The Pacific, Pisco and the Planets

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June 7th 2013
Published: July 16th 2013
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One of Twenty-NineOne of Twenty-NineOne of Twenty-Nine

One of La Serena's many many churches
Saturday 25 May to Thursday 30 May

The overnight bus to La Serena was due to arrive in at 5am. Because of the early arrival time I was having "the fear" about sleeping past my stop. This meant a pretty horrendous night's sleep, interrupted by dreams of having woken at 8:30am god knows where. After the initial moments of panic that accompanied each of my waking moments, I managed to get a glimpse of the clock and see all was still ok.

Despite this, at 5am I disembarked the bus believing we'd arrived at La Serena. Apparently not! After a very confused conversation, it turned out it was one stop too early, so I climbed back on board and half an hour late we pulled into La Serena. Being a small town and not one of Chile's major tourism destinations, it meant no 24 hour reception at the hostel. So it was time to curl up for a couple of hours in the bus terminal cafe with a cup of coffee for warmth and a good book to pass the time!

I arrived to the hostel at the same time as a German couple - Daniel and Jacqueline.
Big BirdBig BirdBig Bird

My first live viewing of a Pelican
We got chatting whilst waiting for our rooms to be ready. They had been travelling at that point for 5 months. They originally intended just to travel in Central America, going to Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Panama. However, they'd been enjoying themselves so much that they decided to extend their travels and venture into South America too. They were to become my travel buddies over the next few days, as we discovered we had plans to go to the same surrounding towns.

After check-in I ventured out for an initial exploration of La Serena. Sadly it wasn't the best day's weather, being very overcast and on the chilly side. So, it seemed like an excellent opportunity for nap time, from which I woke up 3 hours later.

The next morning I ran into Daniel and Jacqueline at breakfast and we arranged to go to the neighbouring town of Coquimbo together. It was a lovely three hour walk along the beach from La Serena, during which we were blessed by the sun coming out. We were also joined by three street dogs - not an unusual occurrence in South America. I think I can pretty much say
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View down the beach to Coquimbo
with certainty that most group walks I have so far taken have involved doggy companions. One of the dogs ended up winning our affections, so we named her Coquimbo in honour of our destination.

All three dogs kept with us for the whole three hour walk, during which we saw surfers enjoying some smallish waves; pelicans chilling out; and birds diving for the day's catch.

At one point we had to leave the beach and walk up on to the promenade. As we approached Coquimbo there was a small neighbourhood to the left built upon a hill. On the top was a church, which from our viewpoint looked as if it had literally been built on top of the houses. It looked very bizarre!

On arrival in Coquimbo we stumbled upon a local market. We lost the dogs at this point, though Coquimbo was reunited with us (she looked very excited by this) when Daniel spotted her sniffing the crowds trying to find us. We then stopped in the supermarket for lunch supplies, leaving the dog outside.

Next was working out how to get to the Cruz del Tercer Milenio (aka The Millennium Cross), which was
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View back down the beach from Coquimbo
our final destination. It turned out that bus was the best option. En route, Coquimbo again found us, but not being allowed on the bus we had to abandon her. Very sadly this was directly into the clutches of a Boxer Dog. This nasty brute seemed intent on having his way with her despite her protestations, so we all left feeling extremely guilty about the plight of this poor dog!!!

The Cruz del Tercer Milenio sat at the top of the hill, El Vigia in Coquimbo. We spiraled our way up, having a short walk from the bus stop to the Cross. The Cross was completed in 2001 and contains a church at it's base. As it was a Sunday a church service was taking place whilst we were there, which was broadcast over the speaker system.

The Cross itself is not the most beautiful of structures, being built mainly from reinforced concrete and iron, but it is still very impressive at almost 100m tall. It's base is triangular, which represents the divinity that sustains its three columns (the Father, Son and Holy Ghost).

Entering into the site you go up a number of levels. On the
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Our three new friends (Coquimbo's the one on the pavement to the right)
third level are 12 metal columns signifying the 12 apostles. There are also a number of monuments depicting the different stations of the cross.

At the third level we boarded the elevator to the lookout point, located 230m above sea level in the Gallery of Honour to the Chilean Cardinals. Here you got an uninterrupted view of the Pacific coast line, as well as enjoying views over Coquimbo and its multi-coloured buildings.

Once we'd battled with the other visitors for pictures we boarded a bus back to La Serena. We all began to wish we'd waited until post-sunset, getting a glimpse of its beauty from the bus as we drove away.

