In our travels, we mostly stick to sights and attractions recommended by Lonely Planet or other similar guide books as being nice yet not too touristy – in other words, we like the “non-touristy yet tourist-friendly” stuff. So we generally don’t publish detailed reviews that can easily be found elsewhere. Once in a while, though, we stumble upon something not (or not yet) well known, in which case we like to give it a shout-out and some free publicity with our massive audience.
Such is the case with the new “Pangue” observatory in the hills above Vicuna, Chile. It’s pretty well-known that northern Chile has the world’s best skies for astronomy (almost no clouds, limited pollution and very little interfering light). While some serious research goes on in several world-class installations that are not very interesting for tourists, amateur stargazers now have quite a big choice of “tourist” observatories to go to, especially around the provincial capital of La Serena. They are all basically the same and multiple tours depart nightly from La Serena, Vicuna or Pisco Elqui and offer about 2 hours of stargazing around a telescope and under clear skies.
We chose Pangue because it was recommended as the best by two independent sources that had no particular reason to be partial – the lady at the B&B where we stayed and the dude in the local tourist info office. It was slightly more expensive than the competing observatory tours, but in the end we were glad we paid the extra $6 each because: (1) it’s the newest – opened only last December (2) has the most advanced telescopes of the tourist observatories (3) is in an especially isolated location so you get an extra dark sky with no light pollution from La Serena (4) tour groups are small and (5) the tours are guided by one of the owners (the one we had is a professional telescope technician and avid amateur astronomer and the other is a legit astrophysicist).
Reasons 1-3 are actually not that important, because we’re pretty sure that all the observatories are plenty dark enough to provide stunning views of the night sky by the naked eye (and it is truly stunning down here) no matter how powerful or new the telescope. In the end, for uninformed tourists like us, the views of celestial objects through a telescope’s lens still boil down to just several yellow dots against a black background. It’s actually the collection of thousands of these dots against a cloudless black night sky all around you (seen through the naked eye) that provides the initial “wow,” and you can do that easily for free without taking any observatory tour.
Which is why reasons 4 and 5 are so important and why we’re glad we chose Pangue. What made our views through the telescope lens fascinating, educational and well-worth the cost was the explanation of what the yellow dots we were zooming in on actually are. It was a very personalized experience and we had a nice and informative back-and-forth with our guide (even though his English wasn’t great). It was just the two of us on the tour (no extra charge even though their usual minimum is 4) and we had plenty of timefor repeated looks and questions, moving along at our own pace. We can’t say for sure how it is at the other tourist observatories, but we’re guessing you don’t get nearly as much out of your two hours by having to share the same lens with 30 to 40 other people in a tour guided by a tour-company employee. We just hope Pangue sticks to their principles even after they get more popular, primarily by keeping their operations only slightly more expensive than the others, limiting tours to 8 people max with owner-guided personalized explanations and attention.
Oh, and we also learned about this great little (free!!!) piece of software called Stellarium with which you can easily spot constellations and find out the details of the stars above you simply by taking your laptop our on a starry night. We definitely intend to give it a try.