I still haven’t quite recovered from the weekend of observing but I managed to put two good classes together – seriously, how you don’t get it after that brilliant lecture, I’ll never understand – and am about to head home.  I’m unpacked and I’ve done laundry already.

The trip home was much less eventful than the trip there.

On the way to Hacienda Los Andes, I flew to La Serena where I rented a car to drive to Hurtado.  This meant I left my apartment at 0700.  I had a 10:15 flight and Transvip showed an hour to the airport.  I thought that was long but didn’t want to change it.  So, I was at the airport a little before 0730, which gave me a lengthy wait.  Clearing security for a Chilean domestic flight is trivial.  The flight was to land at 1110.  I was seated on the sea side of the plane and, so, went promptly to sleep.  I awoke to the normal feeling of coming in for a landing.  We were in a cloud deck and it turned out that cloud deck was really low.  We came out about 100m from the runway and almost immediately pulled up and banked right hard.  I’m sure this was nowhere near the performance level of the plane but it also wasn’t a casual climb to the right.  I initially assumed we’d had a near-miss of some sort.  Maybe something on the runway that the pilot didn’t see until he cleared the clouds.

Later, he came on to calmly tell us why we didn’t land.  I couldn’t catch it all but something about unexpected wind, so I assume wind shear.  The near-miss hypothesis didn’t explain why we ended up circling over the Pacific for almost two hours, so it had to be weather related.  The pilot came on periodically to say that we might have to go back to Santiago.  There may well have been a riot.  Clearly, no one wanted to go back to Santiago.

Eventually, we made an uneventful landing.  The weather was definitely odd.  As I said, clouds were low and it was cool (in the 50s) with rain off and on.  With the clouds in and around the mountains surrounding the airport, it felt like, I kid you not, Iceland in summer.  I collected the car and hit the grocery.  My preference is Unimarc.  It isn’t the overtly “copy the Americans” that is the horror of Costanera Center but it’s close enough to home – basically a United from the early 1980s – that I feel good there and understand how to select food.  The more Chilean stores are fine but I always do something stupid.

I made my first mistake of the weekend at Unimarc.  I misremembered where I was staying.  In late April I’m visiting an astronomy inn that serves no food but gives you a kitchen.  This time I was staying at Hacienda Los Andes which gives no kitchen but you get breakfast with the room and the restaurant is open for lunch and dinner.  So I didn’t need the sandwich stuff and beverages I bought.  I bought 10 2L bottles of various sodas and water.  For four days where I had access to a restaurant.

Shortly after making my first mistake, I made my second.  Well, not really.  It ended up great and I wouldn’t have missed it.  But.

Google maps told me to take the long way.  Forty-five kilometers and 10 minutes longer.  I had to forcibly make it give me directions going the shorter way.

Don’t think you’re smarter than the computer, man.

The road to Vicuna from La Serena was fantastic.  Ruta 41 goes up the Elqui Valley, past a lovely reservoir and winds in and around some great mountains.  You can see major observatories from this stretch and you can really feel that you’re leaving city life behind.

You have no idea.

Just before Vicuna, Google told me turn right.  Onto a highway with a number.  I poked around but all I saw was an alley.  Turned out the alley was the highway.  So, I took it.  What followed was a crazy, two hour, 50km drive over a couple of mountain ridges all on a dirt lane that was mostly loose gravel.  It was magnificent.  I encountered no one until just at the end when an RV, driven by a family of Americans, started up.  I hope they made it.  I tried to slow them to warn them but they just smiled broadly (how I know they were American) and proceeded.


The drive.  Can you see the highway?

Like I said, I love this kind of country and was having a blast.  To jump ahead, though, I drove back the way Google suggested and the road was much nicer.

Once at the hacienda, I quickly checked in and discovered a wonderful staff.  And astroimagers.  There were two Canadians.  Everyone else there seemed to be German.  German was the dominant language spoken in common areas.  From them I learned that the folks who rented a car in Santiago and drove the whole way made it in under six hours.  I flew, rented a car and it took me 8.  Sigh.

I was there just a couple hours before sunset so I got a quick bite to eat and headed up the hill.  Elke was good enough to drive me up.  I think that is part of the room as well: one trip up to the observatory by car to take your gear.  After that, you walk.  It is about five minutes, so not very long.  But 100m or so is steeply uphill.

I  rented the 12.5″ Portaball reflector and a pad.  The pad has supplied power for imaging.  Here it is:


My travel imaging rig is near the front of the pad and the scope sits on an EQ platform.  The photo is taken looking up the Hurtado Valley.  The rest of the inn’s scopes and observatories are behind me.

The inn also has numerous trails, offers tours to Cerro Tololo observatory, horseback riding, 4×4 tours, etc.  There is a river you can swim in if you’re made of whale fat.  I mostly lay in the hammock.  They keep hens, horses and goats and the list of fruit that grows on the grounds includes, but is not limited to: avocados, figs, plums, apples and blueberries.  They make a plum juice that is incredible.

I have not been paid to write this post.  It was just that nice.

The sky was clear all three nights.  I was up until 0500 the first night and 0430 the second.  I probably shouldn’t have rented the scope for the third night as I was pretty beat.  On the other hand, even if all I did was re-visit my favorite objects from the first two nights, it was worht it.  The sky is very dark though the seeing was poor to decent, never good.  Some of the guys there to image complained about little things, “not as good as last night”, “sky glow”, “dusty” etc.  I mean, the second night was clearly better than the other two, in terms of conditions, but none of us are from a place where any of the three nights EVER happens.  Seems to me if you travel that far to see the sky, you don’t let the fact that it’s not perfect hamper you.  C’est la vie.

The only clouds I saw.


The ice cold Rio Hurtado.IMG_5893

I managed to get to sleep by 0200 on my last night and slept until 0930.  I was packed ready to go by 1100 and slammed enough plum juice and coffee to float home.  That was mistake #3.  Mistake #4 was deciding I needed to “finish” the liquid I’d bought at Unimarc.  Mistake #5 was taking a populated route back.  The “good” way back is populated, unlike the road from Vicuna.  So, about 10 miles in, when I badly needed a bathroom, I couldn’t just pull off to the side.  It’s wide open on a hill.  There is no shoulder.  There are no trees.  A ways down the road, I pulled off what looked like a little dirt alley with a big tree.  I made use of the tree.  As I came back out, a car whistled by me, honking.  When I got back in the car, Google Maps was going crazy and had re-routed me.  My arrival time was now just 30 minutes before my flight.

I fought the panic and wheeled back out on the paved road.  I drove too fast for a bit and pulled over to check.  My arrival time was now back to two hours before my flight.  What had happened, I realized, is that the dirt alley was a highway.  I basically pulled off an interstate and took a leak in the center of the access road.  I just got lucky no one came by until I was done.

I stopped several more times, discovering that porta-johns are plentiful on the side of the road.  I believe this to be the Chilean version of a rest area.  I was grateful.  The drive itself would have been incredible had I not done the much more amazing drive from Vicuna several days before.

At the airport, I discovered a sign that fit the day.  No, I don’t know what it is really for.


I’ll post observing notes and astroimages down the road for those interested.







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