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In Search of Flying Saucers

UFO buffs tout Chile as hotspot for close encounters: Tim Vandenack investigates.

It was just another normal day in Paihuano when locals say the bright, shiny object crashed into the mount just outside the small north central Chile town.

“I was here working in my office when they came in and said something was on top of the hill,” Lorenzo Torres, the Paihuano mayor, told me. He grabbed his binoculars and darted out to investigate, but to this day can’t exactly say what caused the luster that October day back in 1998.

The day after, whatever it was mysteriously disappeared. But speculation was already rampant that a flying saucer had crash landed and higher ups, following orders from military chiefs in Santiago, the capital of the skinny South American nation, had tip-toed off with the evidence during the night.

“Townsfolk have no idea what it was, but it’s theorized it must have been some craft from another planet, extra-terrestrials, an unidentified flying object,” said Torres.

Roswell, New Mexico, it ain’t. But the incident caused a stir among locals, not to mention the press and Chile’s squadron of self-styled ufologists. To this day, many claim something out of the ordinary occurred and that the whole truth still isn’t known.

I can’t say I was convinced, looking up at the barren, snow-dusted mount where the thing was spotted. But taken together with the stream of other UFO reports I had regularly digested off the nation’s nightly news programs, the incident had been enough to get me on a bus northward out of the Chilean capital, where I live and work as a freelance journalist.

From the broiling desert of northern Chile to the forests of the south, the nation is a long hotspot for UFO activity, the nation’s ufologists say, rivaling UFO havens Brazil and the United States. Friends and even my postman concurred, telling me in hushed, serious tones of their own saucer sightings, generally weird lights dashing across the sky. I had never really given the UFO question much thought. But now I wanted my own close encounter, was hell-bent on it really.

“It could be that the imagination of Chileans is very fertile,” joked Ricardo Bermudez, a retired Chilean Air Force general and the head of the Anomalous Air Phenomena Studies Committee, or CEFAA, a government body that studies UFO sightings in Chile. “But the cases are there.”

Though hard figures are difficult to come by, Rodrigo Fuenzalida, founder of Chile’s UFO Investigative Team, or AION, said his group receives reports of some 600 sightings a year, though only around 50 turn out to be truly unidentifiable. He said the theories why extra-terrestrials may deign to visit run the gamut. It could be the minerals in Chile’s soil, possible energy sources, or the proximity of handy hiding places like the Andes mountain range and extensive stretches of unpopulated areas. Others point to energy from the Andes’ volcanoes.

Whatever the case, I was off on my own sporadic quest that would take me to supposed flying saucer hot spots, homes of UFO witnesses, offices of local authorities in various communities and, more metaphorically, the depths of my own fascination with the possibility of life outside our planet. I used free time and trips taken to pursue other more mundane writing assignments to look into the matter.

Pre-Hispanic UFO chroniclers?

My first close encounter with the nation’s UFO culture came while visiting the northern city of Arica, a dusty oasis on the fringe of the Atacama Desert near the Peruvian border.

Wondering how to get into town from the Arica airport, I chanced upon Sonia Selgado, the mayor of the rural community of Camarones, a swath of the Atacama Desert cut by a greenish river valley south of Arica. She kindly drove me into Arica, and on the way, told me about some pre-Hispanic rock drawings in Camarones supposedly representing UFOs seen by the locals of yesteryear. UFOs, she explained, are a common thing in the area.

At first, I suppressed a nervous smile, wondering what I had got myself into and when I might be able to make a break for it. Opting not to dive from a moving car, however, I heard her out. Ultimately intrigued by the stories, I eventually made it to the sparsely populated river valley, accompanied by Camarones’ culture and tourism chief, Alvaro Vásquez, who acknowledged officials’ vague notion of developing tourism in the area.

The blazing hot area is an impressive sight, the crops and scattered trees of the valley contrasting the brown, barren moonscape and steeply rising hills on either side. The pre-Hispanic Aymara people who settled the area thrived from around the 11th Century to the 15th Century and were heavily influenced by the Incas. Scattered reminders of one of their communities, located up the road a piece from the main Camarones settlement of today, remain, including the stone bases of a few dwellings and crumbling underground storage bins for corn, one of their chief crops.

