Travel and Dining

Astro-Tourism: Visiting the Stars in Chile

A stargazer in the Elqui Valley. (Photo: Elqui Domos)

The Elqui Valley, Chile. It all started in the 1980s, when a mass of excited tourists arrived to this lost valley in the Andes Mountains to see Halley's Comet pass by, only visible from Earth once every 76 years.

Since there weren't enough hotel facilities, as the locals told me, many camped in the hills or even slept in their cars. As part of the spectacle, the national television station mounted a massive New Age art show on the side of a hill, which was converted into a natural amphitheatre. Everything was perfectly prepared, as people got ready for an once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Sadly, the comet story ends there. After all the build up and excitement, nobody was able to witness the comet pass. It was possible to see the pale comet only by using very special lenses and from few unique locations.

Visitors were frustrated. But it was no letdown for the locals, as everyone started talking about this picturesque place of pristine beauty. Together with tourists, hippies, spiritual guarders, esotericists and healers started cramming the valley, searching of an interior answer in its colorful hills and starry skies. With them, new hotels, restaurants and a bunch of alternative-therapy centers and spas were born. Today, the Elqui Valley is one of the most sought-after touristic locations in Chile.

I can't remember the number of times I have visited this tranquil daydream oasis—first with my family, then with my friend, and now with my husband. Its contrasting landscape—a mixture of steep mountainsides, rushing river, immense green vineyards and delightful, sunny weather 300 days a year—makes it a perfect getaway at anytime.

It is the magnetic atmosphere that traps you from the first moment, making the valley worth repeat visits. This is no casual description, as, according to experts, the Valley and its oasis represent the magnetic center of the world.

In addition to connecting with my soul and having kind of a Zen experience, what I enjoy most doing here is astro-tourism. The Elqui Valley is renowned for its clear skies, making it a perfect spot for stargazing at some of its many observatories, such as Tololo, Mamalluca, El Pangue, Cruz del Sur, Mayu and Cancana.

AstroExpedition took us for a guided tour to a couple of these observatories. After an interesting talk on the origins of the universe, we went outside to appreciate planets, stars and celestial bodies. "According to Greeks, there are 88 constellations, some of them visible from both hemispheres. Due to the valley's optimal conditions—clear skies and no pollution—many of them can be seen with a naked eye. Actually, they were named before astronomic instruments even existed," explained Cristian Ballesta from AstroExpedition.

From their terraces, we enjoyed a great view of the Milky Way and saw Saturn with its unmistakable rings, a very bright Venus, Jupiter and Mars in all its glory. We also spotted the Southern Cross, Orion's Belt, Taurus, Sagittarius, Scorpion and other famous constellations and discovered the Magellan Clouds, two satellite galaxies visible only from the southern hemisphere.

For an unforgettable astronomic experience, I recommend taking a night horseback ride to see some of the villages set in this beautiful spot and camp under the vastness of the sky. On a moonless night, the sky here is so clear and magnificent, it seems you can almost touch it. The stars are bright, and the number of shootings stars visible from here can simply not be counted, so prepare enough wishes in advance.

For Ballesta, Chile is without a doubt the leader in astro-tourism in Latin America. And the trend is rising. "Human curiosity has no limits, and the number of people seeking new ways to satisfy it increases every day. That's why astro-tourism has turned into a more appealing proposal, capable of attracting professionals in this field as well as curious visitors and globetrotters."

That same curiosity is what brought Esteban Zarate to build Elqui Domes, an upscale lodge made up of seven domes with removable roofs to facilitate observation. To achieve his dream, Zarate had to travel and conduct extensive research. "We noticed that shapes and philosophy of geodesic buildings, domes, were perfect for our objective. That was how we defined the basic elements for the final design: The bed had to be as high as possible, and over it, the chance of a detachable roof for a dream of stargazing from the bed. That, together with all the comforts visitors need for not getting disturbed on the feelings of such experience," explained Zarate.

Each dome is equipped with a living room, a bathroom, a main bed, a telescope and services such as a fridge bar for free tea and coffee. Specialized astronomic tours are also part of the offer. It wisely combines the flexibility of a tent with the comforts of a hotel room. (In some places this concept is known as glamping or glamorous camping). "We offer a magical place for rest and introspection. To ensure a high-quality service, we carefully restrict the number of visitors to assure personalized attention," added Zarate.

Staring at the skies from the bed is a unique and romantic experience, and so was learning a little bit more about the universe. Although everyone knows it is full of mysteries, the Elqui Valley is by no doubt the perfect place to begin unlocking its secrets.