Chile: Country of stars
Chile is the world’s best destination for stargazing, from the Atacama Desert in the north to Patagonia in the south. Travel there to be amazed by the Milky Way for only 25,500 Avios (each way).
Chile – especially in the north, in its vast Atacama Desert – is the best place on the planet for professional and amateur astronomers. More than 300 clear days a year, very few dust and moisture particles, low air humidity and its diverse geography (high and arid) provide the perfect conditions for the installation of telescopes. Today, half of the infrastructure for astronomical observation is concentrated in this area of the country.
Here, what is known as ‘astrotourism’ is at its peak. You can visit scientific projects such as ALMA, the Paranal Observatory, 130km south of Antofagasta, and the Paniri Caur Observatory in Chiu, just outside of Calama. Above all, you can sky watch at night. When the sun goes down, it’s time to stop looking at the earth, the ground and a magnificent geological horizon of cliffs, lakes and geysers, and raise your eyes to the sky. There are numerous stargazing tours that include stays at nearby hotels.
ALMA, the world’s largest astronomical observatory
The first thing you feel when you arrive at ALMA – which is 60km from San Pedro de Atacama, ascending through the land around its facilities – is a shortness of breath, despite the fact that there’s all the air in the world here under the largest sky you’ve ever seen. At night, you can even see the Milky Way over your head, unveiled, purple and white, overwhelming.
ALMA is a scientific project created with the international collaboration of more than 20 countries (including Spain), which explores the universe to answer questions such as whether the necessary conditions exist for life beyond Earth. Altogether, 66 radio telescopes are deployed over 15km on the Chajnantor plateau at a top altitude of 5,000m. Despite the lack of oxygen, this ensures that there is no humidity in the atmosphere that could alter observation. Because of its meteorological conditions, it’s the best place in the world to contemplate the infinite.
Can people visit ALMA?
ALMA’s leaders say that it’s important to explain the work they do there to the public so they can see “what their taxes are being spent on”. So, free tours are offered on Saturdays and Sundays to those who have previously signed up on the observatory’s website. For safety reasons, tours include the first level only, not the radio telescopes. The telescopes on the tour aren’t optical, so visitors won’t see the stars from them, but they will get to learn about the huge scientific project from the inside.
Patagonia, in the south, is another essential stop on any stargazing route through Chile
The spectacle of observing the universe that makes people feel so small and overwhelmed can also be enjoyed in the south of Chile, in Torres del Paine National Park in immense Patagonia. Confucius wrote, “Stars are holes in the sky from which the light of the infinite shines” and Torres del Paine supports this romantic view. Here, it’s about gazing not just at the stars, but also at the earth. The landscape is formed from unusual, unique granite pillars that, illuminated by the light of the Milky Way, make the destination so special. Earth and sky come together in a breath-taking image.
An image filled with questions that most likely – and this, too, is part of the journey – will appear to us during the night. How was the universe created? Beyond us, what is there? Are we alone? The answers are out there...
Iberia takes you (even more) to the sky
Fly to Tenerife and Santa Cruz de la Palma from 7,500 Avios (each way).
Because of their altitude at some points and the quality of their night sky, the Canary Islands are one of the world’s top spots for professional and amateur astronomers. Proof of this are the international projects of the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in La Palma and the Teide Observatory (link IBP interview) in Tenerife.
Fly to Lisbon or Seville from 4,500 Avios (each way).
Because of its low latitude, the area of Lake Alqueva, between Spain and Portugal, has become an ideal destination for observation. With hardly any light pollution and idyllic weather conditions, this lesser known astrotourism destination is the best option for those who prefer not to leave the peninsula.
Fly to Lima from 21,250 Avios (each way).
Better known for the wealth of its natural and historical heritages, Peru is also a unique place for astronomy. Many of its cities – such as Cusco, located more than 3,000m above sea level – have low levels of light pollution and high altitudes that make them perfect destinations for looking skywards when night falls.
Fly to Geneva from 4,500 Avios (each way).
With its altitude and limited urban sprawl – which ensures the absence of light pollution – Geneva is another popular place for astrotourism fans. Enjoy mountains and skiing during the day, and stargazing and constellation spotting at night.