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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.