South America Blog
About this blog
Wayne Bernhardson is the author of Moon Handbooks to Buenos Aires, Chile, Argentina, and Patagonia. Here he shares his vast knowledge of South America and its people.
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- The Uruguayan Sacraments: Tango & Mate
- Taxing the Tourist: Argentina's AFIP Aims Low
- Fortress Falklands: A Book Review
- Pope Argentinus I, The Musical: Ragtime Meets Tango
- Credit Where Credit Is Undue?
- ¿Adios Hugo?
- When "No" Is A Positive
- Chile and Its "Crazies"
- The Oscars: A Post Mortem, So to Speak
- Sacrificing the Atacama? A Chilean View of Dakar
- Chilean Oscar Faceoff? "No" v. "Kon-Tiki"
- Friday Digest: Southern Cone Nuggets
- Dancing in the Mud? The Andean Aftermath
- Floods & Mud: Summer Storms Hit the Andes
Skies of the Atacama
From the tiny Chilean fishing port of Taltal, with its dilapidated but atmospheric heritage of wooden buildings from the nitrate era, a northbound road heads into the coastal range of the Atacama desert - the shortest route north toward the city of Antofagasta and other destinations such as San Pedro de Atacama. After about 20 km the coastal road turns to gravel and then, at the fishing village of Paposo, it swerves up a steep canyon known as Quebrada del Despoblado - so called because nobody lives there and, given its stark aridity, that's not surprising.
Emerging on the high coastal range, though, the road becomes smoothly paved and, about halfway to Antofagasta, a short paved lateral climbs west to the European Space Organization's Cerro Paranal Observatory (pictured here). Visiting it requires some planning - they only offer public tours the last two weekends of each month (except December) - but it’s possible to join one of those if you happen to be driving by.
Cerro Paranal is one of the world's most sophisticated observatories, and each of the main buildings - seen at the left, they're very different from the traditional dome-style architecture - contains an eight-meter mirror lens; the four sometimes pool their efforts to increase the light and literally magnify the images they get from distant space. Visitors get to enter one of the buildings, accompanied by highly professional guides who handle both English and Spanish, and also get to visit the control room. On tracks, the traditional domes shown here hold smaller auxiliary telescopes.
The highlight for many visitors, though, is the so-called "Perla de las Dunas," the astronomers' hotel that ostensibly went up in flames in the last James Bond saga, Quantum of Solace. Visitors, though, do not see the corridors where 007 and his companion fought off the bad guys, but rather the central dome garden - which looks unreal compared to the desert outside, where not a blade of grass grows.
Cerro Paranal was not the only Atacama desert location used in Quantum of Solace. The now-crumbling adobes of Cobija, about 130 km north of Antofagasta, were Bolivia’s “outlet to the sea” before being lost to Chile in the Guerra del Pacífico (War of the Pacific, 1879-1883) and were used to set the scene for Bond villain Dominic Greene’s theft of South American water supplies. At the village of Baquedano, 90 km northwest of Antofagasta, the vintage train station served for the film’s closing scenes.