ultramarinus – beyond the sea

Atacama Desert

DAY 54 (2 OF 2) – PARANAL OBSERVATORY, ATACAMA DESERT, CHILE

Directed by Patricio Guzman, documentary Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia for the Light) introduced us to the Very Large Telescope at Paranal in the Atacama Desert a few years ago.  In the film, Guzman on one hand depicts how scientists at Paranal Observatory search for the origin of the universe by looking up to the sky, and on the other hand, how a group of local women search for the remains of their loved ones who were executed under the Pinochet’s regime by looking down into the gravel of the Atacama desert near the Paranal Observatory.  Owned by European Southern Observatory (ESO), Paranal Observatory contains the most advanced telescopes in the world, allowing scientists to obtain HD images of the universe, and study in details the black hole at the very centre of our Milky Way Galaxy.  Name the Very Large Telescope (VLT), the four telescopes at Paranal are the biggest optical telescopes in the world, each with a lens of 8.2m in diameter.  Situated at 2600m above sea level atop Cerro Paranal, the thin air and dry weather allow scientists at Paranal to observe the night sky almost every night of the year.
From online research, we were glad to find out that the ESO offers free-guided tours of the Paranal Observatory every Saturday.  All we needed to consider was to find our own transportation to get there.  With a hired car from Antofagasta, we were able to reach the observatory half an hour before our appointment at 10:00.  Located 120km south of Antofagasta, the journey took us about 2 hours of driving in the Atacama Desert.  The drive was pleasant in early morning.  By the time we stepped out of the car at Paranal, we could immediately feel the heat and strong UV of the sun.  The tour lasted for about 2.5 hours.  We were led by the guide to visit the visitor centre, the interior of one of the four Very Large Telescopes, the central control centre, and the residence for the scientists and engineers.  The guide, who was an astronomer, explained to us in details about the functioning and maintenance of the telescopes.  Inside the telescope, we were fortunate to watch the engineer to test the rotation of the telescope.  The control centre was quite empty while we were there, because most of the staff was asleep in the residence during the day.  Winning numerous design awards a few years ago, the residence building was also interesting to check out.  Inside the building, the swimming pool and greenhouse create a desert oasis in the Atacama.  The building was also featured in one of the James Bond movie a few years ago.
The inspiring visit to the Paranal was definitely a highlight of our journey.  It further opened up our curiosity about the universe and the night sky.  This experience also concluded our journey in the Atacama, and to a larger extent, the Andean highlands of Bolivia, Northern Argentina and Chile.  Tomorrow, we would arrive at Chiloe Island in the Lake District, some 2,100km south of Antofagasta, where Martian landscapes would give way to Alpine scenery.
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Read more on San Pedro de Atacama, 2013 South America
Day 49 – Arrival, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 50.1 – Geyser del Tatio, Atacama Dessert
Day 50.2 – Altiplano Wetland, near El Tatio
Day 50.3 – Machuca Village, Atacama
Day 50.4 – Stargazing, Atacama Dessert
Day 51.1 – Town, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 51.2 – Valle de la Muerte & Cordillera de la Sal, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 51.3 – Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 52.1 – Laguna Chaxa, Atacama
Day 52.2 – Lagunas Altiplanicas, Atacama
Day 52.3 – Tropic de Capricorn, Atacama
Day 53.1 – Pacific Ocean, Antofagasta
Day 53.2 – Nan King Restaurant, Antofagasta
Day 54.1 – On the Road, Atacama Desert
Day 54.2 – Paranal Observatory, Atacama Desert

Next Destination – Chiloe Island, Chile
Continuing on our journey from post Day 55.1

 

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South America 2013 – Our Destinations
Buenos Aires (Argentina), Iguazu Falls (Argentina/Brazil), Pantanal (Brazil), Brasilia (Brazil), Belo Horizonte & Inhotim (Brazil), Ouro Preto (Brazil), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Paraty (Brazil), Sao Paulo (Brazil), Samaipata & Santa Cruz (Bolivia), Sucre (Bolivia), Potosi (Bolivia), Southwest Circuit (Bolivia), Tilcara, Purmamarca, Salta (Argentina), Cafayate (Argentina), San Pedro de Atacama (Chile), Antofagasta & Paranal Observatory (Chile), Chiloe (Chile), Puerto Varas (Chile), Torres del Paine (Chile), Ushuaia (Argentina), El Chalten (Argentina), El Calafate (Argentina), Isla Magdalena (Argentina), Santiago (Chile), Valparaiso (Chile), Afterthought

