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Atacama Desert – here I come!

View Chile: the Land of Contrast on bejjan's travel map.

Had to get up unhealthy early to be able to catch the transfer at 5.25am back to Santiago Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport and the flight departed at 7.30am to El Loa Airport in Calama. It felt like the domestic flight terminal was separate from the rest of the airport and we had to embark a transfer bus to get to the actual airplane. It was bad weather, chilly and drizzling outside. Only problem was that all the passengers didn’t get onto the bus due to lack of space so the bus had to drive back and forth several times to pick-up passengers which delayed our flight. Though it wasn’t a long flight to get to El Loa Airport in Calama, it only took about 1 hour and 45 minutes. And even though it was such short flight we were served both snacks and drinks onboard… watch and learn SAS! Shortly after take-off and before getting into the clouds you had an amazing view over the Andes Mountain Range that proudly rose towards the sky. But even after flying into and above the clouds you could spot peaks of the Andes here and there that stretched all the way up through the clouds.


The closer we got to Calama the nicer weather it got and it got less cloudy and eventually it was a clear sky when we flew in over the Atacama Desert. The sand dunes and dry barren nature spread out underneath the airplane and I don’t know why but it was really beautiful to see.

Atacama Desert is an 181300 km2 desert area in the Antofagasta region in northern Chile and the area is a plateau of saltwater basins, sand and concreted magma and is the driest non-polar desert in the world. Average rainfall is 15 millimeter per year while other areas (Arica and Iquique) only has 1 millimeter per year and some weather stations in Atacama Desert have not received any precipitation at all since the measuring began. Some findings indicate that certain areas in Atacama Desert haven’t had any precipitations at all during 400 years (in between 1570 – 1971). Atacama’s extreme dryness is explained by its geographical location between two big mountain ranges (Andes and Chilean Coastal Mountain Range) and its high altitude which together prevent moisture from both the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean to reach the desert. Thanks to the location of the plateau and the extreme climate, the desert makes it very suitable for astronomical observations. It’s very few particles in the air and humidity of only 10% makes perfect conditions to study stars and planets. That’s why NASA and several other space organizations have observation stations here and even Sweden has two telescopes here in Atacama.


When the airplane had landed at El Loa Airport (2250 altitude meters) and I stepped outside and walked down the stairs to the ground, I felt the air was totally different. It was warm and dry compared to Easter Island which I just had visited for a few days. We passengers had to walk on the ground from the airplane into the arrival terminal, I got my baggage and went for the exit and looked for my private transfer. The driver was an older man who obviously didn’t speak a lot of English so I really had to focus to understand what he said and I finally got that San Pedro de Atacama was 1 hour away. The only things I managed to see of Calama from the air were that it was a small and sandy town that according to me looked very boring, in other words not much for tourists to see here. But Calama is a town in northern Chile that contributes very much to Chile’s economy year after year thanks to its high richness of copper in the surrounding mountains, and copper is (as I mentioned before) one of Chile’s most important exports. San Pedro de Atacama is southeast of Calama and during the drive we passed many beautiful natures. Can’t understand how such barren and secluded desert can be so amazing? San Pedro de Atacama is the oldest town in Chile (founded around 1459) and has an altitude of 2407 meters. The high altitude makes visitors suffer from typical symptoms like dizziness, headaches and apathy due to the extreme mild but dry climate. So tourists are recommended to drink a lot of water during their stay in San Pedro and both water and water bags can be bought in most of the shops and stores in town. Important is also to remember that you are in a desert (and should dress thereafter) with high temperatures during the day (up to +30 °C) that quickly falls down to sometimes below zero degrees Celsius during the night.


My transfer stopped outside Hotel Poblado Kimal and when I got out of the car it was like getting hit by a wall of warm and dry air. The intense sunshine was reflected by the sand on the street and it was almost impossible to see anything without sunglasses on. All houses I’ve seen so far were clay-houses with straw roofs which are very logical due to the climate here. Clay-houses make it cool and comfy inside during the summers and warm during the winters. Hotal Poblado Kimal has 21 wooden cabin-like rooms similar to bungalows with a terrace each. These have been elegant positioned out in a calm relaxing fruit garden in a pattern resembling of an old settlement called poblado. The hotel also respects Mother Earth (Pacha Mama) and Father Sun (Inti) by providing sun energy for all lights at the hotel complex and letting every tree stay in their original place when the hotel was built. I checked in at the hotel at 11am and the girl at the reception told me that the hotel did not only offered room service but also massage and daily tours to several attractions around San Pedro. I had a look at the price list for the massage and felt how badly I needed one, so I ended up booked a 1-hour-massage for only 30000 CLP (30 Euros) at 7pm later that evening. I also got to meet Jane, a British woman and also the one performing the massage. She was a positive down-to-Earth woman full of energy and it was nice to meet her so I had an idea of who would be massaging me later.


Since my room wasn’t cleaned yet I left my bags in the reception and got out on town. The hotel staff had printed out a map and marked some of the streets and places out that could be useful or interesting. The main street Caracoles was only a stone’s throw away from the hotel and since it was about + 30 °C outside most people (including me) walked along the street in the shadows casted by the houses on one side of the street. It was bearable in the shadow but as soon as you got out in the sun it felt like you boiled. I stopped by a store and bought water before I sat down on a bench in the shadow in the lushly town park. Notable was all the street dogs walking around, some of them did wear dog collars but they were so beat up and unhealthy that I assume they were dogs kicked out on the streets. It does hurt to see since I’m not used to street dogs back home.


