Chile: Elqui Valley

We never intended to go to Elqui Valley, but from the title of the post–obviously we did.  We were supposed to be riding bicycles through the “Argentinian Napa Valley” known as Mendoza.  The town was built for relaxation…wide streets, a welcoming city center, beautiful flowers everywhere and the freshest produce in Argentina.   Due to some un-welcomed snow in the Andes Mountains (but not enough for snowboarding season to begin), we were unable to take the bus ride from Santiago to Mendoza when we arrived at the bus station with all of our things.  Did I mention this is supposedly one of the most beautiful drives in all of South America?

What do you do when the perfect plan is thwarted…consult your options and pick the next best thing headed in the right direction: North.  We were in the midst of a holiday weekend and many busses were sold out.  The two choices we had were a 7-hour bus ride to La Serena (continuing the next morning for two more hours to Elqui Valley), or a 25-hour bus ride to San Pedro de Atacama, a place that we had always intended on visiting (but couldn’t really wrap our heads around a full day bus ride when we only planned for 6 hours).

It’s not that Elqui Valley was bad…it’s just that I was SO excited about Mendoza.  A little slice of luxury was needed after a week of touring around with my brother and his girlfriend.  Joshua, however, was excited about this spontaneous change in plans.  The bottle of wine per day started to take a toll on him, go figure.  Plus, he heard that northern Chile houses the most amazing observatories in the entire world.  Nations flock to this region to set up their astronomy research centers because the sky is so clear and has, on average, only 5 rainy days per year.  Each country tries to outdo the next with a larger telescope…seriously.  In fact, all the countries in Europe combined forces to build the latest telescope, known as the “Extremely Large Telescope” which measures 40 meters across its mirror.  It costs somewhere in the range of 10,000 dollars per minute to use (or so we were told).  But, since it’s on Chilean land, they get 1 month free a year to use it…sweet deal.

When we arrived in Vicuna, our home base for our tour de Elqui Valley, we had intended to stay for just two days: one for the tour of the local observatory, Mamalluca, and the other for a bicycling through the vineyards that blanket the valley.  As luck would have it, all busses headed north to San Pedro (our next stop) were sold out 5 days in advance, so we decided to make lemonade.

Luckily, we didn’t have to try very hard because we stumbled upon an amazing hostel, Hostal Valle Hermosa, and its owner Lucia.  After a career as “manager of managers” in the banking industry, she decided to retire to running a hostel in the house her grandfather built.  She runs the place in-between vacations to countries all around the world or to her beach house near Pablo Neruda’s home in Isla Negra.  She worked tenaciously to fill up our calendars with activities.  There was the observatory tour, the bicycling up through the valley, secret underground pisco distillery graveyards, wonderful artisan colonies; and there would have been even more, had Joshua not misunderstood her instructions.  For instance, Lucia knows EVERYONE in the region.  We told her about a winery we wanted to visit so she offered to call the owner to get us a tour.  Joshua misunderstood and said we didn’t need her to call.  We arrived at the Falernia winery after walking 5 kilometers on the highway.  Side note: it’s easy to walk when the bus driver informs you that you are at your destination prematurely.

Once we arrived, there were only three workers in the office of the winery.  A lady there told us that usually people call in advance to schedule a tour, but that we could try their wines at the little store just down the road.  She must have forgot to mention that you can only try their wines by buying bottles (we still left with two).  We now have a love-hate relationship with Falernia.  If you ever get a chance to try them (or any Chilean wine) go for the Carmenere varietal.  Joshua likes its nice grape flavor (obviously we are now pros at this).  If you don’t try it, that’s okay, because we hate them too.

This little detour also caused us to misunderstand other instructions Senora had given us.  We were supposed to eat lunch at a solar restaurant.  Literally, all the food is prepared in solar oven boxes that are placed out in the sun in the early morning.  When the sun starts to go down, the doors close.  Our first attempt busted when we arrived around 4pm…no more sun, no more cooking.  With plenty of time on our hands, we took Lucia for lunch the following day.  I am pretty sure that was the first time I had eaten goat, but it truly was delicious especially knowing it was cooked by the power of the sun…so was our flan and our bread.

