“Watch out for zombies!”

Having come to the decision that since the VLT didn’t spontaneously burst into flames nor  took pretty pictures of the floor I should be alright around other telescopes, I was taken up to ESO’s other (and original) observatory – Cerro La Silla – for 10 days.

La silla at La Silla!

Yeah… “La silla” means “chair” in Spanish. No, I have no idea why they named the observatory that, either. Anyway, due to amazing transport organisation, this trip involved 5 nights observing and 5 nights, well… not. So the weekend before the run started, we left at the crack of dawn again to board our LAN flight to the coastal town of La Serena (where my favourite drunken Irishman, who I met on La Palma, now resides as of 8th March!). I don’t do mornings. I think I spent a good 5 minutes in a back-and-forth exchange with the steward offering refreshments (“…We don’t have coffee. What do you want?” “Coffee!”  “But we don’t have coffee” OK. I’ll have a coffee”, etc.), and got unnecessarily excited by the fact they’ve changed their biscuits.

Eugh, far too early...

So a 1hr 10min flight and 2.5 hour bus ride later, we pull into the observatory. And what a difference to Paranal! Both have their one-ups over the other, so I think there’s only one way to decide which one wins in my books… FIGHT!!

Round 1: The Observatory

Already, just the mere drive to La Silla is more interesting than the drive to Paranal from the relevant airports. For one, having lived in the Canary Isles for 12 months I get withdrawal if I don’t see the sea for a while – so it was nice to have that along one side as we made our way, as opposed to yet more sand dunes that, although very pretty to look at, do tend to get a little “samey” after 2 hours…

I see the sea!

The observatory itself reminds me more of that on La Palma than of Paranal – an undulating site, scattered with telescope domes of all shapes and sizes amidst low shrubs , a little humidity, and actual living creatures (Paranal is far too dead and desertified to see anything interesting other than sand and sleep-deprived scientists). Out of the ~19 domes on site 12 of them are sadly no longer in use, giving the whole thing a feel of some sort of apocalyptic ghost town – which is what gives it so much appeal! The telescopes no longer in use are:

  • 1.4m CAT
  • 1m Schmidt
  • 50cm ESO
  • 1.52m ESO
  • 1m ESO
  • 15m SEST
  • Grand Prism Objectif GPO
  • 90cm Dutch (National telescope)
  • 50cm Danish (National telescope)
  • Marseille 40 cm (National telescope)
  • Bochum 61cm (National telescope)
  • Marly 1m

Some of the domes have even had the telescopes removed entirely. Apart from a 1.0m telescope having been donated to a Santiago-based university, any other ‘scopes have just been left sitting there – a massive, massive shame, when they would be prime candidates for training budding new astronomers. In the meantime, one of my favourite things to do up there was simply just to walk around all these amazing buildings up close, enjoying the surrounding mountains and the peace and quiet (how artsy of me). The fact you can walk from your room to a cool telescope in just a few minutes is fab  – a simple pleasure that is just not doable in the same way at Paranal…

Two such abandoned telescopes - The 50cm Danish and 50cm ESO

Of the telescopes that are still very much in operation, they are split between those run by ESO, and those run by other countries. So ESO operate the New Technology Telescope (NTT), the ESO 3.6m Telescope and the 2.2m MPG-ESO Telescope.

Sunset pink... The 3.6m with the CAT in the background, and a robotic telescope in the foreground

Non-ESO-owned telescopes on site are national/project telescopes: the 1.54-m Danish Telescope, the 1.2-m Euler Telescope (the sister telescope of La Palma’s Mercator Telescope), the Rapid Eye Mount Telescope and the TAROT Telescope.

Astronomical ghost town... Love it!

Winner: La Silla. Although Paranal is very impressive to look at, La Silla’s ‘La Palma’ qualities and variation in telescopes around the site make it far more interesting and gives me more of a homely feel – as opposed to the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ feel Paranal gives me. 

Round 2: VLT vs. NTT

The control rooms of the VLT and NTT have similar set-ups – both are centralised in a separate building, and not within the telescope housing itself (which kinda takes away half the fun if you ask me… Nothing like feeling the elements as you can at the 1.9m in South Africa, or watching a solifuge [don’t click if you’re arachnophobic! It was hard enough for me to create the link!]  run up the leg of a friend as you can at the 50cm Mons on Tenerife), giving a sort of ‘observer solidarity’ as you all sit there looking increasingly zombified as the hours drag on. So nothing exciting there – fairly plain rooms with computers and the kettle constantly going for coffee top-ups.

You are offered a “night lunch” at all telescopes (that I know of), which is basically just another meal in the middle of the night. Now this can certainly vary. After the night lunch in South Africa consisting of 2 weeks of 1-flake-tuna and cheese toasties, I pretty much had no expectations in either place. At the VLT, you can choose from either hot food to be delivered to the control room or sandwiches/yogurt, etc. On top of this, some snacky items are also delivered (we had sushi when we were there last May). I’ve never had the hot food option, but the sandwiches are fairly dire… Mostly due to the fact they sit in the fridge for several hours, and are therefore pretty dry and inedible by the time 1am comes.  MMMMMM! At the NTT, you go back to the actual dining hall for your dinner, which makes a nice change of scene. But again, the food sits there for quite a few hours. And you have to look out for tarantulas on the way. *Shudder*

The telescopes themselves offer very different experiences. Both are incredibly impressive to look at standing underneath them just due to the sheer size of the domes, and (as any decent astronomer would) you can’t help but give a little squeak of excitement as they start to rotate. Inside the VLT dome, it’s almost cavernous (even accounting for the ginormous telescope inside); the NTT is a little more ‘snug’, with both instruments being Nasmyth-focus and situated in a wall-space between the telescope and the outside wall of the dome.

