May 11, 2017 26

Chile & Peru - On Top of the World

During April 2014, seven Australian amateur astronomers from Macarthur Astronomical Society (MAS) travelled from Sydney to Chile and Peru. Our aim was to visit some of the largest radio and optical telescope installations in the world, and these installations are not normally open to visitors. Given their basic requirements of clear dry air, lack of city light and radio quietness, the high Atacama Desert is the place to put them. Oh... and what a place.

Landing in Chile's capital, Santiago, we immediately flew on to La Serena, a medium-sized city on the coast a few hundred kilometres north. Over the next few days we used it as a base and drove on unfamiliar bitumen and dirt roads, on the wrong side of the road to us, to several major telescope complexes. These observatories (Las Campanas, Magellan South, La Silla) are high up on the Atacama Desert plateau and house a number of large and medium-scale telescopes, each specialising in their own branch of astronomy. At these altitudes (around 3,000m) the sky is a dark, dark blue as it trails off into the upper atmosphere and the donkeys speak Spanish. Sunsets are, predictably, utterly spectacular.

Back from La Serena, we flew back to Santiago and then on again to the city of Antofagasta even further north, to visit several more installations including ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) and VLT (Very Large Telescope) Paranal - familiar to many as the set for the James Bond movie "Quantum of Solace". 

Having our fill of huge telescopes and lots of science talk later, we flew on to Peru - first in to the capital Lima and then straight out to the items on all of our respective bucket lists, Cusco and Machu Picchu. We rode the fabled luxury train, the "Hiram Bingham", to Machu Picchu. If you get the chance, just do it.

Leaving Machu Picchu and the magic of towns of Pisac and Ollantaytambo within the Sacred Valley of the Incas behind, we return to Cusco and fly straight back to Lima for a day, touring the old city.

After nearly two weeks of constant airline and car travel, we finally end up back where we started our journey within Chile and Peru - the city of ultimate juxtaposition between old and ultra modern - Santiago. It's a beautiful place, the best of Sydney and Melbourne rolled into one - with the skiable areas within the Andes range just close by. Simply stunning.

For those people kind enough to take an interest in this trip of our, I'd like to present a short 17 minute video of the entire thing - end to end. It was great having my trusty Sony RX1R along to the ride, it was the "go-to" camera for most of the trip as it stayed mainly in a coat pocket. Small is nice.