27 October, 2012

Day 115, 492km: Very Large Telescope

Today, a visit of the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, Cerro Paranal, Atacama Desert!

A short drive from Antofagasta, starting in a cold fog
That fog was so cold! Starting the day with a 5 degrees C fog on the highway isn't exactly high on my wishlist but that's how it happened.

Once above the fog, the temperature became decent
So far Chile is much colder than I expected. I'm curious to see what's the weather like in the southern part of the country. It should be milder for it's not a desert, but since we're going south in the southern hemisphere, it will get colder. I refuse to look-it up in advance, that'll be a surprise.
I hope it'll be warm. I miss the sweet year-round 30 degrees C of Bangkok.

Here we are! Finally an observatory that's opened! 
Impressive view of the 4 telescopes of the distance
 The Very Large Telescope actually consists of four individual telescopes, each with a primary mirror of 8.2m (that's really big for a telescope). They can be used together and act as a virtual 200m telescope (that's enormous and doesn't exist as a single machine).

The visit there is very professional. Introduction movie, English speaking guide, great concern for satefy.
We started by a quick view of the guest facilities.

Scientists hotel at Cerro Paranal, The Residencia
 Well. That's a pretty cool place to spend a week or so doing observations in the Atacama Desert. Cinema, restaurant, 100 rooms, fitness, the list of amenities went on and on. Since I don't pay any taxes in France, I wasn't allowed to comment. Still, these guys know how to live. The place was even featured in a James Bond movie (Quantum of Solace), thanks to its amazing architecture. It is not opened for tourists of course. Even European taxpayers.

Now on to the masterpiece
 Look at this monster. To give you an idea of the scale, the blue thing at the bottom is two meters high.

Quick look at the main building's tunnels leading to the telescopes
 Next in the visit, a quick look at the main building from where the telescopes are operated. There 4 control teams, one for each telescopes, and separate teams for the instruments in use.

Apparently there are redditors at the ELT

The view that people working here have is stunning
The telescope itself. The 8.2m rests on the circular platform in the middle of the frame.
The telescope is mounted on a gimbal allowing it to change attitude. Azimuth is controlled by rotating the entire structure.

Cables, pipes, computers, big tanks, shiny things with yellow stripes ... what's not to like in this picture?
I had to
The four telescopes. See the pickup truck for scale.
Model view from above at the visitor centre
And we're building bigger! The EELT with a 30-something meters primary mirror
The ALMA under contruction near San Pedro de Atacama
That was a great visit, really well prepared by the team there. Plus we were only two English speakers so we got to have an almost private visit. And I got to ask all the questions I wanted to, which was great.

Then back on the road south with a precise destination for the day. I didn't know how long the visit would take so didn't plan on where to stop.

Back to the coast, succession of fishing villages and mining towns
So I just drove until the day was coming to an end, assuming I would find a hostel somewhere.

Julien, Laurent, this is for you guys.
And I ended up in the city of Caldera, a small harbor town.

Tried to figure out how to "unstuck" my rear brake
I'm not afraid anymore to take off the rear wheel, once you have the proper tools it's actually very easy. I tried to understand why my rear brake is stuck but couldn't get it to work properly again. I'll have to leave that to people more competent than me when I reach Santiago. Bertha will get her 30,000km service, plus a few bits and pieces that need fixing.

Now off to bed, tomorrow further south towards Valparaiso!


Day 114, 0km: Gaming in Antofagasta

I yielded. After four months, I yielded. The urge was too strong. I bought a video-game  a mouse and keyboard and decided that the rest of my day would be dedicated to it.

Starcraft 2! The sequel of a 1998 strategy game, frequently gathering tens of thousand of viewers during competitions
Finished the solo campaign, tried my luck at the multi-player mode only to be torn to pieces by anonymous online gamers.

A little gaming never hurt anyone!

Day 113, 0km: Rest in Antofagasta

Today, nothing! Walking around Antofagasta's park, reading, internet, movies, rest!

Feels good.

Day 112, 360km: To Antofagasta

After these three days in San Pedro de Antofagasta, I decided to move to another city to wait the next 3 days before my scheduled visit of the European Large Telescope. That would be an easy ride towards Antofagasta.

