If you are fascinated by the thought of faraway galaxies, make sure you visit the driest desert in the world – Chile’s Atacama Desert. A rare set of factors in this arid lunar landscape – very little rainfall, crystal-clear skies, high altitudes of 2410 to 4270m and low-to-zero light pollution – have created an unparalleled stargazing haven.
It is no coincidence that the Atacama is a major hub for astronomical research and home to a clutch of cutting-edge observatories. While many are off-limits to visitors, a handful of observatories offer guided tours, and many of the area’s hotels feature star-gazing as part of their program. Just make sure you check the lunar calendar before heading out, and for the best viewing, avoid full moon nights.
First stop is Cerro Paranal, where you can tour the futuristic facilities of this ground-breaking complex, run by the European Southern Observatory. In the world of high-powered telescopes – where rival institutes compete to claim 'most powerful' specimens – Paranal’s is one of the best. The three-hour tour (make sure you book ahead) stops by the centre’s literally-named Very Large Telescope – made up of four 8.2m diameter telescopes – which allows astronomers to see details up to 25 times finer than with an individual telescope. The tour also pops into the space-age lobby of the on-site hotel, where portions of the James Bond flick, Quantum of Solace, were filmed. The entire surreal experience feels a bit like landing on the moon – and, in fact, you are pretty high up, at 2664m above sea level.
Overshadowing Paranal and other observatories in the Atacama is the most ambitious radio telescope the world has ever seen – the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).
The ALMA (meaning 'soul' in Spanish) is the largest land-based observatory ever built. Situated 40km east of the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, on Chajnantor plateau at a dizzying altitude of 5000m, ALMA consists of 66 enormous antennas which simulate a telescope 16km in diameter. More powerful than the Hubble telescope, it looks out to some of the most distant galaxies and observes the very first stages of formation of planets and stars. Plans are also afield to open a visitor centre by the end of 2014.
The town of San Pedro itself showcases several options for observing galaxies glittering thousands of light years away. Explore the wild black yonder at desert outpost Hotel de Larache by explora, where an all-inclusive stay includes a series of night time sky-watch sessions through their first-class Meade 16in telescope. Guests gather beneath an observation dome and gawk at supernova remnants, faraway planets, globular clusters and misty nebulae. And you can even photograph the stars – digital cameras can be mounted onto the telescope for spectacular astro-photography.
Those with an insatiable appetite for astronomy can book a tour with French astronomer Alain Maury, who runs the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations, known as SPACE. He takes travellers into the desert, far from any light contamination, to enjoy the star show in all its glory through a series of telescopes. Run in Spanish, English and French, the two-and-a-half-hour tours leave San Pedro nightly, except around the full moon.
Looking for another fix of star-gazing? Check in at Tierra Atacama, a boutique hotel and spa on the edge of San Pedro. They can book a stellar star-watching experience for you, with the new Ahlarkapin observatory just across the road. These personalized observation tours – which run nightly and last two hours – feature another twist on the Atacama’s star-awash night skies: their focus is on Andean cosmology, an ancient system of belief that claims we are connected to both physical and immaterial world around us. As Hernán Julio, scientific journalist and owner of Astronomy Adventures said during a recent tour of Paranal, "We are just a bunch of very complex cells but made of the same matter as our sun. When we observe the universe, we are observing ourselves."