El Leoncito

Before coming to Parque Nacional El Leoncito we read about this little park and talked to fellow travelers. However, we where not prepared for this green oasis that we found. Feedback we had was mixed and the main reason for visiting are the observatories located here. To prevent any distortion through other light sources close by is also why they have established a Parque Nacional. Some travelers told us to go and visit other sites in Chile. We are glad we stopped here and it seems other long terms travelers had the same idea. Initially we thought we would only stay one night but decided immediately to stay two nights after we saw this beautiful spot.


Within the park there are a few observatories. Two of them are open for visitors and no pre-booking is needed during the day. The CASLEO (Complejo Astronomico El Leoncito) observatory is the bigger of the two located at 2500 m on top of one of the mountains. The main telescope weighs 40 tonnes and its mirror comes to 2.15 m in diameter. Pretty impressive when you stand directly next to it. The CESCO observatory is much smaller. First we visit CASLEO where we are part of a large group with a fast Spanish speaking guide. We got only limited information despite the fact that our Spanish got better. Still a long way to go though. In the afternoon we visit CESCO and here we get a much better, more friendly and really funny guide. He speaks much slower as it was on the two of us at the time and he realizes that Spanish is not our native language. As a result we understand much more again and even some of the jokes he is making. It’s really worth while to visit both as they are very different.

During the day there is nothing to see apart from the observatories and the equipment itself. In the evening however you can visit both of them again for watching the stars. If you want to go on a night tour at CASLEO you need to book this in advance. It is not possible to do this on site. For CESCO however, you can sign up on the spot which is what we do on the first evening. We arrive around 9 pm at the entrance. It was again a very nice day with great weather. Towards the evening however more and more clouds develop. At the rangers office we want to pay the 50 ARS per person but the guide is not sure if the tour will actually take place because of the clouds. He asks everybody to wait with the payment until it is clear that we can go ahead. Luckily the clouds vanish completely and at 9.30 pm we pay and the tour can begin. In fact it turns out to be a perfect night as there is no moon either that is producing some extra light.


We drive up to platform where they have placed a number of professional telescopes. You can’t go into the observatories because there you can’t really see anything. Everything is computer controlled and the days are long gone where people do most of the work besides just programming what the telescopes should do.


For us this is the first time that we watch the stars with such telescopes. We start with what just looks a small dot next to the small Magellan nebula in the dark sky. Through the telescope you see that in fact it is not only one but a cluster of million of stars. Switching from spot to spot on the sky is done by the computer even on those smaller telescopes. The guide just enters the next coordinates, in this case the Centaurus Omega Nebula, and automatically it turns around and focuses on the right spot in the sky. With a bit of imagination here you can actually make out what looks like a Tarantula. We also look at another nebula close to the belt of the Orion which shines in different colors. At the end and for us the most impressive view is seeing Jupiter and two of its moons. There would be much more we would have liked to see but time is over. In summary it was well worth doing this. We really enjoyed this new experience. They also explained to use how to use the Cruz del Sur to navigate. Sailors are doing this for centuries and you never know when this can be useful for us. ;-)

One of the things we really did not do as much as we anticipated so far is hiking. We just did a few walks around Laguna Diamante. As we are staying for two nights we use the second day for a longer hike. There are some shorter walks which we did already on the first day. The hike to the Cerro Leoncito at 2519 meter however is somewhat longer. As not a lot of people do this we inform the guardaparque before we leave in the morning. We walk through a region that has a semi-desert climate and come across a few big cactus. We also have a pretty nice view of the Andes in the distance with their white summits. You can also see the green stripe which is the green oasis in the middle of this semi-desert area. Only where the river runs through and provides the needed water to the plants there is something growing.


The walk itself is a nice change after spending a lot of time in the car going over rough roads. Exploring nature by hiking is much better and more rewarding. After a bit more than two hours we are almost back at the office of the guardaparque. We make a short side trip to the Cascade El Rincon, a small waterfall close by. The perfect place to get a shower or a bath after a few hours of hiking through the heat. Luckily it is only us with nobody else around so we wash off the dust and sweat. The water is a bit chilly but really refreshing after all.


The camp site has no facilities but there are toilets in the visitor centre close by and you can also use the showers of the guardaparque if you want. While not a lot of tourists are around there are three expedition cars, two from France and one from Switzerland. They like it here because not only is it a beautiful spot camping is for free as well. On the second day a big truck with a couple from the Netherlands show up as well. They need to park a bit away as they can’t pass over the small wooden bridge to the camp sites.


All of them are really friendly and relaxed. We get a long with them quite well and exchange the latest informations about closed roads and places to visit. The two guys from Switzerland - Jean-Pierre and Adrian - are on the road for a decade already without ever visiting their home country and have great stories to tell and information to share. We seem to have the same direction but on the second morning as we wake up they are gone already.


The next morning we pack our stuff and hit the road again. While not spectacular compared to other places we have been it is a very peaceful place that invites you to stay for a few days and just relax.

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