Fly Me to the Moon – Day 187

Tue 7th Aug

After finding a new hostel, yesterday was pretty much a chill day and a look around the quaint little tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama. It’s surprising thou quite how much there is to do here. It’s not just the middle of nowhere or a cross over from Bolivia to Chile.

We are already booked on 2 tours for today. The first this afternoon yo Valle de la Luna. I nearly didn’t bother having been to the one in La Paz but having googled it first, I could see it was completely different.

Valle de la Luna is a fantastic moon landscape that is a part of the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Range) belonging to the Los Flamencos National Reserve. It is a small area of salt ground, 500m in diameter with an array of odd shaped sculptures. These salt mountains were formed through millions of years by rain and the harsh sun over the desert. Looking closely at the surface of the rocks, the calcium sulphate deposit looks more like crusted salt.

Because of its lack of humidity, there is no life here, which has turned it into one of the most inhospitable and driest places on earth. It is impossible not to associate the look and feel of this place with that of the moon or Mars. It’s so similar in composition that NASA uses it as a staging set for testing instruments and vehicles to be used for future Mars missions.

As we walk up through the valley, the info from our guide Cristobal is a bit hit and miss. A lovely friendly and funny guy but his explanations are not very in depth.

After climbing up and looking out over the valley

we climb through a salt cave. Crawling through little tunnels etc was quite cool.

Next it’s on to the Great Wall – nothing like China but it’s interesting to see all the layers and sediments of minerals.

From here we drive to watch the incredible sunset.

The best view thou is in the opposite direction where the sun leaves a red glow over the snow capped mountain peaks.

Whilst watching this we tuck in to some welcome snacks courtesy of the tour.

From here it’s back to San Pedro and a few of us along with our guide go for a beer.

It’s a quick turnaround as V and I are now off on another tour. The Astronomica tour to see the stars…

The sky in the Atacama is famous for being one of the most beautiful in the world and it really is. Because of its location in the middle of the driest desert in the world, it is far from light pollution of big cities and is known for having clear night skies, without any/many clouds.

The group is split into 3 languages – Spanish, English & Portuguese and the tour is then split into 3 parts. First of we sit outside, taking a blanket on the way to help against the chilly night. Here we are taught how to spot stars and their formations. Our guide is very informative and uses a laser pen to point and illustrate everything. We learn how to identify the cardinal points and some zodiacal constellations – including the scorpion for Scorpio which was pretty awesome. The scorpion heart was a dying star (did you know stars died) but it won’t for several million years! Other constellations weren’t as obvious and required a bit of imagination. We saw the Southern Cross and got told that we knew it was this by the 2 stars from the foot of it. This is a good starting point to find everything else.

What I thought were a few extremely bright stars were in fact planets! We can see Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and another which I forgot!

For part 2 we go indoors and are greeted by wine and hot drinks with accompanying snacks followed by a presentation on all we’ve just seen. It was extremely interesting but blew my mind in places. I feel like a school kid again asking a million questions….it was quite funny my knowing nothing and the Irish guy next to me who seemed like he could give the presentation himself – he knew his stuff!

Did you know there was more than 1 moon – me neither! There’s a 147 of them apparently! Did you know stars were created from nebulous clouds – nope, me neither! Maybe I was taught all this in science but I found it all too boring back then, but here in these surroundings, it’s nothing short of mesmerising.

We definitely did the tour in the right order and the best is most certainly saved till last. We go back outside to look through some of the most powerful telescopes. We saw many stars, their formations and things I have already forgotten (I couldn’t take notes and there was a lot to take in)! Some looked amazing but others to me looked like a black and white kaleidoscope pattern (heathen I know)! We also saw mars but it was like the sun in a night sky – i was expecting to see a bit more detail. The best by far though was seeing Saturn! OMG….a bright silvery planet with its orbital ring clear as day! This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen! Wow…amazing!

We end with a group photo with the stars

and then it’s back to San Pedro for a cheeky beer before bed.

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