On arrival back to La Serena we found a heavy metal bar, which seemed like the perfect place to enjoy dinner and a beer. I kept it simple with a mountain of french fries, whilst Daniel and Jacqueline impressively demolished one of the Chilean national dishes of Chorrillana. This consists of about a kilo of french fries, topped with fried beef strips, eggs, fried onions and sausages.

We ended the night watching Iron Man 3.

The next day we all took a bus from
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Ship out at sea off the coast of Coquimbo
La Serena to Pisco Elqui, which included some amazing mountain views whilst the sun was still up. As the sun began to set, the mountains took on a pink-orange colour and as we departed the stop in Vicuna a rainbow leapt from a cloud atop one of the mountains. It really was beautiful.

By the time we arrived into Pisco Elqui it was pitch black, so spotting the hostel was going to be a problem. Luckily for us a family on the bus knew where we needed to get off. So we jumped off, donned the head torches and made our way uphill. The owner wasn't around when we arrived so we opened a bottle of wine to start our wait. After a while it began to rain and get a bit windy, so we decided to let ourselves into the kitchen and make dinner.

Eventually the owner turned up, so we managed to settle into our rooms and get a good night's sleep.

The next day it was still raining, so the early morning walk we hoped to have was abandoned. Later we did head out to visit a Pisco distillery. The walk there afforded us
The Church on the HousesThe Church on the HousesThe Church on the Houses

Hill top town en route into Coquimbo
great views of the many Pisco vineyards, houses containing fruit trees and beautiful flowers and mountains stretching out into the distance. Everyone we passed was extremely friendly, greeting us and being greeted by us with a 'Buenos Dias'.

The tour of the distillery was in Spanish, so I didn't get all the fine detail. Luckily, Daniel and Jacqueline understood more than me so managed to fill in some gaps. The distillery made two types of Picso - rojo (red) and negro (black). Rojo is most commonly used as a mixer and as the base for cocktails, whilst negro should be enjoyed best on its own.

We were shown different rooms where each of the processes took place, including where the liquid is heated, the underground cellar where it is aged and the room where it ferments.

At the end we were given a taster of each type of Pisco, which was nice and warming!

That evening we enjoyed dinner together at the hostel and chatted with a Chilean family staying there, learning a bit more about Chilean wine and beer from the father, Xavier and talking music.

Our plan to meet up with Matt and
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The Cruz del Trecer Milenio from below
James, friends of Daniel and Jacqueline's who arrived that day, was scuppered. There was nowhere to go for a drink in the evening (everything being closed) and both sets of hostel owners not allowing their guests to have visitors. So we made plans to meet with them for a walk the following day.

Picking them up at 11am we walked up to a nearby lookout point recommended by the hostel owner. Luckily the rain had gone for good so we had a clear day. The walk took about an hour one way and we got some incredible views of the town from above in one direction and valleys of vineyards in the other, all backed by snow capped mountains.

Daniel, Jacqueline and I then had to leave to catch our bus to Vicuna. We were treated with views of Valle del Elqui getting to do the trip back in daylight. There were vineyards as far as the eye could see, soaring mountain scenes, forests of trees and a bubbling stream running along the valley floor. From my window seat I also got to enjoy the warming feeling of the sun on my face and wind in my hair

Panorama of Coquimbo
- all very pleasant!

That evening we planned to go the observatory for stargazing, so on arrival into Vicuna went to book tickets. We were persuaded to go at 6:30pm rather than 8pm (our original plan), but later tried to go back and change to the later time. Daniel (bless him) went to do this whilst Jacqueline and I started on dinner. It turned out the later time slot was not happening, so we had to do the 6:30pm slot. For Daniel this meant a two-way sprint - one way to come and collect us and the other with us both in tow desperately trying not to miss the bus there! We made it on time and set off on the short drive up into the surrounding mountains.

On arrival at the observatory I was amazed by the night sky. We had been blessed with a totally cloudless night, so the sky was alive with stars. My trance was broken as we were split into two groups - one for the English tour and the other in Spanish. Our first stop was one of the observatory telescopes. We took it in turns to view Saturn. The guide first
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Pisco vineyards
pointed this out to the naked eye, using a laser pointer that had a length of 8 metres - the gadget geeks among the group being super excited by this. Through the telescope we could see Saturn as a small black and white image. At first this was a bit puzzling, as you always see pictures of the planets in colour, but it was explained to us that these pictures are always created with long exposures; are a combination of pictures taken with different filters to enhance certain aspects; and are often digitally enhanced. As we were seeing the image "instantly" we did not have the benefit of this. The planet's famous ring was clear to see though.

