Global Learning Blog Posts

  • Parkin Fellows
Clear Skies

By Nicholas Lauer

On my first weekend in Chile, I wanted to explore the beautiful local area and surrounding geographical features that Chile has to offer. I arranged to take two tours on Saturday, one through the Elqui Valley, a triangular shaped valley that starts in the Western Andes and widens to its mouth at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and the other a nighttime tour to a local observatory.

Elqui Valley Mountains

Elqui Valley Mountains

My first tour began at the Pacific, in my host city of La Serena, and took me on a journey of the many different parts of the Elqui Valley. We began in the lower region where the climate is perfect for growing crops like papayas and clementines. Here, the valley is about 16km wide and provides vast amounts of farmland for cultivating these crops. Higher up, we stopped at the Puclaro Dam and the adjacent man-made lake, which lends itself perfectly to kitesurfing and other water sports. We then ventured even higher towards the snowcapped mountains, beginning to see smaller pueblos and lots of plants like avocados and grapes. In fact, our tour guide asked a local farmer to give us a few grapes, and the farmer kindly cut a few right off of his vine and gave them to us!

On our way back down the valley, we stopped at the Mamalluca Observatory, the same place that I planned to tour later that evening on my “Stars Tour.” The observatory didn’t seem like much during the day, just a building on top of a barren mountain, but I knew that my nighttime tour would show me something very different.

Elqui Valley River

Elqui Valley River

Later that evening as the darkness rolled in, we boarded our bus for the drive back up the valley toward the Observatory. By the time we arrived, all daylight was gone, and the night was as dark as I had ever seen.

The skies in the Elqui Valley of Chile are some of the clearest in the world, providing the perfect spot for scientific observatories to maximize their efficiency. In fact, three of the world’s largest scientific telescopes —Tololo, Gemini, and SOAR — reside in this valley. Because of this, the surrounding cities have very few and very dim streetlights to minimize light pollution and keep the night as dark as possible.

When I stepped out of our tour van and looked up, I was awed at the tens of thousands of little white dots that I could see across the sky. Never before had I seen so many stars! The Milky Way spread out in a soft white band across the sky and the planets emitted a bright pulsating light. Our tour guide showed us famous constellations and prominent stars and let us look through the telescope at the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, nebulas and star clusters.

Elqui Valley Stars

Elqui Valley Stars

Photo Credit: Explore Inspired

Seeing these interstellar objects in such detail was an amazing experience and something that is unique to only a few places in the world. My two tours opened my eyes to the incredible natural beauty of Chile that can be found in both the terrestrial and the extraterrestrial. I am so grateful that the Parkin program gave me the opportunity to travel to the spectacular Elqui Valley.