La Serena and The Elqui Valley
Our super comfy TurBus pulled over at the side of the motorway, a minute later an older gentleman in a white bakers coat shuffles up the stairs with a giant basket of sweet pastry cakes. Passengers buy giant paper bags of the goodies, while me and Mr E eat a delicious Alfajore for 25p each. When the selling is done, the bus stops for the baker who gets off and presumably crosses the road to hitch another selling ride back from where he came from. Can you imagine that on the MegaBus down the M4!
We were travelling the 7 hour journey from Santiago to the seaside town of La Serena, breaking up the mammoth journey north to the Chilean Atacama Desert.
I’d love to tell you about how we wandered the relaxed colonial town centre with its 30 beautiful churches and pretty Plaza De Armas, that we hired bikes to ride along the scruffy seafront promenade to the Lego looking lighthouse but we did none of that favouring an afternoon in Walmart or Lider as it’s called in Chile! We did some shopping, did our laundry and got my hair done, essential travel chores…kind of anyway.
La Serena seafront is a popular destination for Argentinian holiday makers, the border is just 120 miles away. Surfers ride the shallow waves and there is a huge amount of new glossy apartment construction underway. As beachfront destinations go, it was a bit ordinary, definitely a resort in the making. But we enjoyed a bit of downtime after our Easter Island exertions and it did have a rather splendid sunset.
Next up it was time for stargazing and Pisco sampling in the sunny Elqui Valley. The bus journeys to the tiny towns of Vicuña and Pisco Elqui were really pretty. Bright blue skies framed the dry scrubby mountains which tower over the lush green valley. Dirty brown mineral rich waters from the Andes runs through the centre. All perfect conditions for Muscat grapes to grow, these vines spread over the dry soil from the river bed way up the mountains catching the northern sun thriving in the dry air and cool nights.
The Elqui Valley with its desert dry spring like climate is known for its magnetic cosmic healing properties, for UFO spotting and for the clearest night skies with literally billions of stars.
We took a stargazing tour at Pangue Observatory, high on the hills just outside the town of Vicuña. Our tour group was small just 6 french tourists, a French astronomer and us Brits. Eric ‘Le space geek’ luckily had great English and expertly explained what we would be seeing through the big telescope. As far as our amazing planet Earth is concerned, we seem so small and insignificant in the universe. It blows your mind hearing the numbers…how many millions of light years away the stars are, how old the universe is, how many billions of stars there are. So seeing the Magellan clouds, great Orion nebula, sculpture constellation galaxies and supernova’s though the telescope was incredible. So far, so big and such a lot of space!
During our time there I saw 5 shooting stars in the dark sky, which Eric explained were actually just space dust particles entering our atmosphere. I prefer to think of them as angels carrying our good wishes to loved ones…who needs science..
I’ve never seen such a clear dark sky as this before, so many diamond bright stars popped out as the sun vanished from our horizon and to baffle my tiny brain a bit more, we were upside down on the world viewing southern sky star formations – cosmic energy indeed!!
We stayed in Vicuña in a simple cute B&B Casa Solar de Los Madariaga that was family home, museum and turn of the century historic building. We enjoyed relaxing in the pretty gardens drinking tea. The courtyards were peaceful and the owners very hospitable.
This quiet little town of Vicuña is famous for the 1945 Nobel Prize Winner for literature, Gabriela Mistral who was born there. There is a nice museum about her life and lots of colourful street art is dedicated to her lyrical poetry work.
Unfortunately the town square was sealed off, undergoing major renovation. The heart of the town seemed a bit lifeless without the prettiness of its central shady trees, benches and fountains to sit people watching while eating an ice cream. But there was plenty of other colours in the town. At this festive time of year, it’s always a bit strange seeing a Christmas Tree and nativity scene where the sky is bright blue and the sun is exceptionally blinding. Christmas shopping was well underway!
At the nearby Aba Pisquera, a boutique Pisco producer and one of the oldest in the Elqui Valley, we took a quick look around. A nice Spanish-speaking guy gave us an impromptu tour, we learned about the wine making from the high concentration of sugar in the grapes, alcohol separation in ancient copper pots, storage of the distilled alcohol with ultra pure water in local wood barrels to the bottling and packaging final stages. Our guide gave us a few samples to try, the 40% Pisco was similar to a whisky taste in strength and flavour, but we liked the Mixed Pisco Sour drinks better!
All too soon it was time to move on..Next up desert life in San Pedro de Atacama.