South American trip (4) – Chile

Atacama Desert, Valley of Death (Valley of Mars) and ALMA Astronomical Telescop

The time spent in Chile, I divide it into 2 parts, one before Easter Island, the 2nd, after Easter Island. Although the eclipse event is placed in the first part of the Chile experience, I would say that the second part was much more attractive and much more beautiful in terms of landscape and nature.

Thus in the 2nd part of continental Chile we had the opportunity to see a giant stone hand in the middle of the desert, to see the monument of the tropics, take night pictures in the Moon Valley, a place with gems all over de ground, walk the sand dunes in the Valley of Death or the Valley of Mars, where I saw sand dunes surfing and an almost Martian landscape.

06 – 07 July – Saturday / Sunday

Anyway, we had an impressive number of flights on this trip, and like the previous US eclipse trip in 2017, we spent relatively little time in each place but managed to see a lot of places. That plus the night photos, made the trip a very tiring one, comparable to the one in the US in 2017. Then the fatigue passes and you are left with a lot of great memories. Knowing myself very well I would not say that I would have understood considerably more of each place if I had stayed a few more days in each.


On Saturday I had another flight to Antofagasta. We had the opportunity to see from the plane how the highway cuts the territory of Chile north-south, right next to the Ocean, in a straight line.

I landed at 11am and picked up some SUVs from the airport again: seven Nissan Kicks.

I divide the time spent in Chile into 2 parts, one before Easter Island and the second after Easter Island. Although the eclipse was located in the first part of the Chile experience, I would say that the second part was much more attractive and much more beautiful in terms of landscape and nature. Thus in the 2nd part of continental Chile we had the opportunity to see a stone giant to see the monument of the tropics we arrive in the valley of the moon for night pictures with gems on foot but also in the valley of death or the valley of Mars where we saw sand dunes surfing on dunes and an almost Martian landscape.

Antofagasta is also called the “Pearl of the North” the city belonged to Bolivia until the Pacific War of 1879 when it was annexed by Chile.

Antofagasta The history of this beautiful city is far from simple. It changed from a simple fishing bay – where guano was mined – to a center of major operations during the saltpeter mining.

According to urban legends and a few historical records of those days, the so-called Juan López was the first person to settle on these desert shores with his family.

Years later, the Bolivian government granted José Santos Ossa personal permission to exploit the saltpeter below Cobija, an area located approximately 100 kilometers north of Antofagasta. This explorer discovered saltpetre in the surroundings of the bay of Antofagasta, which until then was only a small fishing village, so the great adventure began.

The small bay was called “Penablanca”, according to the Bolivian records of those days. In 1871 this Juan Lopez changed the name of the city to Antofagasta, after Antofagasta de la Sierra (today in Argentina), which was a small Bolivian town that attracted pilgrims from all over Bolivia to the church dedicated to Saint Mary!

In 1872, the city was founded, its population began to grow exponentially due to saltpetre mining, both Chilean and Bolivian citizens came here.

In 1879, the War of the Pacific began and the city was occupied by Chilean armies. Once the war was over, it became officially recognized as Chilean territory. Today, more than 100 years after this historic milestone, Antofagasta has become the economic and cultural capital of Northern Chile, sharing the title of Regional Capital with the city of Iquique.

In Antofagasta, we came across a gypsy woman, yes, who guessed our palm. The peak.

Also in Antofagasta, I said let’s go to the mall to do some shopping. We didn’t shop but the interesting part was seeing winter deals and sales in July.

Let’s not forget that we are in the southern hemisphere of the planet.

I didn’t get to Mejillones as originally planned, much too busy, but some information is useful if you want to get there.

Mejillones located 65 km north of Antofagasta. The main activity in Mejillones was fishing. First, there was artisanal fishing, then industrial fishing. The truth is that in recent years the city decided to raise its standards and started building a modern port that will be used to allow all the products made in northern Chile to reach the whole world more easily.


This industrial growth is also supported by a tourism development of the region. The beautiful points that converge there have turned Mejillones into one of the most romantic towns in Chile. Its marine architecture and quiet beaches make it an ideal area to discover each of its corners, where the past and the present coexist.

We then drove to San Pedro de Atacama, but with many stops along the way.

