Practical hints for DES observers

Adapted from an email document prepared by Kathy Romer.

1. Things to do a month or so in advance

  • Make your travel arrangements as early as possible, following instructions in the confirmation email sent by the desops manager.
  • Your schedule permitting, consider giving a talk about your research: CTIO Colloquia

4. Things to do before you leave home

  • Read some of the documentation related to your DES role available from the redmine operations wiki (don't expect much of it to make sense, but by being familiar with some of it will make things easier when you start). Good places to start are the Overview of Daily Playbook and the Observer 2 Role Description pages.
  • Arrange (by email) with your run manager a time to meet on your first day. The default is to find them in the lunch hall at 1pm.
  • Warn your bank that you are traveling to Chile, otherwise they might stop your card (credit cards also)!

5. Things to be aware of when in Santiago airport

  • Ignore the "connecting passenger" signs, they refer to people connecting to flights outside Chile, i.e. go direct to immigration.
  • Citizens of the EU, and Brazil: ignore the queues to pay entry fees.
  • The queue for immigration can be long (over an hour), you might want to go to the loo before joining it.
  • The arrivals form didn't ask for the flight number, but the immigration officer might want to know it, so have that handy when you get to passport control.
  • After you get your bag, you hand in the customs form, go through customs (this includes a bag scan and possible search). Make sure you tick the X saying you are bringing food unless you are 100% sure you have nothing with you, including snacks you brought for the flight.
  • After leaving customs, you enter a crazy hall jammed packed with people meeting relatives or touting for taxi business.
  • If you are going to La Serena the same day: barge through the crowds and head for the glass lifts (only 2 for the whole airport, so its a bit chaotic).
  • You might want to get out some Chilean money before taking the lifts (the cash dispensers are nearby). Its roughly 1.2K pesos to the pound. Most places take cards, but you need cash for taxis. Oh, and make sure you warn your bank that you are traveling, otherwise they might stop your card (credit cards also)!
  • Take the glass lifts upstairs (it is only signed for international departures, but it is for both). Turn right and walk almost the whole way along the hall to LAN domestic check-in. You might already have a boarding pass and a luggage tag, so all they will do is take the bag off you. You then continue in the same direction to domestic departures, it's all pretty straight forward.
  • In domestic departures there are quite a few cafe's with free wifi, but you might have to ask for the password. It is a good idea to eat in Santiago, if you have time, because you will be taken directly from La Serena airport to the AURA compound (Recinto) and there are no cafe's there.
  • It might be a good idea to grab a bag of pre-ground coffee (not coffee beans, I didn't see a grinder on the mountain top) in the Santiago airport to take with you to the mountain top. There is a starbucks in the domestic terminal where you wait to board for the flight to La Serena. There are coffee/espresso machines in the control room, but sometimes only instant coffee -- From a regretting observer.

2. Things you definitely need to pack

  • A bright torch: it doesn't need to be big, and its best if it is small enough to fit in your pocket and can be attached to a key ring. If you are on the mountain more than a week, bringing spare batteries would be sensible.
  • Power adaptors: at CTIO, and in the compound at La Serena, the power is on the US system. In the rest of Chile it is on the European system.
  • If taking a laptop: an ethernet dongle (if you have a Mac air or similar - although there is wifi in various locations, so its certainly not necessary), and a back pack (briefcases would be awkward to carry up to the summit).
  • A hoodie/fleece to wear when observing (its very warm, even on the mountain top at night, but when you are tired you will feel the cold more).
  • T-shirts: its hard to pack for summer when you are starting off in winter, but pack t-shirts even if that seems counter intuitive. Take at least one t-shirt with your Uni name - your department will appreciate a photo of you in it to use on its webpages.
  • Coat, gloves, hat (if you don't need one when you leave home, you will probably need one at the mountain, and vice versa!).
  • High factor suncream; sunglasses; aftersun (especially if you are the sort of person who forgets to put on suncream); possibly also a sunhat, the UV index is very high.
  • Lip balm; moisturizer
  • Sensible shoes - e.g. trainers, for walking up and down between the telescope and the accommodation - the ground is stony and steep and there are biting bugs in the scrub. If you are going to be here over a week, consider your fellow observers, i.e. take another pair, so you can rotate (your feet do get sweaty on planes and walking to/from the summit).

