ALMA is located in the Atacama Desert. When thinking about a desert, you probably imagine a vast, boring stretch of hot sand, with the occasional palm tree. But the Atacama is very different. In fact, it’s extremely beautiful and varied. Especially the area around San Pedro de Atacama is full of surprises.
San Pedro itself is a nice little oasis, with dusty streets and houses build of baked mud (‘adobe’). Thousands of years ago, the first Atacameño Indians already lived here. Now, it is the place where people start exploring the surrounding desert. And there’s a lot to explore!
Close to San Pedro is the Valle de la Luna – the Valley of the Moon. It has giant sand dunes and weird rock formations. It’s really easy to imagine you’re on the Moon! To the south of San Pedro is a huge salt flat – the Salar de Atacama. In the mountains beyond the Salar are beautiful lakes, surrounded by volcanoes. And some 90 kilometers north of San Pedro, at 4,200 meters altitude, the powerful geysers of El Tatio spew hot steam into the cold air.
The Chajnantor Plateau, where ALMA is located, lies in the Andes – the longest mountain range in the world. Many of its peaks are higher than 5,000 meters. Some of them even reach altitudes of over 6,000 meters. And almost every peak is a volcano. Some are still active.
Close to San Pedro is a beautiful volcano called Licancabur. Further south is the active Lascár volcano, which erupted in 1993 and 2002. And the Chajnantor Plateau is surrounded by five towering volcanoes, with exotic names: Cerro Toco, Cerro Chascon, Cerro Negro, Cerro Chajnantor and Cerro Chico (‘cerro’ is Spanish for ‘mountaintop’).
Although the Atacama Desert is very dry, there are beautiful plants and animals. Close to the ALMA base camp (the Operations Support Facility, or OSF), you encounter giant cactuses, called Cardón grande. They can be over seven meters tall! And every few years, the desert is covered with colorful flowers for a couple of weeks. It’s a marvelous sight.
Flamingos live in the salty lagunas. Llamas – usually owned by local farmers – wander around on the mountain slopes. At higher altitudes, you can see graceful deer-like vicuñas, and sometimes ostrich-like nandus. And if you’re lucky, you may get up close and personal with a viscacha – a rabbit-like animal with a long tail.
So yes, there’s a lot to see around ALMA. Northern Chile is one of the most beautiful regions of our planet. If you ever have the chance, you certainly should go there! Unless, of course, when you only fancy forests and beaches, since those are nowhere to be found.