The road wasn't very exciting. Flat, trucks, wind.
 The road was punctuated by mining sites, some of which could be partially seen from the road.

First time I see mining advertising along a road
It seems to be a really enormous industry here. Hundreds of trucks and pickup trucks on the road. A road lined with advertising for mining, piping, drilling fluids and whatnot.

Eventually reached Antofagasta
Reaching Antofagasta, I was glad to see a relatively big city and thought that there wouldn't be any problem to find a hotel there. Oh boy was I wrong.
The first 5 (yes, 5) hotels I tried were all full for the next 3 days. Next, I went to an Ibis hotel I spotted along the way, thinking they'd give me a room because I'm French or something. (Ibis belongs to Accor, a french hotel group.)

The kind of reading you find in hotel lobbies in Antofagasta

Well, full. They did give me a list of the city's hotels though. I tried 3 more hotels on their list. All full. At that point I was starting to loose patience and concluded that driving to every hotel one by one wouldn't be a viable solution. I headed for the biggest, most expensive hotel in town with the intention of getting some assistance.
The staff there (Hotel Antofagasta IIRC) were very kind and helpful. The hotel was full of course, which wasn't really an issue considering the prices of the rooms there.
But they helped me with my hotel list and called one by one the 30-something hotels to inquire on rooms on my behalf. Really nice.

Now what is amazing is that ALL hotels on the list given to me at Ibis hotel were full. Seriously. Now of course it took them sometime to call every single hotel on the list so there was quite a crowd around me in the hotel lobby by the time they were done. The hotel's bellboy chimed in and explained there was another hotel not on the list.

My hopes were high! The front desk called them and ... suspense ... they had rooms! Great!
By that point I learned that there was a major mining related seminar being held in the city, so that's why all the hotels were full. Now considering this fact I have to admit I was a bit skeptical about the only hotel that would have room available. It was probably the shittiest, then.

Well it was. I was given the option to rent the room by the hour though, great flexibility. I denied and went back driving in the city. I figured that since it was close to 7pm by that point, some hotels might have had cancellations. So I drove back to the motherland, France, Ibis hotel.

The front desk was visibly surprised to see me come back, hotel list in hand. They gave a quick call and within a couple minutes told me that they now had a free room for me. Great. The next city being 250km away, I wasn't very excited at the idea of driving there by night!

Finally checked-in
The hotel list ... the handwriting says "FULL"
Treated myself to a burger to celebrate finding a room and off to bed!

Guillaume, comfy.

Day 111, 0km: Rest in San Pedro de Atacama

Today, nothing! No driving, no visits. Breakfast outside, reading under the sun, sunburns, napping and internet procrastination.

Feels good!

Day 110, 123km: Space day

I contacted several observatories in Chile, as most of the world's most recent/biggest/most awesome observatories and telescopes are located in the Atacama desert. Turns out that visits are possible at some of them, for example the Very Large Telescope. I'm scheduled to go there at the end of the week. The place is only 400km from San Pedro de Atacama so I'll be taking it very easy this week!

The left one tops at 6000m+
 Today I planned to try and see as many space/star related stuff as I could! So I started the day driving towards the construction site of ALMA, the world's largest astronomical project under construction. I already contacted them and knew that visits weren't allowed. I figured I'll try to drive up to the site's gate and hopefully glimpse at the antennas.

Cool dirt road in the Atacama plateau
Now I didn't really expect the road over there to be so high! I left form the hostel wearing jeans, tennis shoes and my jacket. God I was cold!

Prohibido el ingreso, damn!
The site's gate was too far to see any of the antennas. They'll open a visitor center once the construction is complete, sometime in 2013.

Temperature, 4 degrees C
 Considering the temperature, the wind and the fact that my clothes we absolutely inadequate, I didn't stay long up there. That was an impressively steep ride, we lost 2000m of altitude in just 30km. That's an hardcore average of 6.7%.

Getting back to San Pedro de Atacama
 It was great being back in the city with its comfortable 25 degrees C! Next I headed to the "Meteorites Museum".

