The Ahlarkapin observatory at dusk. (Photo: Ahlarkapin)
Stars are drama queens,” Danielo Vidal told a small group of American tourists as we huddled around a refractor telescope in Chile’s Atacama desert. “They always die with a scandal.” With that, he encouraged me to look through the telescope’s lens to see the fantastic nebulous of a dead star.
“It looks like the eye of god,” Vidal said solemnly. He was right. I had never seen anything quite like it.
For 21 nights each month Vidal works at Ahlarkapin, a private observatory run by indigenous entrepreneurs. Ahlarkapin, the name the local people gave to Venus, combines scientific astronomy with traditional Andean astronomy.
Most of the astronomy guides at Ahlarkapin began as drivers and day tour guides for the luxury hotels in San Pedro de Atacama. That’s how many of them learned to speak such good English. They took courses in scientific astronomy and combined that knowledge with the Andean astronomy they’d learnt from their grandparents, many of whom were shepherds on the steppes of the Atacama.
I met Vidal during a star gazing tour planned by my hotel, the Tierra Atacama, a beautifully appointed resort far enough from the main drag of San Pedro that light pollution isn’t an issue. The Ahlarkapin observatory happens to be right in the backyard of the property, so close I could actually see it from the porch of our room.
Vidal’s long black hair reached halfway down his back and he was bundled up in an orange parka to combat the desert’s evening chill when we met up. He had the naked excitement of a labradoodle.
Vidal and the other Ahlarkapin guides combine scientific astronomy with local lore to create a rich experience for guests. (Photo: Ahlarkapin)
“Are you excited to see some stars?” he said as I walked in.
This is Vidal’s story:
Yahoo Travel: How did you end up here?
Danielo Vidal: I came here on a vacation 15 years ago and I never left. I am an engineer by trade and I decided to come here and be a guide. Since then I feel like I’ve never worked a day in the past 15 years.
YT: How long have you been interested in astronomy?
DV: I started star-gazing at 10. My grandfather introduced me to astronomy and it has been a hobby ever since. Astronomy is simple if you think about it. You stand out here and you take a look up there.
I was so impressed with Vidal that we went on a daytime horseback riding trip with him too. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
YT: Why is the star gazing here better than anywhere else?
DV: So many factors combine to make it ideal. The dryness, the low temperatures, the low population. All those things together create the best star gazing on the planet.
The skies are so clear here that you can see the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxy with the naked eye.
YT: How is Andean astronomy different from the astronomy we know about in America?
DV: We refer to the Milky Way as “Hatun Majuk,” the river of the sky. We have our own constellations—animals and warriors. Some of those constellations are shapes within the dark spaces in between the stars instead of connecting the light of the stars themselves.
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YT: What’s the best reaction you’ve gotten from people who take a star gazing tour here?
DV: The people usually get shocked when I show them Saturn’s rings. It looks so unbelievable that most people think I put a picture on there and that it isn’t real.
YT: What’s the best part of your job?
DV: [He looks up] That’s pretty simple.
Check out our original adventure travel series A Broad Abroad.