Astronomers, astrophysicists and other sundry brainiacs from around the world flock to Chile to gaze into the night sky. With good reason. Chile's high altitude, few clouds and minimal light pollution make this South American gem one of the premiere stargazing spots around the globe. But you don't have to be a rocket science to experience the wonder of the Chilean sky, there are plenty of outstanding stargazing experiences for those of us who are still a few credits shy of our PhDs.
Elqui Valley, La Serena
Located in the Chilean wine region of Coquimbo, this area is easily accessible from Santiago. Here you'll find several observatories, charming villages, world-class wineries and--according to some--the occasional UFO.
Chile's northernmost city is primarily known as a surf mecca, where you can enjoy all the laid-back pleasures inherent in surf culture. Lately, however, Arica's visitors have been looking up at night, and discovering some spectacular stargazing. You can even camp on the beach here for free, if that's your thing. Arica can easily be combined with a trip to Atacama and even Bolivia
Torres del Paine National Park
On the other end of Chile is one of its most renowned attractions, Torres del Paine National Park, home to legendary Patagonian mountains and glaciers. There are several lodges here that cater to stargazers, including, Patagonia Camp where the glass ceiling of your luxury yurt lets you stare into the cosmos from the comfort of your own bed.
The Atacama Desert
Yes, we saved the best for last. Here, in Chile's northern desert, you'll find what many consider to be the world's best environment for stargazing. Yes, the astrophysicists are here. You'll be able to rub elbows with some of them at the Paranal Observatory on their Saturday morning tours (which are free, but have to be reserved far in advance--we can help there). Paranal is home to a hotel for visiting scientists, an observatory featured in the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace and the very cleverly named Very Large Telescope (VLT).
The Atacama is also where you'll find Llano de Chajnantor Observatory, home of ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter Array). The key word here is array. ALMA is actually a billion-dollar assemblage of 54 antennas (think giant satellite dishes) that dot the desert floor in a surreal scene. You can visit this, the world's largest astronomical project, on Saturday and Sunday morning tours. The tours fill up far in advance, and unfortunately, we can't help you here. We can, however, send you to the proper place online to learn more.
Of course, you don't have to visit either of these, or any of the other observatories in the Atacama, to enjoy the world's best stargazing. There are numerous guided tours that cater to astronomy enthusiasts of all levels. We have a few favorites, and would be happy to add one to your Chile itinerary.
Bottom line? Nothing against California, but if you really want to see stars, Chile is the place.