Chile champions astrotourism

Visitors from all over the world are heading to Chile’s north in to see its incredible skies for themselves.

Chile’s clear night skies demand attention. Photo by A. Fitzsimmons/ESO.
Chile’s clear night skies demand attention. Photo by A. Fitzsimmons/ESO.

The dry climate, clear skies and lack of light pollution ensure that Northern Chile offers an unmatched window to the universe. For these reasons, the Andean nation’s skies have long been attractive for the world’s leading astronomers, but now ever increasing numbers of keen amateur stargazers are getting in on the action and the Chilean astrotourism industry is booming.

While many industries claim that “the sky’s the limit”, for astrotourism, the sky is just the beginning. While it is possible to get a great view of a vast expanse of stars from anywhere north of Santiago, the Coquimbo region has been highlighted by UNESCO for its many public observatories and the Atacama Desert is famed for its skies.

In the coming decade, projects such as the European Southern Observatory’s E-ELT, ALMA and the Giant Magellan Telescope are set to discover previously unknown knowledge of the universe, but Chilean tourism businesses are making immediate steps to better share the stars with travelers.

From simple stargazing opportunities to even staying overnight in the world-class observatories, tourism groups are hoping to promote Chile’s night skies as an attraction in themselves. A key is collaboration between the different stakeholders involved.
A recent BBC article highlighted some of the many places ideal for astrotourism, especially in the Coquimbo region. Among the many options were the Pangue telescope and Elqui Domos — which offers accommodation in especially designed domed rooms with transparent ceilings for looking at the stars.

Panuge, located high in the mountains above the small town of Vicuña, is operated by a multinational team, and offers stargazing sessions from a powerful telescope, but no technology is necessary for a great view.
Maria Celeste Valenzuela described the stargazing experience to the BBC, saying, “The best thing was looking at the sky, sheltered by your blanket, surrounded by nature and listening to the sound of crickets.”

Cerro Mamalluca was the first astrotourism project to open, beginning in 1998. While the first tour welcomed two people, the municipal observatory now makes up almost one third of visitors to the Elqui Valley, accounting for 45,000 of the 150,000 annual visitors.

The observatory was able to open to the public thanks to a donation by the Cerro Tololo observatory, with cooperation between the tourism operators, astronomy facilities and various levels of government.

The country is getting ever more serious about preserving its clear night skies and finding innovative and sustainable ways to share them with everyone.

This was highlighted when Chile played host to the first Noche Zero conference in 2012. Held in San Pedro de Atacama, the event brought together experts from distinct areas such as lighting design, architecture, photography, culture, urban planning, astronomy and science as well as government officials to begin planning a future to limit the impacts of light pollution throughout the planet.