The Altiplaino

The Altiplano was placed quite high of my list of must-visit places on this trip. Primarily as it held, in my opinion some of the greatest historical & natural attractions of the continent.

  • Uyuni Salt Flats
  • Potosi, former spanish silver boomtown and UNESCO site
  • Atacalama Desert, worlds driest and hence world’s best astromical site
  • Cuzco, Incan capital and Cultural Nexus of the Andes
  • Macchu Picchu, Incan lost city & Wonder of the Ancient World

The Altiplano itself is a dry windy place reaching altitudes that make every breath you take a herculean effort. Given I reside in Singapore which was at sea level the 3000m+ altitudes came with the very real risk of hapoxy (altitude sickness).

To counter this I had been given diamox pills by the travel clinic in Singapore (where I got many other things including vaccinations for Rabies, Tetanus , Hepatitis & Yellow Fever). I was advised to take half a pill twice a day and to start taking the pills a day before my ascent. I was warned they were diuretic which was to have complications later on.

The Atacama

We’d taken an overnight bus ride from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama the next before and arrived in the hot & dusty mud-hut of a bus terminal sleepy and trying to figure out how best to get to the hotel. There wasn’t an official taxi stand so we didn’t have much of an alternative and agreed upon a price with a taxi driver of a somewhat beaten up car.

The road to the hotel was nothing more than a dirt trail passing a small stream of water and what appeared to be mud-brick houses and stables.

Boutique Rustique

The Atacama was not originally on my iternary until a colleague at the office strongly recommended the star gazing in the Atacama Desert. I looked it up on my Lonely Planet guide, and lo-and-behold it had a seperate section detailing the benefits of the dry cloudless desert skies on star gazing. The guide book recommended the Astronomy tours of a small boutique hotel Logd Altitud. It was easy to book via trivago.

The room walls were made of dried earth/mud and would crumble a bit when I lay my suitcase lid against it.

The was a more earthy experience than I had originally planned for.

The hotel seemed deserted save for a gardener and a stray cat.

As we approached the front-desk hut we found the hotel manager (among other functions he performs) and checked in. We got a very ornate key-tag in the process.

Walkabout town

I had briefly scoured over the desert landscape options near Atacama and decided upon the popular Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) tour by (well rated on tripadvisor). I made the booking online via email (50% deposit paid via PayPal).

We had some dinner in town and headed back to the hotel before the sunset. The temperatures dropped rapidly with the last rays of the sun and as darkness crept in so did the desert critters.

Critters of the Night

I walked into the reception to get a better WiFi signal only to encounter a floor filled with bugs of all types (from centipedes to ants to spiders & scorpions). I suspect they were attracted by either the light or the releative warmth of the building. I quickly made a hasty retreat to my room and escaped without a bite.


The Astro tour was conducted in the small house which shared the same compound as the hotel. The guide was very knowledgeable amateur astronomer with a wide variety of expensive telescope kit.

We had arrived early and settled down in a mini-theatre waiting for the rest of the group before starting the briefing. Hot chocolate was passed around to warm us prior to entering the freezing Atacama night (they previously provided chilean wine but we weren’t complaining).

After being quickly briefed on astronomy basics, we were lead outside with the rest of the group to the small courtyard adjoining the conference room.

The Desert night was freezing cold with the worst of the strong winds deflected by the surrounding courtyard walls.

The host wheeled out 2 large telescopes, both resembling Newtonian Reflector-types. He dialled in the co-ordinates of a planet and the telescope motors did the rest.

Unfortunately, Atacama had been unusually cloudy in the week of out visit. And the high-tech kit available to us couldn’t penetrate the skies as well as we’d hoped. We managed to catch some planets and even a glimpse of Saturn’s rings though it wasn’t as clear as we’d originally planned. Just to show how all travel plans are at the mercy of the weather (even for a desert renown for its lack of clouds).

It was pitch dark that no photos could be taken at the venue (save for the headlamp on our host’s head).


Although the star-gazing tour was a bit of a anti-climax, I’d advise travellers check the weather forecasts prior to booking the tour. The night sky above the desert can be quite remarkable (as we were to see in Bolivia) given the lack of light pollution. We just happened to be unlucky on this occasion. However, I’d probably not recommend staying at the rustic lodge alititud just because the astronomy tour is on-site. The manager was very helpful in organizing transport but the hotel’s novelty wears off fairly quick.