Articles tagged with "atacama"

Trails over the summit

Trails over the summit

A view from out the back of the residencia towards the summit of Paranal and the telescopes.


Two halves of the sky

Two halves of the sky

A view from out the back of the residencia, where you can see the southern stars trailing to the right, and the northern stars trailing to the left.


Celestial equator over the residencia

Celestial equator over the residencia

A view over the residence at Paranal, looking towards the celestial equator. I stacked 763 individual photos to make this one, each of the individual ones being a 20s exposure at ISO 800, using a 24mm lens at f/2.8.


La Silla

La Silla

On my second trip to La Silla, I had plenty of free time. We were observing for three nights, but the transport from La Serena to La Silla only goes three times a week, so we had to arrive three nights before our run started, and leave one night after. So, we did a lot of photography. I made this image by stacking 700 individual images, each of which was a 20s exposure at ISO 100, using a 24mm lens at f/1.4. I started the sequence about 45 minutes after sunset, so that there was still some twilight to light up the sky. The moon was full, so the telescopes and the desert got illuminated by that.

Video


Star trails over the Residencia

Star trails over the Residencia

A view towards the residencia from the platform at Paranal. I made this photo by stacking 500 photos, each of which was a 5s exposure at ISO 3200.


Clouds over Paranal

Clouds over Paranal

We finished our epic Chile journey with a visit to Paranal where I spend 80 nights a year working at the telescopes. We had some bad luck though. The skies are normally clear here at least 90 per cent of the time, but the last couple of years have seen quite a lot of bad weather, and today we managed to pick a cloudy day. We’d seen the cirrus over the desert as we headed out from Antofagasta, but there is quite often cloud nearer to Antofagasta while Paranal is clear. Today it was not so, and the clouds thickened during the afternoon.

By nightfall they’d decided not to open the telescopes. The opening is always impressive to see, so this was a pity, but the engineer who would have opened the dome treated us to a good display anyway, tilting and rotating the telescope so that we got great views of it inside the closed dome.

We went out onto the platform in the night, and through breaks in the clouds we could see stars, but nothing like the normal blazing skies. It was a pity, as I’d planned the trip for a time when there would be no moon and the centre of the Milky Way would be high in the sky at the start of the night. The night before, and the night after, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

But Paranal is not only about the night skies. We went for a walk in the desert the next day, and that’s always great. The terrain here is so harsh that just before we arrived, they’d been testing a Mars rover nearby.


Puncture in the desert

Puncture in the desert

We drove back down to San Pedro. We were in no rush, the driver took his time, and we stopped at some amazing places. At Vado Putana, where the Río Putana spreads out into a huge wetland, previous trips I’d been on had stopped for a few minutes, but we spent a while here with the driver pointing out all the birds and wildlife that could be seen. Not long after that some groups of vicuñas and llamas crossed the road, and we stopped to let them cross.

Everything about the trip was good, and even when we got a puncture, that was good. It was the second time I’d had a puncture on my four trips so I felt somehow like it might have been my fault. The first puncture, on my first trip, was a bit of a nightmare as it took a long time to fix, we were in the middle of nowhere, and I had a pounding headache from the altitude. This one happened just outside the village of Machuca, and it meant we got to stop and appreciate the amazing views over the village that you normally just see flashing past out the window of the minibus. We waited near the van for a while as the driver jacked it up, and eventually he said we might as well walk down to Machuca while he fixed it. The staying awake on the way up thing had really worked well – the four of us strolled down into Machuca while everyone who’d slept on the way up seemed to be suffering now and shuffled slowly down behind us. One girl just stayed in the bus and drove down with it once the tyre had been fixed.

Machuca was busy. Every bus stops here on the way down from the geysers. It had changed a lot since my first visit, 8 years ago – when I looked at my photos from 2005 there was just one van there and hardly any people. Today there were about 30 cars and vans parked in the village, and there was even a mobile phone mast.

But by the time we got into the village, most of them had gone. It was good to be on the most relaxed trip of the day. We had plenty of time to look around, enjoy the Machuca vibe, and get coffees and empanadas. It would have been a shame not to have got the puncture.


El Tatio again

El Tatio again

We went to see the geysers at El Tatio. I’d been there three times already and although it’s a pretty awesome place, I was thinking that maybe four visits is a bit excessive. And seeing as you have to get up at 4am to go there, and it’s brutally cold when you get there, and it’s 4300m above sea level, I was wondering if my mum and dad and aunt would actually get any enjoyment from this at all.

But we got lucky with the tour we went with. Everyone, everyone who visits San Pedro will go to El Tatio, so agencies really don’t have to work very hard to earn their custom. But the trip we went on was one of the few that actually makes an effort. The driver advised us not to sleep on the way up, telling us that you adjust more easily to high altitude if you’re awake. We thought this sounded like it would be worth a try so we stayed awake all the way up. The Italians, Brazilians and Chileans who were also on the trip ignored it and were soon fast asleep.

But it was good advice. I felt better when we got to El Tatio than I’d done on any of my previous visits, and as well as that, the place looked more incredible than ever before. It was brutally, savagely cold, 15 degrees below freezing, and in those conditions huge steam pillars rise from even the tiniest geothermal hole in the ground. It was stunning.

We had plenty of time at the geysers. On previous trips I’d always felt a bit rushed, but we hung around until pretty much all of the other minibuses had left. Once the sun came up, the savage temperatures got a tiny bit more agreeable.

All the tours start in the main geyser field and then drive over to a geothermal pool that you can swim in. I’d swum in it on my last trip. It was horrific. It’s like getting into a bath that you ran nice and hot and then forgot about for a bit, and then you have to get out into sub-zero air. So we passed on a swim this time.

I was in a great mood as we headed away from El Tatio. This had been the best of my four trips here without a doubt. So, my advice for having a great trip to El Tatio is 1. go with the Maxim tour agency, they are really good; 2. stay awake on the way up; and 3. don’t swim in the pool unless you like disappointment and misery.


Lagunas

Lagunas

We headed to some high altitudes, and took a trip to Lagunas Miñiques and Miscanti. I’d been here a few weeks earlier, and at 4000m there had been plenty of snow. We couldn’t drive right to the lagoons, so we had a short hike over the snow to get to a place where we could see them. Today, all that snow had gone. We drove down to Laguna Miñiques, which we hadn’t even been able to hike to before, and then to Miscanti. A lone vicuña was drinking from the lake in the distance.


Cordillera de la Sal

Cordillera de la Sal

We’d been to the southernmost parts of Chile, and now it was time to head north to San Pedro de Atacama. It was the fifth time I’d been here, only a few weeks after my fourth visit.

San Pedro is full of tour agencies, some good, some bad. We went on a trip to the Valle de la Luna with a bad one. And the trouble is, there are so many agencies, I can’t remember which one it was I actually booked through. Whoever it was, they had a van that was tiny and they were trying to fit too many people into it, and after our first stop it wouldn’t restart for a while.

But, at least it managed to deliver us to a good viewpoint over the desert in time to see the sun go down. San Pedro might be excessively touristy but it’s got a prime location and I don’t think I could ever get bored of seeing the desert scenery around here.


Touring the lagunas

Touring the lagunas

I went to Laguna Chaxa, where flamingos paddled in the shallow waters. The scenery was breathtaking, with the salt plains, lakes, volcanoes and deep blue sky all looking otherworldly. I’d crossed the Salar de Uyuni six years ago, and it was flat, white and it tasted of salt. The Salar de Atacama was different – rumpled and dirty grey and apparently containing all sorts of things like arsenic and lithium. I didn’t try tasting it.