Mejillones located 65 km north of Antofagasta. The main activity in Mejillones was fishing. First, there was artisanal fishing, then industrial fishing. The truth is that in recent years the city decided to raise its standards and started building a modern port that will be used to allow all the products made in northern Chile to reach the whole world more easily. This industrial growth is also supported by a tourism development of the region. The beautiful points that converge there have turned Mejillones into one of the most romantic towns in Chile. Its marine architecture and quiet beaches make it an ideal area to discover each of its corners, where the past and the present coexist.

We then drove to San Pedro de Atacama, but with many stops along the way.

La Portada

La Portada holds one of the most popular images in Chile. Thanks to this image, tourists from all over the world come to this country to see if this “postcard” existed. This is a geomorphological and geological feature of sedimentary rocks and fossil remains that have been eroded by wind and sea over thousands of years. These agents shaped the caverns and cliffs and sculpted the great arch of La Portada in perfect detail. This arch, huge, even when viewed from the shore, shows visitors how an entire rock has been interrupted by the gentleness of the Pacific Ocean, with its blue color and white foam.

Eagles, fishers and seabirds of all kinds fly around it, and sea lions, sharks and dolphins roam its waters. Its arch is 42 meters high, 23 meters wide and 70 meters long. These dimensions cause fascination. To get to this place I left Antofagasta to the north and after a journey of almost twenty kilometers, I accessed the area via the highway that joins the Cities of Antofagasta and Tocopilla.

In La Portada we went shopping for souvenirs. It was an experience in itself to pick up this stylized bone oversword dagger from a Bolivian Amerindian. The images speak for themselves. All the souvenirs were handmade by him. I also got an amazingly made mask and more.

I took some great pictures of the eagles flying over the coast of the continent.

We also walked on the beach where we picked up some interesting conglomerates of seashells stuck to a rock. Also on the beach I made friends with the local stray dogs. It was confirmed to me again in Chile and for that matter in all of South America stray dogs are different in attitude from the ones I knew in Romania it’s like they are your pets for a short time we played with they and accompanied us all the time on the beach as if we had known each other for a lifetime.

Tropic of Capricorn

The Tropic of Capricorn, one of the five major parallels of the Earth passes through the area. Also, the cathedral of Antofagasta, the ruins of Huanchaca are the oldest constructions in Antofagasta. On the imaginary line of the Tropic of Capricorn there is a monument marking this, which I visited.

A geographical landmark located opposite the Cerro Moreno airport on the outskirts of the city indicates the solstices and equinoxes. This beautiful monument was erected in the year 2000 and is located at 23 ° south latitude and 70 °, 23 ° west longitude. It stands nearly 13 meters tall and weighs around 500 tons. It lies in a circle with a diameter of 30 meters and establishes the exact spot where the Tropic of Capricorn is.

It was built by the Rotary Club of Antofagasta and encouraged by Mr. Armando Cordero Rivadeneira, who was the president of the entity in the year 2000, an extremely special date for humanity. The famous architect Eleonora Román was responsible for the design of the work whose geometric characteristics transform it into a large solar observatory.

The monument consists of four main structures called, the Arch of Capricorn, the Road of the Sun,

The Gates of the Sun and the Circle of the World by the artists who made them. The Arch of Capricorn is almost 11 meters high and its edge is used to mark the seasons. The Sun’s path is a small trajectory that crosses north to south over the tropics and marks the true noon, taking as a reference the shadow cast by the Arc of Capricorn. Two majestic walls border the Road of the Sun and have been called the Gates of the Sun. Both are used as a reference for marking the equinoxes. The fourth part, which gives life to the monument, is called the Circle of the World and outlines the entire work. The site has become one of Antofagasta’s biggest tourist attractions and is the main gathering center for astronomy lovers during the summer.

Mano del Desierto

Then I drove until I came to one of the most interesting sculptures ever. The Hand of the Desert (La Mano del Desierto).

On the north side of highway 5 75 km South of Antofagasta, in the Antofagasta region is the famous sculpture of the hand that seems to leave the Earth to greet those who travel in this area.

It was built by the Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrázaval and inaugurated in 1992. No one knows the true meaning of this hand and it is set so that everyone can interpret it as they wish. A greeting, a dismissal, a memory of the region. Its construction was financed with the contributions of the Pro Antofagasta Corporation and they are the ones who take care of it and clean it every day, because it is a favorite place for graffiti artists.

