COQUIMBO REGION DISCOVERY
Tengo de llegar al Valle / que su flor guarda el almendro (…) Van a mirarme los cerros / como padrinos tremendos, / volviéndose en animales / con ijares soñolientos, / dando el vagido profundo / que les oigo hasta durmiendo / porque doce me ahuecaron / cuna de piedra y de leño (…) y yo me duermo embriagada / en sus nudos y entreveros.
Just as Christopher Columbus more than 500 years ago on October 12 discovered America, I took profit from the national holiday celebrating this historical moment and left with my friend Mareike on a wonderful three days trip to discover the Coquimbo region (4th region) in the area of Chile called Norte Chico.
Even though our trip started on Friday evening officially, I would say I have left already two days earlier. J I was so much looking forward to it, the more that I had been reading on Thursday the wonderful verses of Gabriela Mistral who was born, lived and was much attached to her native Valle del Elqui that we were going to visit besides other. And I was excited as I was supposed to have the chance to see the cute Humboldt penguins, my second favorite animal after felines!
So, let’s take it chronologically: Friday 19:30, Estacion Central, bus TUR-BUS, here we go! The return ticket for La Serena almost 500km away from Santiago in a semi-cama bus (very comfortable, something between a bed – cama – and a normal seat, you get a pillow and blanket and can sleep very well) cost us 25500pesos (cca 40EUR). It is always good to buy tickets well in advance here in Chile to get the lowest fares. We arrived to La Serena at 3 o’clock in the morning, met our pick up and were brought to our hostal in the centre. Once again, it is good to organize yourself well and book your accommodation before the arrival to your destination. Our hostal Kalycanto was family run, with a very pleasant atmosphere, well-equipped, clean and for all that quite cheap (7000pesos/night/person). We fell into the bed for 4 hours to get a little bit energy for the long day to come.
Saturday: VALLE DEL ELQUI and OBSERVATORIO MAMALLUCA
It would be quite complicated to visit all the places in the region on our own, without a car, with a lack of time and being two gringas, so, also for security reasons; we pre-reserved organized tours which is the most common way to discover Chile in general. The two Saturday tours cost us 33000pesos in total and the Sunday one 30000pesos everything included (low season fares). A nice guide coming from the region picked us up at 8:45 in our hotel and we started off the interesting tour together with 8 other tourists – all Chilean. After 30 minutes in the car, we arrived to the Valle del Elqui (named after the Elqui river, almost the last river in the north of Chile, afterwards there is only desert, desert and desertJ). It is most famous for the production of pisco, fruits like the Chilean papaya or vegetables like the avocado (palta), as the region of Gabriela Mistral, the Chilean Nobel Prize winner, and finally for its clearest sky which makes it one of the most important places in the world for astronomical observation. Valle del Elqui is said to have 355 sunny days a year and there is supposed to be some kind of a positive magnetic zone which makes it a much-sought-for destination for mediation and relaxation. It is sometimes called the Latin-American sister of Tibet as yoga and alternative medicine are much practiced here. I can confirm that I felt very calm and relaxed over there. While La Serena on the cost is known for rather cloudy weather, especially in the mornings until 12 o’clock (which we were witnessing), it is almost incredible that you drive 50km further and the sky is blue and the temperatures are much higher (around 10C more in average). This phenomenon is called thermal inversion; you see a wall of grey clouds behind you and a beautiful clear sky above and before you. It is because of the Humboldt Current affecting the weather on the coast.
PAPAYA and OPUNTIA. Our first short stop was a papaya plantation where we learned more about papayas and the unique Chilean type CARICA. Carica is rich in vitamin C, fiber and the papaina enzyme (the same as in papaya but richer), which is a reported digestive aid, beneficial to the stomach and colon. Fresh caricas are not available. The fruit needs to be poached for a few minutes, as it is too hard to be eaten fresh (similar to a plantain or a chestnut). And, because it needs to be picked at the right maturity and then only keeps for a couple of days, even Chileans can’t buy the fruit fresh: They also purchase their carica in a jar, seeded, poached and ready to eat, cook, grill on skewers or fill. Afterwards we also learned more about plantations of tuna cactus (Opuntia) that usually is also cultivated for its fruits (mniam!) but in the case of the plantation in the Valle, it is a German company that has it for a completely different reason: there is an insect, the Cochineal, that lives as a parasite on them and this insect is afterwards used to fabricate red color (carmine) not harmful to human skin and is used in lipsticks for example. Funny the feeling of having a smashed insect on my lips! J Having read more on this topic, I found out that the cochineal dye was used by Aztec and Maya peoples and that nowadays Peru is the largest exporter of it.
