Chile, South America

Surveying the Night Skies of Chile

After days of blank, endless sand, to the horizon and back without a horizontal line breaking up the distance, I felt as if I was lost in shapeless space. Up above, the clear sky reached far up into the cosmos, uninterrupted, without a single shingle of cloud to act as a roof.

I missed the comfort of a small space, of a room warmed slowly by body heat, four walls that brought the unruly world down into a manageable size.

As a child I sneaked into my grandfather’s room and sat underneath his heavy wooden desk, where there was only enough space between the set of wooden drawers for me to curl my toes under and squeeze in sideways. The warm wood surrounded me in a hug, and the opening on one side let me watch the world through a neatly-squared frame.

At my aunt’s house I was the only one who volunteered to sleep in the dormer, where the bed lay tucked under the sloping wall that I snuggled up to, inches away from my face, waking up with little red bumps on my arms where the spider that lived in the unused corners would come out from in the middle of the night.

But in Vicuna, on the outskirts of the Atacama, my hotel didn’t even have a roof. The local bus dropped me off in the town square that was strung with twinkly lights and scattered with stalls selling art. I crossed it on a diagonal, peering at the artists and their paintings, jewelery and sculptures inspired by the desert and roofless sky. I knocked on the door of my hotel, which stood on the corner of the square, and was greeted warmly by the owner. Just past the entryway, the house opened into a open-air courtyard, filled with exotic green plants and a comfortable couch, the sun shining through to lead the way to my room.

At night I walked through the town looking for “Chaski,” a vegan pizzeria with good reviews, and found it hiding below the town square behind an unassuming wooden door. The hostess brought me into a dining room that had only the moon as a roof, surrounded on four sides with a plastered wall and an enormous old tree as a dining companion.

The buildings didn’t need a roof because it never rained. The Atacama gets 300 days of cloudless nights, perfect weather for stargazing. And since the stars were the only roof I could find in the desert, I resolved to get a bit closer to them by visiting an observatory.

I booked a visit through the tourist office in the square, and watched through the windows of the shuttle bus as the Mamalucca Observatory revealed itself slowly, its demure rounded dome growing out from the sharp angles at the top of the mountain. Mamalucca is only a tiny sibling to the famous Very Large Telescope and European Extremely Large Telescope that have made Chile famous for astronomy, but its the only one that allows tourists to look through their central telescope.

Inside the observatory we clustered around the guide, waiting our turn, as he twisted knobs and pushed buttons, peering up into the constellations through the telescope. He motioned me forward.

“It’s another galaxy,” he explained, as I leaned over the eyepiece, “thousands of light-years away.”

I stood very still, focusing my gaze into the telescope, and as my eye adjusted to the darkness the roof of stars suddenly barreled down towards me and the eyepiece was flooded with a billowing cloud of light, sparkling with innumerable stars. The more I looked, the more the stars blinked open until we were all staring at each other, our eyes locked from a galaxy apart.
Afterward the guide took us out the terrace and pointed out the galaxy we had been looking at, visible as a soft white smudge of cloud against the starry darkness. But what had appeared so distant only a few hours before now felt so close, as if I were surrounded on all sides by the twinkling eyes of the stars, no longer alone among the infinite blackness of space.

At the end of the night the shuttle bus dropped me off in front of my hotel-house, and as I crossed the courtyard towards my room I looked up to the sky and felt the stars drift back down towards me, just as they had in the observatory, until they created a solid roof above me to cover the vast open spaces of the Atacama.

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