Valle de Elqui is a valley of luscious vineyards sandwiched between lofty brown hills dusted with pink. The land of the perfect weather, the valley sees over 300 days of sunshine a year, with only about 100 millimeters of rain. Its constant clear skies and remoteness make it one of the best places in the world to see the stars.
La Serena is an old seaside city on the edge of the Elqui Valley. Founded in 1544, it is the second oldest city in Chile after Santiago. Because of its proximity to the beach, I picked it as my home base for my endeavor into the Elqui Valley.
Before doing anything else, I took advantage of La Serena’s beachside location with an energy-draining run in the baking heat along the coastal promenade. Running for what seemed like forever along the long stretch of beaches, I ended up in Coquimbo, La Serena’s next door neighbor, and began a slow limp-walk back to La Serena.
In dire need of rest and food, I collapsed at a table with a sea view at a beachfront restaurant. My energy was miraculously restored after I wolfed down a mouthwatering mix of shrimp, abalone, pink clams, scallops, and crab and hydrated myself with a tangy-sweet pisco sour.
I can’t get enough of those pisco sours. They are soooooo good.
Now that I had gotten my beach fix, it was time to undertake La Serena’s historical center. Starting at the exact center of historical La Serena, the Plaza de Armas, I map-hopped to all the churches and other noteworthy old buildings that are scattered around the city’s downtown. Besides being a favorite Chilean and Argentinian vacation spot because of its beaches, La Serena is known for its stone churches, many of which are hundreds of years old.
The architecture of the city center is a commingling of these old stone churches, other colonial structures, and wooden public buildings that were built in the mid-1900s as part of the president’s plan to develop La Serena. Unfortunately, a layer of grime cloaks La Serena’s historical charm. Many of its walls are defaced with graffiti, its sidewalks are littered and crumbling, and several of its ancient buildings are in need of a restoration. It’s a shame because it could be a beautiful city, but it exudes an atmosphere of dilapidation.
The next day I joined a tour group and ventured out into the valley. We began the morning with a walk along the top of the Puclaro Dam, a spot that provides incredible aerial views of the valley and the Puclaro Reservoir, a shimmering manmade lake-like water basin that provides irrigation for the area’s farms and vineyards.
We continued on through the valley to Vicuña, a little town with a center of only about six blocks square around its main plaza. Despite its small size, it is the main town of the Elqui Valley and is the valley’s hub for pisco-making, star-gazing, and tourism. Adjoining its main plaza are an old wooden church and the Toree Bauer, a burnt orange clock tower that looks like a combination of a lighthouse and a castle turret and which is now a tourist information office.
After a too-quick wandering around Vicuña, we left for the nearby Pisquera ABA, a small pisco distillery where we learned how the sapid brandy is made. (It is made from grapes, so the first steps in the process are very similar to winemaking.) And of course, we got to taste a range of piscos produced at ABA, from the throat-burning aguardiente (pisco before it is diluted with water to reduce its alcohol content), to a fine easy-to-sip pisco, to a sweet mango pisco.
A pisco lesson is not complete without a discussion of the origin of pisco. The popular spirit has a tumultuous history in South America, defined by an ongoing fight between Chile and Peru regarding the ownership of pisco. Peru’s claim seems to be supported by history, but Chile may win based on consumption. Forty-five million bottles of pisco are produced in Chile per year, and only 10% of those bottles are exported. Yes, Chileans like their pisco! (As do I.)
The production of Chilean pisco is slightly different than the pisco from Peru. Which means, obviously, that when I get to Peru, I will have to consume some pisco to determine the taste difference for myself.
Reeling with a slight pisco buzz, I was happy to find out that it was time for lunch. It would be served at Cocinas Solares de Villaseca, a restaurant with a yard of cactuses and tan desert clay and a front terrace with a dozen big glittering boxes that looked like they were opening to the sky. These curious contraptions were solar ovens where our lunch would be cooked! I guess in a place that sees so many days of sun, solar energy is a practical energy source. And I must say, chicken cooked by the heat of the sun is absolutely delicious, rivaling that of my favorite African chef Charles (but not quite, nothing could ever beat his cooking).
