Seeing stars and cooking by the sun in the Elqui Valley


The Elqui Valley
Every now and then you come across a place that surpasses your expectations. The Elqui Valley is one of them. During the magical three days I’ve spent here, I’ve sipped tuna juice (not what you might think), learned about the first Latin American to win the Noble Prize for Literature, eaten food cooked by solar rays and gazed at distant nebulae through a giant telescope. Apparently, it’s also famous for UFO sightings. So far, though, I have no X-files to report.


Adobe house in Diaguitas
I’m staying in Vicuña, just an hour’s bus journey east from Coquimbo and La Serena, in a great little hostel, Donde Rita, presided over by Rita herself who is originally from Germany. The valley is bordered by stark brown mountains, but a ribbon of green threads its way along the course of the Rio Elqui. Much of the agriculture here is taken up by vineyards, but the grapes that are produced here go to make the national drink, pisco, which is quite potent. I speak from experience! Mixed with lime and sugar you get pisco sour.


Grapes at the Capel Pisco distillery
On the first day I hired a bike and cycled along a 14 km loop around local villages and pisco distilleries. I recommend saving the pisco tasting until towards the end. The village of Diaguitas is really pretty with a fascinating church. The houses in the villages are all made of adobe and painted bright colours. I stopped for lunch in a restaurant which specialises in solar cooking. The food is cooked in sun traps and no artificial energy is used. Of course, that’s fine in a place that sees rain one day a year, if that. It wouldn’t work so well in the UK. I also got to try tuna juice which comes from the fruit of the cactus. In English we call it prickly pear.  


Solar ovens
The next day I took a tour to Pisco Elqui, another village further along the valley as well as Montegrande where there is a museum dedicated to Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral. She had quite a tragic life, but is highly venerated by Chileans. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945.


The Elqui Valley
The skies here are renowned for their clarity. During the days the sky is a glorious brilliant blue, while at night you can see the Milky Way. So, it’s no surprise that there are several observatories around the valley which allow tourists to visit and peer at distant stars and galaxies. I went to the Mamalluca one. It’s informative and interesting, but the experience of looking through a telescope was a bit underwhelming to be honest. All you see are big white dots. Far more rewarding was simply looking at the night skies with the naked eye and enjoying the lack of light pollution. It’s something you never get to see living in a city.


Church at Pisco Elqui
The last day I decided to go it alone and abandon guidebooks and agencies. Rita recommended a visit to Gualliguaica, a village which was moved in 2000 to make way for the Puclaro dam and reservoir. There’s nothing to see in the village itself, but the hike up the mountain behind the church gave great views down to the valley. I saw many cacti and the tuna fruit growing on them. I was even rewarded by a family of parrots which came to perch in a nearby tree. Best of all, I was totally alone. 


Puclaro dam
I’ve done a huge amount while I’ve been here, but I also feel completely relaxed and far removed from city life. The only thing I haven’t succeeded in doing is sighting a UFO. Maybe if I have a few more pisco sours tonight, that might do the trick.

Parrots near Gualliguaica

Tea and tsunamis, from Santiago to Coquimbo

  Tourist gaffes, we all make them. Whether it’s pointing your feet at a Buddha statue in Asia or wandering around a strict Muslim town in a bikini, I’ve seen it all. My little faux pas was tiny in comparison. After a strenuous day exploring the sites of Santiago, I was desperate for a cup of tea and so staggered into the first place I saw. I ordered my drink and then asked the waitress where the chairs were, not realising it was a famous stand up only  bar, a café con piernas, coffee with legs. Not only that but the waitresses are dressed in skimpy mini skirts to show off their legs and it’s the kind of place where bored businessmen come to drink coffee, do business, and, well, ogle. The tea was great, though.

 It’s all very retro 70s and very politically incorrect. But I also saw families with kids and respectable old ladies there. No one seems to mind. In a way it summed up my impressions of Santiago. It’s changing a lot and there’s a huge amount of construction going on, but there are still characterful barrios or neighbourhoods with tiny hole-in-the-wall shops and bars. The bland uniformity of globalisation has not yet swept away independent stores and cafes, and you can still see shopfront signage that hasn’t changed in 50 years. It reminds me a little of Madrid 20 years ago. 


 The setting of Santiago at the foot of the Andes is wonderful and the flight over the mountains from São Paulo was breathtaking. And yet it’s the little details that really strike you, the square and fountain you come across by chance, the little streets with graffiti, the friendliness of the people.