Time struck lunch but the heat didn’t make me want to eat something though I drank water like crazy. I tried walking back to the hotel to see if my room was ready, but it wasn’t. I ran into Jane again and she told me there was a market today I could visit that was arranged only once a month. Jane tried to describe the way but then she said it was easier for me to go to the park and then just follow everyone else to where they were going. Ha ha, that sounded a little weird… just follow everyone else… But I did as she said and actually ended up at the market place. It was an open area without natural shadows but they had put up fabrics trying to cut off the sunshine the best they could. It was an amazing mixture of both new and second-hand things for sale and I’m pretty sure you could beat down the prices if you wanted to.

But I felt the heat and the strong sunshine and got very tired so I headed back to the town park and sat down in the shadow again. I drank up the last water and had and went back to the main street to buy some more. Now I felt I was starting to get hungry and entered a restaurant and ordered lunch. A delicious chicken lasagna that tasted superb. Just outside of that restaurant was a small ice cream store. I went inside and the man told me it was homemade ice cream and there were a lot of flavors to choose from. I even got to sample different flavors even though I hadn’t decided if I wanted to buy ice cream or not. But I ended up buying a cone with three different flavors (don’t remember what I chose). On the way back to the hotel I noticed an agency that arranged astronomical observation tours in the evenings to stargaze. If you visit San Pedro, one of the best places on Earth for stargazing, you have to take this tour. Only problem for me was that I had booked the massage at 7pm and this tour started at 8pm. But I took a shot and booked the evening tour anyway in hope of being able to re-book my massage.


When I got back to the hotel my room was finally ready! I met with Jane and there was absolutely no problem to change the massage to 6pm instead. I dragged my bags along and the receptionist led the way to my room and I got a little disappointed since I had expected a bungalow… but for some reason they had up-graded my room to a suite. The hotel has two suites, one with a Jacuzzi and the other one without and I had gotten the one without a Jacuzzi. The suites are also built in clay in difference to the smaller wooden bungalows that to me looked so cozy (from outside at least). But eventually I felt okay getting the suite since the terrace was bigger and more protected from insight than the small terraces belonging to the bungalows. Now I was so tired from both the sun and the thin air that I had to rest until my massage. Jane was a tiny woman and had a guy helping her carrying the portable massage table that was set up in my room. And obviously I had enough space for that in my little (big) suite. It was great getting massaged and releasing all tensions after carrying around all my bags and stuff for two weeks now.

I went to the meeting point for the stargazing tour at 8pm dressed in four layers of clothes, mittens and a hat… as I said before, at night temperature crawls down to around zero degrees Celsius and being outside, standing still, stargazing really needs many layers of clothes. We were about 15 people that had booked the same tour and we boarded the bus that took us to a building just outside the town. When we disembarked the bus we met Jared, our expert for the evening, and he brought us up on the roof where he had his two telescopes. He was multilingual and translated everything he said from English to Spanish so all people on the group would understand. Jared introduced himself and then asked each one of us where we came from. When he got to me he didn’t reacted until a few seconds later… “Oh, Sweden?”… and then he said in poorly Swedish: “I’m also from Sweden. From Norrköping.” Then he told (in English) that he was born and raised in Sweden and had a Swedish mother and Chilean father but wanted to move out of Sweden to Chile to reconnect with his Chilean roots.

It took a while for the eyes to adapt to the darkness up on the roof but once they did it was like looking at a sky full of crystals. Stars everywhere shining so bright and strong that the moon became un-noticeable and almost hidden behind the other stars and phenomena you could see. One phenomenon was the Milky Way that you can’t observe from Sweden and the northern hemisphere with your own eyes but here in San Pedro you could see it on your own. With help of two telescopes (one manual and one computerized) we could watch the moon, Mars and Saturn. According to Jared our moon is 1,3 seconds away from the Earth (in light speed) while Saturn is 80 minutes away. Since 2006 our own solar system consists of only 8 planets (again) after the definitions for a planet were changed.
1) The planet must have a sun/star to encircle.
2) The planet cannot be a satellite to another planet/solid material.
3) The planet must have solid material and the material cannot be moving inside the planet.
And since Pluto didn’t fulfill these criteria the decision was made that Pluto did not belong to our solar system anymore. Jared also meant that if those three definitions hadn’t been set up, our solar system had contained even more planets today.

During the evening Jared got the interesting question about how long it takes for us to notice that a star has died here on Earth. He immediately responded with the example of Orion itself. Orion is not visible from the southern hemisphere (except early in the morning) and is best visible from the north where we in Sweden can see it. But he claimed that the right shoulder in Orion already exploded and died but the distance to Earth will make it another 500 years before we can see that the star is gone. That’s actually kind of cool. A slideshow and coffee break were included in the tour and it was very interesting listening to Jared since he was so passionate about his profession as an astronomer. He was competent, experienced and had answers to all questions that were asked during the evening.


Got back at the hotel at 10.30pm, tired, cold and frozen (despite all the layers of clothes) so a nice warm shower and then went straight to bed.

Posted by bejjan 16:00 Archived in Chile Tagged traveling atacama_desert star_gazing

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