3. Things you might want to pack

  • Food: chocolate bars; your favorite ground coffee/tea; other dry treats (your favourite biscuits or cereal). Don't bring anything fresh or with a moisture content (e.g. cheese). You won't need more than you'd usually use of any such item in a day, and probably less (since there is food and drink a plenty on the mountain). You MUST tick the food to declare box on the customs form, but you don't need to list what you have brought on that form. If everything is dry then your bag probably won't be looked into. If it is, and they end up confiscating something, don't argue, just apologise sweetly. Everything must be in original, sealed packages - i.e. don't take 20 tea bags from the box at home, buy a new package of 40. If you take fruit for the journey, dispose of it before you get to the customs hall, in fact its best to leave it behind on the plane.
  • Binoculars for star gazing (the sky is lovely enough without magnification, so its probably unnecessary unless there is a comet up).
  • Basic medicines/first aid: paracetomol and ibuprofen - headaches are common at altitude and when working nights; Rennie (sleep disruption, and travel stress can lead to indigestion); a few plasters (switching from winter shoes to sandals at La Serena beach can give your winter softened feet a blister). If you are prone to certain ailments (sore throats, nausea, diarrhea etc.) then take medicines for those just in case - but I don't think its necessary to plan for ailments you don't normally get (otherwise you'll end up with a bag of stuff you won't use when here or when you get home). I haven't seen any flying biting insects, such as mosquito's, but it might be worth bringing something to treat bites just in case. Oh and there are jelly fish in the water at La Serena: lots of families had young kids in the water, so it can't be too dangerous, but be aware of where you are paddling! Finally, a small hand sanitiser would be a good idea for traveling and the mountain top. There is a first aid station on the mountain if you have unexpected, or serious, medical problems.
  • One smart(ish) outfit: its fine to wear casual, even scruffy, clothes on the mountain and when doing tourist stuff. But you might well want to go out for a nice meal (or even dancing!) in La Serena, and people in Chile tend to be better dressed than in UK or US. That said, its not formal in La Serena (its a beach resort), so nice jeans would be fine. Posh restaurants in Santiago might be more fussy, but you probably can't afford to eat in those!
  • Some downloaded movies/tv shows: there may be some times, especially in La Serena, when you are on your own and don't want to go out, so having a film to watch will make it feel a bit less lonely.
  • Music: It seems like the old days of having music on the stereo in the control room are gone. You can still listen to your own music, but use headphones that allow you to listen with only one ear (i.e. not Dr Dre's!) are a good compromise, since you have to be able to hear instructions in the control room.
  • Toiletries: There is nice soap and basic shampoo in the CTIO motel. But that's it.
  • Laundry powder/tabs: There is a washer/drier set there and washing powder is usually available, but sometimes there isn't any. If you are going for a length of time and will definitely need to do laundry, it might worth taking some with you.