 As I headed north to the coastal town of Coquimbo, I began to realise how different Chile is from Brazil. And it’s all down to geography and the Andes. The mountains here are brown and stark, instead of the lush tropical green of Brazil. The seafood is spectacular, a result of the colder waters of the Pacific. The coastline is rugged and dramatic and the weather drier. This is a semi-arid desert landscape. And it’s also prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. The last one in September 2015 wreaked a lot of damage and the rebuilding work is still ongoing. You can see signs showing you tsunami escape routes. Basically, don’t head for the beach, run up the nearest hill.
Like I’m going to be reading instructions when a huge tidal wave is rushing towards me. 

Coquimbo is a grimy industrial port city next to the neighbouring twin city of La Serena which is much more attractive but Coquimbo is cheaper so I’m staying there. But the Barrio Ingles has been nicely restored and is a testament to the presence of the English here in the 19th century when the city was a huge copper exporter. In the centuries before that, however, English pirates had sailed up and down the Chilean coast ransacking cities.  La Serena itself was sacked by the pirate Bartholomew Sharp. 


 When you think of Andean Latin America you might think of the usual cliches like llamas grazing by high-altitude lakes, perilous bus journeys across mountain passes, men in colourful ponchos playing panpipes and women in bowler hats selling coca leaves. So far Chile has none of that. The capital has a distinctly European vibe and Coquimbo has the out of season feel of Blackpool, but that’s okay. For the moment I’m enjoying great food, pisco sours and a sense of security that is often absent in South America. However, I’m also looking forward to getting into the high Andes. I might even buy a poncho….


An ending and a new adventure

Pico do Papagaio 3
Pico do Papagaio, Vale do Matutu

Tomorrow everything changes. I’ll have no job and nowhere to live. But I am lucky. Because I planned this. I’ve been planning it for months. I’m giving up my life here in Brazil after six years, leaving the house I’ve stayed in for the last 18 months, saying goodbye to friends and setting off on the biggest adventure of my life. I plan to travel for as long as I can – or until the money runs out. It’s exciting, and terrifying.  But it’s just what I need.

Edifício Martinelli 5
The concrete jungle of São Paulo

What have I learned about living in a foreign country for so long? The main thing is that living and working in a city is totally different from visiting as a tourist. The same things that got me down in London (the journey to work, overcrowded trains, a dull routine) also started to affect me in São Paulo. After years living here I also learned to see what ordinary Brazilians have to put up with, things you don’t see when you’re just passing through. Like the frustrating bureaucracy, the non-existent customer service, a surprising lack of respect and the appalling way that many employers still treat their employees.

As Ilhas 1
As Ilhas, along the Paulista coast

But there’s so much I’ll miss about this country: the friendly people, the vibrant, spontaneous culture, the music, Carnival, the national parks and the glorious beaches. And I don’t yet know if I’ll be able to survive without my fix of açai na tigela – a frozen pulp of an Amazonian berry with granola and other fresh fruit sliced on top. Luckily, caipirinha can be found most places around the world these days.

Prainha Branca
Prainha Branca, just a few hours from São Paulo

I plan to visit India and Bangladesh later this year and go trekking in the Himalayas, but my first trip takes me to Chile and Bolivia and then the Brazilian Amazon before flying back to the UK in June. I’ll be arriving in Santiago and then making my way northwards, zigzagging between coast and mountains, before crossing over the Andes into Bolivia and La Paz. I’ll be heading into the jungle from there and exploring as much of the country as I can. I then plan to take a boat from Trinidad down the Rio Mamoré to Guayamerin from where I’ll be able to cross the border into Brazil and visit two remote states I have never been to before – Acre and Rondônia.

Sambodromo 48
Rio Carnival

Brazil is going through tough times right now, with the recession biting and more and more corruption scandals surrounding politicians and Petrobras coming to light every day. But things will improve and it’s a place I’ll want to keep coming back to for the rest of my life. Right now, though, the rest of the world beckons.

Trilha Dois Irmãos 6
I’ll really miss Rio …



Why it’s fine not to like every place you visit

Wei Sheng Chang House 1, Pingyao
Wei Sheng Chang House, Pingyao, China

Two years ago I went on a wonderful six-month trip around Asia. But I didn’t like China. It was a huge disappointment for me. I think it’s okay not to like a place, though. In fact, maybe it’s good not to like some things. We live in an online world where we “like” things at just a click of a button and without much thought and where we crave “likes” in return. We document our lives for public approval and we want to give the impression that we are all leading fabulously exciting lives. This is certainly true of travel writing and blogs. After all, we’ve sometimes paid a lot of money for that airfare and visa, so we’re going to make sure we like it. Even if we don’t.