But it is the rock etchings I want to see. Boulders, back-breakingly large rocks and other stone chunks are scattered over the barren landscape. Vásquez shows me a drawing on one boulder of a stick figure with a semi-circular line around its head, as if it is wearing some sort of a helmet. It vaguely resembles a robot, if pressed, and that is how locals have interpreted the drawing.

“This breaks the entire scheme because it isn’t the typical (human) figure in the rock drawings,” Vásquez said. That uniqueness has given rise to theories it represents something otherworldly, a space visitor. Other rocks contain llamas and some are etched with circular forms, not stellar representations, it seems, but the supposed flying saucers.

“If I look up, I’m not going to see the sun like this,” Vásquez says, alluding to one of the circles. “And that’s where the field of interpretation begins.”

Vásquez assures me UFO sightings aren’t isolated to the pre-Hispanic era and that modern-day locals constantly report seeing odd things in the wide-open, generally crystal clear skies.

Conversely, Luis Briones, a sharp-tongued, 60-something expert in pre-Hispanic cave drawings, rock etchings and the like at the University of Tarapaca in Arica, expresses a strong dose of skepticism.

“There’s a symbolism that only the rock artists know and recognize,” said the professor, who I had sought out as a counterbalance to the UFO buffs. “They are the only ones who know what the drawings represent.”

He said such drawings are scattered around the world, and suggested that interpreting them in terms of flying saucers is misleading. Go ahead, promote the drawings, he said, alluding to Camarones officials’ dreams of tourism, but do it objectively, don’t sell the area as a hotbed of flying saucer activity when the proof doesn’t necessarily back such a claim.

Despite Briones’ skepticism, Chile’s north is home to some of the most notorious UFO sightings in the nation. At least part of Chile’s abiding interest in the objects stems from an oft-repeated, almost legendary, 1977 incident involving a Chilean Army patrol in the region, says Fuenzalida. The case of the abducted corporal

A group of soldiers on duty at a base near the border with Bolivia and Peru noticed a bright light flying around some nearby hills one night and led by Corp. Armando Valdés, set out to investigate. Nearing the glowing object, but unable to make out what it was, Valdés, the ranking soldier, took matters into his own hands.

“In the name of God, identify yourself,” the frightened corporal shouted. Getting no response, the soldier approached and then disappeared into the light, to the shock of his five comrades.

They searched for a few minutes when Valdés mysteriously dropped to the ground seemingly out of nowhere. He was incoherent, and in his few unaccounted-for minutes, the clean shaven Valdés had sprouted a beard.

Bermudez remained vague, saying CEFAA, the government UFO investigative group, hasn’t looked into the widely reported matter because it occurred before the body started handling inquiries. However, the retired general conceded that military men aren’t apt to fudge the truth.

“All the reports of the uniformed men there coincide with what Valdés said,” said Bermudez. “There was something there. What was it? We haven’t investigated.”

Regardless, the desert isn’t the only supposed UFO hotspot in Chile. In the nation’s midsection, the Elqui Valley, located east of the Pacific beach resort of La Serena, is an apparent reservoir of mystical power and a popular stopover for crystal-wearing energy seekers, drop outs and others avoiding the rat race. Ufologists and most everybody else say flying saucers are also frequent visitors, and, drawn by tales of the supposed Oct. 7, 1998, crash ofsomething, I head to Paihuano.

Paihuano, a sleepy town located amid vineyards and the low-lying fringes of the Andes chain, serves as the government hub for much of the Elqui Valley. Tourists and other visitors, drawn by the tranquility, fresh air and supposed mysterious aura of the area, are more common in nearby Monte Grande, Pisco Elqui and Vicuña, the birthplace of Nobel prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral. But it is Paihuano that made headlines when locals reported seeing the shiny object crash into the mountain top and I wander the town, speaking to anyone willing to discuss the matter, which is most everybody.

