The Andes offers some of the best star gazing spots in the World. Amanda Barnes looks up where to go.
Elqui Valley, Chile
Four hours over the border from San Juan is Elqui where you’ll find some of the most important observatories on the planet. While the international observatories in Elqui and the Atacama Desert (a bit further north) are not particularly tourist friendly, you can easily access one of the best equipped tourist observatory spots there: Elqui Domos.
With accommodation designed around star gazing at all times you can either choose to sleep in a big white dome tent or in an observatory cabin with enormous skylights looking onto the mountains and night sky. From dust till dawn you get a great panorama of the sky and the domes have the novelty factor of feeling like you are staying in a futuristic NASA space camp on Mars. While gazing upon a feast of bright lights with the untrained eye is still spectacular, the best way to take a tour of the stars is with the expert astrology guides on site (the observatory can be booked as a guest, or as a passing visitor).
Our guide Claudio came to collect us at our dome at 9.30pm where he led us with solar panel spot lights past the other dome homes and cabins on top of the hill. Two small observatories sit high on the Elqui Valley hillsides and we took a seat outside as Claudio gave us a lesson on the stars (how they are formed, their life span, the mysterious black hole and the creation of galaxies). The white tampon shaped observatories don’t look too much from the outside, or on the inside to be fair, but inside there is one of the best tourist telescopes in the Americas. With 40,000 constellations programmed into the system, the German piece of machinery can guide you through spectacular stars, entire galaxies, magellanic clouds and planets. It takes your breath away and blows your mind to see something so beautiful right before your eyes that has in fact stopped existing 140,000 light years ago.
A short computer presentation to understand the true scope of the universe – in case you didn’t feel like a tiny ant already – and he left us back at our dome to contemplate the infinite stars in front of us. As the clearest sky in the world, Elqui’s ever appearing and deepening star spread is mind boggling and leaves you perplexed and contemplative as if you’ve had one too many pisco sours.
There are some other benefits to the extraordinarily clear sky – the wines. Vina Mayu and Vina Falernia were pioneers in the region and to date are the biggest producers of wine in Elqui. If you thought Mendoza was sunny, then you need to take a look at Elqui because the sunlight is incredible, coming directly down without a whisper of a cloud or pollution to dilute it. The result is an amazing luminosity and hot days that can reach up to 35C. For this reason most winemakers thought Italian winemaker Giorgio Flessati and his cousin Aldo Olivier were “two crazy Italians” when they started planting for fine wine. But the secret to Elqui’s vineyards is the cool nights and the morning sea fog that keeps the vines hydrated and fresh. The result are some wonderfully aromatic wines with an intense colour, tight acidity and good structure. The Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc are particularly excellent here.
The results of these wines have beckoned a legion of winemakers to the area and many wineries in Chile now make wines in Elqui, including a notable project by De Martino winemaker Marcelo Retamal and owner Patricio Flaño at the extreme heights of the valley at 2200m altitude. Patricio believes that the wines from here are not only special for their altitude but also for the magnetic energy in this part of the world. New age hippies and Tibetan monks have found themselves drawn to this point as the magnetic centre of the world, and there are many camps set up here for energy retreats.
Wine from Jupiter & Mars
Another wine project going to star extremes is happening further south in Chile, in the Cachapoal Valley just the other side of the Andes from Malargue. English expat Ian Hutcheon is a star and wine fanatic and wanted to find a way to combine both. During the day he runs a boutique winery, and at night he has an observatory with four telescopes, a ‘black hole’ auditorium and a light show to rival any big city planetarium. While visiting the observatory is a great experience for learning about the stars and having a good night in fun company, he wanted to take his two passions further… “I wanted to physically combine astronomy and wine,” says Ian, “so I thought of aging wine with a meteorite!” While visiting the observatory you get a unique wine to taste: a red Cabernet Sauvignon that has been barrel aged with a meteorite inside. While the jury might be out on whether it imparts a minerality or space dust aroma, it certainly is an experience and will most certainly be the only wine aged with a 4.5billion year old meteorite that came from somewhere between Jupiter and Mars.
While you are enjoying space rock wine, there is another unique experience Ian offers: an adventure trek hunting for a sacrificed wine. With a treasure map in hand, Ian leads you on a three hour trek up to the top of a rather ambitious mount where on the way you see a ginormous fossilized footprint from something resembling a big foot. Once you reach a plateau at the top, with a stunning view over the valley, you have to follow the treasure map to find a spot where an Inca sacrifice is buried. A few spade shovels later, and a wooden casket is unearthed. Inside lies a special bottle of wine that was offered as a sacrifice some 500 years ago (or perhaps more technically 6 months ago). This entertaining adventure is accompanied by gorgeous views and impressive bird spotting all along.
To stay in Tagua Tagua and enjoy the night skies, very closeby to the observatory is Uva Dulce – a gorgeous B&B where you get the entire house to yourself, located in a beautiful setting in the middle of vineyards. The adorable Chilean family that run the house will take you horseback riding and cook up a traditional meal in the horno del barro for you too.
Options for star gazing are almost limitless in this part of the world, but one thing is for sure – it will be accompanied by a good glass of vino!