Stargazing in Chile's Atacama Desert
By Patricia Woeber
When next you wish upon a star, the place to be is in Chile's Atacama Desert. You'll easily see thousands of stars as well as an eye-popping selection of other heavenly bodies. During the daytime the area offers a variety of active sports and explorations.
The high Atacama Desert's lack of pollution allows clear sightings of the spectacles of the southern sky. In addition, the clarity is enhanced by its 300 sunny days a year and location at 7,000 feet above sea level. These perfect conditions contribute to the sight of some 6,000 stars and views of the sublime: the Andromeda Galaxy, rings of Saturn, moons of Juniper, nebulae, the Southern Cross, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Magellanic Clouds (160,000 and 200,000 light-years away), along with five planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter.
In the village of San Pedro, the hotel Explora welcomes its guests to view the night skies through the hotel's personal observatory telescope, a Meade 16" f/10 LX200R Advanced RC Telescope, one of the largest "aficionado-level" privately owned telescopes in Chile. Guests may even mount digital cameras and smart phones to a bracket attached to the telescope.
The Explora's observatory is a few minutes' stroll from the hotel, just 300 feet away. Here, exterior lounge chairs allow for a relaxing time and the staff serves drinks. Sunsets are best enjoyed from the hotel's terrace with views of the Licancabur volcano on the border between Chile and Bolivia.
The hotel lists a variety of active sports that enable guests to enjoy the surroundings and remoter parts of the desert. For example, the Andes bike exploration, the highest mountain bike route in the altiplano (high plains), reaches 15,000 feet above sea level. It's a 13-mile ride and best for advanced riders.
An ideal hiking workout, the Gato Andino (named for the mountain leopard), is a full-day trek with moderate hiking up to 14,343 feet for stunning views that reach Argentina in the distance.
A moderate hike, the Ruta del Agua, takes a full day, 5.9 miles, and reaches 12,526 feet, where views of the Andes Mountain range and salt-filled basins converge. This excursion finally reaches the seven geothermal pools in the Puritama Natural Reserve (once the home of the Andean cat).
The hotel Explora restored these cascading hot springs and gave them to the Atacameno community. One pool is reserved for the exclusive use of Explora guests.