Our trip through Salar de Uyuni ended at the border of Chile, where we got transport to San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro is a small tourist town in northern Chile, located in the world's driest desert: the Atacama. Because the skies are perpetually blue (the average yearly rainfall is just 1 millimeter) and there is practically no light pollution, it is the best place in South America for stargazing. We wanted to get a good look at the sky, so we took a tour with Space Star Tours. They have ten telescopes, with the largest being 60 centimeters in diameter.
Our guide was a Canadian astronomer who moved to the Atacama desert specifically for the cloudless skies. He started by asking us to pick out some stars and constellations that we recognized, and I immediately looked for the north star and big dipper. Of course, being in the southern hemisphere, I didn't find either. The entire sky was different than what we see at home, which was very interesting. Our guide pointed out and explained many different stars and constellations, and gave a brief history of astronomy. We were able to see the milky way, which was absolutely stunning. Because the skies were so dark from a lack of surrounding lights, we were able to see so many more stars than you normally can. We looked at the moon through a telescope, which showed the craters in an incredible amount of detail. We saw at least five meteors in the two hours we were outside, and we later found out that there are approximately ten per hour. It is amazing to think about, because I have rarely seen a meteor in my life until now. Despite it being freezing cold and late at night, both Daniel and I loved the tour.
Earlier that day, we rented bicycles and rode through Valle de la Luna (aka "moon valley"). The landscape was a stunning array of arid desert, mountains, and caves along a dirt road. We rode six miles or so until we reached the caves, then did some hiking around and through them. It was a little eerie because the caves were pitch black inside and the halite strata made a constant cracking sound. At that point, the altitude started bothering us so we made our way back to the city.
We found San Pedro to be very expensive, especially compared to Bolivia. We left the following day for Antofagasta, an industrial city five hours south. Our sole reason for going there was restock our supply of Lush shampoo bars, the best travel shampoo on earth. Next stop, Santiago!
Nuts and Bolts:
- Hostal Hara: CLP 20,000 ($42.25) for a double room with shared bathroom and no breakfast. It was fairly basic, but there was a communal kitchen. It was the cheapest non-dormitory we could find in town.
- Space Star Tours: CLP 18,000 ($38) per person. English speaking tours are from 11pm to 1:30am.
- Bicycle rentals: CLP 3,500 ($7.40) per person for up to six hours. They give a good map and directions if you ask. If you want to hike the caves, bring a headlamp... it is dark in there!