Why Chile?


Why Chile? The short answer: Because professional observatories are built—and being built—there. Compare notes with other amateurs, and you’ll soon agree that your best observing sessions are more often than not in the shadows of professional sites. The pros have done their homework: these sites have been chosen for their exceptional “seeing,” transparency, altitude, high percentage of clear and dark skies. . . An observing trip to Chile pretty much guarantees excellent observing conditions. An added bonus: Visits to these professional observatories—to these modern “temples of the sky.”


This page is meant to encourage you to visit Chile too! (If you get bored with the pics, don't forget to check the links at the bottom of the page.)


A longer explanation:


  • David Butler, a budding amateur from North Carolina, had already put the trip together—spending a considerable amount of time researching sites, making contacts, begging for private tours, creating an itinerary, creating a Yahoo! Group (see links at the bottom of this page). . . Plus: David promised to drag his Spanish-speaking wife—Gloria--along (the vast majority of Chilenos speak no English at all). As it turned out, Gloria’s tireless translations were a real boon for all of us.
  • Friend and fellow observer Mark Wagner (and delightful girlfriend, Monica) were already committed. In fact, Mark and Monica arrived on my doorstep to (possibly) borrow my 13” travel scope for the trip. . . It seemed their agenda was to talk me into going, too.  After I committed (one day later), Mark confessed that having me tote my 13” to Chile was the best way to get it down there for his use!
  • Tom Palmer, another experienced Bay Area observer, and one of long acquaintance (I actually worked for Tom and his brothers a couple of years ago), was also on the trip.
  • I’ve never been to South America before. Perhaps a dose of another culture/country was the medicine I needed?
  • At roughly 30 degrees Southern latitude, I expected early fall weather similar to my native San Diego—after a soggy San Francisco winter, I could deal with this! 
  • Chile, a stable, relatively well-off country, has excellent roadways, and an equally excellent (and cheap!) bus system. One look at a map of Chile, and one knows comfortable travel is a must--especially if one is dragging a 13" scope along! I looked at this “astronomy trip” as a way to sample a small portion of Chile, so that next time, I could sample other—equally interesting—parts, especially with my (non-astronomer) wife, who was unable to join me on this one.







So that’s it in a nutshell. Our party was six:

--David and Gloria Butler

--Mark Wagner and Monica Popejoy

--Tom Palmer



Equipment included: Two ten-inch Dobsonians (Mark and Tom), my 13” Dob, and a five-inch Mak on a Celestron ‘goto’ mount (David). All three Dobs were collapsible, airline portable, designed and manufactured by their owners. David arranged to rent  a nine-passenger van (a diesel Kia) to haul us and our equipment around (everything fit!).


We arranged our own flights to and from Chile; specifically, to our initial meeting point at a travelers hotel (El Punto, see links below) in La Serena, a small, historic, coastal city about 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Santiago; our ‘jumping-off’ point for visiting the major observatories and doing our own observing.


Our itinerary included:

  • Day One: Settle in and meet in La Serena. Observing from the courtyard.
  • Day Two: Lunch with local astronomy educator and advocate David Orellana. Observe at local observatory: Andacollo.
  • Day Three: Observing at La Silla airport (private airport of the European Southern Observatory—no longer used).
  • Day Four: Tour of ESO at La Silla.
  • Day Five: Travel to Vicuña; observing near Vicuña.
  • Day Six: Visit Cerro Tololo and SOAR (state of the art!) observatories. Observe at local "eco-tourist" observatory: Mamalluca (clouded out!)
  • Day Seven: Travel to La Frontera Resort (an Astronomy Inn) near Alcohuaz. Observe.
  • Day Eight: Observe again from La Frontera (plus daytime activities).
  • Day Nine: Ditto.
  • Day Ten: Ditto.
  • Day Eleven: Ditto.
  • Day Twelve: Drive back to La Serena.
  • Day Thirteen: Some return to Santiago, fly out; others have another day to explore La Serena.
  • Day Fourteen: The remainder of us return to Santiago, fly home.

Chile, it turns out, is populated with the friendliest people on this planet! Beautiful smiles; beautiful spirits. Yes, the government is stable. Chile's economy is the healthiest in South America. Despite the language barrier, any Westerner should feel comfortable with the infrastructure--this is a Western country, after all. Driving on the well-kept roads was no problem. David bought a cell phone ($50) to help us--I mean Gloria--call ahead. Internet cafés are not difficult to find; nor are ATM machines. As mentioned earlier, the bus system is comfortable, excellent and cheap! (My seven hour trip from La Serena to Santiago cost me the equivalent of six dollars, and that included lunch and DVD movie entertainment!)

Once out of Santiago, the country seems under-populated--but then I come from the Bay Area! Where we were, it was very dry:  Cities, villages, towns, farming communities, only sprout up near streams fed by the magnificent Andes. Weather was extremely pleasant--I always wore shorts in the daytime, and often wore them while observing, too.

Food was good (especially the gourmet meals we were served at La Frontera Resort), but you won't find any spicy items on the menus in this place called Chile! . . .Bring your own Tabasco sauce, if this is what you crave. . . Coffee, or rather "real" coffee (French press, usually) is hard to find, too. Chilenos drink tea: you get Nescafé instant.

Local brew is fine, but local wine is fabulous! Especially Pisco, an 80-proof brandy produced (locally) in the Elqui Valley. In fact, the national drink is Pisco Sour, a margarita-tasting concoction made of lime juice, egg white, crushed ice, and Pisco.

You can do your own shopping for food: the markets are well-stocked. In La Serena, we went to a modern supermarket with 58 check-out counters! Avocados and tomatoes were the best I've ever tasted. Next door, there was an equally huge Home Depot-like store. . . Not only was there reserved parking for the physically challenged, but there were spaces reserved for pregnant women too! That is how civilized this country is.

Should you haul your own telescope down here? I did, and would again. Airport security was no problem (carrying photos of the disassembled--and assembled--scope helps). Land  transport was no problem, either: You get off the plane, use a cart to the sidewalk, take a taxi to the bus station, take a bus to La Serena, take a taxi to the hotel. . . In other words, your scope is being wheeled around for you, there is very little lifting/lugging. But, I suppose you don't have to lug a scope to Chile: There are at least three different well-equipped local "eco-tourist" observatories that you could tour/use while using La Serena or Vicuña as your base. Bring a Southern Hemisphere Planisphere (or a Sky and Telescope chart), binos, red light, green laser (this impresses the staff!), and you're set!

Well, pictures say more than . . .
(most taken by Tom Palmer)

Gloria, Monica, myself, Mark at El Punto Hostel, La Serena.

Lunch with David Orellana. Mark, myself, David O., Gloria and David Butler,
and Monica. Only Tom Palmer is missing--guess who took this picture?

Approaching the European Southern Observatory at La Silla.

The famed "airport at La Silla"--the BEST observing ever!

Mark at La Silla.

NTT scope, La Silla.

NTT exterior, La Silla.


Vicuña site with guides and our rental van.

Visiting Cerro Tololo.

Cerro Tololo.

SOAR (awesome!) and Gemini at Cerro Tololo.

Road to Alcohuaz (La Frontera Inn).

La Frontera.

Mark and Monica's "cabin."

Mark and David with Mark's 10-incher.

Breakfast at La Frontera.

Awaiting nightfall.

Tom with horse and grapes.

Preparing for the night.

The girls' daytime activity, La Frontera.

Helping Loke Tan collimate.

Our friend, Maona.

Our personal gourmet chef at La Frontera, Cecelia.

Andean valley (fishing trip).

Marco (owner of La Frontera) fishing in an Andean stream.

High Andes (fishing trip).

Success! (That's snow coming down.)

Our fishfry dinner!

Packing up, La Frontera.

Back in La Serena (from the lighthouse).

The beach from El Faro (the lighthouse), La Serena.

The bus to Santiago.

                                                       . . .Zzzzz . . .


Links to helpful sites/information:

--David Butler's Chile-Travel-Astronomy Yahoo! Group.

--Tony Flanders' "Practical Aspects of Observing in Chile."

--Hostel El Punto, La Serena Chile. (Owned by a German couple--they speak English--highly recommended!).

--La Frontera Resort. An Astronomy-friendly place, to say the least! (Site is in Spanish.)

--Astrophotographer Loke Tan's site. (Many images taken from La Frontera.)

--Cerro Tololo Observatory.

--European Southern Observatory, La Silla.

--Mamalluca Observatory. (Eco-tourism).

--Collowara Observatory (Eco-tourism).

--Cochiguaz Observatory (Eco-tourism--Not yet open April, 2005: do a "search.").

--My Observing Notes from Chile.