Tian Yi hostel, Pingyao
Street in Pingyao, China

I have visited over 60 countries and spent months on the road at a time and I haven’t enjoyed every place and I have certainly had some bad days along the way. But surely that’s normal? If we simply like everything and everywhere, then doesn’t it just devalue the “like”. It’s good to have a bad day – chances are the next day will feel so much better. It’s normal to dislike a place for whatever reason – we are all different and have different tastes.

Kuta Beach, Bali 1
Kuta beach, Bali – not the exotic beach you might expect!

I have lost count of the number of times I have arrived in a place, lured by hyperbolic descriptions in the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, only to discover after half a day that it’s really not that great and there’s not a lot to do. Of course, that’s only my opinion. Conversely, I have often gone to a place I didn’t intend to visit with little in the way of write-ups and discovered a gem. And that’s what makes travelling such fun. The thrill of the unexpected.

Sacred Monkey Forest, Bali 12
Sacred Monkey Forest, Ubud, Bali

The very name Bali conjures up images of an exotic paradise, but for me the reality was dirty beaches, being blatantly ripped off and hassled. However, the next door island of Lombok was relaxing and beautiful. I arrived on Gili Air planning to stay a few days and stayed a week.

Mt Rinjani, Gili Air path
Sand track on Gili Air, Lombok, Indonesia

Twelve years ago when I was taking a boat down the Amazon from Manaus to Santarem I had no plans to visit Alter do Chão, a small town on the Rio Tapajós, as it was barely mentioned in my guidebook. Two fellow passengers told me they were going so I joined them and discovered a thrilling off-the-beaten-track destination, very laid back with seductive beaches.

Sunset, Gili Air 6
Sunset on Gili Air

Nowadays, it’s one of Lonely Planet’s Top 20 Things to Do in Brazil. It’s probably very different. Time changes places and it also changes us. We can have different reactions to places depending on when we go.

Great Wall 5, Beijing
The Great Wall, Beijing
Great Wall 6, Beijing
The Great Wall, Beijing

I also find that, as I get older, I am not drawn so much to the buzz of cities, but want to spend more time in the countryside. And that may be one of the mistakes I made with China. I had a month there and spent too much time in the cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an. Maybe if I’d gone further south or west I would have seen a different China, but the one I experienced was not pleasant. The pollution was as bad you have probably seen on the television. In four weeks I barely saw the sun as it remained hidden behind a sickly grey haze. I felt like I was travelling in a gigantic building site. As you travel by train, you look out not onto the idyllic landscapes the guidebooks show, but cooling towers belching smoke into the air. In the cities you can smell the new concrete dust as the government rushes not to restore historic buildings and sites but demolish them and rebuild them in the ‘original style’.

Terracotta Warriors 4, Xi'an
Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an, China

China is also not cheap and you can spend much more than you planned. The ancient city of Pingyao, for example, charges £15 to visit the old houses and temples. In other cities you may pay £5 or more per site. In Beijing I simply couldn’t afford to visit all the attractions and so was left disappointed. The crowds you encounter at just about every tourist attraction can be unbearable. And then there’s the food. One of the things I love about travelling is experiencing the cuisine, but I found the food in China horrendous, so much so that I frequently ended up at fast food joints which I never go to anywhere else. But they were the only places I could find anything remotely edible. If you get hungry at tourist sites or on trains, you need to develop a taste for hotdogs and pot-noodles. Of course, if I had been able to read the menu in Mandarin or had had more money, then maybe I would have had a different experience.

Street 5, Xi'an
Street food in Xi’an – no thanks!

China wasn’t all bad, though. I found it fascinating as well as challenging. The people on an individual level were always friendly and sometimes went out of their way to guide me as I struggled to find my hostel. The Terracotta Warriors are amazing, even though I had to strain to see them through crowds 5 people deep and was frequently pushed out of the way. At Luoyang I decided to visit the Longmen Caves at dusk. The crowds were smaller and it proved to be a very different experience. On my way to the Great Wall I met a local guy who was also going to hike there and he invited me to join him on a part officially closed to tourists. It had not been restored and was free to access. This proved to be one of the highlights of China for me.

Longmen Caves 4, Huoyang
Longmen Caves at Luoyang
Longmen Caves 5, Huoyang
Longmen Caves at Luoyang

So I don’t regret going to China, but I have to admit I won’t be rushing back soon. Travelling is a very subjective experience and we can’t all like everything all the time. But it’s always fun making up your own mind. Let’s just not pretend we “like” everything.

West Lake 4, Hangzhou
West Lake, Hangzhou – one of the highlights