In Chile’s Atacama Desert, nightfall brings a celestial extravaganza, with clear skies and high altitude providing a window to the soul of the cosmos.
By day, it’s drowned in a cloudless blue. At night it emerges, a slow germination of light sputtering to life with faint silver pinpricks that grow bolder with each darkening moment until, finally, the now-blackened Earth is crowned with a shower of starlight. This is the cosmos, draped above my head like a luminous ceiling.
Up there is Orion’s Belt, with the blue supergiant, Alnilam, blazing at its centre; over here is Jupiter. And smeared across the sky is the chorus of stars – their shimmer already thousands of light years old – that coalesce to form the Milky Way.
From my earthly position – prone and swaddled against the desert chill – I imagine a pair of interstellar eyes peering through space at me. This is what they would see: a seismic moonscape that elongates from north to south for 1000 kilometres but whose girth is compressed into the narrow space between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes; a place so parched, there’s not a drop of moisture in the air. They would behold a desert so lacking in light pollution, they’d be able to see astronomers here looking straight back at them.
The stars are at their most dazzling when seen from the Atacama. Crystal-clear skies and high altitude conspire to make it the world’s best stargazing destination. Astro-tourists and dreamers alike flock from all over the globe for the daily night show. Many head for the observatories, such as ALMA, where enormous telescopes zoom in on the celestial action, while others – like me – opt for a private after-dark tour, armed with little more than the naked eye and an abiding sense of wonder.
Days earlier, as my plane neared the gateway city of Calama, the Earth had unfolded below me in an endless cappuccino swirl. On the 100-kilometre journey from Calama to San Pedro, wind turbines swayed on the breeze and solar panels turned their faces towards the blazing sun. We drove into the world’s driest mountain range, the Domeyko, down to a desolate stretch named Patience Plain then up again into the Salt Mountains.
The Atacama had appeared from above to be a colourless expanse of desert but up close it’s a pastiche of green tamarugo forests and plains painted white with volcanic ash; black dunes rippling and rising like waves; canyons gouged from fiery orange bedrock; and volcanoes emerging, steamy-topped, from the ranges.
Salt sucks every last drop of water from this withered terrain. Conglomerate blooms with saline-spun cobwebs. Flamingos reflect shrimp-pink off lagoons stiff with brine. The earth crunches under my feet like snow. I seem to have alighted on another planet.
At night the desert is swallowed by darkness and the sky set ablaze. The universe flares out above me, a black vault haunted by the ghosts of dead stars. The one closest to Earth is not a star at all but the Orion Nebula. This is where new stars are born.
And it’s where I come from, too, for every atom of carbon in my muscles, iron in my blood and oxygen in my lungs was forged inside the stars long before Earth existed. This is my story, then, told from deep inside the cosmos: I am made of stardust and it is setting me alight with its radiance.
Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa
This lodge blends so intangibly into the terracotta-coloured mountains, they seem to have given birth to it. Set alongside the San Pedro River just outside the town, Alto Atacama offers plenty of respite from desert extremes: six pools, a hot tub and outdoor fire pits for warmth while stargazing. The suites open up onto private terraces and some have outdoor showers. All eyes are drawn to the gardens designed in traditional Altiplano style by landscape artist and botanist Veronica Poblete. Just 12 mesquite trees remained on this centuries-old farm when the hotel was built in 2007; today, these and other endemic species festoon the landscape with a shower of green. The fruit of the chañar tree is used in the restaurant, along with other ingredients grown in these salty soils. Try the Andean dish of purple and orange potatoes with a local salsa called pebre, followed by ice-cream flavoured with roses cultivated in nearby Toconao.
Tierra’s sleek boutique establishment blends modern design with traditional materials and offers spectacular views of Licancabur volcano. The adventure spa philosophy balances outdoor excursions with indoor treatments and therapies that incorporate desert elements such as lithium-rich salt, volcanic mud and native herbs.
This ultra-exclusive Relais & Châteaux property is built in traditional-village style with thatched roofs, adobe walls and woven furnishings. Each of the 10 suites is assigned a personal guide and four-wheel drive for desert explorations. The open-air restaurant showcases local ingredients and you can book a cooking class with chef Juan Pablo Mardones.
Extend your trip
Visit four more of South America’s natural beauties
RAINBOW MOUNTIAN, PERU
The Ausangate Mountain in the Peruvian Andes is painted in mineral-rich stripes of turquoise, gold, orange and red. Although it’s a pilgrimage site for local Quechua people and tourists, there’s no easy way to get there; it involves a journey from the Inca city of Cuzco and a day’s hike to reach its peak. Most people go on foot but those who are less active (or suffering the effects of altitude sickness) can travel on horseback.
TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK, CHILE
Extending from the Patagonian Steppe all the way to the Andes is a magnificent profusion of glaciers, mountains, rivers and lakes. But it’s the torres (towers) from which the park gets its name that people come to see: three granite peaks, spearing heavenwards from the Cordillera Paine, reflected from certain vantage points in the still waters of an ice-blue lake.
PATAGONIAN LAKE DISTRICT, ARGENTINA
Glacial lakes are strung out like watery wayfinders between the northern Patagonian towns of Bariloche and San Martín de los Andes. They guide travellers along the Route of the Seven Lakes, which winds through national parks filled with a head-swivelling abundance of valleys, peaks, waterfalls and forests.
SALT FLATS, BOLIVIA
The world’s largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni, shrouds the high plateau of south-west Bolivia in a veil of white. On closer inspection, you see that these prehistoric lakes have been quilted in geometrically perfect salt crystals. When covered with a film of wet-season rain, they mirror the sky in a dazzling display of optical trickery.