A trip to the stars

There are skies in northern Chile that allow you to see more than from any other place in the world.


Carlos Corco was a 12-year-old boy when he began to observe the stars with a small telescope. He has never stopped doing so since then. And now, from Monday through Saturday he receives groups of tourists and astronomy buffs who come to Cerro Mayu in the Elqui Valley and he guides them to observe the cosmos from the best skies in the southern hemisphere.

For many of the inhabitants of the northern part of the country, observing the universe comes almost naturally to them. The Elqui Valley has an average of over 300 sunny days a year and the Tololo and La Silla observatories are among the most important ones in the world. However, this interest does not just extend to the astronomers, but also to the thousands of tourists who travel to gaze at the wonder of the universe.

The skies of the Coquimbo Region have become a unique attraction. Jorge Fernández, one of the people in charge of Cerro Mayu, says that over 4,500 people had visited the tourist observatory during 2008, a 10% increase compared to the previous year. “We have received French people, Germans, Spaniards, and Mexicans who dedicate themselves to astronomy almost like a hobby,” Fernández explains.

Mayu is not the only destination: there is also Mamalluca in Vicuña and Collowara in Andacollo.

Impeccable northern skies

“They used to show us the starry skies with a flashlight. Now the guides use modern green lasers and point out the stars and their names, such as the Southern Cross and Orion’s Belt. It’s spectacular,” says Alejandro González, a 21-year-old university student, after visiting Mamalluca. The development of astronomy tourism is clear.

González has been to the observatory three times and has no doubts when he compares it to the new astronomical observatory at the Metropolitan Education Sciences University in Santiago. “The quality of the nights is different in the north,” he says, while also explaining that to see better you even need to turn off car lights.

Light pollution in the capital makes more detailed observation more difficult. There has been such growth in astro-tourism in the Fourth Region that the municipalities of Vicuña and Andacollo have taken measures to fight light pollution. After a rigorous study, Vicuña became the first Chilean municipality to change its lighting systems. In 2002 more energy efficient light bulbs were installed with a color that does less harm to observation.

The benefits for the professional and tourist observatories were remarkable, as it was for the municipalities, because they have been able to save on energy costs. “The Vicuña plan is currently being applied as the standard in Argentina,” says Jorge Fernández.

Some 18 km from this city, the company Astrónomica del Sur has just finished building the Pangue observatory, which will mainly be aimed at receiving international visitors.

Astronomy circuits

For optimal observation the sky must be clear and without a full moon: the darker, the better.

In La Serena, Vicuña, Andacollo and other cities there are tour agencies like for example AstroExpedition Tour and QuasarChile that specialize in these trips, including transportation, food, and observation equipment for tourists. They offer visits with professional guides and amateur astronomers, enthusiasts trained to lead groups to the diverse observatories and to give them basic educational talks on the universe and the galaxies.

Recently the Cancana observatory in Cochiguaz was also added. It is 1,500 meters above sea level and involved an investment of US$ 60,000.

Tololo Observatory: This is an observatory with a high scientific level, located 87 kilometers east of La Serena and 2,200 meters above sea level. It has eight telescopes and a radio telescope. There are Spanish and English speaking guides for tours at Tololo that last approximately two hours. Each tour is for 50 people and visits must be arranged a month ahead of time at the telephone number (+56) 51-205200.

La Silla Observatory: Located in the municipality of La Higuera, 156 km north of La Serena and over 2,400 meters above sea level. La Silla is managed by the European Southern Observatory  and it is equipped with 14 optical mirror telescopes with diameters up to 3.6 meters and a 15-meter radio telescope. This equipment makes it one of the biggest and most modern centers for astronomical observation centers on an international level. Tours last three hours and reservations must e made at least a month in advance at the phone number (+56) 02-4633280 or by emaill: recepstg@eso.org.

Mamalluca Tourist Observatory: Created in Vicuña by the Amateur Astronomy Club with a commitment from the municipality and endorsement by the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. At Mamalluca tours begin at 18:30 and the last one is given at 03:15.
They can be basic or advanced level and include exhibits on the Incan view of the universe. Reservations can be made hours prior to observation at the phone number (+56) 51-411352 or via email: mamalluca@munivicuna.cl.

El Pangue Observatory: Located 18 kilometers from Vicuña, it offers programs for the general public, such as the two-hour Astro Tour, as well as for amateurs who are not satisfied by a tour and want to make their own telescope observations without time restrictions. Reservations can be made at the phone number (+56) 51-543810 or on the website of the observatory.

Collowara Tourist Observatory: It belongs to the Municipality of Andacollo and is 1,300 meters above sea level on the top  of Cerro Churqui. It has powerful 14-inch Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes, a projection and conference room with a capacity for 54 people, in addition to three direct observation decks in a cross shape facing east. The visit lasts two hours and can be coordinated at the phone number (+56) 51-432964 or the email contacto@collowara.cl.

Cruz del Sur (Southern Cross) Observatory: This is one of the largest “astrotourism” centers in South America and it is located in the town of Combarbala, in the Coquimbo region. The project was launched by the Municipality of Combarbala and the Planetarium of the University of Santiago de Chile. It has observation domes with 16-inch telescopes and showrooms. The tickets can be bought in the Municipality of Combarbala, Plaza de Armas 166 Telephone: (56 – 53) 741033 and you can find more information on the website.

Cerro Mayu Observatory: Located 30 km from La Serena, it was born of an initiative by the priest Juan Picetti.  It has a 14-inch Schmidt Cassegrain Meade LX200 telescope and receives visitors from Monday through Saturday between 20:30 and 22:30. For more information and reservations, call the phone numbers (+56) 51-224508 – 212024, or else send an email to informaciones@cerromayu.cl.

Paranal Observatory: Located in Taltal, in the Second Antofagasta Region, and 2,635 meters above sea level. It is operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and includes the Very Large Telescope project, VLT, a system of four separate optical telescopes surrounded by varied smaller instruments. Tourist visits are the last two Saturdays of every month, starting at 14:00 and ending at 17:00. There are limited spaces and reservations can be made at the phone number (+56) 55-281291 or email sstrunk@eso.org.