Star gazing in the Atacama

So I’m in Cusco, about to set off to Machu Picchu.

Here’s a description of an astronomy tour in the Atacama Desert whilst I was in San Pedro about one month ago…

I pitch into the lap of my neighbour before retreating, embarrassed and apologetic. The Toyota had abruptly veered off the paved road onto a pothole-strewn track, one of many that scores the surface of the Atacama Desert around the small town of San Pedro in northern Chile. The orange blaze of the car’s headlights dissects the night, roving over flat plains of sand and rock. Suddenly the silhouette of a solitary figure develops from the blackness, hunched over a wide cylinder.

Our group pile out into the dark, expectant and excited about an astronomy tour in the most renowned star gazing region on earth. The Atacama boasts the quintessential ingredients – altitude, little cloud cover, dry air and a lack of light pollution. As we climb out of the vehicle heads fall backwards and faint sighs of appreciation escape into the night. “Wow, what a sky!” affirms an American. A shooting star flashes across the hazy arch of the Milky Way, the cosmos responding to our tributes.

A broken circle of eight shivering bodies enclose the resident expert and his telescope. “Welcome!” announces Pablo, arms and fingers outstretched, palms tilted skyward as if our guide owns the night’s sky and we are only invited guests to the wonder of nature. Pablo is a small, animated man, mummified in an array of thick over-garments. I stand trembling in my shorts and sandals as the other tourists observe me with the same look of wonder and concern that most people reserve for the very, very drunk.

Saturn is first on the agenda, it’s an opener designed to impress. We crowd the telescope, taking it in turns to admire the surreal, off-kilter rings. Pablo describes the visible constellations with the aid of green laser pointer and identifies stars that likely no longer exist; their life long since extinguished but their light still travelling through space.

Everyone has a question, most have many, and Pablo meets each with an understanding nod and an explanation, sometimes then directing lively demonstrations in which volunteers charge around, simulating orbiting bodies and solar eclipses. The curious gratified, Pablo introduces us to a star he has christened The Rastafarian. As I squint at the flek it shimmers green, gold and red and Pablo erupts into a rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘no woman no cry’. He is soon joined by a chorus of voices from the gloom.

We cram back into the Toyota and as we chug off through the rough I peer back over my seat to see a little man and his telescope, drenched in the red of the car’s rear lights, slowly dissolving back into the desert night. Those with window seats aim enlightened eyes at the celestial sphere, the hunger for star gazing not yet sated. A voice complains that the low lying white dot of Venus had sunk into the horizon. “Don’t worry”, comes the reassuring voice of our driver, “she’ll be back tomorrow night”. He smiles at his prediction. “They all will.”

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    Here is an incentive: When you pass through So. Calif./LA…stop by; I will feed you your favorite food: Egyptian Koshary made by an Egyptian. Be well..(Sam I am the traveling man)


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    how absolutely wonderful. I spent a week in Hereford recently and was treated to a sky of stars….not something I see very often in London. still enjoying your posts….what a great time.


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