6. Things to be aware of in La Serena

  • If your bag does not arrive the CTIO taxi driver will help you sort out lost luggage forms. But it likely will take several days to get to you if it needs to be sent up to the mountain after you leave La Serena -- so take spare underwear and a t-shirt in hand baggage.
  • If staying on the Recinto: it is a pleasant, peaceful place, with flowers and humming birds, but rather dull and deserted. The motel is adequate (you can get a good night's sleep), but a bit dated. Take quick showers, because there isn't a lot of hot water, especially in the afternoon.
  • If you have come off an overnight flight, and aren't hungry when you arrive, it'd be worth having a rest for a couple of hours, so you have a bit of energy to explore the town in the late afternoon and have dinner in the evening. Don't expect to to be able to stay awake past 10pm local time (1am UK time), earlier if you didn't get much sleep on the plane.
  • If staying on the Recinto: basic food is provided in the motel kitchen/living room, but is limited to bread, eggs, water, milk, cereal, jam, tea, coffee. There is a hob, with pans, and basic cooking utensils. Its OK for a quick breakfast, but for lunch/dinner most people go to restaurants and/or get stuff in supermarkets (both being at least a 20 minute walk and its up hill on the way back). People leave stuff behind, so you'll find oil, spices etc that are not provided by AURA. The fridge is also full of random stuff, that people have left. You have no idea how long stuff has been hanging around (or if the owner is still around and planning to use it). The kitchen is tidy, although not top hygiene rating.
  • If staying on the Recinto: you can ask at reception to order taxi's, or - if closed - at the guard posts to take you to restaurants. Don't expect instant taxi arrival (I waited ~30 minutes for a pick up to go to
    dinner). If there are other observers staying at the motel they will probably be very happy to go out for dinner with you, so don't be afraid to ask them if you bump into anyone (problem is that you don't tend to bump into people because they stay holed in their rooms on the wifi...). If you do end up being on your own for dinner, don't be worried about that. La Serena is very friendly and very safe, although take usual precautions (don't leave bags where people can grab them and be especially careful with your passport - if you are staying at the Recinto, the safest place for your passport is in your motel room - the Recinto is protected by high fences and guards).
  • If staying on the Recinto: the CTIO taxi drivers are excellent, but others in town might not recognize the name CTIO or AURA. If you tell them its at Huanhuali and Juan Cisternas, they will know.
    There are some Spanish instructions on the CTIO webpage that you could print off. Also take the map (giving to you when you get to the Recinto) when leaving the compound in case you need to show it to
    a taxi driver (also helps you not get lost when walking).
  • If staying in a hotel: You have the advantage being closer to shops and restaurants and beach, but disadvantage of being further from the shuttle bus to the mountain. You'll need to get a taxi up to the Recinto to get to the carry all to the mountain and it'd be worth asking CTIO to book that for you. People usually suggests the La Serena Beach Resort.
  • La Serena old town is good to wander about in for an hour or so. Old churches, small streets etc. The craft market (La Recova; marked on the AURA map) is interesting to wander about and has nice stuff to buy over a wide price range. Most stalls are market style, but there are some tiny indoor shops too that are worth exploring.
  • La Serena town beach is about a mile further one from the old town and its not particularly a pleasant walk (not unpleasant either). Once there you can paddle, see the old light house, visit a beach front cafe or rent some surf kit. Worth going to that area if you are short of time and that is going to be your only view of the Pacific, but if you have more time take a taxi to:
    La Serena north beach: more modern, more developed, more amenities (clubs, shops, restaurants), nicer sand, better people watching. You will need to taxi's (about £10 each way from Recinto). Phil and Kathy recommend dinner at sunset at Bakulic Beach (on the list given to you by AURA).
  • Whatever you do, you must have a Pisco Sour on your first day. I've never met anyone who doesn't like them, and even if you end up not liking it, then you still have to say you've tried! If you want to dance all night, then ask Phil and Lyndsay about that (not a good plan if you have an 8am start the next day!).
  • If you have two ore more days in La Serena: book a day trip to the Isla Damas to see amazing wildlife - ask Phil Rooney or James Etherington if you want info on how to do that. If you're feeling a bit adventurous and/or are on a budget, there is also a regular bus leaving daily at ~8:45 in front of the chinese restaurant 'Xin Pao Tang', 328 Francisco de Aguirre. It takes you to Punto Chorros, from which you can easily catch a boat to tour Isla Damas and the penguins.

7. Things to be aware of at Cerro Tololo

  • The rooms and bathrooms are much nicer than La Serena. You have a balcony with a fabulous view. There is plenty of hot water and (unlike ESO) you can even take a bath.
  • There is an excellent washer and drier (you can do a big load from start to finish in an hour and a half) - so don't take loads of clothes with you.
  • Only the rooms closest to the dining hall have wireless, for the rest you'll be on a cable.
  • Mobile signal is poor; texts do get out/in especially in the dining hall (not at all inside the dome - a big metal box!), and you'd not be able to have a conversation on your mobile.
  • The food is fine, but there are limited options for vegetarians. It is expensive, so don't expect to be getting value for money (especially if you are a veggie). There is coffee and tea in the cafeteria (and you can make your own in the kitchen at the telescope). The fruit juice (as is the case everywhere in Chile) is full of sugar, but the free coke etc. is good.
  • Unless you don't mind walking up and down the mountain a lot, one person in the observing team needs a car (but not everyone), which you can rent on the mountain. If you end up driving, be very careful, two DES:UK observers have had minor car accidents on the mountain already. Practice the drive down several times in day light before you have to do it at night (hazard lights only - no head/side lights). Walking up and/or down once a day is good for the heart and soul, but you cannot walk down when its dark without a good light.
  • This rather hard to find document contains some useful stuff written by CTIO (esp. p6+) that is not included on the webpage guide:
    It mentions poisonous spiders and that has caused understandable concern amongst many DES:UK observers. Check out the image of the spider in question so you know what to worry about. If you think there is one in your room, don't fret over it for days, ask for it to be removed. When I went, I saw none. When Marisa and Lyndsay went in early 2013, they saw loads.