EMBALSE PUCLARO. Our second stop was the 760ha water reservoir Puclaro. It is said to be one of the best places for kitesurf and windsurf as there is a strong wind throughout the year. To point out the windy conditions, a “wind harp” (see photos) has been installed recently by the Chilean Art Foundation (Fondart). Standing in the middle of the windy bank, enjoying a miraculous view, our guide told us everything about the observatories in the region and its importance for world astronomy. I will come back to this topic later on when telling you about our night visit to the Observatory Mamalluca.
MONTEGRANDE and CASA GABRIELA MISTRAL. The picturesque village of Montegrande in the heart of the river Claro Valley is best known for being the home of Gabriela Mistral, Chile’s most famous poet just after Pablo Neruda. I will dedicate a separate post to her interesting biography and works. In her house, besides her life and poems, we got also to know a “stone refrigerator” – when water flows through it, it gets out fresh and cold.
PISCO ELQUI – PISQUERIA LOS NICHOS. Pisco, pisco, pisco, yay! I think it was quite obvious from my last posts that I fell in love with the pisco saur drink here in Chile. As the Valle del Elqui is the center of production of pisco, our obligatory next stop was Pisco Elqui, another charming village in the most western part of the Valle. We visited the country’s oldest and supposedly best artisanal pisquería Los Nichos. Pisco is a brandy or aguardiente distilled from the white Muscat grapes grown in two main regions of South America: the area around Pisco and the Valle del Elqui in central Chile. The Elqui Valley is called the zona pisquera, due to the favorable geographic and climatic conditions, and is the only pisco producing area in Chile. You might have thought, just as me, that pisco is from Peru, but the truth is it has since always been a traditional liquor of Chile as well and even though the word pisco might have been introduced by the indigenous habitants of Peru (Quechua), the Chileans were the first to write it down and use it as what we would call “registered mark” nowadays. Recently, there has been a dispute between Peru and Chile over the appellation ownership (also because it started to be produced during the period of the Spanish viceroyalty and Chile and Peru were not separate countries at that time).
LUNCH IN A SOLAR RESTAURANT. We were getting pretty tired as it was really hot, the air is very dry in the Valle (only 7 to 15% humidity, while in La Serena on the cost it is 85% approximately) and the two different types of strong pisco and wines we tasted could be felt, so we were really looking forward to our late lunch. I was looking forward to it the more that I am interested in any kind of alternative stuff and our lunch was supposed to be prepared in its whole only by using solar rays. It was another extraordinary experience! There was times when the inhabitants of the Villaseca village had to risk their lives to cook a hot meal over a wood-burning stove. There was no more firewood left in the arid and deforested region and so in 1989 researchers from the University of Chile launched the first project to try out solar ovens. This has become a great success in the following years and the whole village uses solar ovens now to cook their meals, also thanks to the collaboration with the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). As part of a plan to save trees and other vegetation, UNDP and its partners taught the inhabitants how to make and use solar ovens (capacity-building). Here an article on it: http://content.undp.org/go/newsroom/2009/june/world-environment-day/los-hornos-solares-ayudan-a-chile-a-prevenir-la-deforestacin.en. The goat meat in an onion-carrot sauce, specialty of the restaurant, was simply delicious!
VICUÑA. Our final stop was the principal town of the Valle del Elqui. The interesting parts to see are the Museum of Gabriela Mistral, the main Plaza dedicated to Gabriela Mistral with several sculptures to honor her and the German style wooden Bauer Tower, part of the city hall, overlooking the main square, and named after one of the early mayors.
