Published: April 14th 2012April 14th 2012
As close as we've ever seen it!
As seen from Mamalluca Observatory.
To the north of Valparaíso begins El Norte. As in the south of Chile, such is the extent of this stretched-out region that it needs subdividing: Norte Chico (the little north), giving way to the Norte Grande (the big north), with some people even referring to a Norte Extremo even further up.
We've definitely been dawdling. Such has been the attraction of the south that we've almost forgotten than there's a whole other half-Chile waiting to be disovered beyond Santiago. On arrival in the far south we were given a standard 90-day stamp in our passports, of which we've spent over 60 already. This leaves us barely a month to cover the two thousand kilometres which separate Valparaíso from Arica, Chile's most northerly town, almost sitting on the Peruvian border. A slight upping of the pace is in order. As it so happens, geography is on our side here: indeed, an awful lot of northern Chile is desert, with large distances separating places of interest. We're much less likely to get distracted every few kilometres as we have been since the start of the year...
Leaving edgy Valparaíso behind us, we bus it up to La Serena, capital of
Region IV Coquimbo. The view from the bus window suggests that we have crossed some sort of invisible line somewhere north of Valparaíso. Where once there were blues and greens, the landscape has quite abruptly shifted to oranges and browns. We are following Ruta 5, which wends its way up Chile from the far south of Chiloé to Arica, a distance of well over 3,000 kilometres. Chile's Ruta 5 is in fact part of the Pan-American Highway, an unofficial grouping of roads linking Patagonia with the north of Alaska (a very long way) with only a single irritating gap somewhere between Colombia and Panama - the renowned Darién Gap.
After the endless succession of rainforest-draped mountains and snowbound volcanos, the endless dry, bare, rocky scenery comes as something of a shock. Some six hours or so after leaving Valparaíso we disembark in La Serena, a pleasant enough small city sitting almost right on the Pacific. It's not somewhere to stick around for very long, although its churches and interesting archaeological museum - home to a monumental moai
statue from Easter Island - are worth the quick peek we give them. More interesting for us is the valley stretching out
inland from La Serena all the way east back into the mountains.
The Elqui Valley is one of several dotted along the northern part of Chile and the south of Peru, unusual and famous for being extraordinary streaks of lush green inan otherwise dry, brown and inhospitable landscape. The Elqui Valley and its counterparts further north - such as the Azapa Valley near Arica - are famous for their agricultural produce. Olives, grapes, avocados, citrus fruit - all grow in abundance. The Elqui Valley is most famous for its grapes, nearly all of which are used to manufacture pisco
, a type of brandy drunk in huge quantities in both Peru and Chile - and the main ingredient in the national drinks of both countries (which both claim, naturally, to be the drink's original home), the wonderful pisco sour
Agricultural produce is not all the valley is famous for - its dry air and extraordinarily clear night skies are also a major draw for visitors and scientists alike. The Valley - and indeed the whole of the rest of Chile to the north - is dotted with observatories, from small-scale ones catering to amateur stargazers such as ourselves, to
multimillion dollar international astronomy projects. High above the small but pretty town of Vicuña is the Mamalluca Observatory, which runs nightly visits. Our timing is rather unfortunate - the day before a full moon - but the visit is still well worth it: Jupiter and Venus happen to be passing very close to each other in the night sky, and we also get to see some of Jupiter's moons through a pretty hefty telescope (to our admittedly naive disappointment the planet - visible in black and white rather than the cappuccino hues of astronomy textbooks, and still looks rather small), as well as take a close look at the moon's craters. Given that access to the big guns runs as many thousands of dollars per hour, we're happy enough with Mamalluca's pea-shooter - it's certainly given us the impetus to get into some more serious stargazing back at home.
A couple of hours further up the Elqui Valley is the small village of Pisco Elqui, which as its name suggests is located in the middle of vast vineyards dedicated to the growing of grapes for making pisco. Although much of the industrial-level production of pisco takes place outside the
valley, several distilleries remain in and around Pisco Elqui, the largest and best known being the pisquería Mistral
. Which, of course, runs visits and tastings! A fascinating tour of the distillery takes us through the many and complex steps involved in making a good pisco - it's harvesting season, luckily enough, and we get to see vast lorryloads of sweet and delicious moscatel grapes (we can't resist swiping a few when the guide's back is turned) being unloaded from the surrounding vineyards. The urge to jump into the vats of gorgeous-smelling grape juice is strong, but probably won't be much appreciated, so we resist. The visit concludes with a tasting of various piscos, from the young and colourless to the amber-coloured aged varieties, and of course a lovely cold pisco sour. Yum!
Back on the coast in La Serena, it's time for the next hop north. This one takes us to Caldera in region number III (we're burning through those numbers now), a small coastal town on the bleak northern Chilean coastline. Right next to Caldera is Bahía Inglesa (so called as it was visiter by British privateers in the late 17th century, bizarrely), a small beach resort where
we spend a couple of days making the most of the very laid-back atmosphere and good food (think large piles of tempura seafood, scallop empanadas and pisco sours). Although it's pretty warm up here compared to cool Patagonia, the weather in this part of Chile is a strange fish indeed. The sea in Bahía Inglesa may be a lovely blue, but the temperature doesn't quite match the tropical appearances: the cold Humboldt Current slams into the South American coast around these latitudes, cooling the air above it and producing spectacularly thick sea fogs which often don't burn off until late afternoon, if they burn off at all. Mornings in Valparaíso often see taller buildings peeping through the mist and clouds of the stuff sweeping down the streets. So, sadly, no swimming in lovely azure waters just yet - hopefully it won't be too long until we can.
There are more photos below