The unique landscape surrounding the Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama is one of the world's top stargazing spots – but, in recent years, it's also attracting a new wave of scientists. Sarah Reid reports from the roof of the world.

Squeezing the last dollop of moisturiser out of the tube, I watch it absorb into my cracked skin in a mere instant – its hydrating properties are no match for the Chilean altiplano’s unforgiving climate. But then again, what did I expect from the world’s driest non-polar desert?

Amfitheater mountain near san pedroMarco Verch/Flickr

Surrounded by hulking volcanoes, salt-crusted rock formations and bubbling geyser fields, the bustling high-altitude village of San Pedro de Atacama is a playground for adventure travellers, astronomers and, increasingly, astrobiologists. And there's industry talk that the otherworldly Atacama Desert (which surrounds the town) could hold the key to discovering life on Mars.

I’m intrigued. But my hopes of bumping into NASA types at one of the backpacker bars lining San Pedro’s attractive adobe streets evaporate faster than my first pisco sour.

“Even most locals don’t hear about what the scientists are doing out here until we read it in the news,” admits Oscar Moya, a longtime hiking and astronomy guide at Explora Atacama, one of San Pedro’s top boutique hotels. “There are plenty of them out here, though,” he adds.

san pedro, atacamaPixabay/CC0

Indeed, earlier this year NASA completed its second season of tests in the Atacama Desert. The tests were designed to demonstrate the technical feasibility and scientific value of a mission that searches for evidence of life on Mars. Scientists found various organisms thriving in the extreme conditions of the Atacama Desert, which has a dryness and soil composition similar to that of the Red Planet.

“They’ve even found organisms living in Volcan Licancabur’s crater lake,” Oscar says, gesturing toward the snow-capped stratovolcano east of San Pedro as we make the short drive to Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), one of the region’s most visited attractions.

“I’ve climbed it three times, and it’s amazing to think anything can survive up there at almost 6000m.” On this basis, scientists have hypothesized that life could exist in an even harsher environment – like the surface of Mars, perhaps.

atacama desert, chileAdam Allegro/Flickr

Hiking alongside the dramatic wind-sculpted formations of the famous valley, it’s easy to imagine that Mars might not be so dissimilar to this otherworldly place. For now, however, the closest you’ll get to intergalactic travel is a peep through a state-of-the-art telescope at one of the region’s many observatories – the best of these is ALMA, which opened in 2013.

“There’s always something new to discover, as the night sky is always changing,” says Oscar as I count Saturn’s rings and gaze at misty nebulas through Explora Atacama’s impressive 16inch Meade telescope. “At ALMA they’ve discovered planets in at least four other solar systems. When you hear about discoveries like that, you can’t help but wonder what else is out there.”

Header image: Nêssa Florêncio/Flickr

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