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DAY 54 (1 OF 2) – ON THE ROAD, ATACAMA DESERT, CHILE

The drive from Antofagasta to ESO’s (European Southern Observatory) Observatory at Paranal took about 2 hours.  Driving in the Atacama Desert was not as adventurous as one might imagine.  The roads, as least the ones that we took, were well paved and signed.  For the first half hour we were driving on the Pan-American Highway (Route 5), where the road was frequented with trucks and long distant buses.  Once we got off Pan-American Highway and ventured into the regional highways, we were pretty much on our own in the seemingly lifeless desert.  Not a single tree or a patch of grass, only occasionally the roadside shrines that would stood out from the red earth, grey stones, and black asphalt.  When we reached the entry road of the observatory, and not long after saw the four majestic Very Large Telescopes (VLT) on a distant hilltop, we were so relief to arrive safely and on time for our scheduled visit without getting lost in the Atacama.
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Read more on San Pedro de Atacama, 2013 South America
Day 49 – Arrival, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 50.1 – Geyser del Tatio, Atacama Dessert
Day 50.2 – Altiplano Wetland, near El Tatio
Day 50.3 – Machuca Village, Atacama
Day 50.4 – Stargazing, Atacama Dessert
Day 51.1 – Town, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 51.2 – Valle de la Muerte & Cordillera de la Sal, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 51.3 – Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 52.1 – Laguna Chaxa, Atacama
Day 52.2 – Lagunas Altiplanicas, Atacama
Day 52.3 – Tropic de Capricorn, Atacama
Day 53.1 – Pacific Ocean, Antofagasta
Day 53.2 – Nan King Restaurant, Antofagasta
Day 54.1 – On the Road, Atacama Desert
Day 54.2 – Paranal Observatory, Atacama Desert

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South America 2013 – Our Destinations
Buenos Aires (Argentina), Iguazu Falls (Argentina/Brazil), Pantanal (Brazil), Brasilia (Brazil), Belo Horizonte & Inhotim (Brazil), Ouro Preto (Brazil), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Paraty (Brazil), Sao Paulo (Brazil), Samaipata & Santa Cruz (Bolivia), Sucre (Bolivia), Potosi (Bolivia), Southwest Circuit (Bolivia), Tilcara, Purmamarca, Salta (Argentina), Cafayate (Argentina), San Pedro de Atacama (Chile), Antofagasta & Paranal Observatory (Chile), Chiloe (Chile), Puerto Varas (Chile), Torres del Paine (Chile), Ushuaia (Argentina), El Chalten (Argentina), El Calafate (Argentina), Isla Magdalena (Argentina), Santiago (Chile), Valparaiso (Chile), Afterthought


DAY 53 (2 OF 2) – NAN KING RESTAURANT, ANTOFAGASTA, CHILE

We had our first Chinese food in almost two months at Nan King Restaurant in Antofagasta.  The interior was clean and the food was quite decent.  But the menu was in Spanish only, so we had to again rely on our phrasebook to order the dishes.  All the staff were local Chileans, except the Chinese manager who stood at the cash counter.

