Tuesday, June 21, 2011

La Serena and Elqui Valley

I was fortunate enough to have an old friend visit Chile and we planned a long weekend to visit a few Chilean destinations about six-hour busride north of Santiago.

Our first stop for a brief stint was La Serena, a medium-size town (200,000 residents) and capital of the fourth region, best-known as a beach destination in the summer months (that would be December-February for those in the northern hemisphere).  We arrived in town under grey skies and oriented our map to find the La Recova market, a place that our travel book touted as a destination for fresh seafood.  After numerous pushy sales presentations from the employees of several restaurants Matt and I decided to eat at La Ruta de Buen Sabor, overlooking the small plaza and market below.  We were treated to warm bread, homemade salsa (that Chileans like to put on bread), and two seafood plates that would satisfy a sailor.  That evening we met up with another traveling friend Meredith, who was covering Chile on her newly-minted motorcycle, and shared some beers at a local pub.

The next day we hopped on a small micro-bus east to the Elqui Valley, a region known for the intoxicating characteristics of extremely clear skies, fresh air and fields of pisco grapes, the principal ingredient in the Pisco liquor that has a strong historical significance in Chile (although, controversially, is also linked to Peru's history as well).  We were pleasantly surprised that the grey skies of La Serena dissipated as our bus made the twisty drive deeper into the valley.  Once in Vicuña, the largest destination town in the valley, we stopped by our hostel and made our plans for the day, to include renting bikes and reserving spots at the Mamalluca Observatory for a tour of the stars. 

That evening we bundled up, jumped in vans near the plaza and traveled 5 miles out to the observatory.  There, our tour started in the large observatory dome, with our astronomer tour guide flashing his powerful laser pointer toward the sky to point out different stars, constellations, and planets.  With the high-powered telescope we gazed at the moon, star clusters, and Saturn -- which looked liked a tiny glowing sticker (with the rings and all).  We moved outside the dome to a smaller telescope fixed to the ground where the tour continued with discussions of the constellations and the Earth's rotation.  Our English-speaking guide was phenomenal, in addition to what we were seeing above us he talked about the history of astronomy and about the current news surrounding gigantic telescopes that are being constructed in the Atacama desert in the north of Chile.  The highlight of the tour was our guide's enthusiasm about helping us all take photos of the moon through the telescope lens.  Simply, the tour was awe-inspiring and, I think I'm safe to say it igniting a real interest in all of us of what lies out there in deep space.

We crashed in our beds that night thinking about other worlds and the billions of stars that make up the universe.  The next day Matt and I travelled back to La Serena, under clear skies this time, and I caught the 2 pm bus south back home to Santiago.

A mostly-pedestrian street in La Serena.
Random church and palm trees in La Serena.
Matt and me at dinner above La Recova market, just after our bus ride. 
Two salmon fillets, filled with shrimp, topped with cheese.  The owner said it was "low fat."
View in Vicuña, on a short walk to our hostel.
Front door of our hostel/bed & breakfast, Hostal Ying Yang.  It follows a Feng Shui philosophy.
Rented bikes, cruised the streets.
A small hill with a view of the tranquil Vicuña streets and the surrounding hills and mountains.
Mountains and pisco fields.
The moon, taken with my digital camera through a telescope lens at the Mamalluca Observatory.
Juana, our very peaceful hostel owner.
Highway 5 along the coast, heading south back to Santiago.