It offers some of the most stunning views on earth … but the views are not of this world, but instead of outer space. A valley in northern Chile has been named the world’s first international dark sky sanctuary, a vast haven from the light pollution of the increasingly urban world.

Night sky over San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
Night sky over San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

The Elqui valley offers some of the world’s greatest unspoilt views of the night sky and is already a major centre of astronomy research. ‘Dark sky sanctuaries are the rarest and most fragile dark places left on the planet,’ said John Barentine of the International Dark Sky Association. The Chilean government has recognised the endless possibilities of astro-tourism, and has passed laws to save energy and curb outdoor lighting to protect its famous night skies.

The new sanctuary – the first of its kind – is enormous and covers 90,000 acres of mountainous land and is home to four separate astronomical research bases.While the views from the valleys of Northern Chile may be among the best in the world, star seekers can always find somewhere closer to home. There are designated dark sky parks dotted around the world with a wide selection across Europe, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Towns and communities that have made special efforts to keep their light pollution low and their skies dark are also listed by the International Dark Sky Association. Special dark sky reserves have also been designated at locations including Exmoor and the Brecon Beacons in the UK, and County Kerry in Ireland.

Other renowned locations for star gazers include the NamibRand Nature Reserve in Namibia, Mont-Mégantic National Park in Quebec and Aoraki Mackenzie in New Zealand.

The night skies are also a major tourist draw for countries blessed with the most spectacular displays of the Northern Lights. Visitor numbers in Iceland have more than doubled in the past five years, from less than 500,000 in 2010 up to almost a million in 2014, in part because of a push towards astro-tourism.

Iceland, the countries of Scandinavia, and Canada are generally considered the best and most accessible places from which to catch a glimpse of nature’s magnificent light show. Although in recent years, the Aurora Borealis has actually been visible much further south on occasion, with displays reported in northerly parts of countries like Scotland and Ireland.

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