Next we looked at a cluster of stars in the Andromeda Galaxy, which just filled the viewfinder; followed by the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius. Finally here, we looked at one of the stars that burns slightly red. It was explained to us that this meant the star was dying. In between turns looking through the telescope it was possible to look out of the opening in the observatory roof to enjoy more of the stars scattered throughout the
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Flower gardens

The guide went on to tell us more about astronomy in Chile. There are a number of international observatories in Chile - around 42% of all international observatories are based here at present, with the percentage set to grow. This makes it the astronomy capital of the world. The main reason behind this is the high percentage of clear night skies it enjoys in a year (often more than 300 days a year).

Chile pays nothing for these observatories, providing only the land. The only cost mentioned was that Vicuna had to replace all its street lighting to reduce light pollution and ensure the observatories remained in the area. Despite being very expensive it is worth it for the country, as the observatories bring a lot of tourism and investment. In addition to this, Chilean scientists are given one free month a year at each of the international observatories to do their own studies.

We were also told about the Very Large Telescope, which I had previously heard about on the BBC's Star Gazing Live. This is based in Chile and consists of four telescopes that can be used individually or together. There is also another
Valleys and MountainsValleys and MountainsValleys and Mountains

Views during our walk
telescope in development, to be called the Extremely Large Telescope (seriously, these guys have a great sense of humour) that will have a 40 metre wide mirror, enabling scientists to see further into space than ever before and also view stars and planets in greater detail. This will also be based in Chile.

After the viewing from the observatory tower we went out on to the veranda. I was awestruck by how many stars I could see here, filling the sky in their millions. Some were brighter, some appeared to twinkle and some seemed to vary slightly in colour. Just staring up into the sky it was impossible to take it all in. In addition we could see some of the dust clouds within the Milky Way, as well as the Andromeda Galaxy. Had it not been so cold I would have asked if I could sleep there!!!

The Guide also pointed out a number of constellations whilst we were outside. This included the star signs of Leo, Cancer and Scorpio. I'm pleased to report Leo was one of his favourites! We also learned about how constellations are formed by different cultures and the stories behind these. Sadly
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During our tour
I can't recall them, but plan to look them up on my return. One of the main differences I remember is that unlike our constellations, where the shape is made up like a dot-to-dot, with the lines forming a skeleton for the structure, other cultures (such as the Incas) form the shapes using the dark matter between stars. This included a llama and baby llama.

We also learned how the Southern Cross constellation is used in the Southern Hemisphere to determine where the Earth's axis is, rather than the pole star.

The guide also picked out a star in the sky with the laser pointer. He then set up the telescope, which was located on the veranda, to focus on this star. When looking through the telescope we suddenly saw that what appeared as one star to the naked eye was in fact made up of many many stars - so many the viewfinder was packed with them. I made a decision then and there that investing in a telescope was definitely a dream that needed to be fulfilled!

Back inside we were introduced to some free software that can be downloaded from the internet called Stellarium. This allows you to view what the night sky would look like anywhere in the world, at different times of year and different times of night. It also enables the constellations from different cultures to be viewed.

Daniel, Jacqueline and I left buzzing from the visit and determined to download Stellarium on our return.

We left Vicuna the following day to return to La Serena for our next buses. I said goodbye to Daniel and Jacqueline, as they were heading off to San Pedro de Atacama. I then had to kill time before my bus at 1:30am, so after dinner and some reading it was time to hit the movies again, this time for The Great Gatsby.

Additional photos below
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Surf's UpSurf's Up
Surf's Up

Surfers between La Serena and Coquimbo
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Monumental Moments

One of the monuments linked to the life and death pf Christ within the Cruz del Trecer Milenio
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Pacific Coast

Views of Coquimbo and the Pacific Coast from the Cruz del Trecer Milenio

19th July 2013

Turning pages
Nearly into June! Thank goodness your are static for a wee while to allow you to catch up. The observatory sounds incredible, certainly a place to visit again if you ever can, that's not to take away the other sites you have visited which you have obviously enjoyed. Looking forward to the next installment as ever.
26th August 2013

in the night sky
What is pisco? The cross is very industrial looking, not quite sure myself. Star gazing sounds amazing, shame you can't take photos of it. And what is it with dogs following tourists around?? looking forward to next installment xx
10th October 2013

Hola! Or 'Ay up lass' depending on which side of the Equator you are!
Now then Nell, hope you are doing well! how is your pet amoeba, has it grown any hair yet? We are both well and have just returned from Sicily. Its a beautiful island but abit local for you, I'm sure! Keep the blogs coming, I know they are behind but very interesting all the same XX

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