Astronomy Tour of Chile's Atacama Desert

Study Astronomy and Spanish in Chile

The ALMA Observatory's name describes the kind of telescope it is, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. However, in naming it, its creators acknowledged its international roots, noting that “alma” in Spanish means soul, while in Arabic it means “learned.” Add an impact to your trip by sharing your language with local Chileans.

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Sojourn – Gain a better understanding of the community you’re visiting. Learn about different religions or spiritual practices. How do these impact the communities? How does religion or spirituality influence local traditions?

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Savor – Will you choose sweet or savory? Take the time to visit local markets and discover unique local ingredients. Learn how to prepare traditional meals & local favorites.

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Tip of the Tongue – Each morning, take the time to learn a few basic greetings and phrases in the local language. Learn how to write greetings & your name in the local script.

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A Wrinkle in Time – History influences our present. Discover the history of the country you visit. Hear the stories of your guides & their family history. Where do they come from?

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Journal Journeys – Take some time to reflect on the day’s events and document your journey. Spend a moment journaling about the day had & day ahead. These are memories for a lifetime!

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Culture – From local dances, festivals, or simple gestures to communicate – all of these make up a country’s culture. Learn and practice cultural norms & how to show respect in the culture you visit.

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You’ll arrive in Santiago de Chile, and after being transferred to your hotel you’ll have some time to settle in before meeting up to do some light sightseeing. Visiting the historic Plaza de Armas and nearby presidential palace La Moneda, your guide will share with you stories of Chile’s contentious history, including how the dictator Augusto Pinochet ordered pilots to bomb the presidential palace during the coup d’etat when he took power in 1973, killing then-President Salvador Allende. A stroll through part of the city’s wonderful parks system in Parque Forestal is a lovely way to cap off the afternoon, before sitting down for dinner to plan your upcoming journey!

No visitor to Chile should pass up a chance to see the UNESCO World Heritage site of the city of Valparaíso, 1.5 hours away on the Pacific coast. Known as the Jewel of the Pacific, this bohemian city has long been home to artists, poets and musicians, who favor its laid-back vibe and gorgeous views of the sea.

Once you arrive amid the brightly-colored houses scattered among the rocky hills leading down to the ocean, your guide will take to one of the city’s famous funiculares, the elevators or ascensores that have been transporting people up and down the hills for over a hundred years. Once atop Cerro Concepcion or Cerro Alegre (cerro means hill) your guide will walk you through numerous overlooks, famously mural-lined streets, as well as showing you hidden alleys or pasajes that many tourists miss.

After lunch head to La Sebastiana, the former home of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. His family made his unique and funky home into a museum following his 1973 death, and you can tour its five narrow stories with their weirdly laid-out floor plans and a host of the poet’s personal possessions and art on display. Follow that with a trip to the ex-Carcel or Parque Cultural, the former prison under Pinochet that has since been transformed into a public park, museum and theater. Time for dinner in one of the many Cerro Alegre restaurants with terrazzas overlooking the bay, then transfer back to Santiago.

Time for a travel day as you’ll be transferred from your hotel to the airport and then on to Calama on the edge of the Atacama Desert. From there you’ll be met by your guide who will get you transferred to San Pedro de Atacama, the dusty desert town that will be your home base for the next three days. Even on the drive there from Calama, you’ll marvel at the surrounding landscape with its reds and purples in the stunning rock formations – which you’ll get to see up close and personal soon enough! Once you get to your hotel, take some time to relax and settle in before meeting for a little walkabout in the town center, where you can get a feel for the narrow, dusty streets and adobe-style construction of many of the houses. A visit to the town square as evening falls and seeing the Church of San Pedro de Atacama, first constructed in the 17th century is a great way to top off the day before heading to dinner with your group to chat about the upcoming days!

