Chile is one of the best places on Earth for stargazing and observing the Milky Way.
Some estimates suggest that by 2020 Chile will host about 70 per cent of global astronomical infrastructure, and it is already a premium destination for amateur and professional astronomers, as well as tourists who love to admire the jewels of the southern sky.
Many of us find that urban areas in our own countries are dramatically increasing, meaning that finding dark-sky locations has never been more tricky.
Among the biggest issues are light pollution hiding the sight of the Milky Way in our night skies, and air humidity that causes stars to twinkle.
Many regions in Chile do not have these problems, and if they do, they exist on a smaller scale.
Why is Chile so good for astronomy?
- Its latitude enables the brightest region of the Milky Way to reach the zenith – the area directly above the observer – in winter
- Atmospheric conditions such as dry air and many high-altitude regions make it a great place to observe a sparkling night sky
- Chile’s weather is excellent for stargazing, with rare cloud coverage in the Andes and almost no rainfall at all in some places.
- Light pollution is extremely low because there are only a few inhabited areas outside of the main cities.
In 2018, I spent four months in Chile visiting the world’s leading observatories and taking advantage of its dark skies.
If you plan to visit the country and want to take the advantage of its amazing dark skies, our Chilean stargazing guide is for you!
Chile’s best dark-sky locations
Gabriela Mistral Dark Sky Sanctuary, Elqui Valley
In the Coquimbo Region, 500km north of Santiago and 80km east of La Serena is the world’s first Dark Sky Sanctuary, named after the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral.
Designated as such in August 2015 by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), the site includes the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy’s (AURA) observatories in Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachon.
The darkness of the sky and atmospheric stability make it a must-visit place for stargazing.
Coquimbo region is called the ‘region of the stars’ by the Chilean people.
This is an expression that cannot be disputed, especially in the Cochiguaz Valley, which is one of the best places to go for viewing the Milky Way in Chile.
In the heart of the Chilean Andes, at 2,000m altitude, it is an amazing place during daytime and makes you feel as if you were on another planet.
When night falls, you feel like you have been transported to another world.
Its marvellous sky enables stargazers to admire the shape and the dust gas of the Milky Way (see above image), which appears like a slightly under-exposed monochrome picture.
Salar de Atacama
Any astronomy visit to Chile should include its most famous astronomical destination: the Atacama desert.
To reach this northern part of the country, 1000km north from La Serena, a flight connection is recommended.
Reams of night spots can be discovered within this vast piece of land and selecting a single one is not an easy task.
One appropriate place, far enough from nearby towns to avoid light pollution, is a flat area located in the salty part of the desert called the Salar de Atacama.
From there, an unforgettable 360° view of the Milky Way will amaze those looking for quiet and dark locations for astrophotography.
San Pedro de Atacama
Dark places for practising amateur astronomy and capturing deep-sky images can also be found around San Pedro De Atacama, the most popular town in the desert.
San Pedro has a direct connection to the city of Calama by taking taxi or shuttle in a trip that takes under an hour.
Although Calama has a population of about 5,000, the light pollution remains pretty low once you reach 2km from the centre.
Here you can find lots of accommodation with fantastic views of the night sky.
San Pedro itself also boasts a range of astronomical tours and a lot of observatories worth a visit.
Chile’s top observatories for tourists
Inaugurated in 1994, this is the first astronomical observatory in Chile entirely dedicated to tourists.
It is located in the Coquimbo region, 9km northeast of the city of Vicuña in the Elqui Valley.
Settled in a remote dark place at 1,100m altitude, Mamalluca is equipped with a planetarium, a visitors’ hall and eight convenient telescopes for night-time observing, ranging from 12-inch to 16-inch reflectors.
Alfa Aldea Astronomical Center
Spending a part of the night admiring the starry sky is one thing, but spending a night in your hotel is another.
At Alfa Aldea, you can observe and sleep in the same place.
