By Patricia Woeber
When next you wish upon a star, the place to be is in Chile's Atacama Desert. You'll easily see thousands of stars as well as an eye-popping selection of other heavenly bodies. During the daytime the area offers a variety of active sports and explorations.
The high Atacama Desert's lack of pollution allows clear sightings of the spectacles of the southern sky. In addition, the clarity is enhanced by its 300 sunny days a year and location at 7,000 feet above sea level. These perfect conditions contribute to the sight of some 6,000 stars and views of the sublime: the Andromeda Galaxy, rings of Saturn, moons of Juniper, nebulae, the Southern Cross, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Magellanic Clouds (160,000 and 200,000 light-years away), along with five planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter.
In the village of San Pedro, the hotel Explora welcomes its guests to view the night skies through the hotel's personal observatory telescope, a Meade 16" f/10 LX200R Advanced RC Telescope, one of the largest "aficionado-level" privately owned telescopes in Chile. Guests may even mount digital cameras and smart phones to a bracket attached to the telescope.
The Explora's observatory is a few minutes' stroll from the hotel, just 300 feet away. Here, exterior lounge chairs allow for a relaxing time and the staff serves drinks. Sunsets are best enjoyed from the hotel's terrace with views of the Licancabur volcano on the border between Chile and Bolivia.
The hotel lists a variety of active sports that enable guests to enjoy the surroundings and remoter parts of the desert. For example, the Andes bike exploration, the highest mountain bike route in the altiplano (high plains), reaches 15,000 feet above sea level. It's a 13-mile ride and best for advanced riders.
An ideal hiking workout, the Gato Andino (named for the mountain leopard) is a full-day trek with moderate hiking up to 14,343 feet for stunning views that reach Argentina in the distance.
A moderate hike, the Ruta del Agua, takes a full day, 5.9 miles, and reaches 12,526 feet, where views of the Andes Mountain range and salt-filled basins converge. This excursion finally reaches the seven geothermal pools in the Puritama Natural Reserve (once the home of the Andean cat).
The hotel Explora restored these cascading hot springs and gave them to the Atacameno community. One pool is reserved for the exclusive use of Explora guests.
Another fun outing is horseback riding for a half-day to Ayllus, above 8,000 feet, with a visit to a village oasis alive with vegetable gardens.
An alternative choice is the full- day horse ride to Guatin at elevation 10,334 en route to the small town of Gatchi. This area is known for a canyon with plants of different colors. The variety of colors and textures is due to the minerals contained in the water that flows through the rocks feeding the plants. On this ride the great panoramic views of the Andes and Domeyko mountain ranges add to the drama.
The hotel's horses have been bred for the Atacama region, while the high-performance bicycles are ideal for exploring the High Andean plains. All Explora outings are offered under the guidance of a team of in-house trained guides who have received expert certification as Wilderness First Responders.
My trip to Chile included the Explora Atacama and the Explora Torres del Paine National Park. Among the outstanding vistas, I enjoyed horse rides and hikes. (Hotel guides accompanied us.) Rides that covered one or two hours were sufficient for me, and half-day hikes took me to beautiful sites and gave me ample exercise. I relaxed in the hotels' spas and discovered the local culture. The indigenous population lives in the nearby village of San Pedro de Atacama, where an interesting array of textiles and ceramics are displayed.
But stargazing was the highlight. To peer through the world's clearest skies at the wonders of the universe opened a whole new world.
WHEN YOU GO
The winter months (June 21 to Sept. 23) are the best time to enjoy the Southern Hemisphere. The Explora hotels are environmentally responsible, serving organic food and attracting nature enthusiasts. Their private guiding fulfills the requests of many guests to be guided in their own small group: www.explora.com.
Patricia Woeber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Bicyclists ride in Chile's Atacama Desert. Photo courtesy of Explora Atacama.