Our astronomy tour of Mamalluca was magical.  Truly the romantic version of star-gazing.  We took the English tour as opposed to the Spanish one which meant a group of 6 instead of 92 people.  Our tour guide loved the stars…he has worked at Mamalluca for 17 years and in astronomy, itself, for over 25 years.  He showed us planets with a large telescope.  It was almost laughable to see Saturn.  You could see the rings like they were being drawn in a comic book.  You could see the south pole of Mars.  We went outside and he described the constellations in detail…even giving us the history of different cultures…not everyone sees Orion’s belt, in South America it’s known as the Three Marias.  We learned how to navigate using the Southern Cross, a constellation only seen in the Southern Hemisphere…no wonder we had never seen it before!  The tour was informative, beautiful and totally worth the $9 we had to fork over for a personalized tour of the sky in the best place in the world to see them.

We made sure to fit in our bike tour of the Elqui Valley…Senora Lucia gave us a checklist of the places we should visit along the route.

We rented bikes and started out down a dusty road, heading 14km to the town of Horcon, an artisan village.

We scoped out the goods, but couldn’t pull the trigger on any purchases.  Joshua was entranced, however, by a man working with copper and clay to create jewelry…something drew him in.

We left Horcon for the next little town on our way back towards the start…past the oldest Pisco maker in Chile, Los Nichos.  There are only two areas of Chile that are allowed to grow and make Pisco, a firey alcohol made with grapes that they use in their famous Pisco Sours.  The mausoleum under Los Nichos has tombs for each year of pisco they’ve made and drawings to show the effects of too much.

As we finished our last climb on the dusty road…left with a smooth downhill en-route to the rental shop… Joshua decided he had to have something from the artisan worker who had made such an impression on him which meat we had to go back 7km over a large hill after a pisco tasting.  I consented…he felt pretty strongly about supporting this guy.  So, we rode back.  He almost barfed after exerting himself so much on the hill, but made it back before it closed.  He picked out a pair of earrings for me and a necklace for himself…WHAT?!!  Yeah, that’s what I said.  Joshua doesn’t wear jewelry…ever.  We actually like to make fun of travelers wearing thousands of friendship bracelets at a time…they are just making a statement that they want to collect germs from every country they visit.  Those things get gnarly.  Anyway, he asks me to tie this thing around his neck.  Apparently, the guy totally knew his clientele and sold Joshua a carved clay necklace that is supposed to protect you while you travel.  And to be honest, JOSHUA HASN’T TAKEN IT OFF SINCE.  See if you can find it in future pictures; I’m sure it will be there.

We returned from our adventure to find Senora had prepared a wonderful picada with meats, cheese, crackers and mango sours.  We talked about her life and our adventure.

She really is Joshua’s Chilean Grandmother (no offense Mumsy).  Joshua has always been extremely close with his family…one of the many things I love about him.  He makes weekly, if not daily, calls to aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents.  He really has a connection with all of them.  So Senora must have picked up on this and took Joshua under her wing.  She would hug him every morning, give him extra breakfast and pinch his cheeks when he walked by.  She sent us both off with gifts to remember her by.  Joshua received a photo and a Gabriela Mistral poem which she sat translating with him.  Senora sent me on my way with a pink quartz “love” rock she wanted me to keep in my purse at all times to ensure that I keep Joshua in my life.  She said she was sure it would bring good news of a baby to her email box someday soon.  Not too soon, hopefully.

One thought on “Chile: Elqui Valley

  1. Me has emocionado con tus comentarios. Joshua es increiblemente afectuoso y entrò muy rapidamente a mi corazón. No olvides de cuidarlo y quererlo mucho, como el se merece. Dejar pasar el tiempo y disfrutar todo el tiempo. Ya llegará el momento del bebé. Los quiero mucho.

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