I stayed there well into the night and took almost half a night of night pictures. Even if they were made by me, I like to look at these pictures that bring me pleasure both from the memory they evoke and also aesthetically. I also had some interesting experiences there because I decided to see what it’s like to go in the dark in the Atacama desert until you get far enough away that you can no longer see or hear the group you came with. Given the context in which we photographed the desert hand where we looked a lot at the starry and very clear sky, I had a special feeling when I managed to get away from the group until I could hear nothing but the silence of the desert.

Although I have used this phrase many times in this article again I cannot say more than the pictures can convey.


July 8 – Monday

The ruins of Huanchaca

The next day, July 8, we continued our journey by car to San Pedro otherwise our final destination in Chile San Pedro de Atacama. On the way, however, we would discover many interesting places and in the style of this trip, we had lightning experiences in each of these places on the way.

The departure from Antofagasta to Calama and then to San Pedro de Atacama was about 400 km and thus we really entered the Atacama desert.

Ruins of Huanchaca Located across the sea, the ruins of Huanchaca were built in 1888.

They were nothing more than a refinery owned by Compania Minera de Huanchaca, built to process minerals from various points in the region, mostly silver mines Bolivian.

Over 3000 tons of ore per month were refined here and over 20 tons of pure silver were sent to all corners of the world via the Pacific. Today there are only ruins that look like an old medieval fortress.

Of course we made a quick stop there too and took some pictures.


I was lucky enough to be the mini car driver for the assigned group (only 3 people in the SUV) and have some freedom to stop where I wanted and for as long as I wanted.

A recurring theme of this article is that graffiti was found even on bus stops in the middle of the desert.

San Pedro de Atacama

..and Petroglyphs

We arrived at noon near San Pedro de Atacama and still had time to visit the petroglyphs. I recommend. Yerbas Buenas, there is a huge collection of petroglyphs here. Because of its location, the valley was an important route of pre-Columbian peoples. The place was used for rest, by travelers, and the drawings represented gods, animals and the indication of routes.

They are easily identified on rocks as zoomorphic and anthropomorphic representations. The most often illustrated animals are alpaca and guanaco. Whether or not these represent a systematic accounting of herds, trade, or are simply drawings to pass the time is a matter of speculation. Other designs present include foxes, cougar, flamenco and the “dragon”.

Also in the area is the Valle de Arcoiris (Rainbow Valley) known for its deep reddish to green rock formations. We didn’t get to Valea Curcubeuului because it was too much for one day, but we understood that it’s cool there too. One can continue the road to the Rio Grande to see the small village hidden in the steep canyon along the Rio Grande River.

About 100 kilometers from Calama, the driest desert in the world jealously hides a small oasis called San Pedro de Atacama. A village of dirty streets and adobe houses that have stolen the heart of thousands of tourists, with the charm of the Atacama and Spanish cultures highlighted in each of its buildings.

After the long road through the Atacama desert we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama (alt. 2407 m, 22°55′S 68°12′W).

San Pedro culture is everywhere, a legacy born 11,000 years ago with the first Atacameo communities. The diversity continued with the invasion of the Inca tribe in the 15th century and then with the Spanish influence that arrived a hundred years later.

San Pedro is somewhat similar to the Old Customs House in the 90s but moved to South America. The old, the pubs with live music, the peaceful stray dogs, the slow pace of life, where nobody seems to be in a hurry, the old church, a walk through the village workshops to find out how they keep their traditions. All these describe the atmosphere in the city. And there are other wow places around the area.

In San Pedro de Atacama we stayed three nights at Hotel La Casa de San Tomas


09 July – Tuesday

Death Valley or Mars Valley?


I was talking about the wow places in the area. The next day was a long and very interesting day. Long because the activity was practically finished on July 10 in the morning.

On July 9th in the morning I was in Valea Marte or Valea Morții (Mars or Muerte) – as it were, the name accurately reflects the reality. I hiked in the true sense of the word, watched dune surfing. This morning from around 8 am.

Then already around noon I managed to go with the group to the ALMA observatories until the evening, then with Vali Grigore I went to Valea Lunii, where we stayed to take pictures until the morning.

And with all that, I haven’t visited the thermal springs De La Puritama, Salar de Atacama, Piedras Rojas (150 km south of San Pedro), Lagunas Escondidas de Baltinache (50 km from San Pedro), Laguna Cejar (20 km from San Pedro ), El Tatio Geysers, Machuca Church, Jere Valley (38 km from San Pedro de Atacama).