MYSTICAL COCHIQUAZ. Further into the interior of the high mountain range of the Andes next to Vikuña is the new magnetic centre of the earth, at mystical Cochiquaz. I have already mentioned that I am pretty much into alternative things and also mystical cosmology, so in this sense I was somewhat in my element! We had unfortunately only one day for the discovery of the Valley, had we had more, I would have certainly liked to discover more of the hidden mystical places. The theory says that with the change of the century and the change of cosmic eras, from Pisces to Aquarius, the magnetic and spiritual energies of the earth are being transferred from 30º N to 30º S. Prior to this change the magnetic centre of the earth was located in Tibet in the Himalayas, for the past 2000 years the earth has been under the influence of Pisces. Now, the location of this special place is at 30ºS and 70º W in the Elqui Valley at Cochiguaz. Since 1960 many esoteric Brotherhoods and Sisterhoods linked to astrology, yoga and meditation have settled their communities in the Elqui. The first group to settle in the Valley was the Great Universal Fraternity who searched for the place indicated by the Aquarius Era where a new water, Svadhisthana chakra would flow and renew civilization. They found in the Elqui Valley two sacred rivers, the river Turbio (ying) and the river Claro (yang) which met at the town of Rivadavia where they established their community called Ashram the Magnetic sanctuary. In 1982, the magnetic forces in the earth were measured by satellite for the first time. The Magstat map showed a great positive point of energy between 27º and 33ºS just where the Elqui Valley is located. Another popular saying tells that when the NASA measured the electromagnetic field in the Cerro Cancana, it went up to 1500 Mega Units, the highest value in the world. Highly interesting all this, isn’t it?
In the end of our day-tour the sky turned to be a little bit less clear and some clouds appeared. So our night visit to the observatory was in question. L Our guide brought us back to our hotel in La Serena were we were to wait for the confirmation whether we can or not do the tour. After a while of nervous waiting, we finally received the so much awaited call that said: YES, the sky cleared up again and you can do the tour, youhouu! I just imagined this would happen to an astronomer who has reserved his session in the Tololo Inter-American Observatory (the best professional one in the Valley, you have to make your reservation one year before your visit unless you have friends there). J So we had dinner and at 21:30 left for the “expedition night-sky”. We were not tired at all, no no…(a lot of irony). On the other hand, I was actually so excited about everything that it made me forget I am tired…and a bit of good music and dancing before the expedition, made me regain energy too. Really, good music, singing and dancing makes miracles! Just as says the song La Vida es un Carnaval: Para disfrutar, hay que vivir cantando! (To fully enjoy life, you have to live it by singing!) and I would add bailando! (dancing)
OBSERVATORY MAMALLUCA. http://www.mamalluca.cl/ok/ As I already mentioned, Chile provides one of world’s best conditions for observing the sky and space. The sky is perfectly clear and there is almost no light pollution, Chile together with Spain is the only country who has a special law protecting the night sky. This night at the Mamalluca observatory (now used only for educational purposes) was absolutely amazing! I have never seen so many stars on the sky, so bright and creating such interesting constellations. I have never seen Jupiter and I have never realized the rotation of the Earth so intensely – in only one hour the constellations have totally changed their location on the sky, some disappeared and new appeared, impressive! We also learned more about the Andean Cosmovision, so mystic and enriching!
