Sat looking up at the Milky Way spattered across the night sky, I listen as my guide, astronomer César Anza, points out the constellations. “You may call them by modern names, but for the indigenous people of Chile, that constellation was the llama. And that one, a bowl of quinoa.
“The wise men of ancient Andean cultures believed that Pachamama [Mother Earth] was connected intricately with the stars, and they knew when to sow crops, harvest and celebrate according to the movements of the Milky Way above them.”
We are sitting in the darkness outside Ahlarkapin Observatory in Chile’s Atacama desert, next to a chubby round telescope that is trained on the night sky. When there isn’t a full moon stealing the show, you can come to the observatory at night and use its powerful telescope to see celestial wonders such as Mars, Saturn’s rings and far-off constellations.
César’s guide to the universe as we know it (and as ancient Andean cultures once did) is a mind-boggling one. NASA have an article on their website called ‘7 facts that will make you feel very small’. I think it’s aimed at school kids, but I love it just the same.
How stargazing can help you gain perspective
Whenever I feel overwhelmed by ‘one damned thing after another’, as Elbert Hubbard called life’s little problems, I think about NASA’s facts. For example, there are more stars than grains of sand on all of Earth’s beaches combined. There are 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe too, each one brimming with stars. There really is nothing like contemplating the staggering size of the universe to make you feel a lot less panicked about your own pesky little problems.
The Atacama desert is a particularly fabulous place to gain some perspective. The world’s highest and driest desert is flanked by the lofty Andean mountains, and its arid conditions and lack of light pollution make it perfect for stargazing.
Chile’s desert is home to the huge ALMA Observatory, where international teams of scientists search for our cosmic origins, as well as smaller observatories like César’s, where you can have a front-row seat for a tour of the cosmos.
And by day, Atacama’s landscapes are also on an epic scale. The desert is 41,000 square miles of fantastical mini climates – moon-like valleys, tall pillars of salt, active volcanoes and cactus-strewn canyons. It’s home to fuzzy llamas, elegant vicunas (a relative of the llama), lipstick-pink flamingos and the Andean fox.
When it rains here, it’s a celebrated event, and the altitude makes you catch your breath when just walking around. I’m staying at Tierra Atacama hotel, an oasis in the dry desert. Tierra means ‘earth’ in Spanish, and the name perfectly matches the warm tones of this eco- friendly architectural wonder looking out at the triangular peak of Licancabur volcano.
It’s tempting to stay put, Chilean pisco sour cocktail in hand, but Tierra Atacama is also the perfect base for getting out and exploring the desert. As soon as you arrive at the hotel, Tierra’s expert hiking guides show you an enormous map of the desert and recommend treks for all levels, as well as cycle routes, lagoon swims and stargazing tours at Ahlarkapin Observatory.
Exploring the Valle de la Luna and Valley de la Muerte
My first hike is into the Valle de la Luna (or ‘valley of the moon’) with Tierra guide José. The valley lives up to its name – after tumbling down a barely-visible path through the sand dunes, we enter a canyon where bizarre stone and salt formations tower overhead, like a natural cathedral. The salt pillars tick and creak like living beings, and it feels extremely eerie to walk in their shadows.
That evening, I go horse riding with Tierra Atacama’s resident cowboy guides. We ride into Valley de la Muerte. The ‘valley of death’ sounds like a sinister destination, but locals reckon it’s actually just a misspelling of ‘Marte’, or Mars.
It’s definitely like riding on another planet – bright orange sand dunes cascade in wondrous forms across the valley, and brick-red formations tower over us. We gallop up the dunes and pass a group of travellers who are climbing to the peaks with snowboards under their arms, ready to speed down again.
On the way home, we watch the setting sun warm and soften the harsh tones of the desert, turning the sand a delicate pink before setting over the peak of distant Licancabur. Back at Tierra Atacama, tired hikers sit around flaming outdoor fire pits, wrapped up warm against the desert cold. Temperatures plummet in Atacama after night falls, but a fire (and a pisco sour or two) will warm you up fast.
As I sit by the flames the stars come out, the Milky Way stretching across the sky like a ribbon. I watch the constellations grow brighter and think about César explaining that in Andean cosmology, human souls, the natural world, the night sky and Tata Inti – the sun – are all inextricably linked and dependant on one another.
It’s a calming thought, and I find that now, looking up at the star-studded sky, I don’t feel tiny and insignificant any more – just very calm, and able to empty my mind in the same way I can when I watch a fire flicker, or the ocean roll over a beach. Plus, there’s the star llama twinkling down on me, so I feel pretty well looked after.
Whether or not you believe that celestial quinoa bowls hang in the constellations above us, there’s a real beauty to be found in the skies, the legends and the landscapes of Chile, there to remind us that we live in a magical world, and universe, far bigger than ourselves.
How to book your trip to the Atacama desert
A two-night stay at Tierra Atacama costs £1,329 per person, excluding flights and including all activities, all food, drinks and transfers.
Alitalia fly London to Santiago from £714 return: united.com
Transfers in Santiago can be arranged via Last Frontiers.