a mysterious, tangible energy. Volcanoes rumble and burp sulfurous smoke into the sky. High-altitude geysers billow plumes of steaming water into the arid air, while hot springs bubble like witches’ cauldrons. In the black of night, thanks to minimal light pollution, the crystal-clear skies twinkle with an awe-inspiring expanse of stars, which regularly blast across the sky in glowing arcs.

As of late, the Atacama Desert has received plenty of buzz in astronomy circles with the arrival of the ALMA Observatory, the world’s largest microarray telescope, a $1.5 billion behemoth that’s more powerful than the Hubble telescope. Looking like upturned mushrooms sprouting against the red-orange mountains, the observatory’s 66 powerful antennas are the sole man-made structures for miles. Scientists hope they’ll help unlock some of the deepest secrets of the universe, putting Chile at the forefront of ground-based space exploration.

But for visitors here, exploration of terra firma can be just as awe-inspiring. You’ll likely have more choices for activities than time to do them. Excursions depend on one’s physical health, fitness, and affinity a 4 a.m. wakeup call, a requisite for the best viewing of the Tatio Geysers, one of the area’s most popular excursions.  At more than 14,000 feet (it’s recommended to see them after a few days of acclimatizing), these geysers are the highest in the world, spewing their supercharged contents into the freezing, arid air for a spectacular pre-dawn show.

Another popular outing is the Salar de Tara, or Tara Salt Flats, which require a bumpy ride in a 4x4 close to the Argentine border to see the “nuns,” a jaw-dropping array of finger-like rock formations. Closer to San Pedro, the Laguna Cejar is a turquoise lagoon more saline than the Dead Sea, where, if you’re so inclined, you can strip down and float like a cork in the shadow of mountains.

More ambitious adventurers can even summit one of a handful of the numerous volcanoes in the area, such as the majestic Licancabur on the Bolivian border, its lopped-off peak a testament to a powerful explosion eons ago.

At most of the area’s upscale properties, such as the luxe, eco-friendly Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, excursions are included in the price, though several tour operators are also based in San Pedro. Many afternoon activities wrap up with cocktails and snacks at sunset -- a Chilean version of the sundowner in Africa.

On my first full day, in an effort to thwart impending jetlag from my 30-plus hour journey and acclimatize to the 9,000-foot altitude, I opt for a guided hike along the banks of two converging rivers that, thanks to a rare rainfall a couple of months prior, actually contain water. Giant cacti stand like sentries on the brick-red precipices, and as our trio boulder-scrambles down the riverbanks, I half-expect to catch a glimpse of Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner along the jagged ridgelines.

Along the way, our guide, Mariano, shares interesting tidbits about the hardy plants that manage to eke out an existence here. The name of one squat, reddish succulent sprouting with menacing needles is the cojín de la suegra– the mother-in-law’s cushion, he translates with a grin. The small leaves of the sage-looking saltbush, he notes, add a salty kick to salads and other foods. 

By the time we head back to the lodge, about two hours later, Mariano has shifted from sharing geographical and botanical knowledge to local legends, including one about Licancabur, which towers eerily in the distance. Early settlers of the region, the Atacameños, were believed to have made offerings of gold and precious stones into the crater lake deep inside the volcano.

Mariano explained that during one diving excursion several years ago, a group that included an acquaintance of Jacques Cousteau, found a green crystal sphere in the lake. But it was revealed later, according to some accounts, that an elderly woman had previously tossed the crystal into the lake.

That’s where the details get fuzzy, though. Other versions of the tale include mysterious powers the crystal held, a witch doctor, and the chupacabra, a gruesome, wolf-like creature that, according to some Latino cultures sucks the blood from goats.

Strange as they sound, such eye-brow raising yarns are woven into the fabric of life here. After all, the discovery a decade ago of a mummified, six-inch, alien-looking being near an abandoned church in the ghost town of La Noria sparked a frenzy among UFO enthusiasts who speculated it was an extraterrestrial. Scientists recently determined that it had human DNA, but other bizarre accounts remain eerily unexplained, such as the story of a Chilean military officer who, while investigating strange lights during a night mission in the late 1970s, disappeared for 15 minutes but returned with a weeklong beard and five days unaccounted for on his watch.

I later ask if Mariano has ever seen anything strange in the skies. “I’ve never seen a UFO,” he admits, “but one of my friends says that he once saw three strange green lights come down from the sky and into Licancabur. So I’m always looking to the sky to see what might be out there.”

Indeed, for anyone fascinated by gazing at the heavens, the Atacama Desert delivers. Many hotels, including the Alto Atacama, have their own cosmos-centric activities (the Alto also has its own observation deck, complete with telescope). Several operators in San Pedro offer tours, but one highly recommended company is SPACE Star Tours, which will appeal to newbies as well as seasoned stargazers.

There’s also the new Ahlarkapin Observatory, owned and run by local astronomy expert César Anza. Nightly observation tours include discussion of Andean cosmology, an ancient belief system that establishes a connection between humans, Mother Earth (Pachamama, as she’s known in these parts), and the universe (if stargazing is on your agenda, be sure to plan your visit with a new moon for optimum viewing.).

Another worthy stop for astronomy buffs: the Meteorite Museum on the edge of San Pedro, a nexus for travelers ranging from Northface-wearing nomads to dreadlocked hippies. Inside the space-dome structure, meteorites found in the Atacama Desert are displayed, with Spanish and English commentary.

I’m the only visitor the day I stop in, and a man named Lorenzo, whom I’m later told is a respected authority on meteorites, guides me through the small but intriguing exhibit, which contains dozens of ancient, weathered rock fragments whose spectacular journeys through the cosmos ended smack-dab in the sands of the Atacama.

Other highlights of San Pedro are a whitewashed, 16th-century church, whose original rafters are made from the wood of desert cacti, and an archeological museum that helps round out the overview of the hearty civilizations that have managed to thrive here.

But, after a few hours exploring San Pedro’s gritty streets, the surrounding landscape begins to beckon again. That afternoon, I find myself at the Salar de Atacama, expansive salt flats that are set in a basin, surrounded by mountains, and home to three kinds of protected flamingos, which bend their necks deep below the surface for the tiny shrimp that give them their pink hue. The lanky birds are focused on finding dinner, oblivious to the spectacular scene unfolding as the sun descends, turning the peaks into a glowing, brick-red hue and the salt-encrusted earth into a glittering white canvas. The cameras start clicking once again.

I make my way down one of the slender walkways deeper into the flats, salt crunching beneath my feet, alone. The sounds of my fellow onlookers fade into profound silence, as another day in this extraordinarily otherworldly part of the world comes to a close.