Jova Vega, a stout, no-nonsense 54-year-old woman who operates a small grocery store in town, described the form atop the mount as pear-shaped, shiny and orange or golden. She questioned the police explanation that a rock on the hill reflecting the sun caused the apparition, saying such a brilliant shine had never before been visible. Police roped off the area to the public after the object appeared and carried out two horseback expeditions up the mount, which authorities say yielded nothing out of the ordinary.

“There are many theories and there is a lot of talk,” Vega said, recalling other tales of UFO sightings in the area. However, whatever the object was, it disappeared in the wee hours of the following morning, carried off by a helicopter, she alleged.

Police Lt. Sergio Fuenzalida, who led the expeditions up the hill, acknowledged that many of the witnesses to the shiny object are respected citizens.

“They’re people who aren’t going to lie,” said Fuenzalida, no relation to the Santiago ufologist. “What did they see? I don’t know.”

Nonetheless, La Serena ufologist Patricio Díaz expressed little doubt something out of the ordinary occurred. Other witnesses reported heavy truck movement in the area at the same time as the incident, he said, apparently to help retrieve what may have been atop the hill. Furthermore, he wonders conspiratorially, why did police climb the hill twice to investigate if nothing was up there? He notes numerous strange scuff marks found atop the mountain after the fact, indicating something massive was moved around up there, and challenges the possibility of some sort of military accident, saying there are no military bases in the area. Pisco and magnetic fields

The question marks surrounding the crash notwithstanding, the Elqui Valley’s reputation as a mystical energy center persists, in part because of a large, supposedly “magnetic” hill in Cochiguaz, 20 miles southeast of Paihuano in the boondocks.

José Troncoso, referred by Torres, the Paihuano mayor, is a long-time Cohiguaz resident who has had many UFO encounters, and now I’m headed to his home in a hired car. I pass more orderly vineyards, the source of grapes used to make the national drink, pisco. The foothills of the Andes, some dusted with a light sprinkling of snow, others brown and empty, shroud the road. I brave a rough dirt road, ford the Cochiguaz River and, arriving, face attack by Troncoso’s eight or so large dogs.

A friendly, 71-year-old with a mane of silvery hair and a long white beard, he calls off the critters, barking and lunging at my car, and I follow him to the rear patio of his home overlooking the Cochiguaz River valley. Grapevines and wild vegetation fill the valley, low mountains box it in and the river rushes by. Off in the distance sits a craggy, snow-covered mountain that Troncoso says is the root of all the fuss.

“That hill gives the entire Elqui Valley its character,” says Troncoso, explaining that it is a large iron oxide magnetic field. I’m not sure what that means, but the organic farmer and former film producer explains that the mount is an energy source and that UFOs, not to mention crystal-wearing hippies, frequently visit to draw on the power.

“When I see one of the things, I say, ‘Hello, where are you from?’ But that’s it,” joked Troncoso.

U.S. astronomer Nicholas Suntzeff of the Cerro Tololo InterAmerican Observatory outside Vicuña, however, said in his 13 years of star gazing in the area, he has never seen anything in the skies he couldn’t logically explain.

He remembers once hearing about the sighting of some strange circular object in the sky, a glowing orange donut-shaped thing. “I thought, ‘Geez, I’ve seen that before,'” Suntzeff recalls. It seems a rocket in orbit had started its second-stage launch the day of the sighting and that the flames caused by the thrust of the projectile had caused the orange glow seen by locals.

“I can’t say there’s nothing to the UFO talk,” said Suntzeff, another foil I had sought out. “I’ve just never seen one.”

Chile’s midsection is below the orbit of numerous satellites and rockets sent from Earth, Suntzeff said, which may account for many UFO sightings. Moreover, the area’s skies are unpolluted by city lights and clouds, making it easier to see the many manmade things in the stratosphere. The clarity is part of the reason Cerro Tololo, one of the most powerful telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere, and other observatories are in the region.

Leaving the Elqui Valley, I sit on the bus beside Cindy, a grade school teacher of 40 some years in the region. She recounts her late husband’s close encounter while driving home one day from Santiago. He never said much, just that he had seen a UFO, but his strange behavior made Cindy think he had been temporarily abducted by aliens.

Seemingly everybody has had a UFO experience, I marvel. Now, more determined than ever to see a flying saucer, I turn my sights on the Colbun dam, a manmade lake near the city of Talca in south central Chile.

