Crossing Borders and the Equator: An Astronomy Ambassador in Chile. Part 4 – The Chilean Experience

By Derek Wallentinsen posted 03-17-2023 19:28


Chile’s environment and people are also parts of the ACE ambassador experience. Even though pandemic- and weather-related delays of 2-1/2 years prevented us from visiting Chilean schools, we nonetheless were able to see natural areas and enjoy cultural experiences.

(In Part 1 – ACE Ambassador Adventure – Optical Observatories – Cerro Pachon, I covered the ACEAP 2020 cohort’s travels in Santiago, La Serena, Vicuña and Cerro Pachon (Gemini South, SOAR and Vera Rubin Observatory). In Part 2 – ACE Ambassador Adventure – Optical Observatories – Cerro Tololo, I covered the ACEAP 2020 cohort’s travels to Cerro Tololo. In Part 3 – The Journey to ALMA – I covered the ACEAP 2020 cohort’s travels to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in the high Andes of northern Chile.)

Santiago de Chile from Sky Costanera
Sky Costanera

Santiago has a population of 7 million, making it the largest city in Chile by far. As a cosmopolis, it is sprinkled with skyscrapers. From the ACEAP’s hotel in the commune (city region) of Vitacura, it’s walking distance to many restaurants, the headquarters of the National Science Foundation-Associated Universities Inc.-National Radio Astronomy Observatory Chile, European Southern Observatory and Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. 

Artwork at AUI HQ representing indigenous Chilean constellations
NSF-AUI-NRAO HQ in Vitacura
ALMA HQ, Santiago
Luis Chavarria, ESO, in Santiago

On the flip side, we also passed
trash-filled barrios as we shuttled back and forth to the airport. Like many countries, Chile struggles with wealth inequality and environmental concerns.

Tim Spuck, AUI
L to R: Dave Falkner, Byron Labadie

Tim Spuck, Director of Education and Public Engagement, Associated Universities Inc., led our group. Here he's seen in AUI's Santiago HQ as a part of our orientation to astronomy in Chile. The other members of our ACEAP 2020 cohort included Abbas Mokhtarzadeh, Alan Strauss, Byron Labadie, Catalina Valencia, David Falkner, Dawn Davies, Jason Schreiner, Mark Guillette, Michael O'Shea and the author.

When we used the local currency, we felt like millionaires, since a dollar’s value approximated 1000 Chilean pesos.

Santiago is the capitol and also the hub, so we passed through it repeatedly during our travels, which were all in the north, location of most astronomical facilities in the cou
ntry. LATAM flew us to La Serena and Calama. The airline also managed to misplace luggage for most of the ambassadors for a whole day.
ACEAP itinerary

Our only stop on the ocean was at La Serena. Our overnight hotel was only 100 yards from the beach. A former Los Angeles resident, I was reminded of southern California beach towns by surfers, seafood restaurants and a lighthouse.
I couldn’t resist splashing in the Pacific and collecting seashells.
La Serena historic lighthouse

Chilean seashells
La Serena beach

CTIO and Cerro Pachon are just a short distance south of Valle Elqui, a major wine-growing region. Tintanos I enjoyed included Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon. Muscat grapes grown here are also used for the famous Pisco brandy and its namesake cocktail, which we also enjoyed while in the country.
Tintanos de Chile
The raison d’etre of our expedition relied on Chile’s special climate, primo for astronomy. Alfa Aldea outside the town of Vicuña is an astrotourism business that has strong connections with nearby Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Our evening visit featured talks by the proprietors as well as staff at CTIO, followed by great views of the southern skies with the unaided eyes and through their CPC 800 telescope.
Alfa Aldea astrotourism business in Vicuna

CPC 800 at Alfa Aldea

Chilean Highway 41 is known as the Ruta de las Estrellas – Route of the Stars, as it’s the road that connects the coast to the high country of Cerros Tololo and Pachon. It goes through Vicuña (birthplace of the Nobel Laureate Gabriel Mistral) and also El Molle, a pleasant town where ambassadors enjoyed empanadas while admiring astro-motifs in wall murals.
Highway 41, The Route of the Stars

