From San Pedro to Antofagasta. Visiting the world’s largest optical telescope in Paranal (VLT = Very Large Telescope). Rock monument La Portada.

Travelogue Chile 2003

From San Pedro we (that’s me and Lutz and Andreas, two Germans who had done the mine tour with me) went back to Calama to continue to Antofagasta. There was another lesson to learn: Never assume anything, especially not that someone else is thinking for you. In Calama we got from the bus close to two bus companies who offered service to Antofagasta. I went into the office of company A and asked when their next bus left. In ten minutes, the clerk said, but not from the office but from the terminal, but we could be there in time using a taxi. Where I had to buy the tickets? Here or at the terminal, he said, no difference. I assumed this meant that there where seats left … wrong. We found out as we reached the terminal. So I did some calls and found another bus leaving 30 minutes later from where? The office of company B, only 50m from the place we had been before we had gone to the bus terminal. We finally made it and reached Antofagasta, the biggest city in Chile‘s North with only 200.000 inhabitants. We went to the market and had good food for no money before falling into our beds.

For the next day Lutz and Andreas had a reservation for the tour through Paranal, the world’s biggest optical Telescope. If you want the exact details visit the homepage or find out how to register for a tour, the tours are booked out months ahead. They started with only one tour on the last Saturday in month, meanwhile there are tours Saturday and Sunday of the last two weekends. Booked out? A short telephone call later I had the permission to come along. We rented a car and left Antofagasta, a bit too late as some organizational details needed more time than we had thought. First we went a few kilometers over the famous Panamericana and then we had to take a road that USED to be paved. The trip is only 125km long but you need two hours. Due to my irresponsible driving and the inadequate speed we did it in one and a half and arrived in time. As you don’t get the chance to see the world’s biggest observatory often it is worth some risk, isn’t it? Poor Renault Clio, brave little car, tu es une bonne voiture.

VLT = Very Large Telescope, Paranal
VLT = Very Large Telescope, Paranal

The tour was impressive. The observatory is at 2500m on a mountain in the dessert, it is absolutely dry and the sky is clear 350 days in the year. There are four mirrors with a diameter of 8.2m, the biggest mirrors technically possible, and several smaller telescopes. And the site is still under construction. In the end the want to use all the telescopes together what will actually make it the biggest telescope in the world but till now they couldn’t use more than two or three of the big ones at the same time. During the tour you actually enter one of the big ones and see the mirror and the giant mechanic, but it is impossible to take an adequate photo as everything is huge and you can’t get further away than five meters.

the mirror of the VLT, Very Large Telescope, Paranal
Very large mirror. Too large for my camera.

The most impressive information was the size of the part of the sky the telescope can see at a time: It is only one arch second, that’s 1/1800 of the diameter of the moon! When they manage to join all four telescopes they will be able to see a man on the moon. All in all the tour lasted more than three hours though two hours were scheduled.

No. It is not possible to look through the telescope. First because the tour is during daytime and second because nobody can look through these telescopes. There are only electronic cameras and spectrum analyzers. On the way back we went a bit more slowly and I brought Andreas and Lutz to the bus to Santiago.

The next morning I visited La Portada, a beautiful natural arc in the sea close to Antofagasta, the symbol of the region. Then I returned the car. Tonight I will go to La Serena, first time with “salon cama” which has to be a bit like first class in a plane. I wonder what it will be like.

La Portada, Antofagasta, Chile
La Portada

Greetings from Antofagasta, Chile


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