It was 2008 when I first heard about the Atacama Desert and the things you could do in San Pedro de Atacama. One of the things to do in the Atacama Desert is stargazing in San Pedro de Atacama. This was very high on my bucket list and one of my Reasons to travel to South America. It was my reason to travel to Chile in the first place. I even aligned my travel dates to make sure I wouldn’t be in Chile around a full moon and would miss the astronomy tour in the Atacama Desert.
Why go stargazing in San Pedro de Atacama?
But what is so special about Stargazing in San Pedro de Atacama? With the Atacama Desert being one of the driest places in the world, the area around San Pedro de Atacama is an astronomers dream. Due to the altitude and the dryness of the area, there is hardly any air pollution and views are uninterrupted. What more could you wish for when you spend the night under the stars in Northern Chile?
There are several outfitters in the little village of San Pedro de Atacama. This town is tiny and caters solely to tourists. You can just walk into any agency with a telescope outside and ask for their rates and pick up times. If you Google “Stargazing in San Pedro de Atacama” you’ll soon find one major ranking website. I’ve read some raving reviews and was determined to book with them.
But after a night bus without any sleep, a sick day in bed and time running out, I booked with the first agency I came across when I stumbled into the village. I paid 21.000 CLP for the tour, but I can’t find the company I booked with on internet, so I cannot link to them.
Looking back now, I should have stuck to the original plan but overall my experience was positive. This leads me to the conclusion that Stargazing in San Pedro de Atacama is such an unique night out, it doesn’t matter the execution.
My Experience Stargazing in San Pedro de Atacama
So what does a Stargazing tour in San Pedro de Atacama consists of? I’ll tell you my experience. At the end, I’ll also give you a list of tips if you want to go stargazing in San Pedro de Atacama too.
Other outfitters might have a different itinerary for the evening, but they are all more or less the same.
I booked my ticket to go stargazing in San Pedro de Atacama in the late afternoon. At that moment, it was windy and cloudy. The guys in the office said it might clear up. I only booked a 2 nights stay in San Pedro, so it had to happen either this night or the next. We agreed I would check in the office at 8 pm to see if the tour was a go or no go.
At 7 pm I left the restaurant where I had dinner and the skies completely cleared. The first stars appeared at the sky. I changed clothes and managed to put on every single piece of clothing I had packed for my trip. I felt like a little sumo wrestler woman, but I was certain not to let the cold ruin my night!
Explanation about the Southern Sky
I walked into town and together with the others; we got in a van and were dropped off at the site for the Stargazing in San Pedro de Atacama. By now, it was already pitch dark and I turned on my little head lamp that I brought with me for this occasion. We settled in a cleared area, in front of a screen on some benches. Our guide for the night introduced himself and he explained in English and Spanish how the Southern Hemisphere is different from the Northern skies and the rotation influences the rise of stars and planets.
To be completely honest, this explanation lasted for a good hour and I didn’t understand that much of it. The guide spoke mostly in Spanish and only summarized shortly in English. Even without this language barrier, I’m not sure if I would have understood much more because things got quite technical and astronomical.
As I use Instagram a lot for my travel planning, I’d like to show you an image by Yuri Beletsky, a nightscape photographer. This image was taken around the same time as my visit to Northern Chile. The colours and the lights are not from light polution but from airglow in the sky.
Crazy night sky ! Milky Way and bright airglow over the Magellan telescopes – what a view from Atacama desert in Chile. The bright orange “cloudy” structure on the sky is actually not light pollution (!), this is atmospheric airglow (red emission). It was surprisingly bright indeed. If you want learn a bit more about airglow, here is a fantastic recent description by Les Cowley: http://www.atoptics.co.uk/fza67.htm #Chile #airglow #special_shots #hot_shotz #atacama #nightsky #night #nighttime #stars #astrophotography #apod #stargazing #longexpoelite #universetoday #travel #earthpix #awesome_earthpix #discoverearth #awesomeearth #thebest_capture #wonderful_places #travel_captures #instagood #instacool #amazing_longexpo #longexpoelite #SpaceAttraction #nightphotography #nightscaper
After the introduction, we finally got to the point of the actual stargazing! There were 2 telescopes pointed at the sky and we each got our turn for looking through them. First we looked at the sky without telescope and could see many stars with the naked eye.
