A third of the world’s telescopes are concentrated in the north of Chile. The South American country will have a concentration of almost 70% of the world’s astronomical observation capacity when the E-ELT (European Extremely Large Telescope) is installed. This is because the best place in the world to obersve the cosmos is in Atacama Desert. The lies in its skies, which are clean and clear for over 300 days a year. Its dry climate has made Chile a natural laboratory for astronomers from all over the world. Projects such as the E-ELT, which is an innovative terrestrial telescope that is set to revolutionise the world of astronomy, places Chile at the forefront of this science.
Cerro Mamalluca is the first observatory built for public use for touristic purposes in Chile. Photo: Felipe Cantillana, Prochile, Fundación Imagen de Chile(FICH)
The ALMA (which means ‘soul’ in Spanish) Observatory is located in San Pedro de Atacama and is an international facility with over 66 high-precision antennas at a height of 5,000 metres. At weekends you can visit the encampment where the station’s personnel work, as long as you have previously registered on its website.
However, stargazing is not reserved solely for professionals. Enthusiasts and visitors are increasingly stopping to admire the star-filled sky. Astrotourism has been born; Chile is home to some observatories focused mainly on tourism. Many scientists also open the doors of their laboratories during the daytime to inquisitive passerbys. At the Mamalluca Observatory in the Elqui Valley, they organise tours every night and thanks to the guide’s explanations, the stars appear just that little bit closer. The immensity of galaxies, nebulas and constellations overcome those who observe them through the telescope donated by the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. This is one of the oldest centres in the Southern Hemisphere which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2013.
The ALMA has brought together partners from all over the world. Photo: Blas Tomic E., Fundación Imagen de Chile (FICH)
Although nowadays it has become the favourite destination for astrotourists, interest in the skies goes back many generations in this country. The indigenous people based many of their customs on what they interpreted from the stars and they had their own system to identify the constellations. The Archaeoastronomy Observatory Andina Paniri Caur, on the outskirts of the town of Chiu Chiu, bases its explanations on both views of the cosmos, that of the Atacama people and the modern view, to describe what can be seen in the dark night sky. They use Andean astral charts and a 14” telescope to make sense of this mystical journey through time.
The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will be located on Cerro Armazones Mountain, which is 3,060 metres high. Photo: Observatorio Europeo Austral (ESO), Fundación Imagen de Chile (FICH)
For those who, like the Andean people, don’t need any tools other than their eyes to enjoy the celestial mantle, there’s the option of camping in the desert, sleeping in dome tents, or even in the open, in the Vicuña area, in Elqui Valley. For the more extravagant, the best option is glamping, which has all the advantages of sleeping in the open air but without giving up your luxuries. You can then enjoy a group dinner around the campfire featuring Chilean cheeses and wines under the beauty of the Milky Way.