This South American Destination Has Luxury Lodges, Otherworldly Landscapes, and Some of the World's Best Stargazing
If the universe's history is condensed into one calendar year, humanity barely accounts for a minute. The pyramids of Egypt would have been erected at 11:59:50 p.m. on New Year's Eve, with Christopher Columbus' voyage embarking just a mere second before the ball dropped.
I never expected the cosmic calendar, a model inspired by renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, to influence the way I plan trips, but there I was, sitting cross-legged with my jaw dropped beneath a sea of stars in one of the world's most lauded astrotourism destinations: Chile's Atacama Desert.
This arid, Andes-mountain-flanked stretch of northern Chile has the perfect ingredients for stargazing: little to no light pollution; dry, typically cloud-free weather (it receives as little as half an inch of rainfall per year); and an elevation between 8,000 and more than 16,000 feet above sea level. These superlatives have allured top astronomers and some of the most powerful observatories. Its Martian landscapes are also so extreme that NASA uses it as a training ground in the search for life on the red planet.
My reason for visiting the Atacama was a bit simpler than hunting for proof of alien life: I'd come to regain perspective.
Throughout the pandemic, domestic astrotourism adventures and documentaries like Cosmos had become like therapy, constantly reminding me of my tiny place in the universe and how little hiccups like my double-postponed COVID wedding or canceled trips actually mattered in the grand scheme of life.
I'd also promised myself that once travel lockdowns lifted and I felt safe to jet set again, I'd spend at least one night beneath that dense splash of constellations that Chile's wild desert is known for. Any international trip, let alone a voyage to one of the world's most extreme deserts, felt far-fetched at the time. As I learned this spring, it was definitely worth the wait.
Navigating the Atacama Desert
My husband and I journeyed to this otherworldly desert with Awasi Atacama, a Relais & Chateaux brand with a collection of three boutique luxury lodges in South America. Minutes after checking in, the property's concierges helped me plot the stargazing adventure of my dreams. We landed on night two, our last night, for the stargazing and night photography adventure with renowned local astrophotographer Mauro Cuevas. It would be the grand finale — a way to end our trip with a bang.
What I didn't realize was that I'd find nearly as much grounding and serenity during the daytime desert adventures, too. Awasi distinguishes itself from other Atacama hotels by offering private, tailored, and adventurous guest itineraries — similar to an African safari. Each room has its own private guide for the duration of the stay, and our guide, Alonso Matías Vielma Sepúlveda, was on top of it.
"What kind of things do you want to do?" Sepúlveda asked as we sat down for itinerary-planning and lemonade by one of Awasi's numerous adobe fireplaces — a Chilean desert aesthetic that continues throughout the property, from the thatch-roof round guest rooms to the cocktail bar adorned with stones from the local river.
"I've heard Valle de la Luna [Valley of the Moon] is great," I said, trying to recall even one non-astro experience I'd scanned so I didn't look entirely ill-prepared. Then, I stopped myself. If I wanted peace and recentering, I needed nature sans crowds — and the top 10 list I was attempting to recite just wouldn't cut it. "Actually, scratch that," I said quickly. "We like hiking, wildlife, and landscapes. Is there an itinerary that combines all of this?"
Sepúlveda grinned and nodded, the wheels already in motion. What came next was a daytime Atacama Desert itinerary that would rival my once-in-a-lifetime night beneath the stars.
The Desert by Day
We only had two days to find awe in the Atacama Desert, but Sepúlveda's itinerary made the most of it.
First up? Hiking in the desert's Altiplano, an Andes-fringed plateau with an elevation of more than 14,000 feet. We shared our off-the-beaten-path trail with foxes, viscachas (large rabbit-like animals), vicuña, and not a single other tourist. In fact, the vicuña, a wild camelid, outnumbered us by at least five to one — and that total jumped even higher once they got comfortable with us around.
An equally tranquil and mind-blowing experience was sunset at Vallecito, a destination in the Atacama's salt range best known for its lunar landscapes. (It's like the more popular Valle de la Luna, Sepúlveda told us — except this otherworldly expanse comes with no crowds.) The butterflies in my chest nearly exploded as I watched the desert and distant Andes transition from golds and oranges to pinks and purples. What I didn't realize? This light show was a mere preview of the stargazing night ahead.
Finding Solace Through Stargazing
The night of the main event — that Atacama desert stargazing I'd long dreamed about — started in the most appropriate of ways: a celebratory feast. Each Saturday, Awasi hosts a traditional Chilean barbecue, known as asado, complete with grilled meats, fish, vegetables, and sides like the tomato-and-onion Chilean salad.
As delicious as the feast smelled, I could hardly eat a thing. I was too excited for the starry skies and astrophotography adventures that would soon unfold — and I was right to be. Just stepping foot from our guide's truck into the lunar world of Vallecito at night felt like walking onto another planet — and that's before I even looked up at the stars above.
The constellations and far-flung galaxies weren't just sparkling; they felt within arm's reach. We had four hours of nearly pure darkness to count the shooting stars, admire the glowing Milky Way, and name the galaxies, constellations, and planets astonishingly visible to the naked eye.
We begrudgingly ended the night around 2 a.m., knowing those 7 a.m. flights would come all too soon. On my last glance toward the cosmos, a final and humbling Sagan lesson came to mind: "All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star," he wrote in "The Cosmic Connection," before concluding with his most famous quote: "We are made of star stuff."