Towering above me...

The NTT, Moon, Venus and Jupiter

Instrument in between the walls!

The bottom of the telescope

The primary mirror... Shiny!

"Keep the pointy end up"

Winner: VLT. Four for the price of one. The NTT looks like a grain silo from the outside. Plus watching the VLT open, run checks and get ready to observe from inside the dome is an experience I won’t forget for a long time – incredible! 

Round 3: The Residencia

At La Silla, the main building and the rooms are separated on the site… Which did mean that I would run in blind panic from one to the other in the dark for fear of getting a tarantula up my trouser leg, but what can you do? Just as with the telescopes, some of the accommodation buildings to the south of the site are equally as abandoned, giving that part of the observatory a (for all you ‘Lost’ fans) “Dharma Initiative” feel… The accommodation seems to be – shall we say – varied in age! Whereas I was lucky enough to get one of the evidently recently-updated rooms complete with double bed, desk and fridge, Dave ended up in some horrific-looking 60s throwback complete with wood paneling on the walls. Ha! The buildings the rooms are contained in look fairly portakabin-esque from the outside, but (as the tremor we felt testified to) were far more sturdy. Oh, and the view from the window was ok, I guess 😉

I've had worse views...


Mmmmm, pretty...

The slightly less-loved, more-creepy version

The main ‘hotel’ (as they call the main building) includes a lovely little courtyard containing seating areas, a fountain, and the resident dog, Princesa (who is about a million years old, and whose origins are unknown). Inside we have the main restaurant, a meeting room, a library, a games room, and a cinema room. Again, with the resemblance being closer to the ORM on La Palma than to Paranal, there was a kind of homely feel to it… and with some poor astronomers being stuck up there for 3/4 weeks at a time, I guess it has to have!

In the courtyard

ESO woof

I'm pretty sure I've been to a cinema in Aarhus, DK, that's exactly the same size! (Minus Julie to shout at people)

Winner: La Silla. I do love the Paranal residencia, but again the slight “rough around the edges” thing La Silla has going is what makes it so interesting!The only thing missing from La Silla is the swimming pool 😉 But I spent  a very comfortable 10 days there, nonetheless. Paranal may have won if I’d ended up in a room with wood paneling though. That is just never acceptable.

Round 4: The Surroundings

Paranal is as dead as the dodo, and there is life on La Silla! On top of Princesa the dog and the usual array of lizards, I got to see these guys up close:

Foxy lady

Breakfast partner


As mentioned earlier, the surroundings are really pretty, looking almost like a painting with the variation in colour across the mountains…

The hills and the moon make one pretty view

The surrounding area is great for disappearing off hiking for a few hours. The first weekend there, Dave, Henri and I went off on a 3 hour walk in search of the petroglyphs known to be dotted around the site – markings on the rocks made by indigenous Chileans many moons ago:


The old and the ancient


Spot the fake!

You could potentially walk around the mountains for all eternity looking for these petroglyphs. So after a couple of hours of wandering around doing just that, we could choose to either head back to the observatory or carry on, at which point Henri poses the question to me, with the remark: “Make a decision. It’s the only one you’ll get to make as a student.” – lucky for me that I’m a born follower and not a leader, then! 😉

The second weekend, we walked up to the cerro Las Viscachas. Another round trip of a few hours, the original plan was to be at the top for sunset and walk back afterwards, but after having listened to concerns from Henri about the possibility of getting attacked by zombies if we walked back in the dark (“If you come back in the dark, it’ll be too late…” “To late for what?” “To be alive!”. Think the heat must have been getting to him by this point…), we decided to go a little earlier. Turns out that trying to imply a zombie-related death was Henri’s way of saying “please go earlier so that I can run there and meet you at the top carrying my water and sunlotion”. (the depressing part was when Henri ‘The Gazelle’ Boffin left an hour after us and arrived at the top at the same time… In heat and at altitude… Hardcore!) So that’s what we did. I was certainly well-walked by the end of the whole trip. But again, something as enjoyable as that is just not doable from Paranal. So…

Winner: La Silla. No contest. 🙂

Round 5: The Sunsets

Oh. My. Goodness. Not only does La Silla blow Paranal out of the water sunset-wise, but it quite possibly claims ownership to some of the prettiest sunsets I’ve ever seen. Not to mention I saw my very first, enigmatic green flash! As the sun goes down, the observatory  and surrounding mountains become bathed in orange and pink before giving way to a perfectly clear, star-filled sky. Stunning.

Astronomers in the sunset

SEST awash in orange

Sunset on the way back from cerro Las Viscachas

Twilight. Next to the VLT overlooking the rest of the observatory

Winner: La Silla. I watched the sunset 10 nights in a row – not once did I get bored. My only regret is not having better photography skills to capture it all properly!

Final Score: La Silla, 4 — 1, Paranal 

– A clear winner, there. Here’s hoping I’ll get the opportunity to go back there in the coming years. However, in the meantime, I have an observing run to Mexico to arrange flights for… 😉

Hasta la proxima,


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