We missed out on spectacular stargazing in the Atacama Desert due to a full moon and cloudy nights, so we were sure to take advantage of it upon arriving in the Maipo Valley near Santiago. This is a one-of-a-kind experience. "Pailalen," in Mapundungun (the Mapuche language) means "lying down looking up at the stars." Beautiful name, beautiful experience. The Gatica family has created a memorable experience. Every Friday and Saturday night (summer is best for the sky and temperature) they offer a tour and optional dinner at their observatory in San Alfonso del Maipo. The tour is from 11:30PM-2AM, and the a la carte dinner arrival time is after 9:30. The dining room is lovely, with a huge domed ceiling on which they project photos of the stars and galaxies. Breathtaking. The food is natural, novel, and extremely gourmet, even for us. Best to not go starving because the portions are small and pricey, but the ingredients, preparation, and flavors were (pardon the pun) out of this world. After a tasty, complimentary appetizer of sesame bread sticks dipped in marmalade and a mixture of colorful, vegetable-flavored bread crumbs, we ordered Aries, a light lamb quenelle-type dish with a beet accompaniment and a dal, yogurt, lemon grass combination. $50 but well worth the delightful experience. (Tour is $30 each). I would suggest some celestial, New Age background music to make it even more star-like. Then we gathered for the hour-and-a-half tour (about 30 of us). It started with a video of the history of astronomy and humankind (interesting but Spanish was very rapid for non-natives). Then we were offered wine, coffee, or hot chocolate on the spacious terrace. The three astronomer guides were very knowledgeable. They gave us a fabulous orientation to the Southern Hemisphere night sky with audience participation. The last part was a guided experience to look through four different telescopes, the last in the observatory itself. I learned a lot, the setting is gorgeous, and I wouldn't have missed it. They are planning a 12-room, theme luxury hotel on the premises. Whether or not you go for dinner (hey, why not?), don't miss the tour. And if you can plan your visit, pick a new moon and hope for a magnificent clear sky like we enjoyed. There were lots of couples, but, as long as your kids can stay up late and, especially if they understand Spanish, they would love it as well.
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