In the northern half of Chile, the driest place on Earth, clouds are virtually unknown and the skies are of the brightest blue. At night, far away from the lights of major settlements, you can look up at a dark vault simply shimmering with stars. The near-perfect visibility almost every night of the year makes the region ideal for observing the universe – indeed, there are more astronomical observatories here than anywhere else on Earth – but you don’t need to be an astronomer to get a great view.
Some of the world’s most powerful computerized telescopes sit here, among the plains and hills, but you can also catch sight of constellations such as the Southern Cross and familiar heavenly bodies like Jupiter or Mars at more modest observatories, such as Mamalluca. Set aside one evening, resist that extra pisco sour and book one of the regular stargazing tours that depart in the wee hours. These take you high up on Cerro Mamalluca, where the darkness is absolute and the air is crisp. There’s the classic visit – a short talk giving you a grounding in basic astronomy, followed by a few minutes looking through a telescope – or the Andean Cosmovision tour, in which guides explain how the pre-Columbian peoples interpreted the night sky, and perform native songs, with flutes and drums accompanying mystic verses, speaking of a local cosmology dating back thousands of years.
The installations at Mamalluca (www.mamalluca.org) are easily accessible from the city of Vicuña.