Generally speaking, you can find the world’s most important observatories in Chile and in a few years you should be able to find in Chile probably the worlds most important observatory with a telescope incomparable to any other previously build one. Among the most important ones are La Silla Paranal Observatory in the southern part of the Atacama desert, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile and at an altitude of 2400 metres, where ESO (European Southern Observatory) operates three major telescopes: the 3.6-m telescope, the New Technology Telescope (NTT), and the 2.2-m Max-Planck-ESO telescope; and the Gemini Sur Observatory (on Cerro Pachón, 2700m), the twin to the Gemini Norte in Hawai: these two 8,1m telescopes, currently among the largest and most advanced optical/infrared telescopes available to astronomers, provide together almost complete coverage of the northern and southern skies. Europe, East Asia and Northern America are collaborating since 2003 in the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter Array) –a major new facility for world astronomy comprised of up to 80 12-m antennas, with baselines up to 16 km and state-of-the-art receivers that cover all the atmospheric windows up to 1 THz. An additional, compact array of 7-m and 12-m antennas will greatly enhance ALMA’s ability to image extended sources. The resolution will be ten times better than the one of the pictures taken with the Hubble telescope. It will be located on the Chajnantor plain of the Chilean Andes in the District of San Pedro de Atacama, 5000 m above sea level. Another revolutionary project will be the OWL (Overwhelmingly Large Telescope). Until now, telescopes have basically an aperture of less than 10m, OWL on the contrary will have a 42m aperture (the first idea was even 100m). The investments in all these and other revolutional projects are also astronomic! J
Sunday: PUNTA CHOROS and ISLA DAMAS
After three hours and a half of sleep (also due to the time change to the summer time here in Chile that made us loose one hour), we left on another awesome trip on Sunday morning. While Valle del Elqui is to the east of La Serena, Punta Choros is about 100km to the north of it. It is the beginning of the desert so it is quite interesting to pass through the semi-arid areas until arriving to a real desert environment. Even though it is a desert area, there are once again special weather conditions caused by the Humboldt Current and a phenomenon of recent years called El Niño: an atmospheric and oceanic phenomenon that occurs by the increase in temperature of the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Practically speaking, it means it is very cloudy (almost all the time) and that it rains far more often. As everything bad is good for something, this phenomenon enabled the existence of a “flourished desert” (DESIERTO FLORIDO) and visitors can admire from September to November beautiful flowers that are in their majority endemic. Beautiful indeed! Enjoy the beauty here (and in my photos! 😉 ): http://www.atacamaphoto.com/atacama-flora/desert-flora-1.htm.
While driving to Punta Choros, we passed by numerous posters protesting against the construction of a thermoelectric center only about 20km from the natural reserve of Punta Choros. It provoked quite an affair here in Chile and filled the news when I arrived more than a month ago and so now it seems that the French-Belgian multinational Suez Energy will (hopefully!) have to relinquish the construction as recently announced by President Piñera. We also passed by several mines and the guide told us about the mining history (but also present) of the region. The same day in the evening, celebrations took place in the mina San Jose not that far from where we were that day as the digging machine finally arrived to the end of the tunnel and the next phase of rescue works of the 33 mineros could begin. I am 100% sure you are well informed about this current top world news. Right now, at this very moment, the 20th minero has seen the daylight, the whole country (and actually world) is watching it in real time and the emotions are very strong. But let’s get back to the nature and our wonderful Sunday!
After about 2 hours on the road, we finally arrived to Punta Choros, a small quite village inhabited by fishermen, our point of departure to the national reserve of Humboldt penguins. It was cloudy and windy (normal weather in this area) and my huge excitement turned into big anxiety when I found out that we will be navigating in the middle of the DEEP, COLD AND AGITATED OCEAN for one hour and a half before our first stop ON A LITTLE WOODEN FISHERMEN BOAT (!!!)…ehm, gluck… J What was going on inside me is difficult to explain but the fact the name of the boat was Nicolas did not help and I was really scared while stepping into the little boat and I was laughing a lot in the first moments as all the adrenalin in my body reached his top. A real adventure in the Pacific Ocean, I tell you! But one that was worth it! After a drive of around 30minutes, we approached the Isla Choros and could start to admire the animals that live in the reserve: the dolphins did not seem to want to greet us at first but they finally appeared and euphoria started to reign in our boat. Afterwards, approximately 20 minutes later, we navigated closer to the caves and coast of the Isla Choros to see sea lions/wolves, different types of sea birds and…and…and…yes…the source of my utmost excitement…the Humboldt PENGUINS!!! Youhouuu! Oh my god, they were sooooo terribly cute, I would have loved to have one joining me back to Santiago and afterwards to Europe. J It would be my little dancing happy feet! J I forgot about all my fear while watching the animals and nice cliff formations. After about a total of one hour and a half on the wild ocean, we arrived to the Isla Damas, the island where we got off and had one hour to take a walk and admire the outstanding flora and fauna of this Caribbean-like island with two wonderful beaches with white sand. The weather would however not permit any sun tanning and relaxing in the sun. So we took a very nice walk and admired the magic flora of the island. Already experienced, we stepped into the boat in a far more relaxed way than in the beginning and enjoyed the about 40 minutes ride on the ocean back to Punta Choros. The late, but delicious and rich, 16h lunch in an oasis in the middle of the desert was a real salvation as we were very hungry. We had a very nice talk with the other members of the group during the lunch and I discovered the charming Spanish man is a European diplomat working in the Representation of the EU in Santiago. You might remember that I applied for an internship there. But it would not be my cup of tea really (mainly commerce analysis), so I am happy to have my present internship. When we drove back to La Serena through the desert, we had the chance to meet a Guanaco family. Guanacos (Lama Guanicoe) belong to the family of lamas and their fiber is particularly prized for its soft, warm feel and is found in luxury fabric.
