Santiago: Fancy some astro-tourism? Head for northern Chile, where contemplating the night skies is not just a casual pastime, but a protected pursuit.
Earlier this month, the curiously-named International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) announced that a swath of northern Chile's Elqui Valley, a wine-growing region some 400 km north of the Chilean capital Santiago, "has been recognised and designated as the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world", Xinhua reported.
The designation aims to preserve the area as an example of "how the world appeared before the introduction of electric lighting," according to the Tucson, Arizona-based organisation.
While electricity has been a big boon to civilisation, it is a nuisance to serious and amateur astronomers alike, who seek remote, barely inhabited corners of the globe, like northern Chile, that are relatively free of light pollution emitted by street lamps, homes and other lit-up fixtures of urban life.
What northern Chile lacks in human presence, it makes up for in astronomical observatories.
More than 40 percent of the world's telescopes are stationed here, and that number is expected to grow to 70 percent by 2018 as ever larger facilities are built to provide a closer look at Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and even the Black Hole at the centre of our universe.
The darker the sky, the easier it is to detect the satellites, planets, comets and other celestial bodies shining above. But it's not just the lack of people and their addiction to electricity that makes northern Chile optimal for contemplating the heavens.
"The northern skies of the desert are ideal for observation, because there are nearly 300 clear days a year," says Silvia Lisoni, a professor of history and geography at the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC) of Chile who founded Turismo Sol del Desierto, an agency that provides specialised astronomical tours.
"In addition, Chile has policies in place to encourage astronomy," said Lisoni.
Chile's OPCC, or Office for the Protection of the Quality of the Sky in Northern Chile, for example, works to ensure that outdoor light fixtures focus light downwards, where it is needed and does not interfere with the area's pristine viewing conditions.
Chile's tourism ministry, meanwhile, promotes astro-tourism via a string of astronomical observatories that cater exclusively to tourists.