WHY: The remote Atacama—the driest and, arguably, highest desert in the world—has one of the clearest skies on the planet. Stargazers can participate in a variety of activities, such as free weekend tours of ALMA, the world’s largest and most sophisticated ground-based astronomical observatory. “The Atacama offers exceptional views of the night sky for professional and amateur astronomers alike,” says Charles Blue, public information officer for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which jointly manages the ALMA observatory along with international partners, the European Southern Observatory, and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. “This is partly due to the shielding effect of the Andes Mountains, which create a natural barrier against the moisture from the Pacific, making this region both high and dry—two qualities that are prized by observers. It’s also far from sprawling cities, minimizing light pollution.” Space is limited on the free ALMA tours, and advance registration is required.
WHERE: The Atacama Desert is in northern Chile, stretching from the Peruvian border south for 600 miles (966 kilometers). The ALMA observatory and other organized stargazing opportunities are located in and around the town of San Pedro de Atacama. There are international airports in Santiago, Chile (Santiago Arturo Merino Benítez), and La Paz, Bolivia (El Alto International Airport).
HOW: From Santiago, take a two-hour connecting flight to El Loa Airport in Calama, the closest city (about an hour’s drive) to San Pedro. Some San Pedro hotels offer airport pickup to guests as part of the rate or for an additional fee. If transportation isn’t included, make advance reservations with Trans Licancabur, one of the airport’s transfer services.
STAY: The 42-room-and-suite Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa is a luxurious, terra-cotta colored oasis located within walking distance of San Pedro. The best rooms for stargazing are at the Tilo Suites, with spacious patios and private outdoor showers open to the night skies. Guests can also lean back and stargaze on the fixed chaise longues at the outdoor observatory. The recently upgraded 17.5-inch (44-centimeter) Discovery Dobsonian telescope provides enhanced views of distant stars and galaxies. Other celestial activities include full-moon hikes across the lunarlike landforms of the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna).
EAT: Try drinks and dishes—such as pisco sours, medicinal teas, and ice cream—infused with indigenous rica-rica, an aromatic herb with a mintlike taste. Other local specialties include pataska, a hot-seasoned stew made with large-kernel local corn (similar to hominy), lamb, and vegetables. Pataska is served every week in the Alto Atacama restaurant.
DON’T MISS: October 2–9, 2016 (and October 1–8, 2017), endurance athletes from more than 40 different countries will participate in the Atacama Crossing, a seven-day, 155-mile (250-kilometer), rough country footrace across the desert.
INSIDE TIP: San Pedro is located about 8,000 feet (2,450 meters) above sea level. Hikes and other Atacama excursions could take you above 13,000 feet (3,962 meters). To prevent acute mountain sickness, plan on spending the first two days acclimating to the high altitude. Rest and relax, drink plenty of water, and avoid alcohol and heavy foods.
FUN FACT: Stargazing isn’t the only celestial activity taking place in the Atacama. NASA researchers say that the harsh environment and the extreme dryness of the desert’s soil chemistry are strikingly similar to that of Mars. Having a red planet-like environment on Earth makes it possible for scientists on the multinational Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS) project team to test drilling and life-detection technologies that could be used on future missions to Mars.