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Astronomers, tourists turn eyes to the skies in Colombia’s La Tatacoa desert

Fotografía del 25 de septiembre de 2018 del director del Observatorio Astronómico de La Tatacoa, Guillermo García, durante una charla en el desierto de La Tatacoa, en el departamento de Huila (Colombia). Descubrir los secretos del Universo es una fascinación que atrae a turistas y expertos al Desierto de La Tatacoa, un lugar de Colombia en el que pareciera que los ojos del mundo están puestos en el cielo. EFE

La Tatacoa Desert, Colombia, Sep 30 (EFE).- Discovering the secrets of the Universe is a fascinating task that is attracting tourists and experts to Colombia’s La Tatacoa Desert, where visitors are turning their eyes to the skies.

The area in southern Colombia, which consists of a dry tropical forest some 370 square kilometers (142 square miles) in size with an average temperature of 40 C (104 F), is the site for a project running for several years now that seeks to familiarize the public with “space terms” such as Milky Way, galaxies, stars, planets, satellites, asteroids and comets.

“Currently, our task is to spread the word about basic astronomy, research on the behavior of the Heavens and the weather and number of clear nights,” the head of the La Tatacoa Astronomical Observatory, Guillermo Garcia, told EFE.

Despite the fact that the site was opened to the public in 2000, only in 2016 did it really begin to take off as an international tourist destination for science lovers studying the characteristics, location and behavior of the stars.

To help educate the public, the project launched by Huila provincial authorities and the municipality of Villavieja to invest 22 billion pesos (about $7.4 million) in transforming the observatory into a so-called “Garden of Astronomy.”

The initiative, Garcia said, “includes building a complex to (learn about) paleontology, astronomy and astronautics.”

Fotografía del 25 de septiembre de 2018 de turistas en el observatorio astronómico del desierto de La Tatacoa, en el departamento de Huila (Colombia). Descubrir los secretos del Universo es una fascinación que atrae a turistas y expertos al Desierto de La Tatacoa, un lugar de Colombia en el que pareciera que los ojos del mundo están puestos en el cielo. EFE

As a first step, authorities held the La Tatacoa Astronomical Tourism Festival in August, which attracted 4,000 people to enjoy concerts, camping, observing the night sky through telescopes and chats with astronomers.

In addition, thanks to the work of the Trade, Industry and Tourism Ministry and Colombia’s National Tourism Fund (Fontur), in the past two years, some 160,000 visitors have come to the desert, of which 50,000 have visited the observatory.

So far, tourists have arrived from all over Colombia, as well as from Holland, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Australia and Japan, along with other countries.

The observatory sessions cost $3.30 per person and begin at 7 pm.

First, attendees are told that to navigate the skies one must find basic reference points, and of course determine which way is north.

Then, visitors – most of whom are not astronomers and don’t know much about math or physics – begin to identify the planets, learn how to locate them in the sky and recognize the constellations.

The kids in the crowd can play with laser-swords, like in “Star Wars,” all in an effort to get them thinking about space and to make learning more about it a dream of theirs, said Garcia.

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