The moon through the telescope in Elqui Valley

Gazing into a Galaxy in Elqui Valley

Updated 03/02/2020

Tonight I am reminded that I am a tiny speck of dust on a small mass of matter floating in a vast galaxy. I lean over the small aperture that gives me a view into worlds far beyond us. Excitement surges through me as I see the big red spot of Jupiter come into view. This “spot” is actually a massive storm and is twice the size of Earth. Jupiter’s moons surround her like cosmic sentinels.

I recently read a scientific finding about climate change on Jupiter that is causing this big red spot to shrink (Link Here). Update: The articles previously referenced that discovered warming on other planets in our solar system have since been removed and can no longer be found on google.

Cristian, one of the scientists at this observatory, confirmed that indeed the big red dot is shrinking.

Our solar system
From left to right: Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune (in case you have forgotten the planet list since grade school). Photo Credit: Comfreak on Pixaby

Pangue Observatory in Elqui Valley

Cristian types in a code into the telescope’s computer for NGC253, the scientific number for the Silver Coin Galaxy we are about to see. The telescope’s massive optical tube begins to move.

This isn’t at all like my old Walmart telescope that I had when I was a kid, that’s for sure. Not only does this telescope find the coordinates it also tracks the object being observed. Our solar system is constantly in motion and I remember having to continually recenter whatever object I was gazing at as a child. This is pretty cool. I am geeking out.

One of the telescopes in the Pangue Observatory in Elqui Valley
One of the telescopes in the Pangue Observatory in Elqui Valley

The telescope finds the Sculpture constellation and it stops moving. Within this constellation is the Silver Coin Galaxy. It is a galaxy currently undergoing intense star formation and appears as a bright oval object that bulges at the center.

If you are not into astronomy all that much, a bright, oblong bright image is probably nothing more than a white smudge to you, but to me, it is super exciting. I have loved astronomy since I was first introduced to the wonders of the galaxies by my middle school teacher Mr. Krick, my favorite and probably the best teacher I have ever had.

The Light Tells a Story

Next, Eric, the other scientist here at the Pangue Observatory, types in the coordinates for the moon. I had hoped to arrange a trip to this observatory during the new moon, but clouds and rain prevented us. Still, the moon is pretty cool to see up close, with its craters and dark gray lava beds. Using my iPhone I take a picture of the moon through the viewfinder (the photo ends up as the feature image for this post).

The sun setting from the Pangue Observatory in Elqui Valley
The sun setting from the Pangue Observatory in Elqui Valley

As the telescope begins to move again to the next coordinates Eric talks about how in the modern era most study of the universe is done on the computer but “the light from the stars tells us everything.”

Each wavelength in the light that reaches Earth varies based on the element producing it. Spectrometers can read the wavelengths and provide more information about each object than simple observation through a telescope.

“The galaxy is made up of the same things, we know all these elements,” he says.

The Elqui Valley

The skies in Northern Chile are considered the best in the world for astronomy. This area is the driest place on Earth (outside of the poles) so moisture in the air does not distort images in the telescope. It is also a sparsely populated area which keeps the pollution including light pollution in the night sky to a minimum. The high altitude makes this area the trifecta for star gazing.

 Check out how towns in the driest place on earth obtain water

As we were driving towards the observatory the sun was setting and Eric pointed out the other observatories, almost one on every mountain ridge surrounding the Pangue Observatory.

Camping in La Campana

The new moon was five days ago. We arrived in Elqui Valley and stayed in a campground just outside of town, in a village called La Campana.

The biggest benefit of staying out of town is the reduction of town lights for a better view of the stars. The night sky here is purported to be spectacular but during the first few nights that we spent at this campground, the sky was cloudy and we didn’t see much.

The Elqui valley campground at sunset
Our campground in the Elqui Valley at sunset, with the mountains glowing in the background

The campground was nice, it had a warm shower and an outdoor kitchen. Our host Luis (not his real name) kept trying to convince us to hire him as a guide for hiking. All of the hikes that we wanted to do in this area can easily be done solo and we enjoy doing each trek at our own pace.

He told us about a special rock that is too far for hiking but he would take us in his van. It has a significant spiritual power he said. Luis showed us a picture that his brother took of the rock. There was a purple orb in the picture.