El Molle
Rio Elqui
Wall mural, El Molle
Empanadas - muy delicioso

For Americans, the area abounded with unusual flora and fauna. Unfamiliar finches, raptors, poppies and cardons enchanted us. More dangerous life forms we heard about included the vinchuca kissing bug (Triatoma infestans), carrier of Chagas disease.
Finch perched on a faucet near the CTIO gate
Raptor soaring above CTIO

Cardons on the way to CTIO
Looks like a California poppy - in Chile!
Sucks your blood, you scratch the bite, you get infected with Chagas protozoa

During our numerous flights, window views of the mountains were spectacular, revealing peaks of 22,000 feet (7000 meters) elevation. During the austral summer of our trip, many were brown-gray-black almost to their summits. Dry river systems were laid out below us as we flew north towards the Atacama Desert. Fire season was literally going full blast near Santiago and our plane banked around a huge plume from a blaze covering thousands of acres.
Spectacular Andean ridgeline northeast of Santiago
Braided dry river channel near Calama

Gigantic wildfire south of Santiago

Before the expedition, I’d hoped to see vicuñas in the wild while on the trip. My first sighting happened during the drive down from ALMA, at around 12,500 feet. A lone animal stood on the side of the road and I stopped our truck so all three of us onboard could admire the slender camelid. Then, the next day, a whole herd stood at 11,000 feet alongside the busy highway Ruta 27 east of Calama.
Vicuna on the road to the ALMA high site

Even for a desert, the Andes are a harsh, barren environment. Around ALMA, however, hardy, diminutive feral donkeys roamed the landscape. Also seen were remains of perished donkeys, desiccated in the high and dry air, below the stratovolcano cone of 19,000-foot Licancabur.
Feral donkey near ALMA Operations Site
Donkey remains mummified by the high and dry Andean air

Cardons –
tree-sized branched cacti similar to the saguaro – dotted landscapes around Cerro Tololo as well as around lower reaches of the ALMA preserve. Much rarer at 10,000 feet and above, nonetheless, their wood has been used for roofing in basic Andino structures.
Licancabur and cardon near ALMA

Cardon-roofed structures
Cardon wood

We had the pleasure and privilege of visiting Reserva Elemental Puribeter near San Pedro de Atacama. There, our hosts introduced us to the peeling chañar clone forest and also to indigenous agriculture in the San Pedro region. We also saw plenty of very cute animals. ¿Como te llamas?
At the Puribeter Nature Reserve near San Pedro
The chanar forest

Llama at the nature reserve
Llama at the nature reserve
Llama at the nature reserve
As darkness fell, music started. Drums in the bosque as Carlos played. Astronomia Cultural Cosmovision Andino’s father-and-son team “Trashumante” (Jose and Eric Ardiles) performed for us around a campfire beneath Canopus, Sirius, Achernar and the Magellanic Clouds. A very atmospheric woodwind and percussion mix with starlight.
Carlos performs with tradictional drums at the nature reserve
Astronomia Cultural Cosmovision Andino's musical panoply

Astronomia Cultural Cosmovision Andino's musical panoply
San Pedro itself is a pleasant town that’s very friendly to visitors. Lodgings are numerous as are tiendas, bars, restaurantes, heladerias and tour companies. You can enjoy delicious croissants just minutes away from the town plaza. Meteorite hunting is a well-established activity in the region and there is the Museo del Meteorito on the north side.
San Pedro de Atacama
ACE ambassadors looking at the helato choices
Astro-tourism is big in San Pedro
Muy delicioso!
San Pedro has a meteorite museum

Salars – low-lying salt flats or playas – define much of the Atacama. Though presently known to most of the world as a source of lithium for car and cell phone batteries,
salars have a delicate ecology including flamingos and the brine shrimp the birds feed upon. The vistas from the middle of a large salar are sweeping and ringed by high peaks, with dust devils dancing in between.
Salar de Atacama
Prime flamingo habitat
Pink flamingos in the salar
Brine shrimp give the flamingos their pink colors
Adios to our stay up there in Norte Grande: a stop overlooking Valle de la Luna.
Valle de la Luna

¡Hasta luego, Chile! (ACE Ambassadors left to right: Abbas Mokhtarzadeh, Byron Labadie, Michael O'Shea, Mark Guillette, David Falkner,   Jason Schreiner, Derek Wallentinsen, Dawn Davies, Alan Strauss, , Catalina Valencia; infra Tim Spuck and company.)
ACE Ambassadors 2020 Cohort, December 2022