Holiday in Chile (4): more of the Atacama Desert 

Today (Thursday) was spent exploring more of the Atacama Desert with particular reference to the salt flats. Valentina told us the salt flats of the Atacama Desert are the largest in the world after some in Bolivia and Argentina respectively. 

We set off south and eventually stopped to look at some salt flats by the roadside. We were delighted when a herd of perhaps a hundred or more goats appeared on the other side of the road and proceeded to cross the road in single file to wander through the salt flats. They were completely unaccompanied.  

Then those of us with mobiles started to receive news that Liz Truss had announced her resignation as Prime Minister after the shortest tenure in the post in British history.  A loud cheer went up from the group. 

Out first major stop was at the Laguna de Chaxa where beyond the salt crystals pink flamingos were having brunch. This was a magical location: a blue sky and blue water with black rocks, green deposits, white salt and those pink flamingos in hot sunshine and pungent smells of sulphur. It was like a dream. 

Next stop was a delightful little village called Toconao where most of the buildings are made of white volcanic stone. The village is located at an elevation of 2,485 metres (8,150 feet) and it is home to 700 villagers. We called into the church of San Lucas and an artesian store with a couple of llamas in the yard behind the shop. 

At this point, the road became really rough, the small coach was bouncing all over, and later a banging noise under our vehicle proved impossible to locate or stop.  But it was worth it because we now visited the Tebinquinche Lagoon. This is a very lengthy expanse of water with extensive sal deposits over looked by high mountains. It was like being in another planet. 

Finally we went to a family farm not far from San Pedro de Atacama where we had a three course lunch which included llama (like a tough version of venison) and afterwards looked around the farm which had llamas, goats and peacocks. 

Now I’ve been interested in cosmology all my life and the best place on earth to view stars is the Atacama Desert in Chile due to the high elevation and the low humidity. This is why the ALMA array of 66 radio telescopes – the best observatory in the world – is located here. 

So, when I found that it would be possible to go on a stargazing tour, I jumped at the chance and four others in the group joined me. We were out for two hours with a local astronomer called Alvero.  He pointed out all sorts of features with his laser and he had set up powerful telescopes which enabled us to see Jupiter and some of its stars, Saturn with its rings, and a binary star system. 

In London, I can see no stars. Tonight I saw hundreds and hundreds and, of course, the Milky Way arching over the view, although – of course – I recognised no constellations because we were in the Southern Hemisphere.It was an utterly magical experience. 


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