“See? That is the power of the gods,” he declared.

I’ve seen this purple orb before, it happens when the sun reflects off moisture on the lens or in the atmosphere.

Elqui Valley vineyard near our campground
Vineyard along the road to our campground

He then tried to convince us to not go to the expensive observatory to see the stars, we could go with his friends who offered hot tea and snacks (“the observatory offers nothing like that”). And I thought to myself, well they offer a large telescope.

The Holy Guest

There was one other guest at the campground. I’ll call her Lydia for this post. Lydia wore a Kameez top often worn by women in India. She walked around with her hands folded in front of her, and when she talked to us she would often have her hands clasped together as if in prayer.

“Have you been to India?” I asked her.

“No, but I would like to go,” she said, “I believe someday someone will give me the ticket to go to India.”

She has been traveling for five months, leaving her hometown of Medellin, Colombia, with “no money to my name, but god provides my needs.” She makes jewelry and gives them away to people for free, though I assume people usually give her a donation. It’s very brave, and her faith in her beliefs is strong. She says it all works out because “we are all one and I wish for all people to ascend to a higher level.”

An old unstable bridge in Elqui Valley
A suspension bridge in the Elqui Valley. We crossed it not quite believing that it would hold us up.

Then she invited us to dinner. It was her treat she said. It’s common in hostels to prepare group dinners. In Iquique, we shared dinner with the other guests in our Airbnb and we also had a potluck in Peru to celebrate New Year’s Eve with people from different countries (before dodging fireworks shooting through the crowd), everyone making a dish from their home. These dinners can be a lot of fun.

We purchased food items for a side dish so that we could contribute to the dinner.  When we returned to the campground she did not want the side dish, she wanted this to be her gift to us. To the point where it would have felt rude to bring the additional food. She was a sweet girl and told us that she loved to pay it forward.

Pass me the Awkward, Please

We ate vegetable soup together and listened to her and the host talk about their life and travel. I asked her about her eleven-year-old daughter whom she had mentioned earlier.

“She is back home with her grandmother and family,” she said quickly and appeared not to want to talk further about it so I let it drop.

During dinner, she told us about how cleansing her last Reiki ceremony was for her.  Then she told us that she did not sleep well last night. A dream had made her restless. In the dream, a dark being was crawling up her and then crawled inside her. She said she forgot to wear her crystals for protection.

“It encourages me that I am on the right path because darkness is attracted to light,” she said with a contented smile.

Vineyard in the Elqui Valley
Vineyard in the Elqui Valley

Luna Barks at the Moon

I went to go to the bathroom and when I returned, Lydia had gone to bed. We talked to Luis a little bit more before calling it a night. Dinner had concluded on an odd note.

Later that night we were awakened by Luna’s insistent barking. Something seemed to be bothering the campground’s resident dog and she kept barking for over an hour. I finally got out of the tent to see what she was barking at. Luna was standing there looking at the house where Luis and Lydia were staying, just barking and barking.

I tried to shush her but she just paused to look at me and then continued to bark at the house. I called her over and she reluctantly walked towards me but looked back a few times to bark at the house. I petted her for a bit until she settled down. She stayed by our tent and we slept well the rest of the night.

Drops of Jupiter in her Hair

On our last day at the campground as we were packing up to leave Luis came out to talk to us.

Lydia had performed a Reiki ceremony for Luis and some of his family members when they came for a visit a few days before. Just that morning Luis took Lydia to that rock with special powers from the gods so that Lydia could perform a healing ceremony just for him.

Graffiti of an old witch on a wall in La Campana in the Elqui Valley
Graffiti on a wall in La Campana in the Elqui Valley

“Look,” he said, “Lydia is traveling with no money, maybe you could give her some before you go? She could perform a Reiki ceremony for you,” he suggested.

I declined the ceremony and Luis seemed a bit surprised and asked why.

“I just don’t believe the same things, but she is a nice girl,” I replied.

“Oh, the ceremonies are wonderful. I let her stay here free because of all she has done for me. I will probably give her a little more money before she goes because she needs it,” Luis said.

And there it was. All subtleties aside, it came down to brass tax.

