Famed for its tropical rainforests, soaring mountain peaks and palm-fringed beaches, South America has a dazzling array of natural treasures. Yet the wonders of this vast continent continue after dusk, with sun-bleached deserts, remote equatorial islands and otherworldly salt flats providing a front-row seat to some of the best stargazing (and eclipse-gazing) on the planet.
The constellation-filled skies are drawing increasing numbers of astrotourists – particularly this year, when a total solar eclipse will occur on 2 July over a swath of Chile and Argentina. Whether you’re drawn to continent for the eclipse or just want to marvel at the night skies, here are some can’t-miss spots to witness the celestial wonders of South America.
Atacama Desert, Chile
Nightfall is nothing short of spectacular in northern Chile. In the Atacama Desert, constellations clutter the dark clear skies above one of the driest deserts on earth. Near the tiny village of San Pedro de Atacama, observatories dot the stony landscape, and top-notch astronomical tours, like Una Noche con las Estrellas, provide open-air viewing all year-round. By daytime, the red-rock canyons, sputtering geysers and alpine salt lakes offer days of adventurous exploring.
Elqui Valley, Chile
Over 1200km south of San Pedro, but still in northern Chile (the length of this country staggers the imagination!), the Elqui Valley has long been a magnet for both amateur and professional astronomers. A handful of observatories offer guided viewings of planets, galaxies, and globular clusters through scientific-grade telescopes. The Observatorio del Pangue, around 17km south of Vicuña, runs small-group tours in immersive two- or three-hour sessions. Closer to Vicuña, Alfa Aldea features guided observations, as well as the opportunity to listen to the stars via radio telescopes.
Chile’s bigger neighbor to the east has a wealth of appealing sites for stargazers. In the shadow of the Andes, the tiny village of Barreal in western Argentina is famous for its remarkably clear, pollution-free skies. About a 45-minute drive south of town, the Parque Nacional El Leoncito houses the Complejo Astronómico El Leoncito, a research observatory that has nightly viewing sessions. Barreal is located some 220km north of Mendoza, and attracts outdoor adventurers who come for carrovelismo (land sailing), an exhilarating sport practiced on a small cart with a sail attached. You can overnight in the inviting Posada Don Lisandro, run by a knowledgeable guide who also offers land sailing excursions.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Bolivia is home to one of the most surreal sights in South America. The Salar de Uyuni, also known as the world’s largest salt flats, is a blindingly white expanse of bleached earth. During the rainy season (December to May), a light sheen of water often covers the surface, which becomes a vast mirror perfectly reflecting the cloud-filled sky overhead. By night, there’s world-class stargazing above the wide horizons. Reputable outfitters like Ruta Verde offer private stargazing tours from the towns of Uyuni or Colchani on the edge of the salt flats. It’s well worth staying the night at one of the hotels in the area – the Hotel Palacio de Sal is a luxury hotel built from salt blocks!
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Though small in size, Ecuador has astonishing diversity: Andean peaks, Amazonian rainforests and some rather famous islands off the mainland. We’re talking about the Galapagos, a chain of volcanic islands that are home to lumbering land tortoises, strange avian life (including tool-using finches) and otherworldly landscapes. Owing to a lack of light pollution, the islands are well placed for stargazing, particularly on sparsely inhabited islands like Isla Isabel or Isla Floreana (both reachable by public boats from the main gateway island of Santa Cruz). Ecuador’s unique location straddling the equator also means you can see constellations of both the northern and southern hemispheres.
On the mainland, the Andes offer some spectacular stargazing – when the clouds are cooperating (tip: the clearest skies are from June through August). Volcán Chimborazo puts you closer to the heavens than just about any other place on earth. Its 6310m peak is Ecuador’s highest, and owing to the equatorial bulge, it’s also the furthest point from the center of the earth. Aside from camping out before making the summit climb, the best stargazing is at one of the lodges in the area, like the Chimborazo Lodge located at the foot of the famous mountain and perched at an elevation of around 4000m.
Desierto de la Tatacoa, Colombia
Despite its location in the tropics, Colombia has one place with a desert-like climate, found in the so-called Desierto de la Tatacoa, some 300km southwest of Bogotá. Fringed by the mountain peaks of the Nevada de Huila, Tatacoa is a surreal landscape of ash-grey and ochre-red canyons, complete with five-meter-high cacti and scurrying armadillos. Dry, often cloudless nights near the equator offer ideal conditions for budding astronomers. In fact, the region is home to two observatories that offer nightly sessions. You can overnight in Hostal Noches de Saturno, an aptly named guesthouse (Nights of Saturn) just a short stroll from the Observatorio Astronómico de la Tatacoa.
Make it happen: solar eclipse 2019
Unless you’re out sailing the South Pacific, Chile’s Elqui Valley will be one of the best places on earth to see the solar eclipse this year. In the pretty village of Pisco Elqui, totality will last over two minutes (culminating on 2 July around 4.38pm local time), and the day will quickly become nearly as dark as the midnight sky. Staying in one of the well-appointed cabins at El Tesoro de Elqui puts you in the heart of the celestial action (and El Tesoro de Elqui also offers astro tours). To reach the village, fly from Santiago to La Serena (both LATAM and Sky Airline have direct daily flights), and hire a car (or take a bus) for the 95km drive west to Pisco Elqui.
In Argentina, the path of totality passes about 100km north of San Juan, a mid-sized city near some of the country’s top wineries, including Las Marianas. The total eclipse happens around 5.40pm local time. A good base in town is the Del Bono Suites Art Hotel. San Juan is a 90-minute flight from Buenos Aires on Aerolíneas Argentinas. Curiously, the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires will also be on the path of the eclipse – though you’ll have to find an open horizon since the afternoon sun will be low in the sky when it happens.
If 2019 isn’t a good year to travel, don’t despair. Another total eclipse in South America will be happening in December 2020, this one through Patagonia in southern Argentina and Chile.
Lonely Planet has produced this article for Wendy Wu Tours. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.