Off to the desert, bags in hand! I woke at 5am to begin heading to the airport. I did end up lugging a suitcase along; I could see no other way to survive with my contact lenses. V. came to the rescue, offering to lend me a much smaller suitcase; while I have two bags, I am still fairly mobile. I also cheated a little and took a taxi from V.’s to the Valpo bus terminal (instead of an unsafe walk in the dark to catch a micro). From there, onto a bus with squishy seats, cozying in for the ride to Santiago.
Some images from the bus ride: a fantastical, blue-painted chateau glimpsed for mere moments through the trees. An orangeing sunrise which lit just the top branches of all the trees. Uncannily Californian landscapes — chaparral, vineyards — alternated with stocky foreign palm trees.
V. had suggested I get off the bus at a different stop than when I first arrived in Chile — a smaller bus terminal called Pajaritos, from which I could catch the same airport bus with greater ease. This plan worked brilliantly, and I arrived at the airport in good time, checked in, and even had time to get a latté and donut (at a Dunkin’ Donuts, of all things).
The flight to Calama was less than two hours, during which they distributed ham-flavored crackers (!) and chocolate cookies. I read placidly until we began our descent, at which point I gazed out the window at an expanse of dust-brown flat earth, traced with insect-trail roads and interrupted by wrinkled, bare mountains.
Since Calama is a very small airport, we exited the plane directly onto the tarmac. With my first breath of desert wind, I began grinning delightedly. Within fifteen minutes, I had claimed my suitcase, purchased a ticket to San Pedro, and settled into a window seat of the San Pedro van. (I absolutely love small airports — their more relaxed atmosphere, the speed. They always make me nostalgic for the ol’ Greenbrier Valley airport, into which I often flew to visit my grandparents in West Virginia.)
As I had seen from the plane, the land was largely flat just outside Calama: miles of tan and grey dust, sometimes littered with trash. Then, we passed more and more hills, with dark shoulders and pale bellies. If I strained my eyes, I could see huge mountains off in the distance, but they were so delicately lavender that they blended almost perfectly with the pale blue sky, more like an illusion. I was sitting next to a friendly Brazilian man, who kept starting conversations with me, so I didn’t stare at the desert for the whole ride, but I’m sure there’ll be plenty of time for that. Soon after the landscape changed into curled and ridged geological formations, we were entering the little pueblo of San Pedro.
The van dropped me off right in front of my hostel, which was a pleasant surprise; I’d been expecting to be left in some dusty corner, having to find my own way there. I checked in, and got the grand tour from one of the owners. The hostel is a single-story adobe building, with all of the rooms ringed around and opening onto a large and inviting patio and a garden with abundant plant life and two enticing hammocks. There is also a shared kitchen and bathroom, next to a large water tank (since we are in the middle of the desert, the town sporadically runs out of water; the hostel keeps its own supply to ensure morning and evening showers). My own room is simple, but pleasant, with a ceiling lined with bamboo rods, a lamp made out of spiraled twigs, two windows onto the patio, and two twin beds with blue bedspreads and extra comforters.
After a brief moment of relaxation, I headed off into San Pedro to visit the offices of two tour-activities I had booked in the weeks before arriving: a nighttime star tour and a horseback ride. However, the star tour offices were closed for three hours. When I went to the horse adventure office and told them I’d made a reservation with them by email, they asked, “Two people?” No, just one. “Oh, well, we can’t do that. If you want to go, you have to pay double the price.” Despite the fact that we coordinated multiple times via email, and you confirmed my single-rider reservation without ever bothering to mention the surprise price doubling until I got into your office? Yup. Buttheads.
I returned to the hostel to sunscreen up and to ask the hostel owner about other horseride options. He gave me directions to another company; I wandered through town and found them, but all the horseride-people were gone for the afternoon. I waited for a bit, passing the time by taking pictures of their facility.
When the horse people did not materialize, I got a phone number with which to call them later, and wandered on my way. I then revisited the star tour people, and successfully confirmed my reservation for later that day. Hoorah for companies that actually pay attention to reservations! Then, I called the owners of the new horseride company. They just so happened to have a ride going out the next morning, at the same time I’d originally planned to go. Plans: salvaged.
Once night fell, I headed out to meet the transport bus to the SPACE (San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations) Observatory, for my scheduled Star Tour. I had signed up for a tour in English, and I’m glad I did — there was enough specialized astronomy vocabulary in the talk that I would have been frustrated with missing out in Spanish. Our guide for the evening was an expatriate from Canada; he asked about the nationalities of everyone in the tour group (~20 people). Upon hearing that there were three people from the U.S. in the group, he joked, “So, none of you U.S. people are from California or Texas, obviously.” I piped up that I was Californian. “Oh, well, you broke the mold! Normally people say ‘I’m from the great country of Texas!’ Seems like there are three countries in the U.S.: Texas, California, and the rest of it.” (I had never heard that before; had you? Do people really say they’re from the country of California/Texas?)
After the introductions, the guide began the lecture portion of the evening. He started by walking us through how people arrived at the logic of early astronomy — e.g. we don’t feel the earth move, and we see all the stars move together, and they kinda look like a big bowl over our head; therefore, they must all be pinned onto a giant sphere that moves around our earth. He described how early people might have noticed that a certain star appears on the horizon at a certain hour once a year, and that its ascent aligns with the best harvest time, and so they start using stars as markers for important events… leading to monuments like Stonehenge, which can help them note important dates through star-position.
As he talked, he pointed out things with a nifty laser pointer, which looked like a thin plastic beam stretching out into the sky wherever he pointed it, with sparkles wisping around its base. We giggled at all of the zodiac constellations that were visible. For instance, when looking at Capricorn: “See the dot there? That’s his leg. And those two stars way over there are a horn… see, a giant half-man half-goat in the sky. Really obvious, eh?” Then, we moved onto modern astronomical knowledge — dwarfs and giants, red and blue, the complete lack of correlation between stars’ brightness and their distance from earth. A lot of review knowledge, but still delightful, and in such a peerless location.
After the lecture, we moved on to look through the telescopes, nine of them pointed at eight different things in the sky. Some of the things we looked at: new stars forming around Orion’s dagger; the lovely Pleiades; Gamma Cassiopeia and its companion, which together form a double star of two different colors; Jupiter and its stripes; a globular cluster, which was stunning and shimmery; and the moon. Among other things. They also had another telescope set up at the moon, specially designed for use with cameras.
After we had all had time to look through all the telescopes, we headed inside, and seated ourselves in an elegant circular room for hot chocolates and a Q&A with the guide. People asked whatever questions occurred to them, from black holes to hyberbolic media approaches to astronomy.
One really cool thing that I hadn’t known: the largest ground-based astronomical project in the world is located right near the observatory. It’s called ALMA (The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), and is composed of many radio telescopes which, together, may allow scientists to gather more information about the origins of the universe than ever before. The Atacama Desert’s combination of minimal light pollution, high altitude, and unparalleled dryness (since water vapor interferes with telescope images) made it an ideal location for this project, which is still being built but is already functioning. How damn cool!