There’s a reason why some of most powerful observatories on Earth can be found in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile. The altitude, seclusion from luminescent cities and unique accolade of being the driest non-polar desert in the world create a region where light pollution is near non-existent and atmospheric interference like clouds and haze are rarities. These are ideal conditions for stargazing.

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The clarity of the southern constellations (named by European explorers, mostly after animals and inventions — The Chameleon, The Crane and The Chisel) played a huge part in the exploration of the southern hemisphere. The Crux, or the Southern Cross, points close to the southern celestial pole — so, like Polaris indicates north, the Crux shows south (which came in handy in the pre-GPS era). These days, stargazing explorers tend to look more into deep space, but when it’s a new moon or the moon is late to rise in the Atacama, you don’t need a $1.4 billion radio telescope to get an amazing, detailed view of the Milky Way.

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Then there’s the other, lighter side of the Atacama night sky. If the moon is at any phase between a waxing or waning crescent, the lunar luminescence is too bright for good stargazing. The same lack of atmospheric haze, clouds or any moisture to speak of that creates clear starry skies also allows the moonlight to enter the desert nearly unfiltered. It creates a light so intense, sharp shadows are cast and flashlights and headlamps become redundant. Midnight hikes through the Valle de la Muerte show a desert landscape illuminated in totally new light. Neutral brown sand during the day appears velvety and violet at night, the cloudless light blue sky fades into a deep well of indigo dye. And this is where the beauty of the vast Atacama lies — every fluctuation in light offers a different view of the desert. So whether you’re staring into our galactic neighborhood in the darkness of a new moon, or exploring a unique corner of earth’s own backyard in white, full moonlight, the Atacama offers a unique view. Just keep your fingers crossed for no clouds.

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