For the evening, our first idea was to go to a nice bar for a drink, but when we found out there is nothing really interesting/open in the center of La Serena, we just bought all the things necessary for a ladies evening (like pisco saur J) and had fun in our hotel. J Our tired state would in any case not permit any big partying and we told us we will spare our energy for Buenos Aires and its hot tango nights. J
Monday: COQUIMBO and LA SERENA
Monday was a national holiday commemorating the discovery of America so we had one more day to discover La Serena and its surroundings. We did not have to get up that early as the previous days and were not in a rush also because the weather in the mornings is always really bad in this area.
Coquimbo. The name of this nowadays bustling fish port is derived from a Diaguita word that means “place of calm waters”. Charles Darwin once said that the town was "remarkable for nothing but its extreme quietness." Some parts of the town are actually very quiet, this is true. Coquimbo is a major shipping point for fruit and wine produced from the nearby Elqui Valley and there is an important fish and seafood market as well. Our visit to this market and the port was however the reason why I suddenly somehow needed to quickly go away from this town – the smell of all the pescados and mariscos, in a place with in my opinion almost no measures of hygiene, was just too insupportable. Luckily we went to the fish market and harbor in the end and could therefore undisturbed visit the rest of the town before, including the symbol of the city, the Cruz del Tercer Milenio (Third Millennium Cross). This 83m tall and 40m wide concrete cross located atop of the El Vigília hill was built in 2001 and sitting in 197m above sea level is considered the tallest monument in South America. Interesting to visit, but the use of concrete makes it look cold and unfinished. Let’s go to the beach now!
La Serena. Even though the whole region is called after Coquimbo, the main city of it is La Serena. Founded in 1544, it is Chile’s second oldest city after Santiago that has retained its historic architecture in the Spanish colonial style. As it also has a great selection of beaches (along the Avenida del Mar, "Sea Avenue"), the city has become a significant tourist centre over the years and gets very crowded in January and February. I would not go there for summer holidays however as there is typically abundant morning cloudiness and drizzles and the sun shows up (if it shows up!) only after noon. We witnessed exactly this type of weather – it was grey and cold until about 14h (until the end of our charming lunch in a restaurant on the beach) and then suddenly the clouds dissipated and gave way to the clear sky and it would have gone very hot had there not been the fresh wind. We spend a really nice afternoon on the 6km long beach joining the El Faro Monument. The beaches of La Serena are a perfect place for jogging, they have however very rough water and are therefore not suitable for swimming. As our bus to Santiago was at 23:30 only, we had enough time to visit the whole city centre after the beach and admire the picturesque colonial buildings that form the biggest “Typical Zone of Chile” (zone of historical and architectural importance that is being preserved as national patrimony). The numerous churches stand out with beautiful models of belfries, there being gained the title of City of the belfries.
We spent another nice lady evening in our hotel room before being transported to the bus terminal for our late night bus to Santiago where we arrived at 6 o’clock in the morning on Tuesday and full of nice experience went to work for 9. J We basically used every minute of these three free days and the bit of tiredness was definitely worth it! I cannot wait to go on another trip!
The next two weekends will be more relaxing and I do not think to leave very far from Santiago, even though I will certainly want to do at least one day trips to get to fresh air and discover something new. So the next bigger trip, again with Mareike, will be BUENOS AIRES in the end of October.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post, my dears!
Take care and enjoy life!
Besitos, guapos mios!