I’m used to being confronted with challenges when traveling quickly in new regions, but this one was to be seriously reckoned with: altitude sickness at the Salar de Tara. The region around Salar de Tara is not only the second driest desert on earth (after Antarctica), but also the highest. I was shortly kneeling down to take a few snapshots of an alpaca and immediately felt dizzy after standing up again. It had already gotten harder to breathe. You usually only think of it when trekking in mountains, but our trip from San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Tara catapulted us from 2’200 MAML (Meters Above Mean Sea Level) to almost 5’000 MAML in less than three hours. The road lead us along the Chilean-Bolivian border up to the salt lake Salar de Tara, which included a decent part of off-road driving.
I also had a hidden agenda: to see the second largest scientific project in the world, the ALMA Telescopes (the largest project is CERN near Geneva). I knew that the site was currently still closed to the public, so I wasn’t too surprised that there weren’t any signs leading to the telescopes (now, there are public visits on Saturdays and Sundays – with pre-registration). With satellite images from Google Maps, however, I figured out where they had to be. To my disappointment, it seemed like they were hidden by a mountain range, until for a very short part, I was suddenly able to catch a glimpse of the telescopes in the far distance. I was smiling brighter than the Atacaman sun. I had to get off the road, get closer to the ALMA Observatory. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, but I took a leap of faith and just went for it. Maybe the altitude? Guided by GPS, we followed an abandoned road, which might have been the one used by the huge transporters that carried the 66 expensive telescopes one-by-one to the ALMA site. We went up and down the gravel road, increasingly getting more anxious: would I be able to see them more closely without disturbing the project? I knew that even the electromagnetic waves created by an automobiles engine could disturb the scientific measurements, so I was very aware of the fact that I shouldn’t get too near. After ten minutes of driving, a few of the telescopes revealed themselves and I knew that I was near enough for today – I didn’t want to push my luck too far. Although I couldn’t get a decent shot, already seeing them from a distance was the utmost personal fulfillment.
Back on the paved road, I kept a close eye on the altitude meter app on my phone, slowly passing by the beautiful red mountains on the Bolivian side. After almost two hours of driving, we finally reached a point where the only option was driving straight into desert. I had expected at least a dirt road, but there were just apparently random tire tracks. We marveled at the stone pillars and started discussing if we should proceed through the unknown deserts. Was our 4WD good enough? We didn’t know. Where there any other cars? Not that we knew of. Did we have cell phone reception? No (only GPS). Did I know how to free a stuck car? A definite ‘no’ here! The gas tank was half full and I had no idea what to expect. But I did have some bottles of water and a few snack bars, so that was good enough for me. We decided to take the risk and drive out into the desert into what we believed to be the direction to Salar de Tara.
Did you enjoy our Salar de Tara adventure so far?
There simply was no clear road. We just followed the tracks we found, repeatedly reconfirming our path with our GPS, never questioning the ability of our SUV when going up or down an uncomfortably steep sand hill. “It has to work – they’re made for this!” Maybe it was the encounter with the ALMA telescopes before, but I felt like in a scene of the movie Interstellar. The region and sky were unlike anything I had ever seen before. All colors seemed so different, the sight into the far was so incredibly clear due to the thin air. At some times, I really felt like in a dream – on another planet. I wanted to cheer all the time, but I was so intimidated by the vastness and remoteness of the area, I kept my joy to myself until we had returned home safely. I knew that there were tourist trips to Salar de Tara, but as I hadn’t seen any other groups so far, I constantly had a heavy feeling in my stomach. But we were simply too near (or actually have gone too far) to turn around.
Then, after roughly 45 minutes of off-roading through the Atacaman Desert, at roughly 4’500 MAMSL, we finally reached the beautiful Salar de Tara. With the air so thin at that altitude, we had two reasons for short breath. What surprised me the most was to find flamingos living in and around Salar de Tara. First, in the hostile, blood-red Lake Natron in Tanzania and now also the Atacaman Desert at 5’000 MAMSL. Flamingos might actually just be nature’s most amazing birds. We ate a little snack and enjoyed the unreal view that was set before us. After resting for a while, the altitude made its mark on us and we decided to drive back down to San Pedro de Atacama, where we enjoyed an amazing barbecue next to a campfire. As for the next day, we wanted to get up early for our drive to the El Tatio Geysers.
There is now a visitor program at the ALMA Observatory for the public on Saturdays and Sundays. You will also need to register for a spot in the limited group. If you cannot make it on a weekend or did not get a spot, it’s almost impossible to see the ALMA telescopes, as they are hidden behind a mountain range. However, I did find a small part on paved road from where you can see the ALMA telescopes in the distance (look at the screenshot below and pay attention to the little arrow: this is where you need to look to see the ALMA Observatory). You can drive to the ALMA Telescopes view point by following the coordinates to 23°03’00.9″S 67°36’47.9″W.
I recommend bringing some binoculars as the ALMA Observatory is still very far away. However, I think it’s currently your best option of seeing the ALMA Telescopes without actually visiting the site.
For questions or feedback regarding the Salar de Tara or ALMA Observatory, please feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of this page.20 people recommend this.