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Read more on San Pedro de Atacama, 2013 South America
Day 49 – Arrival, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 50.1 – Geyser del Tatio, Atacama Dessert
Day 50.2 – Altiplano Wetland, near El Tatio
Day 50.3 – Machuca Village, Atacama
Day 50.4 – Stargazing, Atacama Dessert
Day 51.1 – Town, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 51.2 – Valle de la Muerte & Cordillera de la Sal, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 51.3 – Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 52.1 – Laguna Chaxa, Atacama
Day 52.2 – Lagunas Altiplanicas, Atacama
Day 52.3 – Tropic de Capricorn, Atacama
Day 53.1 – Pacific Ocean, Antofagasta
Day 53.2 – Nan King Restaurant, Antofagasta
Day 54.1 – On the Road, Atacama Desert
Day 54.2 – Paranal Observatory, Atacama Desert

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South America 2013 – Our Destinations
Buenos Aires (Argentina), Iguazu Falls (Argentina/Brazil), Pantanal (Brazil), Brasilia (Brazil), Belo Horizonte & Inhotim (Brazil), Ouro Preto (Brazil), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Paraty (Brazil), Sao Paulo (Brazil), Samaipata & Santa Cruz (Bolivia), Sucre (Bolivia), Potosi (Bolivia), Southwest Circuit (Bolivia), Tilcara, Purmamarca, Salta (Argentina), Cafayate (Argentina), San Pedro de Atacama (Chile), Antofagasta & Paranal Observatory (Chile), Chiloe (Chile), Puerto Varas (Chile), Torres del Paine (Chile), Ushuaia (Argentina), El Chalten (Argentina), El Calafate (Argentina), Isla Magdalena (Argentina), Santiago (Chile), Valparaiso (Chile), Afterthought


DAY 53 (1 OF 2) – PACIFIC OCEAN, ANTOFAGASTA, CHILE

At 8:00, our bus left the terminal in San Pedro de Atacama for Anfatogasta.  During the 5.5 hour bus ride, we passed by many mining sites and small mining towns.  It was desert landscape all the way until the last half hour when the bus drove past the last mountains before the coastal plains.  A different world appeared on the west side of the mountains as houses and apartment blocks dotted on the slope facing the ocean.  Between the mountain and the Pacific, we had finally arrived in the bustling city of Antofagasta, the third wealthiest city in Chile thanks to the prosperous mining industries in the Atacama.
The reason for our stay in Antofagasta is to pick up our rental car and use it as our base to visit the nearby Paranal Observatory.  Dotted with box retails, large shopping centres and casinos, Antofagasta is not the most desirable destination for many tourists.  As we drove around the city, we found Antofagasta was not as chaotic as we thought it would be.  Traffic jam was quite a problem, especially on the main arterial road along the Pacific coast.  After we picked up the car, we planned to visit Parque Cultural Ruinas de Huanchaca, a new interpretative centre for the cultures in Atacama.  Unfortunately, the centre was closed for a concert in the evening.  On our way to dinner, we stopped by the waterfront promenade across the street from our hotel for the sunset over the mighty Pacific.
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Read more on San Pedro de Atacama, 2013 South America
Day 49 – Arrival, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 50.1 – Geyser del Tatio, Atacama Dessert
Day 50.2 – Altiplano Wetland, near El Tatio
Day 50.3 – Machuca Village, Atacama
Day 50.4 – Stargazing, Atacama Dessert
Day 51.1 – Town, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 51.2 – Valle de la Muerte & Cordillera de la Sal, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 51.3 – Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 52.1 – Laguna Chaxa, Atacama
Day 52.2 – Lagunas Altiplanicas, Atacama
Day 52.3 – Tropic de Capricorn, Atacama
Day 53.1 – Pacific Ocean, Antofagasta
Day 53.2 – Nan King Restaurant, Antofagasta
Day 54.1 – On the Road, Atacama Desert
Day 54.2 – Paranal Observatory, Atacama Desert

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South America 2013 – Our Destinations
Buenos Aires (Argentina), Iguazu Falls (Argentina/Brazil), Pantanal (Brazil), Brasilia (Brazil), Belo Horizonte & Inhotim (Brazil), Ouro Preto (Brazil), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Paraty (Brazil), Sao Paulo (Brazil), Samaipata & Santa Cruz (Bolivia), Sucre (Bolivia), Potosi (Bolivia), Southwest Circuit (Bolivia), Tilcara, Purmamarca, Salta (Argentina), Cafayate (Argentina), San Pedro de Atacama (Chile), Antofagasta & Paranal Observatory (Chile), Chiloe (Chile), Puerto Varas (Chile), Torres del Paine (Chile), Ushuaia (Argentina), El Chalten (Argentina), El Calafate (Argentina), Isla Magdalena (Argentina), Santiago (Chile), Valparaiso (Chile), Afterthought


