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Stars in the Atacama Desert, an adventurous journey

History of a spectacular journey with a pinch of adventure … The main destination of the trip was the Andean highlands of Chile and Bolivia. The trip had been organized to see the flooded Salar de Uyuni. So the chosen period was the month of February which is the only period in which there are precipitations in these regions, which allow you to see the flooded Salar.

TRAVEL REASONS

Since I am passionate about astronomy I decided to leave a week earlier to observe the southern sky in one of the most spectacular places in the world for the starry sky: the Atacama Desert. During this trip “chasing stars in the Atacama desert” I would have had to do a first week alone in San Pedro de Atacama to observe the stars and then I would have been joined by some photographer friends to visit the Andean highlands of Chile and Bolivia together.

Sunset with lonely tree and storm forming in the distance in the arid lands of the Atacama desert, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini.
Sunset with lonely tree and storm forming in the distance in the arid lands of the Atacama desert, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini.

My first destination, this time is one of the most dreamed of by astronomy enthusiasts: San Pedro de Atacama, a small town in northern Chile, famous for its dark and star-filled skies. Then, as mentioned, the journey will continue to the Andean highlands of Bolivia including the famous Salar de Uyuni, which should be flooded at this time of the year – February. This should allow us to take spectacular photos of the reflections of the sky in the waters of the Salar.

Reflections on the flooded Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini.
Reflections on the flooded Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini.

AN ADVENTUROUS START

The trip was overall very beautiful, the landscapes of the highlands (Bolivians and Chileans) are out of this world … it seems to be on Mars … One of the most beautiful places I have seen. I knew the risk of having, at this time of the year, a few days that were not too good for observing the starry sky. But I would never have thought of such a journey start …

The first part of the trip was, in fact, rather “adventurous”, indeed, I would venture to say that the trip turned almost into a small nightmare. But then it turned into a beautiful experience with the vision of fantastic landscapes.

THE START OF THE TRAVEL: A NIGHTMARE

I’ll tell you: the nightmare begins right at the airport, on departure, after checking in and boarding the plane. I sit in my seat and take the cell phone to turn it off. But I realize that an email has arrived, I open it. This is an email from Chile from the person where I had to stay for about a week (Alain Maury, a French astronomer who has a guest house and rents telescopes for observation).

In the email Alain informed me that last night there had been a flood in the desert and that the only road (about 100 km) that connects Calama (where I arrived by plane) and San Pedro de Atacama (where I had to stay a week to observe the stars) had been swept away by the water in two places and was therefore closed. He advised me to change my destination …. Alain too, who had gone to pick up his daughter in Calama airport, was stuck in Calama. He told me he would try to reach San Pedro de Atacama the next day and keep me informed.

The Milky Way, little after sunset, with the Southern Cross, Eta Carinae and the Large Magellanic Cloud. Atacama desert, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini.
Stars in the Atacama Desert. The Milky Way, little after sunset, with the Southern Cross, Eta Carinae and the Large Magellanic Cloud. Atacama desert, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini.

GOING OR GOING BACK?

I will stop in Madrid, but now I have my bags going to Chile … what to do? In Madrid I inquire on the internet, I see that the road is actually closed. What to do ? Do I go home, losing the whole trip? The insurance, having started the trip, will not refund me anything. A big dilemma. And then the suitcases? They are headed for Chile. I feel if it is possible to recover the suitcases, it seems that it is possible.

I am about to give up, but I receive another email from Chile in which Alain informs me that he has managed to pass and the road to the residents has reopened. But he doubts that   I will be able to pass … I try to calm down, but there are many doubts. I decide to continue, but for safety I book a hotel for the night of my arrival near the Calama airport where I will arrive. Arriving in Santiago I take the connection to Calama (the day before all flights to Calama had been canceled).

THE ARRIVAL IN CHILE: TOWARDS SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA

I arrive in Calama I go to the car rental desk which is located inside the airport. Then I ask about the state of the road, they tell me that the road is closed and that they won’t let me pass. I decide to try anyway, let’s hope well. I leave, I go 30 km and there is a police checkpoint. They stop me and ask me where I am going. I explain that I have a reservation from a resident, they ask me to see it. I show them the email of Alain Maury and to my surprise as soon as they read the name, they tell me that I can go.

The situation on the street is not as dramatic as I thought. Along the road there is only one point where the river had overflowed on the roadway, but now the water is no longer there, and the road is intact with only a little soil and pebbles on the asphalt surface.