The establishment is based in the heart of a vineyard, 2km away from the centre of Vicuña city and provides astronomical tours in its open-air amphitheater.
The cherry on top is the direct view of the GEMINI and LSST telescopes.
Del Pangue Observatory
Why not take the advantage of being under one of the world’s darkest skies by viewing it through incredible optical instruments?
Atop a 1,450m-high mountain, 17km away from Vicuña, the Del Pangue Observatory is highly recommended for advanced observers and astrophotographers, with a range of 16-, 20-, 25- or 28-inch reflectors for use.
The sky quality visible from Pangue Observatory is undoubtedly as amazing as the Atacama desert, and the site also boasts nearby views of Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachon observatories.
Cerro Mayu Observatory
Cerro Mayu lies at the entrance of Elqui Valley in the village of Quebrada de Talca village, 25km from La Serena.
The observatory is notable by its beautiful design, inspired by the country’s indigenous cultures.
Its dome is a one-off creation and its 14-inch-telescope is used for public observing sessions.
The building contains also a large conference room for astronomy talks, although the talks are only held in Spanish.
Cielo Sur Observatory
Among the most remote places in the Elqui Valley is Alcohuaz.
13km south of the popular town of Pisco Elqui, this tiny village is home to Cielo Sur Observatorio – meaning ‘the Southern Sky Observatory’ in Spanish – which consists of twin 11-inch telescopes.
Surrounded by the Andes, the area is a good choice for wide-field astrophotographers too.
At 1,265m high and located within the mountain town of Pisco Elqui, the Chakana Observatory is located on a former football pitch.
It provides astronomical tours using an 11-inch Cassegrain telescope and a 7-inch refractor.
Demonstrations and meetings are held regularly throughout the year.
Hacienda Los Andes Observatory
50km South of Vicuña, at the feet of Cerro Pachon observatory, the Hacienda Los Andes is a well-known remote location for amateur astrophotographers worldwide.
The facility offers not only tremendous astronomical setups available to hire, but also Dobsonian telescopes for visual astronomy.
If you’re looking for a special rendezvous with the Milky Way, this place is ideal.
Cruz del Sur Observatory
Cruz del Sur observatory is a gigantic astronomical facility whose design mirrors the Southern Cross constellation.
Four domes equipped with two 16-inch telescopes and two 14-inch telescopes are available for observing.
Located in Combarbalá village, this observatory is 188km south of La Serena.
Chile’s top professional observatories
Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO)
CTIO is a pioneering professional observatory that hosts the Blanco 4-meter telescope.
With an astronomical history going back to the 1960s, CTIO is an active scientific place, with the highest density of individual telescopes in the country.
It boasts free tours every Saturday.
A few kilometres from CTIO, atop the 2,700m-high Cerro Pachón is the 8-meter-class telescope at GEMINI South.
Free tours are available here and on the same summit, the 4.1m SOAR telescope and the next-generation LSST telescope can also be found.
The very first observatory established by ESO, La Silla is located in the Coquimbo region, 154km north of La Serena, just on the outskirts of the Atacama Desert.
The observatory hosts free public tours on weekends.
Las Campanas Observatory
Few kilometers north of La Silla, this US observatory is home to impressive 6.5m twin telescopes.
On 17 August 2017, the 1m Swope Telescope at LCO became the first observatory to have viewed the optical source of a phenomenon that created gravitational waves, when it observed light produced by the collision of two neutron stars.
One of the most productive and renowned astronomical observatories in the world, Paranal is home ot the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in the Atacama desert.
The Observatory is constantly being upgraded with the latest technological innovations, helping its astronomers study our Universe.
It boasts free tours on weekends.
Guillaume is a French amateur astronomer and astrophotographer who fell in love with astronomy when he read documentary books as a nine-year-old kid.
Since 2013, he has been writing space articles on his blogs, creating videos, managing online communities and giving lectures on astrophotography.
See some of Guillaume’s images at his personal blog: guillaumedoyen.blogspot.com