DAY 52 (3 OF 3) – TROPIC OF CAPRICORN, ATACAMA, CHILE

On our way back to San Pedro de Atacama, we made a brief stop where the imaginary line Tropic of Capricorn intersecting with the highway.  At the same point, we also saw a reconstructed Inca Trail connecting two volcanoes in each end of the horizon.  During Inca times, highland volcanoes were sacred mountains where rituals were performed by the Incas.  Child sacrifices were sometimes performed in these rituals.  Inca trails were constructed throughout the Andes for transporting goods, armies, and also ritual possessions, connecting Cusco (Cuzco) of Peru to all corners of the Inca Empire.
The end of today’s tour marked the grande finale of our stay in San Pedro de Atacama.  Tomorrow, we would take a morning bus to Antofagasta, where the hostile Atacama Desert finally meets its western boundary, the Pacific Ocean.
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Read more on San Pedro de Atacama, 2013 South America
Day 49 – Arrival, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 50.1 – Geyser del Tatio, Atacama Dessert
Day 50.2 – Altiplano Wetland, near El Tatio
Day 50.3 – Machuca Village, Atacama
Day 50.4 – Stargazing, Atacama Dessert
Day 51.1 – Town, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 51.2 – Valle de la Muerte & Cordillera de la Sal, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 51.3 – Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 52.1 – Laguna Chaxa, Atacama
Day 52.2 – Lagunas Altiplanicas, Atacama
Day 52.3 – Tropic de Capricorn, Atacama
Day 53.1 – Pacific Ocean, Antofagasta
Day 53.2 – Nan King Restaurant, Antofagasta
Day 54.1 – On the Road, Atacama Desert
Day 54.2 – Paranal Observatory, Atacama Desert

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South America 2013 – Our Destinations
Buenos Aires (Argentina), Iguazu Falls (Argentina/Brazil), Pantanal (Brazil), Brasilia (Brazil), Belo Horizonte & Inhotim (Brazil), Ouro Preto (Brazil), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Paraty (Brazil), Sao Paulo (Brazil), Samaipata & Santa Cruz (Bolivia), Sucre (Bolivia), Potosi (Bolivia), Southwest Circuit (Bolivia), Tilcara, Purmamarca, Salta (Argentina), Cafayate (Argentina), San Pedro de Atacama (Chile), Antofagasta & Paranal Observatory (Chile), Chiloe (Chile), Puerto Varas (Chile), Torres del Paine (Chile), Ushuaia (Argentina), El Chalten (Argentina), El Calafate (Argentina), Isla Magdalena (Argentina), Santiago (Chile), Valparaiso (Chile), Afterthought


DAY 52 (2 OF 3) – LAGUNAS ALTIPLANICAS, ATACAMA, CHILE

The highlight of the day was visiting Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques, two lagunas altiplanicas (highland lagoons) at abour 4,300m above sea level. It was our last opportunity in our journey to appreciate the peaceful highland lagoons with a spectacular backdrop of volcanoes and snow-capped mountains. Compared to Bolivia, visiting a natural reserve in Chile is more restrictive as visitors are not permitted to go beyond a designated path. Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques are two highland lagoons in very close proximity. The water of both lagoons is deep blue in colour, and far saltier than the water of the Pacific. Because of the minerals content and the lack of oxygen, no fish can survive in these fairytale like lagoons. Only birds, flamingos and vicunas frequent the lagoons for food and rest. The deep blue of the water, in addition to the blue sky, white clouds, yellow plant clusters, and red earth of the mountain slopes, form a fantastic colour palette of Altiplano scenery. We would certainly miss the Andean highlands. Before we left the lagoon area, we even bumped into an Andean fox!
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Read more on San Pedro de Atacama, 2013 South America
Day 49 – Arrival, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 50.1 – Geyser del Tatio, Atacama Dessert
Day 50.2 – Altiplano Wetland, near El Tatio
Day 50.3 – Machuca Village, Atacama
Day 50.4 – Stargazing, Atacama Dessert
Day 51.1 – Town, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 51.2 – Valle de la Muerte & Cordillera de la Sal, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 51.3 – Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 52.1 – Laguna Chaxa, Atacama
Day 52.2 – Lagunas Altiplanicas, Atacama
Day 52.3 – Tropic de Capricorn, Atacama
Day 53.1 – Pacific Ocean, Antofagasta
Day 53.2 – Nan King Restaurant, Antofagasta
Day 54.1 – On the Road, Atacama Desert
Day 54.2 – Paranal Observatory, Atacama Desert