Forging on through the valley, we passed the artisan shops, restaurants, and inns of the tiny town of Paihuano closely bordering the curving road and arrived in Montegrande to visit the Gabriela Mistral museum. A famous Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral was the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945. Her renown in Chile is illustrated by the countless streets and plazas named after her around the country and by her image on the pink 5000 peso note. She is especially beloved in Vicuña, her birthplace, and Montegrande, where she spent much of her childhood.
Finally we made it to Pisco Elqui, a hillside town with a valley view consisting of a splendidly landscaped main square, a tall and narrow stone church, and numerous guesthouses and restaurants, an artisan market, and a pisco distillery to satisfy the perpetual stream of visitors. The town got its current name in 1936 in an attempt by Chile to solidify their rights to pisco. (Peru also has a town named Pisco.)
On our way back to Vicuña, our guide tried to downplay what was supposed to be our last stop, a tour and tasting at the factory of CAPEL, one of the largest producers of pisco in Chile. True, it would probably be like going to Robert Mondavi in Napa Valley. (Although I happen to like visiting the mainstream and commercialized Mondavi winery every so often.) True, we could taste CAPEL pisco practically anywhere. (But it’s much more fun tasting it at the place where it is actually made.)
It was our guide’s last working day before returning to Santiago for the off-season to see his college-age daughter, and I think he was anxious to finish the day. But I didn’t want to miss out just so he could get home an hour earlier!
No one else in the group spoke up, and I felt bad insisting we go somewhere that people may not like, but it was supposed to be part of the tour, and gosh darnit I wanted to see it!
Due to my urging, we got our tour of CAPEL. Perfect rows of green vines surround the huge factory where the grapes are fermented, distilled, and aged in monster wooden barrels. Inside the factory is a massive room with assembly lines where the pisco is bottled. Like a good tourist attraction, the property also has a museum with ancient pisco-making tools.
We ended the tour in the CAPEL bar, where I tasted chirimoya-infused pisco. Chirimoya is a native papaya-like fruit whose name has become a slang word for writing a bad check. (Chileans love their slang.)
For me, the day was not yet over. Our impatient-to-get-home guide dropped me off in Vicuña, and another van picked me up. As the sky darkened, we began a slow wind up a hill, and I got more and more antsy with excitement.
Finally, we reached our destination, the Mamalluca Observatory, a place where tourists can view the stars and learn about astronomy while scientists make discoveries about the universe at other observatories built on the neighboring hills. I absolutely love staring at the stars and getting lost in the peaceful oblivion of the night sky, and I had been eagerly anticipating this night ever since I heard about the Elqui Valley’s supremely clear skies.
The outside grounds of the observatory were completely dark, illuminated only by the lights of Vicuña in the valley far below and the umbrella of stars in the sky above. The spiral arm of the Milky Way bounding through the sky was more bright and dense than I’ve ever seen it. Head tilted upward, I gaped at the celestial infinity until my neck got tired and our guide led us up to the flat crest of the hill.
Perched on the hilltop was an outdoor manual telescope that was pointing towards the waxing crescent of the moon just over the horizon with Venus to the left and Jupiter above it. I was happy enough to get to see the moon and some planets with my naked eye, but then we each got to take turns peeking at the moon through the telescope.
Seeing the craters of the moon through the mirrored optics of the telescope is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Not only did I get to see it, but our guide took a picture of the moon through the telescope with my camera, so I can forever remember what I saw that night.
There was much more to come. We saw Jupiter and three of its 66 known moons through the telescope. Then we climbed to the top of a domed observatory that houses a digital telescope and looked at a closed cluster of stars 13 million light years away. We were actually looking at the past – what the stars looked like 13 million years ago. It was like our own unique version of time travel.
Back outside, we learned about the constellations and how to locate them. On this absurdly clear night, we saw the South Cross, which is only viewable in the southern hemisphere, the Gemini twins, the lion that is Leo, the Taurus bull, the circle of Cancer, and Orion the hunter and his dogs in full upside down glory.
Our guide informed us that two hazy smudges just outside the band of the Milky Way were actually other galaxies. It was hard to believe that we could see a spot that comprised an entire other galaxy.
The amazing night ended with a movie that showed us just how insignificant we are in the universe, zooming from earth past the sun, the solar system, stars, the Milky Way, and innumerable other galaxies.
My mind was still awestruck during the drive through the valley back to La Serena, where the driver dropped me off at the bus station. Now I am awaiting morning so I can board a bus that will take me to the beach in Iquique, where I will get a few days of relaxation!