Beautiful meteorite, pallasite
They had quite an impressive collection of meteorite, showcased in a relatively small room but they beauty and rarity of the pieces on display made it totally worth it. Above is a pallasite (IIRC), a stone-iron meteorite. How they are formed is pretty cool. Imagine you're an asteroid, wandering through the solar system a few billion years ago. You're still young, like all the surrounding bodies. Your haven't cooled yet and parts of your structure are molten.
Then suddenly, another asteroid smashes into you at a tremendous speed. You're totally shattered by the impact. Under the extreme shock, crystals are formed in parts of your external layer of rocks (mantle) and then mixed with your core's metals. This beautiful mixture is subsequently thrown into space by the impact on another orbit around the sun.
An orbit that eventually crosses the earth's and allows the humble earthians to have a look at your beautiful remains.

The above shows the different constituents of asteroids, form the rough mantle rocks (top left) to the dense iron core (bottom)
It was really cool seeing these meteorites, plus they had an English speaking guide and English language information panels. What's even cooler is that these meteorites were found in the nearby desert by the museum owner. According to the guide, it takes a hundred "searches" for a successful meteorite find. How could would that be finding something from SPACE while hiking through the desert?

Granted, the earth is from space and we're made of the dust of generations of long dead stars. Still, seeing these pieces of our spatial neighbors gives a sense of proximity with what's orbiting above our heads.

Zoom in for explanations on the above "yellow" meteorite formation
I was surprised to learn during the visit that there's actually a "meteorite market" where people trade their finds. According to the guide, what was in the museum (perhaps 50 kg of rocks) is valued at around a million USD. Good job guide, great way to shatter my dreams of having a meteorite with a single sentence.

Oh and the coolest part? You can touch meteorites
Guess what? Yeah. It feels like touching a rock. Still, a rock that fell from space to our planet!
After this visit, I registered for an astronomy introduction course, scheduled to start at 1am and came back to the hostel.

Surprise! A dozen F800GS!
The drivers of these motorcycles were nowhere to be found. The hotel staff told me they were on a tour from Argentina. Probably a dozen of them. It was quite surprising to see Bertha's sisters and brothers. I have to say they look much prettier without all the panniers and luggage.

Last stop of the day, astronomy introduction course!
There were perhaps a dozen of us, religiously listening to our Canadian guide on a freezing night somewhere near San Pedro de Atacama. The initiation started with basic tips for one to orientate himself in the night-sky using the earth's geography (latitude, direction of the south) as well as "easily" (for him!) recognizable stars and constellations.

It was really cool having a professional explain us these things and casually point at each constellation, explaining us how to find the zodiacal plane, our solar system planets and all of that.

It's probably the first time in my life that I have actually been "star gazing" for an extended period of time. Realizing after a while that the night sky is rotating around the earth's axis, stars appearing in the east and disappearing in the west was pretty cool.

We even got to take our own shots of the moon
They had a variety, perhaps a dozen, of telescopes available for our own use. They were ranging in size between "I can put that on my balcony" to "I'd need a large flatbed truck to move that around". And we were able to view the moon like picture above, clearly some of Jupiter's satellites, and discover thousands of stars in nearby galaxies. Really amazing.

After a hot chocolate, back to the hostel for a good night sleep.

Live long and prosper,

22 October, 2012

Day 109, 220km: To San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama is a town in Northern Chile, close to the border with Bolivia. It's actually close to the Salar de Uyuni. But since I left the Salar from the north, I looped during the past 3 days and was now back in the region. A quick look on Trip Advisor told me there was plenty of hotels and hostels so I thought I was going to a massive city somewhere up in the mountains. Boy I was wrong.

Leaving Maria Elena, heading for the mountains
The day started with a 60km close to straight line. Perfect when you're still asleep! It was a challenge staying awake on that road.
On that long, flat stretch, the temperature went up by 10 degrees C in just over 30 minutes. That's quite amazing how little heat the thin and dry air can keep here. Nights are cold, days are hot. Oh yeah right we call that a desert.
The cordillera's summits ahead in the distance
Driving west up there, one side of the bike was facing the sun while the other was in the shadow. It was impressive to feel the temperature difference, one leg being warm and comfy and the other one really cold.
The silence up there was amazing. Like it was on the Salar. You hear noises that you've never heard before.

