Located in the north of Chile on the Bolivian border, San Pedro de Atacama and its surrounding region is something out of this world. A high dry desert, its high volcanic mountains dominate the horizon while its barren landscape is punctuated by the occasional shrub or rock outcropping. We stopped over on the way to Bolivia and this town of about 5,000 is full of tourists taking day trips to the surrounding areas. Most of the buildings in this town are made of brick and adobe and the streets are dusty but full of lively energy. The energy was particularly evident on the night we arrived because there was a big soccer match of Chile vs. Argentina, a rivalry that goes back a few centuries. There was a certain bohemian charm in San Pedro and no shortage of western style cafes and restaurants.
The morning after we arrived, we woke up early to take a tour of the Piedras Rojas. We spent most of the day driving the surrounding landscapes and a few lagoons displaying the most unbelievable colors of red and blue I have never before seen in nature. We later toured the salt flats in the area which have built up over thousands of years. It is such a dry and harsh environment that NASA comes to the area to practice searching for life on Mars. Despite the high altitude, and almost complete lack of moisture, microorganisms thrive in the environment particularly in some of the accumulations of incredibly salty water called brine.
The tour gave us our first introduction to the coca leaf. Unlike the highly illegal and controversial derivative of the plant, the coca leaf has woven itself into the high-altitude culture of the region and is a staple of the locals far exceeding the presence that coffee makes in our own lives. Due to the high altitude of about 10,000 feet, our guide gave us coca leaves to combat altitude sickness and we learned about coca’s additional power to alleviate stomach ailments and help with alertness (no surprise there).
We ended our very long day with a stargazing class just outside of town. The region is world renowned for viewing the stars as it is high in altitude, very far from any urban areas, and so dry that clouds rarely block the view of the sky. We were shown the major constellations visible which were upside down versions of what we learned growing up since we were well south of the equator. Later we took a closer look at Jupiter and other close-by stars and star clusters through telescopes. We finished the class with a group photo. The need for a special lens and very long exposure time was well above the pay grade of our camera.
I have lived my entire life in a big city and have rarely viewed a sky full of stars. What I saw on that night was unlike anything I have ever experienced before and I sincerely doubt I will be able to see a brighter night sky again. Thousands of stars were visible to the naked eye and the details of the constellations were painstakingly obvious. The milky way looked like a large cloud mingling amidst the stars as the occasional shooting star streaked across the sky. The ancient Greeks named the constellations after aspects of their theology and staring up at the sky in all its unbridled brilliance, I couldn’t help but feel connected to the desire to relate such visual significance to a higher being. // Jeff