Luis was a nice guy and expressed his concerns to us about Lydia traveling with no money. I told him that she would be okay. She is young and healthy, and when she is back from the atmosphere, she could always get a job if she needs money while she’s looking for herself out there. ♪

Giving Out of Gratitude

I believe giving is important, it is part of the mindset toward financial independence. It changes the way we view money. In my belief system, giving is done out of gratitude because I have been given so much. It’s not out of obligation or as a means to get something else in return. I have been given freedom and I am so grateful for that freedom.

Elqui Valley hiking trail
Hiking trail overlooking Elqui Valley

Rings and Galaxies

As the telescope readjusts to focus on the Grace Triplet Galaxy, Cristian pulls out his green laser pointer. The laser seems to actually touch the star he is pointing to. I am completely fascinated by the laser I forget to listen for a moment. I know the laser doesn’t actually go that far, but the illusion makes it seem so and that is pretty cool. Once again, I am geeking out.

Pointing out each of the visible planets starting on the horizon with Mercury, Venus, Jupiter,  Saturn, Pluto (well, it was a planet when I was in school), and Mars he makes an arch in the sky.

“That,” he says as he motions with his super-cool laser pointer, “is our galaxy.”

The line of our galaxy as depicted by the Star Walk iPhone application
The line of our Galaxy. Screen capture of the Star Walk iPhone app.

We focus on Mars and Eric laments that a dust storm has arisen on Mars while it is at its closest point to Earth. They will have to wait another two years for it to be this close again so they can see the Martian surface better.

By the end of the night, I have seen Saturn and her rings, I gazed at the Tarantula Nebula trying to imagine the size of this mass of dust, gasses, and light so far away and so beautiful from here, I have seen a triple galaxy through the eyepiece of a telescope.

Screen shot of the Star Walk app showing the Globular Cluster
Snapshot of the Sky Walk app on my iPhone. It was a great app to zero in on the objects that Eric and Cristian were zooming into on the telescope.

The universe is so vast and there is so much that we do not yet know. It is why I have always seen atheism as rather arrogant. At least an agnostic says, “I don’t believe in god, but there is a possibility that he exists outside my experience.” This leaves the door open to the fact that we know so little of our own galaxy and even our own Earth.

Blinded by the Light

I understand why beautiful places such as the Elqui Valley, Capao, and Pisac attract those seeking something spiritual. We all seem to be filled when gazing at beautiful nature. It is a gift to us. Yet we all interpret it differently.

“I really want to go to India. There are more people in India than anywhere else who have reached this higher level,” Lydia told me.

She continued to talk about transcendence into a higher state that would eventually lead to her to an eternal state.

Pond in Elqui Valley
A pond in Elqui Valley is located on the property of a local Pisco distillery.

“I don’t understand why they are so poor in India. Riches should come to those at the higher level,” she concluded looking a bit confused.

I’m not so sure that she has the same belief system as they have in India. When evidence tries to show us that a belief system doesn’t work we should question its validity. If we believe in something that is supposed to bring riches and peace but it never does, is there something amiss? It doesn’t mean that everything about it is wrong, but something is not quite right. This could be said of anyone from the atheist to the most devout.

We all believe something and that something should always be questioned. Truth, after all, is not afraid to be questioned. Faith grows more refined and stronger when we are willing to confront questions. Light does hold the answers, but have we equipped ourselves with the tools of understanding?

Keep searching and find your blue door. We have all been given to freedom to choose what we believe, and exercise our freedom.

Find your blue door

4 thoughts on “Gazing into a Galaxy in Elqui Valley”

  1. You have a lot of patience. Enjoying your trip.

    Did you stay in the campground because other accommodations were too expensive around there? Hotels look to be over 120 night in the vicinity. I ask because I keep hearing Chile is very expensive to visit. I have trips planned soon and haven’t really looked at transport and accommodations closely but it does look prohibitive to stay long.

    1. Hi Stump, We primarily picked the campground because it was outside of town and was supposed to be better for seeing the stars at night. Can’t tell you if that is actually true, lol. However part of the reason was also that it was a much better rate. Chile is more expensive than the countries north of here on the west coast but we have still been able to average $13 a night for the 70 nights we have spent in Chile so far. It will become even more expensive as we make our way south. Airbnb has been key for us finding great rates.

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