Or maybe I touched a bit on some of the areas listed but didn’t stay long. But if you want, you go.

As I said, I started the day with Death Valley. What more fun activity to start your day with?

The Valley of Death is close to the Valley of the Moon, a few kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama, in the middle of the Cordillera de la Sal. The valley is also known as the Valley of Mars because it is a mountainous and sandy formation with natural sculptures However, it was previously said that those who tried to cross the valley died, animal bones were found and people dating back to the explorers who entered this place. The place is completely devoid of vegetation and there are sand dunes that are highly appreciated by those who like to practice sandboarding and trekking through inhospitable landscapes, similar to maybe Mars.

In Atacama there is a rock called Atacamite, a hydrate of copper chloride that crystallizes in the orthorhombic system. Its color is rich green, with shades from light green, emerald green, to dark green, even blackish green. It can be transparent or translucent. It was found for the first time in 1802. It is a rather rare mineral.

Amazing video from the Valley of Death (Mars)







ALMA Radio Telescopes

Around noon, the fabulous, long-awaited visit to the ALMA astronomical observatories (radio observatories) was scheduled. Located 50 km from San Pedro de Atacama, we went there by car, at a high altitude, about 3000m.

What is ALMA? It is an interferometric observatory / radio telescope. ALMA stands for Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array under the dome of ESO – The European Southern Observatory.

I visited the ALMA – Operations Support Facility (OSF) command center. The visit started at 14:30 and lasted 3 hours. If you’re wondering, yes, approval is required based on an application.

As Chile is one of the top locations in the world for astronomy, our intention on this trip was to visit one or two top astronomical observatories in world science located in the area: the ESO Paranal Observatory, located about 130 km from Antofagasta and/ or the ESO ALMA Observatory (interferometric radio telescope), located 50 km from San Pedro de Atacama.

The big problem is that we had fixed days when we could visit these observatories, given our schedule. At Paranal, visits are accepted by individual application (not group), on Saturdays and Sundays. We would have fit on July 6 or 7 when we have Antofagasta on the schedule.

Only the places allocated for the visits were occupied long before we formed the group. Various interventions were made through Valentin Grigore’s friends, bosses at ESO, but there was no possibility of visiting her in Paranal. So that left only the other mega observatory, ALMA. The procedure is the same: individual/family application for Saturday or Sunday visits. I didn’t get weekend days in San Pedro de Atacama and the reservations were sold out for a long time anyway. There is, however, a possibility for institutional visits granted perhaps to an astronomical society and a specialized university. Through SARM, as members, we were eligible to apply.

It helped that Valentin Grigore, after about two years of working with ESO (although Romania is not a member of ESO) managed to include Romania in ESON – ESO Network for the Promotion of Education and Science for the Public, becoming a representative of Romania in ESON.

So, Valentin negotiated from this position, giving assurances that we will make public the result of the visit, that we will promote ALMA through appearances (voila), through presentations given to students in camps and summer schools, etc. (I also did this within the Astroclub ). Although the visiting day was free, there was still a problem with the exact date of the visit. They made an exception again for SARM, the visit for Tuesday, July 9 (even though it was not a visit day), but we had to come with an authorized guide, recognized by ALMA. And I found this guide available for July 9th. Wow, what an effort. Another argument for how special this trip was.

As I said, the visit lasted 3 hours and included a tour of the ALMA command center – Operations Support Facility (OSF), the place where the scientific staff work, where you can see the control room, the laboratories and, from time to time (it depends luckily) an antenna at the maintenance center or antenna carrier. We even learned from ALMA researchers how the operators work. I saw the jobs of the staff and watched a clip with the history of ALMA. All from about 3000 m. The actual elements of the radio telescope array are even higher at 5000 m. Imagine how these people work permanently at such an altitude, for science. For security reasons, the Chajnantor Plateau, where the antennas I was talking about, located at an altitude of 5000m, are installed.

I also met a super nice dog at the Observatory, very well behaved but determined.

Almost 7 km from the city there is a viewpoint called “Piedra del Coyote” from where you can see the fabulous “Valle de la Luna” at sunset. Where I went with Vali Grigore after the visit to the ALMA observatories.