Chilean stargazing is widely considered the best in the world. The consistently high altitude, dry climate, and low levels of light pollution create the perfect cocktail for a clear night sky. Additionally, Chile is a special place for stargazing because it is one of the few places that offer reliably clear views of the night sky in the southern hemisphere.
The world’s highest concentration of astronomical telescopes and observatories are located in Northern Chile, between the central Andean range and the Pacific Ocean. But you don’t need high-powered telescopes to be enchanted by the Chilean night sky; the brightness and crispness of the stars and constellations and the deep purple spiraling arms of the Milky Way are just as visible to the naked eye of the modern man as they have been for indigenous people for thousands of years.
Stars have played an important role in almost every ancient culture, and the indigenous Incan societies of the central Andean range were no different. But they did have a different approach to astrology. Because the stars and the Milky Way were so bright, instead of creating constellations with the stars themselves, the Incans would actually create constellations with the dark areas in between the stars and in the gaps of the Milky Way – constellations that we can see with the same level of definition today.
There are few places left on Earth where one can observe the stars with the same unadulterated and unpolluted clearness of ancient civilizations, but Chile is one of these special places. With one-third of the country’s population concentrated in the capital, Santiago, there are hundreds of thousands of miles of undeveloped and untouched countryside that are just as wild as they have been for thousands of years, with crisp pollution-less air and not a single light reflecting off the night sky.
San Pedro de Atacama is famed for having the best stargazing in the world, and the fact that the world’s most advanced and powerful telescope is located just a few miles outside of the town of San Pedro is validation for that claim.
The Atacama Desert is located on a plateau at 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) above sea level, and is the driest desert on Earth, receiving just two or three days of rainfall a year. Humidity and atmosphere are enemies of stargazing, so the incredibly arid climate and high altitude of the Atacama, along with the dismal population and zero light pollution make it the perfect location for observing the night sky.
There are a number of stargazing tours to go on, where knowledgeable and enthused guides point out Incan constellations, and you can observe the storm clouds of Jupiter and clusters of distant stars through telescope. But perhaps what is even more impressive than this is just driving out to the middle of the desert and turning off all lights. It seems as though there is no horizon in any direction and the stars reach up from the ground from all sides; it feels more like being inside a planetarium than being outside and actually looking at the sky.
If you’re planning on visiting Atacama to stargaze, there really is no bad time as they have over 300 cloudless nights per year. However, do pay close attention to the moon cycles. The best time to visit is during a new moon, when there is absolutely zero light reflecting off the moon to diminish the brightness and sharpness of the stars.
South of the Atacama Desert and north of Santiago lies Elqui Valley. Due to the rather harsh and unforgiving Andean landscapes, most of this region remains undeveloped. Elqui Valley offers beautiful panoramic views of the Andes all the way to the sea, where near the coastal town of La Serena you can visit a penguin sanctuary, or head further east into the mountains to the region where Pisco (the classic Chilean liquor) was first distilled. But when visiting Elqui Valley, be sure to look up at night.
Similar to Atacama, the high elevation of Elqui Valley and desert-eqsue weather offers minimal atmosphere and humidity to look through when gazing upon the night sky, creating crisp stars and a bright Milky Way. This premium location is actual home to the oldest astronomical center in the southern hemisphere, the Cerro Tololo Observatory, founded in 1965, which is open to visitors, but relatively obsolete. Tours are also available at the Mamalluca Observatory where visitors can view star clusters, nebulas, and galaxies through optical telescopes.
There is a slightly higher chance of rainfall in Elqui Valley than in Atacama, with the monthly average reaching 27 mm in July, but remaining at 0 mm for most of the year. Once again, when planning your stargazing trip, the most important factor to consider is the cycle of the moon.
On the opposite end of the world’s longest country lies Patagonia, the famous region of jagged landscapes, unpredictably harsh weather, and untamed beauty. Due to the fact that it rains nearly everyday in Patagonia, planning a strictly stargazing excursion to this region will only lead to disappointment. However, if you are visiting for other reasons, keep your fingers crossed for a clear night.
Much like in the north, Patagonia is almost completely undeveloped, with not a single ray of light pollution dampening the night sky. Stargazing in this area is particularly beautiful because the mountainous horizons are sharp and unique, and to see these mountains silhouetted against the unpolluted and star-studded night sky is truly something special.
And if you head far enough south, to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of the continent, you may even be lucky enough to view the Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights. Many have had the opportunity to see the Northern Lights, but very few are ever fortunate enough to see their southern counterparts, as there are hardly any land viewing points on Earth that aren’t Antarctica – but the southern tip of Chile is one of those places.
As stated before, the weather in Patagonia is highly unpredictable – many tour guides in the region don’t even offer weather predictions to their customers because of the unreliability. However, the most likely time to get a clear view of the night sky is during the Patagonian summer, from December to March.
Chile has more astronomical observatories than any other country in the world. Most are open for tours at least one day a week, but often this is only during daytime hours. However, there are a few in the mix that offer nighttime tours and viewings of the sky, such as Mamalluca Observatory in Elqui Valley that lets everyone be mesmerized by star clusters and nebulae through their 12 inch telescope.
Most of this Telescopes accept visits to their facilities, but most of those don’t offer astronomical tours.
The Atacama area has an average of 350 clear nights a year, with this ratio, many agencies and research centers have chosen this region to place their observatories in order to maximize their investment.