Baloney, satellites and Jupiter

Fuenzalida, the Santiago ufologist, said the Colbun case is “truly extraordinary.” Scores of locals living around the dam, built by Chilean power company Colbun to generate power, have repeatedly reported seeing weird lights in the sky.

The witnesses have described glowing, saucer-shaped objects surrounded by rotating lights, as close as 250 feet away and for up to 15 minutes at a time. One theory holds that the lights are caused by some physical reaction related to the Colbun generator and the high-tension power lines in the area. Some locals, meanwhile, say the lights are caused by flying saucers sucking energy out of the generator.

Arriving in Talca, I meet up with Fabian Sáez, a university student, ufologist and Fuenzalida colleague, along with four other UFO enthusiasts, all in their 20s. Our plan is to go to the Colbun Dam, surrounded by the green foothills of the Andes, and spend the night monitoring the skies for UFOs. The six of us set up camp near the water’s edge and head out to meet locals.

“Weird sights have always been witnessed around here,” says Rúben Contreras, the caretaker of a boat rental shop on the lake.

Ximena Urrutia, a teacher at the nearby El Colorado school, said early one morning in late 1997, she and about 120 junior high school-aged students witnessed three large glowing lights in the sky before classes started. She said the experience scared her students and left her shaken.

“That’s what I saw,” she said. “It bothers me when people question me They joke about you. But that’s what I saw. It was right there.”

We return to our command post as dusk falls. Alvaro Romo, another ufologist with us, points out three satellites crossing the early evening sky. They appear as very small white dots, fainter than the stars, moving in straight, steady trajectories. More stars come out but still no flying saucers.

“This is how it goes,” says Sáez, a veteran of such expeditions. “It’s usually monotonous.”

Clouds move in and out as we eat baloney sandwiches and drink instant coffee. Romo asks me about footage he has seen of a supposed Thanksgiving Day abduction of an American family by space aliens. I’ve never seen it.

By 11:30 p.m., two in the group, including Sáez, have given in to the cold, monotony and cloud cover and are sleeping in a tent. A few hours later, the clouds completely disperse, revealing a brilliant, star-filled sight. Romo points out Jupiter, a particularly bright point of light in the sky. But there are still no close encounters.

I doze in and out of sleep, monitoring the stars, fruitlessly it turns out, until daybreak, the silence broken only by Sáez’s snoring and techno music thumping on a radio we have turned on to keep us company.

Bleary-eyed, we take down the tents and Cristián López, another mission participant, sums up the evening’s efforts.

“It’s a lottery,” he says. “We’ll hit it next time.”

A few days later, back in Santiago, I’m pondering a few other UFO cases. There always seems to be a steady stream.

A UFO appeared in three official photographs taken of former President Eduardo Frei during a visit with a group of university students near the southern city of Valdivia, I read in a Santiago UFO magazine. The object is a short blurred dash in the sky behind Frei, posing with a group of smiling students.

And what’s this about Friendship Island, supposedly inhabited by extra-terrestrials? It purportedly sits off the larger Chilean island of Chiloe in the nation’s south, but no one has ever pin-pointed its location or even confirmed its existence.

Fuenzalida, the Santiago ufologist, had said the topic of UFOs is nothing new. It’s just that so many Chileans have their own UFO experiences and are increasingly taking the topic seriously as they hear others go public.

Does that mean misinformation is feeding off misinformation or just that people are more willing to come forward with their sightings, less concerned about being viewed a crackpot? The skeptic in me leans toward the former, yet I can’t help but recall the words of Bermudez.

Using a refrain I heard repeatedly, Bermudez – the retired general who never saw anything out of ordinary in the sky in his 37 years as a pilot and now heads the government UFO investigative body – questioned how man could be so presumptuous to assume he is alone in the cosmos. In my native United States, such talk might be tolerated, but probably scoffed at behind the speaker’s back. Here, though, it seems to be the gospel, and I can’t refute his point.

“I would like to believe that other civilizations with higher technology exist,” he had said. “There are so many millions of planets and stars that it would be egotistical to think we’re the only ones in the universe.”

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