For would-be astronauts who are never going to make it into outer space, Chile offers the next-best thing: a stunning, otherworldly experience in the lunar landscapes of the Atacama desert
This may come as something of a shock, but I have never left the earth’s atmosphere. However, in 2010, with the launch of the first commercial Virgin Galactic flight into space, a quick trip into the galaxy will be a very real possibility. Of course, space travel comes at a price and at $200,000 for a ticket into the final frontier, it’s not exactly going to trouble easyJet in the aviation stakes. Nor will it get most of us into space.
Luckily for all those space explorers who’d rather buy a house than a seat on a rocket ship, there is an alternative; the Atacama desert in Chile. At around 2,443 metres (8,015 ft) above sea level, Atacama is the highest and driest desert on earth, with parts where rain has never been recorded. The breathtaking landscape is a geologist’s dream, varying from snow-capped volcanoes to long salt plains, vegetation-filled valleys and of course, the desert, which is so arid and barren it’s been likened to both Mars and the moon, gaining it the reputation of space on earth.
Clear skies and lack of light pollution have encouraged various scientific organisations to open astronomical bases in the desert, while hotels such as Explora Hotel de Larache, a glamorous adventure hotel, offer stargazing as one of their excursions. Based in San Pedro de Atacama, a small town where most tourists head, Explora Hotel de Larache is a gloriously stylish lodge where you can spend the day climbing a volcano, marvelling at salt flats or hiking through gorges, before returning home to your luxury bedroom to soak in the bath and soak it all in.
Watching the sunset in Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) is a staple part of the Atacama experience. This valley of sculpted sand and rock formations is, according to experts, similar to the lunar landscape and therefore the perfect place for earth-bound astronauts. Dropped off an hour away from the hotel and an hour and a half from our final pick-up point, we began our moonwalk. It's an easy introduction to hiking at high-altitude, as most of the terrain is flat, except for a final climb up a hill to see the sunset.
The valley is spectacular and quite unlike anything I’d ever seen before: a rough landscape of dry browns and yellows that grows steadily more red as the sun drops in the sky. With its craggy rock formations and cracked earth, it looks like Fraggle Rock. It’s also exceptionally quiet and all you can hear is literally the sound of silence. There’s no vegetation, no animals, no birds – nothing except the raw beauty of the landscape. Phenomenal, yes. But was it like walking on the moon? Well, it’s the closest I’ll ever get.