Stargazing in Chile

The Milky Way Galaxy
A Gangrene Cut or The Milky Way Galaxy?

When I backpacked around South America almost two years ago, other well travelled gringos would wax lyrical about the valleys and mountains of Chile, with an enviable landscape that had to be seen to be believed.

I was always a little dubious at such claims given that those who usually said them were virgin backpackers in their early twenties who were on a gap year or ‘finding themselves’ which I always judge with scepticism (“You’re right here mate!“)

Nevertheless, when my buddy sent out the SOS and because I just happened to be in the neighbourhood some 5,000 km away in Medellin, Colombia I figured I’d answer the call.

I wasn’t particularly enamoured by the idea of long day tours in the Driest Desert on Earth with the same valleys and mountains seen from different viewpoints but given cool names to justify their expense. ‘Moon Valley Tour‘ ‘Death Valley Tour‘ etc. Having gotten close to the Andes near Salar de Uyuni salt plains, I didn’t think I’d miss much if I didn’t participate.

But participate, I did.

The Various Telescopes in our Star Tour
The Various Telescopes in our Star Tour

In fact, there is very little else to do to pass the time in San Pedro as it is really a stepping stone to such tours.

My fear was that as a fairly seasoned traveller who has been fortunate to experience some amazing sights, I was worried that I would be desensitized to Chile’s beauty. In some respects, that turned out to be true certainly when it came to the landscape. But there was one sight that I was really banking on to blow my socks off.

The Telescope Tour.

Born in a small village in the North of Ireland, I was lucky to have a fairly clear night-sky in my childhood and my life was complete when one Christmas I received a telescope and stargazing map to chart the constellations. Of course, kids being kids, my fascination didn’t last long because at 11 years old I saw the movie Jurassic Park.

Goodbye Moon Map. Hello T-Rex fossil!

Living in a city most of my adult life, I never again got a clear view of the night-sky as the smog and light pollution lowered the visibility. So it was with a boyish excitement that my friend and I entered one of the vendor shops to book our tour and quickly had our hopes dashed.

The tour wasn’t happening. The visibility was too poor. We were crushed.

Following the Star Guide's Laser Pointer
Following the Star Guide’s Laser Pointer

When we stepped outside and looked up we could see a few wisps of cloud in the sky that would surely pass before night had fallen. But we figured there must be some kind of logic. I had been frustrated by such marginal calls before about the weather.

We had another eight days though, so there was no panic…

…except for the fact that on the 2nd day we received the same response. The powers that be could only judge on a day by day basis the conditions for that night which was understandable but frustrating. Of course, it hadn’t helped that our entry was smack bang in the middle of off-peak season where there were more clouds. To say we started to get a little anxious was an understatement.

Returning everyday, and suddenly thankful we had booked a longer trip than was necessary it wasn’t until the very last night that we received the all clear.

Our group of thirty eager night watchers jumped onto the tour bus to be taken to an isolated location fifteen minutes south of San Pedro. When we got off the bus, there was a little house with dimmed lighting owned by Alain Maury, French Engineer in Astronomy and facilitator of the Star Tour. The plot of land we suddenly found ourselves on is the largest public observatory of telescopes in Chile as well as being the base for one of the clearest night sky views ANYWHERE on Earth.

Night Sky in San Pedro, Chile
Night Sky in San Pedro, Chile

Given the fact that it was late at night (the best time for the stars to come out apparently), at high altitude and in the open air it could have taken away from the experience but our Canadian guide was great. It obviously wasn’t his first rodeo, and as well as providing a humorous and compelling narrative on the stars, planets and history of the night sky, we received blankets to cover ourselves as we looked up and followed his laser pointer.

Everyone was eager to use the twelve various telescopes as our guide explained what each was focused on, most of which we quickly forgotten ready to leap into action and claim our preferred scope. Exploding Stars. Blue Stars. Saturn. Jewellery Box. Moon…etc. After what seemed like ages, we finally got a chance to see the various objects up close and it was worth the wait.

In fact, had the telescopes had the same inferior power as my own childhood one (which was no stronger than holding a magnifying glass at arms length) I still would have gone away happy because our view with the naked eye was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life and probably never will.

During the 2.5 hours we were treated to a cosmic feast of falling stars which drew collective gasps every time they appeared. The view from the telescopes was equally stunning with the highlight for me being Saturn.

Cheese? Artificial or Natural Satellite? Bloody Gorgeous either way!
Cheese? Artificial or Natural Satellite? Bloody Gorgeous either way!

In disbelief I found myself returning again and again to the same scope during the next 20 mins as if my eyes couldn’t believe that I was in fact looking at this ringed planet between 1.2 and 1.7 billion kilometres away.

In the end, we all returned to the warm little house and were treated to hot chocolate and a Q&A session with our host who was incredibly knowledgeable. Bodies warmed and brains blown by what we saw, we heard the toot of the bus outside and gathered our things and jumped on, taking one last glimpse at the last night sky in Chile.

I couldn’t help thinking – It certainly beats my backyard in Cloughmills!

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