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How to Tour the Paranal Observatory in Chile for Free

Insider Guides
by Eileen Smith Apr 10, 2012
You can’t go to Paranal, unless you make reservations way, way in advance.

PARANAL IS THE SEAT of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which has the world’s finest optical telescopes in the world’s driest desert (the Atacama) in the north of Chile.

The observatory had a brief moment of mainstream fame in 2008 when James Bond: Quantum of Solace ( partially filmed at the ESO hotel at Paranal) came to the big screen. Here in Chile it was tremendous news, as it is whenever movies, TV shows, or commercials are filmed in Chile. But this one, which involved bringing 300 British crew onsite, focused many people’s attention on a part of Chile few of us will ever visit.

Because you can’t visit Paranal. Or can you?

Paranal is located two hours from the northern Chilean mining city of Antofagasta (Antofa to Chileans), on a paved road, and there is no public transportation to get here, so you’ll have to rent a car or hire private transportation. There are two tours on Saturdays only — at 10am and 2pm — and you have to make reservations—sometimes many months in advance to be assured a place on the tour.

For details on the visit go to the ESO website (in Spanish). The tour takes you onto the platform where the VLT (Very Large Telescope) is located. It includes a visit inside where you can see the four giant “eyes” or mirrors, each measuring more than eight meters across. The VLT is the most advanced telescope in the world.

Security is tight and ID is checked and you have to sign a consent form. Due to the harsh conditions, sunscreen, closed shoes, and UV-rated sunglasses are recommended. Unfortunately, you can’t actually take a nighttime tour of the facility, which is when most of the astronomers (from all over the world — they must reserve time for their research and come up for usually a minimum of several days at a time) are around. You also won’t get to see the starry night through the telescope, access to which is strictly controlled and meted out only to professionals, who themselves must coordinate many months in advance.

Tours are free, but you won’t get to swim in the pool at the semi-underground residencia, nor meet the cast of the 22nd James Bond film. But time your drive back just right, and you can see all the stars the naked eye can absorb.

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