San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile is tiny, dusty, and pricey. I hadn’t been to a place this touristy since I hit San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico back in January. But unlike San Cris, San Pedro de Atacama had plenty of redeeming qualities that made it worth returning to Chile, which required a 9-hour bus ride…that turned into an 11-hour journey, forcing me to miss Atletico Madrid vs Bayern. That sucked, but the drive did not.
I enjoyed sitting front-row on the 2nd level as we wound through canyons, reached 4100 meters elevation (about 13,400 feet!), passed through salt flats and deserts, and drove past volcanoes. It was beautiful! An overnight bus would’ve been a bad decision.
There are no paved roads or stoplights in San Pedro de Atacama, which was kinda cool. Everything on HostelWorld was either sold-out or far too expensive, so I was happy to find Las Kañas (9000 CLP) on a walk through town. It was a great little place, where, on the plus side, I had the 6-bed dorm room all to myself the entire 5 nights and solid Wi-Fi, and, on the minus side, the owner got a bit upset with me for doing my laundry in the shower. Sorry, lady, I wasn’t going to pay $1.50 USD per pound when I had to clean my entire wardrobe.
I’d booked an astronomy tour that night with SPACE (20,000 CLP), and it did not disappoint. The Atacama desert is the dryest place in the world (outside of Antartica), with virtually no light pollution in San Pedro de Atacama, and at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, it’s one of the best places on the planet to star gaze (which is why the amazing ALMA Observatory is here, but I’ll get to that in a bit).
I spent nearly 3 hours getting great insight from Alain, the witty astronomer and founder of SPACE, on our solar system (and other galaxies) in easy-to-understand terms and numbers, looking at stars and planets through their 13 telescopes, drinking hot cocoa, and just staring in awe at the starlit sky. Visibility was insanely good; I’d never seen such a milky Milky Way.
I got up early the next day to do a mountain bike ride through the Valle de la Luna, which is about a an hour bike ride from San Pedro de Atacama. And though I got really lost (darkness, 0 signage, and confused locals did not help my case) and missed sunrise, I got there early enough to enjoy the place nearly by myself and without having to pay since there was no one at the gate when I rode by.
The place definitely lived up to its name, with a very interesting lunar landscape which was covered in salt at times, giving it a snowy desert look. The 30 km round-trip ride was fun, especially the way back, since it had some killer downhills.
After 6 hours of biking around, I caught the Champions League game at a little beer-only bar in San Pedro, ChelaCabur, where my michelada was laughably bad: a beer with lime juice, a salt rim, and a shaker with some sort of powdered spice. Nothing to do with all the good-ass micheladas I had in Mexico, and truly not what I needed after a warm afternoon on a bike.
There are a gazillion other tours available in San Pedro de Atacama (altiplanic lakes, sandboarding, geysers, minor archeological sites, etc), all at premium, touristy prices or at terrible hours, like 4:30 am, but the only other one of interest to me was at the ALMA Observatory, which books up weeks in advance and is only offered once-a-day on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s the only free thing you can do in San Pedro de Atacama, other than walking or breathing dust, and not one you can book at the one of 10,000 tourist agencies in town.
Thankfully I’d chatted with an astronomer on the SPACE tour who happened to also do the ALMA Observatory tours and let me know that it was worth trying to show up, even if I didn’t have a ticket or my name on the waiting list (also sold-out), since there are always no-shows.
After heading into Calama, a little city an hour away with a mall (I needed a coat for my Uyuni Salt flats tour that wasn’t 150-300 USD, like pretty much everything in San Pedro) and a movie theatre (with a day to kill, I thought I’d catch Captain America) on Friday, I took the hot tip on ALMA Observatory tours and ran with it, showing up early on Saturday morning in hopes of getting on the bus, which I did, along with a few other hopefuls.
A 45-minute bus ride got us to ALMA, the largest and most-expensive astronomical project on the planet! A great example of global cooperation and a good use of tax dollars, the mission at ALMA is simple: explore the origins of our solar system with the most advanced technology. That advanced technology means putting 66 huge antennas to work mostly as a single, giant, superpowerful unit.
The ALMA Observatory was truly impressive and the tour exceptionally interesting. The science and engineering at this 1.5 Billion dollar facility were insane, which explains why they have already made several important discoveries. And even though the tours don’t go onto the antenna field itself because of the 5000 m altitude, we lucked out and got up close with a pair of antennas that were near the main building for maintenance, as well as the giant transporters used to move them.
I’m not exaggerating when I say giant. Each of the two transporters at ALMA (Otto and Lore) is 20 meters long, 10 meters wide, 6 meters high, and has 28 enormous tires. They also have two 700-HP diesel engines, allowing them to move at up to 7.5 mph when loaded with precious cargo.
I left the ALMA Observatory with a smile on my face and spent the rest of Saturday choosing a tour company to head to Uyuni with, getting bad exchange rates for the few dollars I had left, and packing for Sunday Funday, when I would start making my way to Bolivia on a 3-day road trip that would ultimately end at the brilliant white Salar de Uyuni.