The most notable observatory on earth is located in the Atacama Desert, just a few miles outside of San Pedro de Atacama – the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). ALMA (which also means soul in Spanish) is an international partnership between the Europe, the United States, Japan, Canada, Taiwan, Korea, and Chile, and is the largest and most powerful telescope on the planet, which every night is painting a more detailed portrait of our universe. The Array Operations Site, where the antennas are located, is above the 5,000 meters.
Information to visit the ALMA Observatory (Day visit, no observation visit)
ALMA is open to visitors free of charge every Saturday and Sunday morning. The Tour departs from San Pedro de Atacama at 9:00 am and it covers the Control Room, the Laboratories, the Antenna Transporter and if you get lucky you will be able to see an antenna under maintenance. The Array Operations Site isn’t opened to visitors due to security reasons related to its altitude.
Registration in advance is required, you can visit ALMA’s site, check availability, and fill the Registration Form here.
APEX stands for Atacama Pathfinder Experiment and it’s located in a plateau near San Pedro de Atacama at 5,100 meters above the sea level. APEX is an appendix of the ESO Alma project. It consists of an astronomical antenna with a 12-meter diameter that is used to practice radioastronomy.
Located 130 km south of Antofagasta, in Cerro Paranal in the Cordillera de la Costa 2,635 meters above the sea level, is the Paranal Observatory. Operated by the European Southern Observatory, the project was inaugurated in 1996 costing 200 billion dollars.
It has a very Large telescope that consists of four telescopes of 8.2 meters each. By combining their light, they can use the interferometer (VLTI) for a higher resolution as a single inconsistent instrument.
Information to visit the Paranal Observatory (Day visit, no observation visit)
The Facility ran by the ESO allows public visitors every Saturday at 10 a.m. or at 02 p.m., offering two tours free of charge but with compulsory registration. To get more details on how to book a tour visit their guide for visitors, it is very well explained.
The observatory, located in the surroundings of Chiu Chiu, 35 km from Calama was created in 2007 for tourism purposes. Cerro Paniri Caur offers Astronomic and Astrology Tours, where eventually travelers can use the 14″ telescope in the main dome.
130 km south from Antofagasta, Cerro Armazones Observatory was designed by the Universidad Católica del Norte in Chile and the University of Bochum in Germany. The observatory, placed at 3064 meters above the sea level, opened in 1995 and it has 3 telescopes, the largest is 1.5 meters and the smallest is 41 cm. No tours are offed of the facilities.
Looking to the future, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) is currently being constructed in Elqui Valley that will produce the most detailed map of space visible from Earth. This is a groundbreaking venture that will totally revolutionize our understanding of outer space. As a human race, we owe our gratitude to the scientists and engineers working restlessly on these projects, as well as the unique Chilean landscapes that offer night skies unlike anywhere else.
El Tololo Observatory used to be the most famous before Alma was completed on 2013.
Cerro Tololo was launched in 1967 by AURA and it’s located 87 Km from La Serena and it’s part of the municipality of Vicuña, it was placed in this lower peak to avoid the bad weather conditions of the nearby Andes. It is equipped with 8 telescopes and a radio telescope.
Information to visit Tololo Observatory (Day visit, no observation visit)
The observatory offers two free educational tours every Saturday all year round (depending on weather conditions), one at 9 a.m. and another at 1 p.m. The maximum capacity is 40 people per group. In order to book or get more information you can call +51 2205 200 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Once you have a reservation, you will be told where to pick up the permit, and then you will have to drive towards the observatory entrance. There is no public transportation.
During the approximately 2-hour tour you will visit the domes and the 1 and 1.5 meter telescopes. The tour is available in English and Spanish.
Please notice that from December to March you need to book several weeks in advance due to high demand.
Gemini is one of the newest observatories of AURA. It is also located 2700 meters above sea level in the Valle del Elqui Region. The observatory consists of one giant telescope with a diameter of 8.1 meters. This telescope observes the universe along with its twin in the northern hemisphere, located in Mauna Kea’s mountain in Hawaii. Together, they get to capture all the sky.
Both telescopes are the result of an international collaboration of Chile, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Argentina, and Brasil.
Information to visit Tololo Observatory (Day visit, no observation visit)
Pangue has four telescopes, among them is the largest public telescope in Chile at 63cm. It is located 17 km south from Vicuña, the only sign of human life visible from the observatory are the other observatories in the area, Tololo, Geminis and Soar.
Information to do an Astronomical Tour in the Pangue Observatory
The Astronomical tour at the Pangue Observatory is truly unique, the combination of the knowledge/ passion of their crew and the excellent facilities and equipment for the observation of the sky make of this astronomical Tour one of the best in Chile. If you want to visit the Observatory Pangue, check our this page with all the infos you need to know.
The Mamalluca observatory was opened in 1998 by the Municipality of Vicuña and the Club of Amateur Astronomy, sponsored by the Inter-American Observatory in Cerro Tololo.
It’s main Telescope is 12 inches and it is open to the public, being part of the 2-3 hour observation tour that they offer.
The observatory is located 9 km north of Vicuña, and it probably has the best astronomical tour options for visitors.
We present you the best astronomy tours available to book right now, that take place at night and where you can actually spot star clusters, nebulae, and planets and learn something new about the Universe and the way people have been observing and interpreting it for thousands of years in Latin America, click in a Tour to expand its details: