Stargazing in El Norte Chico

With some of the clearest skies in the Southern Hemisphere, El Norte Chico is home to observatories with many of the world’s most powerful telescopes, several of which give guided tours by appointment. A boom in tourist-friendly observatories in the Elqui Valley means visitors have ample opportunity to peer into the depths of the universe for themselves.

Cerro Tololo Observatory. Perched at 2,200 meters (7,200 feet), Cerro Tololo Observatory runs free tours of its two principal telescopes on Saturdays. During January and February, priority is given to nonspecialist visitors—although high demand means it’s worth reserving at least a month in advance—while the rest of the year the observatory tours cater principally to delegations. Tours should first be requested by phone or email; once the reservation has been made, permission certification can be picked up at the observatory’s offices in Las Serena on the corner of avenidas Huanhalí and J. Cisternas. Tours may be canceled in bad weather. Rte. 41, 80 km (50 miles) east of La Serena, Colina El Pino, Vicuña, Coquimbo, 1760000. 51/220–5200; www.ctio.noao.edu. Free.

Gemini South Observatory. With one of the largest telescopes in the world, an 8.1-meter (26.5 feet) Cassegrain, this observatory 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Cerro Tololo is operated by a consortium of six nations. Tours are free of charge on Friday mornings and can be tailored to the interests of the group (usually between 10 and 25 people). Email at least a month in advance to request a place on the tour. Priority is given to student and scientific delegations. Rte. 41, 90 km (55 miles) east of La Serena, Cerro Pachón, Vicuña, Coquimbo, 1760000. 51/220–5600; www.gemini.edu. Closed June–Aug..

Las Campanas Observatory. This observatory of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, 100 km (62 miles) north of La Serena, has twin 6.5-meter Magellan telescopes (internationally recognized as the best natural imaging telescopes) as well as two others. Free tours of the facilities take place on Saturday between 10 and 2:30, but due to high demand visitors are advised to make reservations several weeks in advance. Preference is given to school groups and delegations. Rte. 41, 80 km (50 miles) east of La Serena, Colina El Pino, Vicuña, Coquimbo, 1760000. 51/220–7301; www.lco.cl.

La Silla Observatory. Administered by the 15-member European Southern Observatory (ESO), La Silla Observatory is one of the largest and most important observatories in the Southern Hemisphere. Free tours are available of the three principal telescopes each Saturday at 2 pm, except during July and August, due to the risk of snowstorms in this period. Note that bookings are accepted only if made via the online visitor form. Pan-American Hwy., about 130 km (80 miles) north of La Serena, signposted just after turnoff for Incahuasi and before reaching Vallenar, La Higuera, Coquimbo, 1610000. 2/2463–3100; www.ls.eso.org.

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