This was already a real treat, as the sky was pitch black and everywhere around us, little bright lights kept popping up. The longer you look the more stars you could see!
The two telescopes were different in magnification and we got to see Orion first. From the second telescope, we even got closer. I really loved this way of viewing, because first you see its position the sky and then much closer.
Open Clusters of Stars
We learned about open clusters of stars. These are stars that belong together, because they are the same intensity and age as the other stars in the cluster. Astronomers find them very interesting because they can study the cluster and learn about the universe and its age. Through the telescope, the viewer was filled with little bright dots.
When I got to the second telescope, I was able to see the colour of the stars better and we zoomed in on 1 particular star, which had that perfect star shape. You know: that shape you draw as a child in kindergarten.
Globular Clusters of Stars
At the stargazing tour progressed, the guide was talking more and more in Spanish. I was tip toeing around as my feet had frozen, regardless of all the layers of cloths I had on. I was waiting for my turn. When the guide re-adjusted the telescope for me, I asked him, what I would see. He said: closed cluster. To be honest, I had never heard of the terms open and closed clusters before. Google learned me later; the terms are actually open and globular cluster. I pinched one eye shut and peeked through the lens of the telescope with the other.
At that moment, I was amazed. I let out a big sigh of adoration and couldn’t stop staring through the telescope. What I saw was one of the most beautiful things I even saw in real life. Of course, I recognized the shape from pictures, but seeing a miniature version through the telescope was just absolutely breath taking.
At the other end of the lens, I could see the cylindrical arms of a cluster of stars. Warping themselves among a central point. The colours were amazing and the little bright lights of the stars were imprinted on my retina.
When I moved to the 2nd telescope, I was able to zoom in even closer. I felt so privileged to see such beauty. At that moment, I forgot about the time or the cold. I was in my happy place. From that moment on, I took my time glaring through the telescope and made sure each time I took a peek, to ask first what I would be seeing.
As the tour ended, I even opted to take the last shuttle bus back into town, and was able to see Jupiter and Saturn! They were really tiny and a bit vague, but I saw the rings of Saturn for sure!
We were able to take photographs of the moon and we saw the different colours of Jupiter. We could easily spot the 4 satellite moons of Jupiter and more cluster of stars. This night of stargazing in San Pedro de Atacama was just magical.
Back home, I learned there are other Stargazing tours in San Pedro de Atacama. Some offer explanation in other languages or only English. Others have indoor facilities which I would recommend over sitting outside for an hour. All tours offer a hot drink and some snacks in the middle of the tour. Most stargazing tours in San Pedro de Atacama last 3,5 hours. Because I took the last shuttle bus to town, my tour lasted for a full 4,5 hours. The tour dropped me of at my hostel so I didn’t have to walk back home in the middle of the night.
Tips for Stargazing in San Pedro de Atacama
Of course, this blog post wouldn’t be complete without a little list of tips to know before stargazing in San Pedro de Atacama. If you’ve read my story, you probably noticed them already, but here is the summary:
- Check when there is a full moon. Stargazing tours in San Pedro de Atacama do not take place around the full moon period. Here is a useful link to check dates.
- Dress warm. Wear a hat & gloves. Thermal underwear will help a lot. Temperatures drop around freezing and you’re outside for most of the time.
- Check what time is the pickup. Tours run in summer and winter, but at different times. At the end of winter time, the schedule might change an hour or two.
- Bring your camera or smart phone. You do get the opportunity to make pictures of the moon through the telescope and some night shots. I was too busy staring through the telescope, so I didn’t take any.
- Ask questions if you do not understand things. The guides are more than happy to explain again. They wish to educate you and spread their wisdom.
- Take your time when it’s your turn to look through the telescope. Have the guide re-adjust the telescope if needed.
Have you ever been stargazing in San Pedro de Atacama? Or anywhere else? What did you think of it? Let me know your experiences with this type of night out!