Chile's star-spangled skies

Whether or not you believe in UFOs, why not take a trip to Valle del Elqui? It's dotted with astronomical observatories from which to spot constellations, nebulae, planets... A star-bright idea to close 2009, the International Year of Astronomy.

The skies above Elqui Valley and the magnetic forces of the valley itself have made the Coquimbo region of Chile an open secret among ufologists, astronomers and all kinds of star-gazer. And the chance to take a look at these skies - reckoned to be among the clearest in the world - makes even more sense this year, as 2009 was declared International Year of Astronomy by the United Nations.

The physical and meteorological characteristics of the area, sandwiched between the Pacific and the Andes, conspire together to produce cloudless skies with a very low level of atmospheric turbulence. In fact, the area enjoys over three hundred clear nights a year, which, coupled with the low light pollution levels, makes it a perfect place to unlock the secrets of the universe.

Each night, the many observatories scattered throughout the area turn their focus heavenwards. Some, including the Collowara and Mamalluca observatories, are open to any visitor who wants to learn to identify the glories above our heads: the planets, moons, stars, star clusters, nebulae and entire galaxies. Faced with this display, even the most down-to-earth of mortals may be tempted to dream of the existence of other worlds.

Despite the numerous UFO conferences and meetings that take place every year in the city of La Serena, not everyone here is a "believer". For many, the accounts of strange phenomena that crop up in the local newspapers are pure fantasy; others in the region, however, take the truth of the whole subject for granted. It's up to you, the visitor, to make up your own mind.

One thing about which there can be no doubt, is the brightness of the sky. When the last rays of sunshine are swallowed up by the ocean, the sparkling firmament above the Elqui Valley is evidence of its well-deserved reputation among the world's most spectacular skies. Just four years ago, the Elqui Domes, became the first astronomical hotel in the southern hemisphere designed specifically to offer visitors the chance to enjoy this heavenly show. On the hotel's website, in addition to room rates, reservations and other details, you'll find a lunar calendar and other information including photo galleries of stars, nebulae and supernovas.

The hotel comprises seven geodesic domes - a kind of deluxe igloo with a removable roof - that allow you to admire the stars without even getting out of bed, although each dome is also equipped with a powerful telescope for more serious observation. There are also nocturnal excursions on horseback and astronomical trails where experts from the hotel help guests to decipher the best kept secrets of the sky.


Learning to look at the sky:
This area of northern Chile is home to a number of observatories open to the public. As well as showing visitors which stars to look for and how to identify constellations, the Mamalluca observatory organises short courses lasting a few hours; these include basic astronomy, a tour of the western skies and the Andean world view, which explains the concept of the heavens that governed many pre-Hispanic cultures. Other observatories in the area include Cerro Mayu, Collowara and the newly opened Southern Cross Observatory, among the largest in the world. Through the Chile Tourism website you can book four-day tours devoted to astronomy and star-gazing throughout the region.

Where to stay:
Hotel Elqui Domes is located 110 kilometres from the city of La Serena and 450 kilometres from Santiago. Everything at the hotel is designed to promote enjoyment of the valley's spectacular night-time skies. It offers astronomy-themed tours and has just seven rooms, all giant geodesic igloos, each fitted with telescope and sunroof so you can watch the show without even getting out of bed.

Further information: and Coquimbo Tourism