By Allie E. Almario
You’re probably already familiar with Chile, the skinny strip of land that is 2,700 miles long and 217 miles at its widest point. Chile is tucked between the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west.
Boasting the clearest skies on earth and known as the driest desert in the world, Chile’s Atacama Desert is the premier place for one of the world’s best stargazing experience. Little to no light pollution is the optimal environment for this activity. The desert has an average yearly rainfall of just 15mm, although some parts of the desert get much less rain than that, averaging 1-3mm of rainfall in a single year.
Its rare and unusual landscape is often compared to Mars, so if it looks familiar, you may have already seen it as a backdrop in several movies and TV shows.
Now with the addition of ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), the largest radio telescope in the world, the experience has just been catapulted to a whole other level. According to experts, “the telescope is so powerful that it can capture stars which are billions of light-years away, and it has a resolution that’s ten times clearer than the Hubble space telescope.” It uses 66 antennae that operates as the equivalent of a 10-mile-long telescope,
The good news is that the observatory offers free tours to members of the public every Saturday and Sunday, but you must register online in advance. Even better, since it is a radio telescope, not an optical one, you can actually go during the day.
HOW TO GET TO THE ATACAMA
Located in northern Chile, it’s a direct two-hour flight from Santiago to Calama, and from there, it’s an hour’s drive to the dusty outpost of a small town called San Pedro de Atacama. There are many lovely hotels to choose from, including some ultra luxury properties like the Awasi, which provides small casitas, butlers and your very own jeep driver.
The ALMA is located about 20 miles from San Pedro and at an altitude of more than 9,500 feet. Always be prepared to dress warmly.
WHEN TO GO
There are several different seasons in the Atacama, but high season is summer here – December through to mid-March. Low season is winter, from June to August, which can be quite cold and windy. Shoulder seasons occur from September to November and March to May.
Experts agree that the best time to go for stargazing is high season. You’re almost guaranteed clear skies. Because of the warm, dry climate, the Atacama experiences minimal cloud cover. Nonetheless, the Atacama can be visited throughout the year.