The Best of Stargazing in Norte Chico

The star of the stargazing show, the purpose-built Observatorio Cerro Mamalluca, 9km northeast of Vicuña, is Elqui Valley's biggest attraction. So big, in fact, that you're likely to share the tour with hordes of other tourists, all looking for their chance to goggle at distant galaxies, star clusters and nebulae through a 30cm telescope.

Bilingual two-hour tours take place nightly every two hours between 8:30pm and 2:30am in summer and between 7:30pm and 1:30am in winter. The cheesy Cosmo Visión Andina tour (in Spanish only) includes presentations and music but no access to the telescopes – so you're better off booking the basic astronomy tour.

Make reservations through the office at Av Gabriela Mistral 260 in Vicuña; advance booking is recommended. There is no public transportation, but a minivan takes visitors from the Vicuña office (reserve in advance, per person CH$3000). Some La Serena tour agencies arrange trips or you can hire a taxi in Vicuña.

Like Mamalluca, the shiny hilltop Observatorio Collowara in Andacollo is built for tourists; no serious interstellar research is conducted here. Two-hour tours run in summer at 9:30pm, 11pm and 12:30am; in winter they are at 9pm. The facility boasts three viewing platforms and a 40cm telescope – slightly larger than that at Mamalluca. There are also three smaller telescopes available, so you won't have to wait for long. There are plenty of accommodations in Andacollo, 54km from La Serena and connected by bus (CH$2000, 1½ hours) and colectivo (shared taxi; CH$2500, one hour).

The latest on the observatory front is Observatorio del Pangue, 17km south of Vicuña, run by three enthusiastic French and Chilean astronomers. The two-hour tours (in English, French and Spanish) leave nightly – unless there's a full moon – at 8:30pm (and on demand at 10:30pm) and offer pure observation, with a 10-person maximum.

Probing the mysteries of stars billions of kilometers into the past is all in a night's work at the futuristic Observatorio Interamericano Cerro Tololo, which sits at 2200m atop its hill. And while visitors can't stargaze through its monstrous telescopes (even the astronomers don't do that as the telescopes first feed data into computer monitors), a daytime tour of the facilities is still an enlightening experience. Operated by the Tucson-based Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA; a group of about 25 institutions, including the Universidad de Chile), Tololo has an enormous 4m telescope. Free bilingual tours take place on Saturday only. Make reservations at least one month ahead in high season. Two-hour tours are held at 9am and 1pm. There is no public transportation so rent a car or taxi, or arrange to come with a tour operator (even then you still must make your own reservations with the observatory).

If you tire of getting herded around in the large observatories, you may be interested in the small, personalized astronomical tours (in English or Spanish) on offer at the Alfa Aldea. Held in the on-site amphitheater, tours start with a short video exploring the basics of astronomy, then get you up close and personal with the celestial bodies via scientific-grade telescopes. It's an open-air event – the whole thing takes place under the star-filled sky and small group sizes mean plenty of telescope time for everybody – but it can get frosty. Dress warmly (although the blankets, wine and vegetable soup that come with the tour help to cut the chill).

For professionally guided astronomy tours, contact Astronomy Adventures, a La Serena–based outfit that arranges customized stargazing experiences all around Chile.