Storm clouds over the Atacama desert landscape. Valle di Marte (Valle de Marte) and the Cordillera de la Sal, Atacama Desert, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini
Storm clouds over the Atacama desert landscape. Valle di Marte (Valle de Marte) and the Cordillera de la Sal, Atacama Desert, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini

THE DESERT HAS BECOME A LAKE …

I arrive without problems in San Pedro de Atacama, the place where I have to go is 4 km from the town and before arriving I have to make a stretch of a dirt road of about 400 meters. When I arrive at the crossroads where the asphalt road ends I see that the dirt road that I should go ends in a lake …

The road is completely flooded, I go down, park the car, and I walk on foot along the non-flooded ground. I can get to the Lodge where I will be staying. Alain Maury looks at me in amazement: how did you get there? I explain how I managed to get there … He also tells me that he had written me another e-mail just this morning in which he informed me that the government had evacuated all the tourists present in San Pedro de Atacama. Practically I entered just when the evacuation of all tourists was carried out ….

Alain tells me that we must bring the car inside the property because leaving it on the road is not a good solution, the night is dangerous. We will pass, he tells me, where I went on foot, among the shrubs … I had him drive the car, it is a two-wheel drive car, the possibility of getting bogged down is high. However we can bring the car to the internal parking. I finally arrived. I calm down. But for a little while.

Lightning during a thunderstorm in the light of sunset in the arid landscape of the Atacama desert, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini
Lightning during a thunderstorm in the light of sunset in the arid landscape of the Atacama desert, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini

AFTER THE SUNSET STARTS TO RAIN AND RAIN ALL NIGHT …

At sunset there are spectacular lights that repay me for the stress of the journey, but in the distance you can see clouds with thunder and lightning … after a while it starts to rain again: a universal flood. Rain, thunder and lightning for hours throughout the night (luckily they say that the Atacama desert is one of the driest places on Earth). I imagine myself stuck there with the car. In six days I will have to return to Calama to return the car and meet my friends (but I also doubt that they will arrive, they could give up the trip due to bad weather).

The first three nights it rains down every night, one evening the water begins to enter the room, I put towels on the door. Fortunately, the ground absorbs the rain the next day and the day’s sun can dry out a good part of the water that has fallen at night. I organize myself by placing small sticks in the pools of water on the ground to measure the variations in the size of the pools of water and I realize that despite the intense night rain they decrease. I reassure myself.

Sunset lights in the arid and desolate landscape of the Atacama desert with the tops of the snowy volcanoes of the Andes mountain range in the background. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini
Sunset lights in the arid and desolate landscape of the Atacama desert with the tops of the snowy volcanoes of the Andes mountain range in the background. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini

WEATHER IMPROVES …. I FINALLY SEE THE STARS IN THE ATACAMA DESERT!

All tourist attractions are closed. On the other hand there are spectacular sunrises and sunsets … as well as very photogenic storm clouds. Obviously no stars in the Atacama desert at night. Only the last two nights can I make some observations of the sky. Then the weather improves and then everything starts to improve, even if the Chileans, due to their zeal, keep all the tourist attractions closed for weeks. They are not used to this climate and in fact in the past 20 years there had never been rains of this intensity in the area.

The last night Alain makes me do, with a 60 cm telescope, a splendid overview of the main celestial objects of the southern sky, among others we observe Eta Carinae, Omega Centauri, the Tarantula Nebula, the Sombrero Galaxy, the Magellanic Clouds and many other celestial objects from the southern sky.

A telescope from Alain Maury's astronomical observatory, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini
A telescope from Alain Maury’s astronomical observatory, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini
The Milky Way with the Southern Cross and Eta Carinae. Atacama desert, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini
Stars in the Atacama Desert. The Milky Way with the Southern Cross and Eta Carinae. Atacama desert, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini

GOODBYE ATACAMA DESERT, WE LEAVE FOR BOLIVIA

The next day, I was able to go out by car from Alain’s property and reach the Calama airport where my photographer friends will arrive.

We return to San Pedro and since the Chileans continue to keep all the attractions closed, we decide to leave early for Bolivia with our guide-driver. The journey continues to the end optimally, we visit the beautiful highlands of Bolivia with volcanoes and spectacular lagoons. We come up to Salar de Uyuni which is completely flooded. We reach altitudes of 5,000 meters and feel the imbalances created by the high altitude. But this is another story that I will tell you …

During the trip to Bolivia we also got stuck in the quicksand when crossing a river. However, this is also a nice experience to remember. After several attempts, and a few hours, we manage to be freed with the help of a tractor from local farmers. Here you can find the video of the quicksand … good vision ..

The road sign indicating the main entrance to the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), Atacama Desert, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini
The road sign indicating the main entrance to the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), Atacama Desert, Chile. Author and Copyright Marco Ramerini

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