Oh so that might not be the huge town I had in mind
 Arriving in San Pedro, I saw this sign "1938 habitantes" and realized that there was no big city, but more likely a tourist village with dozens of hostels.

The view above San Pedro
I started circling the town, looking for a place to stay for the next two or three days, as I planned to visit the region and its telescopes.

French license plates! This 4x4 is badass
 Since I was still early there, I stopped for breakfast on the plaza. It's actually a rather cute village. Plus the temperature is nice with around 20degreesC.

San Pedro de Atacama
I circled the city quite a bit to find a hostel
And finally found something nice, quiet, with good internet
I'm going to stay at least two days, get some rest, try to explore the region, possibly the telescopes and get into an astronomy tour of some kind.
A full laundry is also in order, since my boots and I have been staying separately for the last 10 days. They need a wash :-)


Day 108, 543km: Chile's mining Atacama

Today I didn't really have a destination. Being in a civilized country, I figured I'd just stop when I felt tired. Since I really felt like being back in Northern America, I thought I'd drive as I did there, without any plan and just figuring things out along the way. Central America, Bolivia, Peru on the other hand required a bit of planning, to make sure that I would simply end somewhere with hotels and gas stations.

Here I thought there was no need for that.

Arica's walking street
 So I took the road south, after running a few errands in downtown.

The early part of the day was mostly across valleys like the one above
 Along the way, I fueled-up with Octane 97. Great quality fuel, a well deserved treat for Bertha. She went across Bolivia and Peru -two countries well known for their shitty gas- without failing. I gave her a pat on the side, like own would pat a horse. Good job Bertha. I was genuinely proud of her.

I'm starting to have a good stock of these!
 After going across these valleys, the rest of the day consisted in long, boring straight lines across the desert. And the wind. God the wind. There was a constant strong wind coming from my right.

L'equipe des winners en effet
 This is where I stopped for lunch. Look at that, seriously. I think that's for local elections. The guy in the middle definitely looks like a crook. And the rest of the team, subtly Photoshoped in?  That's a brilliant piece of work. If they don't get elected with this, no-one will.

Hey there!
 Shortly after the town of Huara I passed the 30,000km landmark. According to Garmin we passed it more than a thousand kilometers before. There's always a 2-3% difference between the bike and the GPS. I would tend to trust the GPS more since well, it should know about distances. The bike on the other hand is (I assume) counting revolutions of the wheel and estimating the distance traveled, which varies with the tire pressure, weariness and size.

In any case, I have been on the road for more than 30,000km. My first plan was for 33,000km overall to make it to Rio de Janeiro. That was greatly underestimated.

A mining town reminding me of the USA
 Crossing little cities and villages, I was each time reminded of the USA. Modern cars, clean streets, all the brands we're used to seeing elsewhere ...

Crossing another salar, admittedly less impressive than Uyuni's 
 And I was back in the wind. It was so strong that I tried every position on the bike, to shelter myself from it. Standing upright was painful on the neck, trying to keep my head straight in this wind.

Told you it was windy! So I ended up with my head behind the bike's windshield, almost lying down on the bike, moto GP style. Since I was doing 100km/h it was probably a funny sight for the cars that passed me.

Maria Elena downtown, crazy activity on Saturday
 My destination was San Pedro de Atacama. Since it was almost night, I stopped in a town along the way, Maria Elena. The town has the name of my godmother so I thought it would be great.

Ok so it's a mining town
It was a very small mining town, apparently no very used to seeing tourists. The Saturday night fever was going on, with close to nobody in the streets. After circling the town for a while, I asked a police officer if there was any hotel. He offered to drive me to the hotel. I was surprised by his generosity and later understood why I couldn't have made it alone.

We first stopped at a restaurant, where the officer told me to wait outside. He came out with a woman, and drove her to her car nearby. From there, we all drove together to the hotel. That was a funny convoy, the lady first in her 4x4, the police officer, me and stray dogs following us.

Then in some backstreet was the "hotel". From the outside it looked like it was under construction and from the inside well, it was under construction. Whatever, I had a bed and hot shower. The kind of shower where you keep your flip-flops in but that was a relaxing night nonetheless.

So I can say I've been to and slept in a mining town in the Atacama, haha!