Today you’ll head up to the ALMA Observatory to tour the facility and learn about the telescope’s conception, construction and what it is used for. The facility’s guide will give you a thorough presentation on all aspects of the telescope and the facility, including its $1.4 billion price tag, making it the most expensive ground-based telescope in the world. It’s value is really beyond price to science however, as its location 16,000 feet up on the Chajnantor plateau offers astronomers unbeatable views of the heavens, especially given the desert’s dry, unclouded air.

After you head back to the town there’s just time for a quick lunch before heading back out again to see the incredible Valle de Martes and Valle de Luna. These natural areas are a must-see for visitors in the area; with their rocky landscapes and breathtaking, otherworldly views you can see how they got their names! Along your afternoon hike, you’ll learn about local fauna and flora from your knowledgeable local guide, and get a chance to dash headlong down a massive sand dune before being taken over to the spot where you’ll get to witness one of the best sunsets in the world. A 30-minute moderate hike will take you to a rocky outcrop where you can grab a spot to view the 360-degree show as our own star, Sol, paints the surrounding desert rocks with purples, reds and golds as it drops below the horizon.

Today you’ll head out to the gorgeous and unique salt flats, the Salar de Atacama. This incredible natural wonder is a vast, rough bed of salts and minerals that sits above a massive underground lake. Nearby you’ll be taken to the National Flamingo Reserve, where you can watch three different species of flamingos snacking on crustaceans and algae in their home at the Chaxa Lagoon.

After lunch, you’ll head over to the nearby Laguna Cejar, where you can go for a dip and float effortlessly due to the high concentration of salt in the water – so don’t forget your bathing suit!

Head back to town for an early dinner and then get ready for a stargazing trip out in the desert. Just a short drive outside of town there are stunning locations where your guide will show you the stars and other celestial formations. After a 20-minute orientation presentation to give you the basics of astronomy and what you’re going to be viewing, you’ll step out into the dark and see the awe-inspiring array of stars and nebula the desert night sky has to offer. Visitors from the Northern hemisphere will be amazed to view many constellations they’re perhaps heard of, but never seen before on their side of the planet, including the Southern Cross, Hydrus the sea serpent, and Centaurus. Also be sure to bring some warm clothes because the Chile desert gets chilly at night!

It’s an early start today to get you up to the incredible Tatio Geysers to witness the sun rising above the massive steam clouds, reaching nearly 100 feet high when the geysers are at their most active. The 4:30 a.m. start is well worth it, as you’ll have a simple breakfast and hot coffee surrounded by the stunning views of the sunrise. On the way back down the mountain, you’ll stop off in the tiny village of Machuca, a beautiful, tranquil place where villagers still raise llamas and harvest yareta, a moss-like evergreen plant, just as they have for generations. There are also flamingos visible in the nearby wetlands, and the locals will sometimes let you say hi to their llamas up close!

Finally we’re going to have a relaxing end to this amazing day with a trip to the Termas Puritamas hot springs. These natural warm water pools are carved into a little slash of a gorgeous valley, separated by waterfalls and natural desert flora and grasses. The setting offers beautiful, tranquil views of the surrounding landscape as the sun drops down in the sky.

After returning to the hotel and getting freshened up, its time to meet for one last big meal with your mates and recounting the Chilean adventures you’ve just shared!

After a quick breakfast and some more goodbyes it’s time for the transfer to Calama, then on to Santiago for your flight home. But you’ll always have the memories of stargazing in the Southern hemisphere as well as seeing the Valley of the Moon and the Valley of Mars!

While many visitors to this South American nation think immediately of its southernmost climes and glaciers on the edge of Antarctica, in the north of the country lies the rugged jewel of the Atacama Desert, the driest non-polar place in the world with rainfall of only 0.6 inches per year. The area is home to incredible sights like the Valle de Luna and Valle de Martes (Moon Valley and Mars Valley respectively), the Atacama Salt Flats, live volcanoes – and stunningly clear night skies. You’ll see all of that and more, capped off with a visit to the ALMA Observatory on your desert adventure in Chile!


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