Chile is home to the amazingly beautiful yet out-of-this-world landscapes in the Atacama desert at San Pedro de Atacama. Not only does the driest place on Earth offer such spectacular scenery, it also has very out-of-this-world activities; home to the Astronomy and Scientific research base of the European Southern Observatory

Out of this World Landscapes

One of the direst places on Earth, you can read all about it in my Guest Post here with the Global Grasshopper.

Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon)

Paranal Observatories

The Atacama desert is the perfect place on earth to study the wonders of outer space. Because of its high elevation this brings clear, dry and dark skies. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) operates seven telescopes from its base in Paranal. These include the Very large Telescope (VLT).

In mid-August 2010 ESO Photo Ambassador Yuri Beletsky snapped this amazing photo at ESO’s Paranal Observatory. A group of astronomers were observing the centre of the Milky Way using the laser guide star facility at Yepun, one of the four Unit Telescopes of the Very Large Telescope (VLT). Yepun’s laser beam crosses the majestic southern sky and creates an artificial star at an altitude of 90 km high in the Earth's mesosphere. The Laser Guide Star (LGS) is part of the VLT’s adaptive optics system and is used as a reference to correct the blurring effect of the atmosphere on images. The colour of the laser is precisely tuned to energise a layer of sodium atoms found in one of the upper layers of the atmosphere — one can recognise the familiar colour of sodium street lamps in the colour of the laser. This layer of sodium atoms is thought to be a leftover from meteorites entering the Earth’s atmosphere. When excited by the light from the laser, the atoms start glowing, forming a small bright spot that can be used as an artificial reference star for the adaptive optics. Using this technique, astronomers can obtain sharper observations. For example, when looking towards the centre of our Milky Way, researchers can better monitor the galactic core, where a central supermassive black hole, surrounded by closely orbiting stars, is swallowing gas and dust. The photo, which was chosen as Astronomy Picture of the Day for 6 September 2010 and Wikimedia Picture of the Year 2010, was taken with a wide-angle lens and covers about 180 degrees of the sky.   This image is available as a mounted image in the ESOshop.
A Laser Beam Towards the Milky Way’s Centre; Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky

The observatory offers Guided Tours  on weekends only and requires car hire to get there and back. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to fit this into my itinerary, but it makes into my wishlist.

A bird soaring over the remote, sparsely populated Atacama Desert in northern Chile — possibly the driest desert in the world — might be surprised to come upon the technological oasis of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal. The world’s most advanced ground-based facility for astronomy, the site hosts four 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes, four 1.8-metre Auxiliary Telescopes, the VLT Survey Telescope (VST), and the 4.1-metre Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA), seen in the distance on the next mountain peak over from the main platform. This aerial view also shows other structures, including the Observatory Control Room building, on the main platform’s front edge.
The ESO Complex at Paranal; Credit: J.L. Dauvergne & G. Hüdepohl (atacamaphoto.com)/ESO

For any 007 James Bond fans, this is the filming location for the finale of the 2008 Quantum of Solace film starring Daniel Craig. The hotel in the film is actually the “ESO Hotel” which is an accommodation and food facility for the scientists working at the observatory.

San Pedro de Atacama Desert Map

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San Pedro de Atacama: -22.911618, -68.200732
Calama Airport: -22.495588, -68.907967
Valley of the Moon: -22.944009, -68.299942
El Tatio Geysers: -22.335310, -68.013268
Laguna Chaxa: -23.338631, -68.162613
Laguna Miscanti & Miniques: -23.755810, -67.788391
Paranal Observatories (ESO): -24.639684, -70.385971

Where is San Pedro de Atacama? How do I fly there?

Flying here from Santiagio, lands you in Calama, which is a 2 hour shared taxi or bus ride to the tourist hub of San Pedro de Atacama.

Are there things to do in San Pedro de Atacama?

San Pedro is like any other non-descriptive traveller base; hostels, restaurants, tour agencies and even a  North Face shop! From here, it is very easy to make bookings on to day trips; one by tour bus which will cover all the local sights such as Laguana Chaxa and Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). And a second day trip sharing a 4×4 upto the El Tatio geyser field. Going by 4×4 is quicker than the tourist buses so gets you up there first.

Read my 10 Reasons why Chile is the Perfect Adventure Travel destination.

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