Elqui Valley Tour Part 3: The Elqui River, Gabriela Mistral, Pisco, Wine & Stars
Take Me To The River(s)
When last I left you, dear readers, we had finished lunch and were ready to continue heading deeper into the Elqui Valley. Our first stop was the river, more precisely where the Río Elqui flows into the Río Tambo, becoming the main Elqui River. As you can see, the rivers are very different; what is the Tambo is the turquoise colored one, while the Elqui runs clear. To get here, Cristobal had to park the car and we hiked a few minutes, threaded our way through a barbed wire fence and found a relatively dry path through some muddy/swampy ground. But as it was a hot day, it was nice to be at the river, and Joel & Sarah took off there shoes to get their feet in the water. It was very peaceful and beautiful there, a nice quiet spot.
After our break at the river, we turned off the main road through the Elqui Valley and headed south. The road wound up and down through the mountains, following the river. You begin to notice dark green cultivated fields not just along the river, but up in the otherwise dry, desert-like mountains. Those are avocado orchards; apparently someone figured out how to grow them up there and designed a system for getting the water up there as well. They still have to be hand picked though, so laborers have to hike up the mountain, pick the fruit by hand, and then hike back down. Doesn’t sound like fun, but it has clearly led to a significant increase in avocado cultivation.
After a few more miles we came to Monte Grande, which is famous as the home town of Gabriela Mistral, Chile’s first Nobel Prize winner (Pablo Neruda was the second). Along with the traditional architecture of the town, Mistral’s childhood home/school/post office are still there. As a child she assisted her sister who was a teacher at the school & worked in the post office. She is also buried here. They are actually all one building, and while they all are a small museum, the post office also still functions as a post office. The schoolhouse, as you see, was one room, and the family home was on the other side of the front of the room. All very small, but with a lovely courtyard with trees and a view of the river.
More Pisco? Why Not?
After Monte Grande we continued south to our next pisco distillery. We passed through Pisco Elqui which does have one but not the one we were looking for, so we continued to Los Nichos. He we had a tour, led by Cristobal, of the actual distilling process. Fundo Los Nichos (warning, their site is not only Flash based but also in Spanish) is the oldest pisco distillery in the Elqui Valley, and includes a fascinating cellar, as you can see. The pisco’s good too, so we figured we’d buy another bottle. If you’re nice to us when we get back, we may let you try some, as Cecile is determined not to drink any we bought on this tour before we’re home.
Heading Back: Three Last Stops
After the pisco, it was time to start heading back towards Vicuña and up to the Mamalluca observatory. But first we had some last stops. By our count, Cristobal made three “last stops” on our way. We were tired and would have been happy with the typical one. First we stopped in Pisco Elqui. There are a number of small towns in the valley, known as Typical Zones for their traditional architecture and layout, which generally means one main street with the town one or two streets deep on one side of the river and a central square. Many of these have become centers for arts and crafts and what Cristobal called hippies; but not the drug type hippies, he assured us, but more the counter-culture, artsy freewheeling type. We walked around Pisco Elqui a little, Cecile and Sarah did some unsuccessful shopping, and then after buying some drinks (non-alcoholic) we headed back out.
Our second last stop (I think, I may be getting second and third mixed up) was at a yoga/meditation center. We’re not sure why Cristobal stopped here, but there was some art and fancy oils and stuff for sale, and he wanted us to meet the person who founded it. Did I mention the hippies? It was a nice little place, but we could have skipped it, and after a short stop we moved on.
To more alcohol, of course. This time it was a winery, and one Cecile and I had read about, as it’s one of the few organic wineries in Chile. The Cavas del Valle winery is very small, and this tour was in Spanish, but the gist is they’re small, they only sell in the region, not even in greater Chile, they’re organic and Cecile bought two bottles, one of which we might be opening tonight. I believe we tried three, and I wasn’t crazy about any of them, but on the other hand it was getting late, we were hot and tired, and it had already been a long day. So I’ll let you know how I feel about it tonight.
Finally we were done with our last stops, before our actual last two stops. First we headed back to Vicuña, from which we would get the road up to Mamalluca. It was dark by then, and though it was Saturday and there were a number of people out walking around the center of town, anything interesting (that wasn’t a bar or restaurant) was closed or closing up. Again there would have been artsy/craftsy places to shop, but apparently not on Saturday night. So we didn’t spend long, and we started heading up.
Well, we thought we did.
Then Cristobal decided we should get some ice cream at this place he knows. He knows everyplace and everybody, and though it looked closed when we got there, he got it opened and it was worth it. He would go in, come out with a cone, hand it to one of us, then go back in for the next. The ice cream was quite good and we each got different flavors. He somehow knew Cecile’s favorite was cinnamon as she got that one. I think I got pecan, I don’t remember what the others were, but everyone was happy with their cone and as far as I know no one spilled.
OK, now we’re really done with last stops before our last stop. Chile is rotten with observatories, and they’re divided in Tourist observatories (Observatorio Túristico) and scientific observatories. While some of the scientific observatories offer tours, they’re during the day and of the actual stuff, not star gazing; for that you go to a tourist observatory, and Mamalluca is one of the well known ones. They have tours in English & Spanish, and despite it being the off season and an almost full moon our tour had at least a couple of dozen people.
And there were two of the three main problems, the almost full moon and the crowds. Number three was that it had been a long day (you’re probably exhausted reading this, and this is just one part). The tour was divided into three main parts. For us, the first was going to the dome and looking through their main telescope. We saw Jupiter, where you could see some of the cloud bands and the four Galilean moons; the M42 nebula in Orion (very cool, definite highlight); the double star at Alpha Centuri (it’s actually triple, but you can generally only see two); and Mars, which as he warned us was pretty boring. While the leader did a good job filling in the time, with two dozen or more people each taking a look, plus the crowd in the dome and logistics of getting around to see it, it was time consuming and Joel & Cecile especially were getting bored.
This was not helped by the next part of the tour, which was going downstairs and having a presentation on the constellations and a few other astronomical facts. I don’t know about you, but if I want to learn about the constellations, I’ll do it at home; when I’m at an observatory, I want to observe. But they didn’t ask me, in English or Spanish.
After that it was outside where they had some telescopes set up, though again with large crowd it was time consuming and everyone but me was ready to go. We looked at the first one, which was pointed at what looked like one star (can’t remember which part of the sky, sorry), but when you looked through the telescope you saw lots and lots of stars.
I had hoped to have time to try my hand at a little astrophotography, but only had time to get one good picture. For the second star picture I ever took, I think it came out pretty well, and yes I’m pretty sure that is the Southern Cross in the upper center of the picture.
And then Cristobal drove us home. We were actually back earlier than I thought we would be, a little before 11:00, but if we had stayed for the whole tour it would have been later. Still I think we were happy with a 12 hour day, and while it was at times overwhelming it was a great tour and Cristobal was fabulous.
If you’re thinking of going I would recommend planning several days for La Serean/Coquimbo and the Elqui Valley. Some people, especially if they’re doing an observatory, spend the night in the valley to cut down on the late travel.
Congratulations, you’ve reached the end of the Elqui Valley Tour set of posts.