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Nights Under The Stars (Part 3) - Chile

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Chile

The Atacama Desert in Chile is not just the driest place on Earth, but one of the very best places from which to observe the night sky. And it is a very promising location to watch the Southern Delta Aquarids meteor shower, expected in late July/early August this year. Negligible rainfall tends to correlate with the absence of cloud cover, and the desert’s generally inhospitable conditions mean it is scarcely populated, so there is scant light pollution. No wonder then that the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical centre, is located here, at Cerro Paranal, 75 miles south of Antofagasta. It is home to the Very Large Telescope (VLT), which is actually four telescopes with mirrors 27ft wide.

Description: The Atacama Desert in Chile is not just the driest place on Earth, but one of the very best places from which to observe the night sky

The Atacama Desert in Chile is not just the driest place on Earth, but one of the very best places from which to observe the night sky

Tantalizingly, the ESO has a hotel, The Residencia, familiar to anyone who saw the most recent James Bond film, Quantum of Solace (in which it was villain Dominic Greene’s home). Designed by the Munich-based practice Auer+Weber, it’s a startlingly contemporary, partly subterranean L-shaped structure containing 108 rooms over four levels. It also has a 115ft geodesic dome, which spans a luxuriant indoor, garden and swimming pool. But, disappointingly, only professional astronomers and scientists can stay here, although there are guided tours for visitors of the Paranal Observatory, twice a day every Saturday (for details go to www.eso.org/public/about-eso/visitors/paranal.html or email parvisit@eso.org).

About 150 miles north-east of Antofagasta, however, lies the small oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, near where the ESO will open the world’s largest radio astronomy observatory in 2013, on the Chajnantor plain. San Pedro is also the location of the Explora Hotel de Larache. This 42-acre estate has 50 understated but comfortable rooms, four interconnected swimming pools, a small spa and a rate that includes three meals a day (with drinks) and activities from trekking, mountain-biking and horse-riding to four-wheel-drive excursions. Better yet, the hotel has its own 16ft-wide domed observatory neat the central lodge buildings. Its principal telescope is a Meade 16in f/10 LX200R Advanced RD, with a 15in-diameter primary mirror.

Description: the small oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama

the small oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama

Alternatively, you could stay nearby at Casa Atacama, a development of 25 stylish, environmentally considered rooms, and combine it with a couple of nights at Adventur-Camp, aka Swimmers in the Desert, in the depths of the Atacama. It is a moveable camp of 10 comparatively luxurious, heated canvas tents pitched on either side of a large bonfire (at night the temperature can plummet to -15°C in winter and the year-round average is -2°C), beneath a spectacularly starry sky. The glow of the fire aside, the light pollution is virtually non-existent out here, so the heavens shine brighter than almost anywhere else.

Description: the light pollution is virtually non-existent out here, so the heavens shine brighter than almost anywhere else

the light pollution is virtually non-existent out here, so the heavens shine brighter than almost anywhere else

You will have to bring your own telescope, however. In which case consider investing in a hand-held Celestron SkyScout Personal Planetarium (about $360). Point it at a star, constellation, planet or galaxy, press “target” and it will identify what you are looking at. It only works with the 6,000 or so stars that are visible to the naked eye. So for powerful magnification, consider a Meade 6in ETX-LS ACF telescope (about $1,905), which enlarges your view of the heavens and can locate whatever it is you want to gaze at.

Three nights at Explora Hotel de Larache cost from US$1,980 per person all-inclusive, based on two sharing; www.explora.com. Doubles at Casa Atanama from US$379; www.casaatacama.cl/en. two nights at Adventur-Camp cost from US$1,917 per person all-inclusive, based on two sharing; www.adventurcamp.com/en

Description: Explora Hotel de Larache

Explora Hotel de Larache

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