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South America 2013 – Our Destinations
Buenos Aires (Argentina), Iguazu Falls (Argentina/Brazil), Pantanal (Brazil), Brasilia (Brazil), Belo Horizonte & Inhotim (Brazil), Ouro Preto (Brazil), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Paraty (Brazil), Sao Paulo (Brazil), Samaipata & Santa Cruz (Bolivia), Sucre (Bolivia), Potosi (Bolivia), Southwest Circuit (Bolivia), Tilcara, Purmamarca, Salta (Argentina), Cafayate (Argentina), San Pedro de Atacama (Chile), Antofagasta & Paranal Observatory (Chile), Chiloe (Chile), Puerto Varas (Chile), Torres del Paine (Chile), Ushuaia (Argentina), El Chalten (Argentina), El Calafate (Argentina), Isla Magdalena (Argentina), Santiago (Chile), Valparaiso (Chile), Afterthought


DAY 52 (1 OF 3) – LAGUNA CHAXA, ATACAMA, CHILE

Today we decided to visit Salar de Atacama (Atacama Salt Flat) and Lagunas Altiplanicas (Altiplano Lagoons).  Despite not as big and white as Salar de Uyuni, it was still worthwhile to visit Salar de Atacama in order to understand the geography of the Atacama region.  Surrounded by a series of volcanoes and high peaks, the Salar de Atacama serves as a basin collecting water from the surrounding mountains.  As water dries up, it pushes the underground salt content upwards to form the salt flat.  Most of the salt comes from volcanic ashes deposited by the many volcanoes in the area.  In the middle of Salar de Atacama lies Laguna Chaxa, a shallow lagoon where flamingos love to stay and feed on the tiny shrimps in the brine water.

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Read more on San Pedro de Atacama, 2013 South America
Day 49 – Arrival, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 50.1 – Geyser del Tatio, Atacama Dessert
Day 50.2 – Altiplano Wetland, near El Tatio
Day 50.3 – Machuca Village, Atacama
Day 50.4 – Stargazing, Atacama Dessert
Day 51.1 – Town, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 51.2 – Valle de la Muerte & Cordillera de la Sal, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 51.3 – Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de Atacama
Day 52.1 – Laguna Chaxa, Atacama
Day 52.2 – Lagunas Altiplanicas, Atacama
Day 52.3 – Tropic de Capricorn, Atacama
Day 53.1 – Pacific Ocean, Antofagasta
Day 53.2 – Nan King Restaurant, Antofagasta
Day 54.1 – On the Road, Atacama Desert
Day 54.2 – Paranal Observatory, Atacama Desert

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South America 2013 – Our Destinations
Buenos Aires (Argentina), Iguazu Falls (Argentina/Brazil), Pantanal (Brazil), Brasilia (Brazil), Belo Horizonte & Inhotim (Brazil), Ouro Preto (Brazil), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Paraty (Brazil), Sao Paulo (Brazil), Samaipata & Santa Cruz (Bolivia), Sucre (Bolivia), Potosi (Bolivia), Southwest Circuit (Bolivia), Tilcara, Purmamarca, Salta (Argentina), Cafayate (Argentina), San Pedro de Atacama (Chile), Antofagasta & Paranal Observatory (Chile), Chiloe (Chile), Puerto Varas (Chile), Torres del Paine (Chile), Ushuaia (Argentina), El Chalten (Argentina), El Calafate (Argentina), Isla Magdalena (Argentina), Santiago (Chile), Valparaiso (Chile), Afterthought