Elqui Valley Tour, Part 1: Into the Valley
Our last full day in La Serena, last Saturday, we had a tour arranged of the Elqui Valley, which heads east from La Serena into the mountains towards the Andes (which we didn’t quite get to see) and Argentina (which we also didn’t see, but it is on the maps). The tour was arranged by Dr. Julio del Transito Parada Pizarro (Cecile’s contact in La Serena), and it was just the four of us in a private car with our guide, Cristobal, who is a self taught English speaker. Needless to say, this was a pretty great way to get a tour, and Cristobal was both knowledgeable and enthusiastic, giving us a truly special and insightful day. He also seems to know almost everyone in the valley, which was helpful as I feel we got some insider access at times. It also helped that we went in the off season, so it wasn’t so crowded (until the observatory, more on that later).
It was, however, hot. Hot hot hot. Probably in the 80s. We were told to dress in layers and be prepared for cold at night at the observatory so we were. What a waste. It wasn’t hot at the observatory, but it sure wasn’t cool either. Our jackets and sweaters, and Cecile’s hat and gloves that she bought for the occasion, ended up feeling neglected.
Cristobal picked us up a little after 11:00 in the morning and we headed out. It doesn’t take long to get to the entry to the valley. He told us that the first part is actually the Coquimbo valley, and is the site of some of the oldest settlements in the area. In short order we were out of town and seeing the agriculture on either side of the road. This is grape country, which they use to make wine & pisco (about which I’ve written previously) and also export. Those grapes you see in the supermarket from Chile? They come from here. But aside from the agriculture in the flatlands, it’s desert and much of it looks like the southwestern United States, as it did on the bus ride up.
Small Towns & Food, Wild & Domestic
Our first stop was in a small town/village at a pastry shop he knew of. We tried several and they were delicious. The walls are covered with people’s letters & business cards attesting to the fabulous pastries, and I stapled one of mine to add to the collection. Cecile has that picture, so look for it on her blog. The side of the building has a map of the valley, which you see here. It’s the only picture I took, as it seemed kind of tacky to ask to take pictures inside. It’s a very small place which I don’t believe had a sign, you just have to know it. Yum. After that Cristobal drove us past a haunted house. It’s deserted and falling apart now, but stories are that furniture used to move on its own and there may have been witches involved. Many of the houses in this town also had thatched roofs, giving them an almost old-style European look. Cristobal also pointed out the fruit of a pepper tree, which traditionally native Indians would chew and spit and eventually ferment them to make an alcoholic drink. You can also just use the peppers, but that doesn’t sound like as much fun.
After that stop we headed back onto the main road and entered into the Elqui Valley proper. Though the fields we had seen by the side of the road looked green, they are suffering from a 5 year drought here, and even there you could see some of the effect. But here we could really see it: there’s a dam with a reservoir behind it, and even with this picture you can see that the reservoir is almost empty. Our next stop was a small town with an old church and even older trees, dating back several hundred years. Here Cristobal introduced us to a type of nut you can eat by peeling the outer later, eating the meat, then discarding the pit. Tasted a little like honey, but too much effort for me. Then we walked to a street bordering the square where there were some large grape vines growing as fencing … with lots of fresh grapes free for the picking. I believe these were muscat which they use for making pisco. Though most of them had some small seeds, they were delicious, and we even brought a few home which we are still eating.