May 08, 2004

The rest of Chile

From Santiago we headed north stopping at two more towns, La Serena and San Pedro de Atacama. This log entry talks about what we did in La Serena and the surrounding area. Click below to read the full entry.

We left Santiago without visiting Valparasio or Vina Del Mar because we have this itch to get north fast, and Chile was the most expensive country that we have been to so far. So we headed from Santiago to La Serena about 11 hours north. It was a nice bus ride and a few hours in we finally did see the Pacific again. Once in La Serena we walked to a hostel recomended in our guide book, hoping that it was still there. It was there but under a different name, El Punto. It is a very nice hostel run by a German couple from Hannover.

La Serena is pretty much on the coast, on the mouth of the Elqui valley. The Elqui Valley is known for Pisco and as the home of some of the world's largest telescopes. I kind of wanted to visit the Tolodo observatory, some of the largest telescopes in the world, but you have to book a tour months in advanced and you can't even go there at night. So instead we did a combination tour of the Elqui Valley and an amateur observatory.

We had an excellent guide for the Elqui Valley tour. He told us all about the climate there and how it changes as you go inland, stopping to point out different crops. We stopped for a while at a Chirimoya and a Papaya farm. Chirimoya are also known as custard apples (so I have been told, not knowing what a custard apple is). They are mostly sugar and expensive because they have to be air freighted to their export destinations because they have a short shelf life. It wasn't the season for them so we didn't get to taste them. The papayas are not your normal papayas but they are very tasty and full of nutritous things. Supposedly the Pope eats a chilean one a day and it has helped his parkinsons symptoms.

Eventually we passed a large water reservoir designed to help prevent a drought like the one they had in 1996 which lasted for 3 years and they were rationed to 3 hours of water a day. Past this reservoir the climate changes to a mediterrainian one, fairly dry and warm. Here they do some serious pisco and wine grape growing, as well as citrus fruits and avocados. Pisco is distilled wine and requires very sweet grapes. You can spot pisco grapes from wine grapes because the grapes grow on the tops of the vines to get the most sunlight which gives the grapes a higher sugar content. We did go to a Pisco distillery but before that we had a special lunch.

North of Vicuna, the main town in the valley itself, we had lunch at a restaurant where all the cooking is done by solar power. Our guide told us that it was a project of some engineering students some 10-15 years ago to try to improve the quality of life in a small, poor village. The restraunt had a bunch of very simple solar cookers out front with things like bread, stew, and goat cooking. Sarah and I had a Vascuela (a very nice Chilean stew) and most of the other people in our group had roast goat. It was a tasty lunch. After lunch we headed further north east to visit a smallish pisco distillery.

Along the way to the distillery the road went up the side of the narrowing valley providing an excellent view of the vinyards below. It looked like solid ground but really it was a bed of grapes 2 meters above the ground. The distillery was in a town called Pisco Elqui, a charming small town. The distillery was on of the Three R's brand, which we were told is a famous brand. We had a short tour amongst the busy workers as it was harvest time. We got to see a truckload of grapes arrive which was neat to see. One of the workers gave us a bunch of grapes that were the most delicious grapes I have ever tasted, probably because they were so sweet. We got to taste some pisco, straight up or in the more popular pisco sour form. I had some 46% straight pisco that was very tasty. I'm kicking myself for not buying a bottle because it was very cheap for how good it was, about $14 canadian for a 750 ml bottle.

After the distillery we headed back down to Vicuna where we transfered some people around and headed up to the amateur observatory, Mamalluca. There are so may observatories in Northern Chile because the air is very dry and these towns get about 350 clear days a year. The world's largest observatory, the creatively named Very Large Telescope is futher north near Antofagasta. Mamalluca has a few 12" telescopes and once again we had a very good guide for this. First we got to see good views of the planets that were visible, Venus (cresent shaped), Saturn with rings, and Jupiter wth moons. We also got a good view of the moon and got to take a good picture through the telescope. Then we went inside to the telescope with tracking hardware so we could look at smaller stuff, like gas nebulas and clusters. All very interesting. Then we got a little presentation on constellations (including Inca constellations) using some astronomical software called Starry Night. After this we headed back to our hostel and off to San Pedro de Atacama the next day.

Posted by bforsyth at May 8, 2004 07:20 AM