We arrived in San Pedro de Atacama after dark so did not get a sense of the place until the next morning when our first view upon leaving the hotel was of a snow capped volcano cone. The town is 2400m above sea level, and the volcanoes much higher, but it still seemed slightly incongruous to see snow so close when the sun was so fiercely hot and the landscape so dry and dusty. The town itself is tiny: a tree-lined main square boasts three cafés with outside tables and then everything else the many tourists and backpackers could want can be found along a single street leading away from the square.
Our first expedition was a sunset tour to see Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). The name comes from the salt deposits left behind from evaporating water giving the surface a white glaze, and thus an other-worldly look. There was also a Mars valley of great red rock, and the guide told some good stories about why the area is supposed to be a centre of energy and other unexplained happenings. However with so many volcanoes in the vicinity a ‘rain of fire’ is an all too likely occurrence! The tour concluded with a fabulous sunset turning the white volcano cones a beautiful pink colour.
The Atacama has ideal conditions for astronomical observations with many of the world’s top research telescopes based here. This was immediately obvious to the naked eye with constellations that are hard or impossible to see at home being so clearly defined here as to practically leap out of the sky at you. Orion was a particularly good example of this. The fact that some stars are distinctly red in colour was also very obvious here. Stargazing tours are offered from the town but we read that the full moon in a few nights time meant that our first night was our only option to take one.
At 11pm we were dropped off at an open-air observation area just outside town and introduced to our guide, Jared, who had two 1.5m long telescopes set up for us to use. He gave an excellent explanation of how stars form, why some are red, and why some (appear to) twinkle. He then had us observe some examples of common types of star, as well as a superb close up of the moon and explained how the differing rates of magma cooling caused its alternating grey and white colour palette. We concluded with a look at Jupiter and Saturn, which the telescope turned from bright white spots indistinguishable from stars to objects that were very recognisable, complete with their stripes and rings!