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The World's Driest Desert Is Also An Incredible Place For Stargazing

by Hannah D. Cooper Nov 29, 2023

The Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth, is a high-altitude plateau that once lay at the bottom of the ocean. If the elevation doesn’t leave you feeling woozy then the Martian landscapes, geysers, volcanoes, and altiplano lakes will soon put you right. Another reason to visit this parched spot in northern Chile is for astrotourism.

Sitting at 8,015 feet, the dusty oasis of San Pedro de Atacama is the gateway to the desert landmarks and the clearest skies in the world. The region is so remarkable that NASA tests equipment for lunar missions in this part of the Chilean desert.

Eight hundred miles south of San Pedro, greener, and at a more breathable altitude, the Elqui Valley is an alternative option for star trekkers in Chile. Named after the Nobel-winning poet Gabriela Mistral, who grew up in Vicuña, this wine region pipped San Pedro to the post when it became the world’s first designated International Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2015.

Astrotourism in the Atacama Desert

constellations above atacama desert

Photo: Tatsuya Ohinata /Shutterstock

As the most arid non-polar desert, the Atacama receives minimal rainfall and virtually no cloud cover. There is zero light pollution, next to no radio interference, and thinner air allows for greater precision. In fact, the largest radio telescope on the planet, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), is located in the Chajnantor plateau. Watch this space for the reprisal of free public tours to the base camp.

Astronomical tours in San Pedro de Atacama

Every tour agency on San Pedro’s primary tourist corridor, Caracoles Street, sells astronomical tours. These nocturnal activities are led by a professional astronomer at private locations on the town outskirts. Every tour is different as the night sky is impossible to predict but you’re guaranteed an eyeful of stars, planets, nebulae, and other celestial objects plus hands-on experience with the telescope.

They’re pitched at astronomers of all levels but the narration gets pretty technical so you’ll want to double-check that your tour is in English. While you wait your turn for the Azimuth Mount telescope, keep watch for shooting stars.

Astronomical tours typically cost 30,000 CLP ($33) per person. This price should include transport to and from your hotel in San Pedro, an astronomical talk, and stargazing through professional telescopes. The best tours are capped at 12 participants. Turismo Gato Andino and Layanna Travel are two of the most reputable agencies on Caracoles. Llama Stargazing runs tours in English that are bookable on Airbnb Experiences.

We hope you love these astrotourism experiences! Just so you know, Matador may collect a small commission from the links on this page if you decide to book a tour or stay.

Visit the Meteorite Museum

ALMA telescope in atacama desert

ALMA telescope. Photo: Fluglinse/Shutterstock

Installed in a geodesic dome in San Pedro, the Meteorite Museum is a nice addition to any astrotourism visit in northern Chile. Different types of meteorites are showcased through displays of chondrites, mesosiderites, and pallasites turfed from the Atacama by a local collector, Rodrigo Martinez. The audio guide is rounded off with a mini masterclass on detecting meteorites plus the chance to pocket a fragment from the gift store.

Open Tuesday through Sunday between 6 PM and 9 PM, the museum will warm you up before an astronomical tour.

Gabriela Mistral Dark Sky Sanctuary

stargazing in atacama desert

Photo: Cavan-Images/Shutterstock

The Gabriela Mistral Dark Sanctuary sits in the lower Atacama Desert in the lush Coquimbo region. Topping out at 6,500 feet, Chile’s northernmost wine region is an alternative stargazing destination for travelers averse to parched climates and dizzying altitudes. As many of the standard tours in San Pedro are off-limits to younger children, pregnant women, and those with certain health conditions, the public observatories in the Elqui Valley are more suitable for travelers who fall under these categories.

Tickets to visit the Observatorio Cerro Mamalluca are sold at the kiosk in Vicuña Plaza. These depart at 6.30 AM in winter and 8.30 PM in summer except the nights directly before and after the full moon. Tours cost 12,000 CLP ($14) plus 5,000 CLP ($5.50) for the transfer.

This astronomical hiking tour with a local astronomer coincides with sunset. Once in the mountains, you’ll watch the constellations light up the valley while the guide shares an indigenous perspective of astronomy.

Independent stargazing

It’s simple enough to venture out for an independent stargazing session although you’ll miss out on telescopes and stellar intel on the night sky. With a rental car, you can drive to the outskirts of San Pedro and pull up in one of the laybys near the Piedra del Coyote viewpoint. If you’re on foot or have a rental bicycle, just following the main roads away from the lively Caracoles will yield starry skies. Available on Apple and Android devices, Stellarium is a free app that helps you locate constellations and visible planets.

Solo star trekking beyond the main roads in San Pedro and the Elqui Valley isn’t recommended as it’s easy to get lost. Cell service is patchy in rural Chile so it’s handy to have an offline app such as when driving.

Best time to go stargazing in the Atacama Desert

stargazing in atacama desert

Photo: Cavan-Images/Shutterstock

Stargazing in the Atacama is impacted by the moon phases and a short, sweet, and surprisingly fierce rainy season. June, July, and August deliver the sharpest conditions for stargazing in the Atacama and the best time for seeing the Milky Way. As this is winter in the Southern Hemisphere, nights are freezing with temperatures plunging into the low 20s.

October and November are superior for clear skies and pleasant temperatures in both San Pedro and the Elqui Valley. This is also when you might catch the Atacama’s desierto florido, a rare desert bloom in Llanos de Challe National Park. San Pedro’s rainy season occurs in late January or mid-February. It will only rain for a couple of days but the downpour will be mighty.

The worst time for seeing the stars is around the full moon. Most providers pause their tours up to five days before or after whereas others switch to an astrolunar tour. It’s still possible to observe celestial happenings but they are fairly diminished. Still, the opportunity to view the craters of the moon through a telescope isn’t a bad experience. Take a tip from someone who learned this the hard way: Don’t gaze at the moon through the telescope for longer than five seconds.

Where to stay for stargazing in Atacama

Tierra leads the way for luxury lodging in Chile. The Tierra Atacama Hotel and Spa offers desert-view rooms and a swimming pool overlooking Licancabur Volcano. It’s a 20-minute walk from Caracoles but the hotel has an excellent restaurant on-site and arranges tours from the lobby.

Accommodation is far more affordable in the Elqui Valley. Elqui Domos makes stargazing from bed even easier than streaming with its geodesic domes and observatory-style cabins.

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