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Vicuna, Chile: Star gazing in the Elqui Valley

sunny 27 °C
View South America 2014 on DeeandZarius's travel map.

Wednesday 19th March - 23rd March 2014

It was a loooooong bus journey but we eventually arrived in La Serena in the early evening.

The Elqui Valley is well known for it's clear night skies. It's the ideal location for some star gazing and the hills are dotted with observatories. It was also the birth place of Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American to win the Noble Prize in Literature.

Researching it beforehand it sounded like La Serena, at the start of Valle del Elqui, was a good town to base ourselves in and it's on the coast and apparently had a nice beach. We were sold. As we drove from Santiago the sun continued to shine until about 10 minutes before we arrived at our destination when the clouds set in and the temperature dropped and we couldn't help but think, typical! We checked into a German run hostel, Hostal El Punto, if you're going to choose any nationality to run a hostel you would expect the Germans to do it efficiently and we weren't disappointed. Our room was clean and had a lovely outside terrace and of course lots of lists and instructions on what you can an can't do. They get a bad wrap online for being too strict but it didn't bother us. And we only had one night. We went exploring in the dark and decided we didn't really like the town so we were glad we only had the one night. Then we headed down to the beach and our opinions started to change. Anytime we see water we're sold! So we popped into the reception of some chalets on the waterfront and it turns out they had one free and we could just pop by in the morning to take it. But when we woke up the next morning it was cold and grey and we decided it would be miserable on the beach so we packed up and set off to find a bus to take us deeper into the valley to small town called Vicuna.

This was a complicated morning. We had read that we could go directly from La Serena to Mendoza where we were heading next so we decided to book our tickets for a few days time. We lugged our backpacks to the bus terminal only to be told that buses only leave on Sunday nights. Hmmm..we wanted to leave on Saturday. There was another bus company who apparently had daily buses but their office was downtown not in the station. So after a lot of faffing about we hopped in a taxi that had no meter and got completely ripped off but arrived at the office of this bus company only to be told that yes they should have daily buses but they don't anymore. I couldn't understand her explanation why, but she advised us to try the bus station. We decided to leave it. We couldn't be bothered so instead went to find a collectivo to Vicuna. After more wrong directions and endless walking about we asked a lovely driver who pointed us in the right direction (completely opposite to where we had been told) and we shortly found ourselves whizzing through the countryside and ten minutes out of La Serena, the sun was back!

We didn't have a place to stay in Vicuna but had a name, Hostal Aldea del Elqui, and a street and it's a very small town so we found it easily without a map. They had a room free overlooking the gorgeous garden with a small pool, hammocks, a double swing and tables and chairs and we decided to do little and instead enjoy the sunshine.

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Later we walked up the street to book a trip the the observatory and the person in the tourist information office recommended a short hike from town to watch the sunset. Cerro de la Virgen. We enjoyed the garden for the afternoon and then set off on our walk. It wasn't as clearly marked as we had expected and after a few wrong turns and some help from the friendly locals we were back on track. The immediate difference with this trail to others we have done, apart from the complete lack of signage, is the litter. The sides of the road are almost knee deep in rubbish. It's sad to see it in such a poor condition.

Although the walk was very short, it was steep. Not helped by the fact that we went wrong and took a gravel route straight up instead of the winding road! But the views were amazing and the sunset beautiful.

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The halfway mark
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A shrine to the Virgin Mary alongside the town's communication towers!
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One of the observatories in the distance
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The next day after breakfast, which was in fact a dessert table, I kid you not, we set off to explore the town. It's definitely not bustling. It's pretty, but slow. The main square, Plaza de Armas, is very pretty and it has some interesting buildings around it. We planned on walking out to the Pisco Brewery that afternoon but once we got back to that tranquil garden there was no shifting us.

Torre Bauer, apparently commissioned by a former German town Mayor, who had it shipped over from Germany. Sounds very extravagant so it might not be true. It now houses the tourist information office.
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A sculpture of the face of Gabriela Mistral
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We managed to drag ourselves away as the sun went down to join a tour to The Mammalluca Observatory. And what an experience that turned out to be. I have never seen a sky like it, with so many stars. It was incredible. The Milky Way was completely visible and the guide used a 2km laser to show us the other constellations. Wow. All I wanted to do was lie on the ground and look at the sky all night. They had other plans though. The tour includes a short film about astronomy and the constellations and some mad facts about the biggest telescope in the world, currently residing in Chile, and the plans for the next biggest one, also to be housed in Chile and the costs...80 billion dollars! They are still trying to get it approved. And then we got to look through a couple of telescopes to see Mars up close Saturn with its ring. Impressive as it was, I still preferred what I saw with the naked eye. There were just so many stars! The sky was matted with them, it was incredible, I have never seen anything like it.

It felt like something out of a movie, looking up at the sky through the open roof
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The super duper 2km laser in action
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Capturing the night sky with a camera is not easy. I took one pic, it was a black screen, so I gave up. Zarius had a bit more success and managed to get some of the Milky Way...
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The next day it was time to leave, in hindsight we should have stayed longer but with so much still to come we didn't know what the impact would be later on, whether we'd have to skip other places. This is the first and only time during the trip that we made this mistake. So I guess we're doing pretty well!

We had decided to skip the direct bus, it was working out far too complicated and instead opted to take a lunchtime bus back to Santiago, stay the night and get an early bus the next day to Mendoza. The journey to Santiago was uneventful and it meant we had one more lovely dinner in Bellavista. It felt like arriving home, if just for one night. Then the next day we were up early again to catch our bus to Mendoza, the long awaited Argentinian wine region.

Posted by DeeandZarius 07:47 Archived in Chile Tagged vicuna_chile the_elqui_valley la_serena star_gazing_elqui_valley

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Wow!! the two of you are reaaly experiencing a lifetime in 4 months!! Incredible and amazing!! ou must tie all of these memoeies in your heart!! Love you lots!

by Alvira Marx

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