High, dry, with our eyes on the sky in Chile

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, our next destination, was 1000 miles away. We set off from Cusco to Arequipa, once again on a night bus. We arrived at 6.30 am, and went from groggy and half asleep to jogging with rucksacks on front and back to catch our newly discovered next bus in the space of fifteen minutes. Safely ensconced on our way to Tacna in Peru’s far south, we once again gawked at incredible desert scenery – red sand stretching to the horizon, followed by mountains and canyons making it look like we were on the moon – while trying to ignore the Bollywood and tsunami disaster films that were being played at top volume throughout the six hour journey. Once in Tacna, roasting at midday, we found a shared taxi making trips across the border into Chile, going as far as Arica. This crossing, in view of the Pacific, in a baking hot desert under a high sun, felt very different from our humid, dusky, subtropical crossing into Peru a few weeks earlier.

Arica felt modern and almost European in contrast to the Peruvian cities of the past few weeks. As all buses to San Pedro were at night, and there was not much keeping us in town, we booked for our second night bus in a row… and then enjoyed a few hours simply walking and not sitting on a bus. And eating pizza, and ice cream. And being in the vicinity of a normal, flushing toilet.

Back on the road again, we contorted ourselves into small seats, and then shivered in the dark at 5 am at a check point that wanted to see all our bags. The sun came up over the Atacama, and we saw yet more desert. At last, with mountains on the horizon, and trucks kicking up a plume of dust as they drove ahead of us, we arrived in San Pedro, a tourist mecca in Chile’s north east. We found it very strange. A pleasant little place, in the middle of nowhere, whitewashed and mud brick buildings lining the small grid of streets, a pretty plaza and church. But inside these buildings were posh tourist restaurants and bars that would not look out of place in a big city. Chile (1)Chile (2)

We traipsed the streets, as the sun got hotter and we felt more and more in need of a good big sleep, finding even grotty hostels out of our budget. Eventually, swayed by a smattering of resident backpackers making the place look normal, we ended up in a small hostel, with a couple of dorms and rooms around a dusty courtyard. We soon discovered that everything in San Pedro was crazy expensive. But they did have the first good wine of the trip.

We had come here to explore the incredible landscapes in the region, from salt and flamingo filled lakes, and the highest geyser field in the world, to desert valleys, and volcanic peaks. We had also come to see the stars. Being the driest place on earth, the Atacama desert is the place with the clearest view of space it is possible to have.

We started with a trip to Death Valley, scrambling up to a viewpoint above one of the driest places in the whole Atacama. Then we visited the white landscape of the Valley of the Moon, where we climbed a huge dune in time to watch the setting sun turn the valley golden, and then distant peaks pink and purple, as a sliver of a new moon brightened in the darkening sky. Chile (9)Chile (12)Chile (25)Chile (33)Chile (30)

Back in our dorm, ahead of a 4 am start for the tour the next morning, we were dismayed to discover all the beds were now full. When the time came it was a relief to stagger out into the cool, fresh, quiet darkness to escape a deathbed gurgling snorer. We drove for two hours, first dazzled by the brilliance of the Milky Way, then fighting to stay awake, and arrived with just enough time to pounce on the buffet breakfast of cake and tea before quickly freezing in subzero temperatures. We were now at about 4000m, 2000m higher than San Pedro, and arriving this early, while it was still cold, was necessary in order to see the geysers in their full glory.

We were led around the bizarre valley floor, from fumarole to hot spring to geyser, watching water splutter and steam from the ground, as the rising sun illuminated the rising steam. It was so cold (we were wearing more or less all the clothes that we had brought on the trip) that the thought of undressing to get into a thermal pool was too much, and instead we watched a shallow river quietly steaming as flowed past us, and an enormous geyser burst into life. Chile (46)Chile (45)Chile (57)

As we drove back, we saw the scenery that we had missed in the dark, vivid green giving way to bare ground on its way up to volcanic peaks, blue pools ringed with green, vicunas dotting the landscape.

That night we headed out of San Pedro once more, this time to explore the sky. Away from the lights of the town we were met by a Canadian astronomer who proceeded to tell us about the stars, and our long history of noticing, studying and understanding them. We stood in a circle as he spoke, faces to the sky, seeing more stars and shooting stars than we had ever seen before. As he spoke, our guide used a laser pointer that would be illegal in many countries and that seemed to reach to the stars themselves to point out particular stars, constellations, and signs of the zodiac. He told us the difference between stars and planets, why stars twinkle and planets don’t, how Orion’s belt and sword together make an arrow that points north, that warm-coloured stars are cold, and cold-coloured stars are warm (I could barely see colour differences but most people could), that the patches of the Milky Way that looked like they could be clouds were in fact two galaxies that were orbiting ours (huh?), that a distant splodge was a galaxy whose light had started travelling towards us halfway back to the dinosaurs… there was a lot more, but it was too much to remember.

Then we were let loose on an array of huge telescopes, each pointing at something special. We saw Saturn, complete with rings, which was jaw-dropping, a star that looked like one but was actually two orbiting each other, the ‘jewel box’, a star cluster containing different coloured stars, a tarantula nebula, and many more. Then we retreated to the cosiest little building, with a large hole in the roof, where we drank delicious hot chocolate and the astronomer answered questions while I kept an eye on the Southern Cross through the skylight. There we learnt that a shooting star is no bigger than a grain of salt.

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