Friday, 6 March 2015

San Pedro de Atacama

The planetary science workshop ended on Thursday evening, but eighteen of us stayed on in Chile with the opportunity to visit the Atacama Large Millimetre/Sub-Millimetre array (ALMA), high in the Atacama desert in northern Chile.  This was a chance not to be missed, both for the otherworldly environment and the prospect of glimpsing the worlds most sophisticated radio observatory.

We departed Santiago for the two hour flight to Calama, cruising to the west of the Andes and passing the tallest peak in the whole of South America (Aconcagua), 7000 m high and in neighbouring Argentina.  The landscape below was dry and desolate, punctuated by extensive mining works for copper and lithium (apparently Chile is one of the largest global exporters of lithium, making money out of its use in electronics all over the world).  The Atacama is the world’s driest non-polar desert, with some rain gauges having never received any rain, period.  And you could really tell from the air.  Calama itself was a dust bowl, and the rich salt lakes covered the land right up to the mountains (extinct and ancient volcanoes).

A 90-minute bus took us from Calama to San Pedro de Atacama, a small town grown around an oasis in the desert.  We passed through the study Valle de la Luna, with sedimentary rocks thrust and turned on their side to produce a vast red canyon of jutting rock formations.  San Pedro was a really striking experience, as every building was made of the red-coloured adobe, including our hotel the Casa de Don Thomas.  The streets were largely unpaved and prone to dusty breezes flowing through, stray (but not aggressive) dogs roamed everywhere, and waterways criss-crossed the town for use in irrigation.  The village had a central square, featuring an adobe church that was undergoing renovation, a museum containing archaeological remains of the Chilean peoples who first lived here, and a relaxed bar with tables spilling into the square.  There’s one long main street, featuring endless small restaurants, souvenir shops and excursion organisers (from here tourists can visit a geyser field, salt lakes, flamingo reserves, or go sand boarding).

Sadly I had no time to enjoy the resort, only having a couple of hours to stroll the main street and dine in the Adobe restaurant.  Others stayed on for a few extra days following our trip to ALMA, but for me it was time to leave Chile behind.  I returned to Santiago on Saturday night for a brief stay in an airport hotel, then an early morning flight back to London via Sao Paolo.  Incidentally, the 4-hour stop in Sao Paolo on the Tropic of Capricorn was my first ever trip to Brazil!  One day I’ll have to come back….

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