Inland from La Serena is one of the most beautiful valleys in Chile, Valle del Elqui. There are several small towns scattered throughout the valley that I wanted to visit, along with some astronomical observatories. The easiest way to do this was through a tour. I chose Eco Turismo located in La Serena. In addition to tours to Valle del Elqui, they have a few good day trips to other areas of natural beauty in the area around La Serena.
I was able to get a tour to Valle del Elqui and combine it with an evening astronomical tour to the Mamalluca Observatory. The combination saved me about 10% and I paid a total of CLP $39,000. The Valle del Elqui tour alone cost CLP $25,000. The tour included all transportation, lunch, and snacks. The price was very reasonable and cheaper than what I could have done on my own.
The tour guide and driver, Jorge, picked me up from the front of my hostel at about 9:15am. We made a quick stop for all the guests to introduce themselves. I was the only non-Chilean in the group so I really got to practice my Spanish that day. Jorge offered to explain things to me in English, but I understood well enough and even got some conversation practice in at lunch. Jorge was a great tour guide, by the way.
Our first stop was a papaya grove. Papayas were brought to Chile from Colombia and have thrived in the area around La Serena. We got to see where the trees grow and then had a sample of papaya juice at Saturno, the shop on the property.
Next, we stopped at a dam across the Elqui River. We had a half hour to walk across the dam. The dam itself was huge and the views were spectacular.
On the road through the valley, we drove past a lot of people harvesting grapes and stopped at a viewpoint to see one of the most beautiful parts of the valley.
Shortly after, we stopped at Pisco Elqui for a tour of the Los Nichos Distillery. It is the oldest active pisco distillery in Chile, founded in 1868. We were shown the entire process of pisco production, from harvest to bottling. They also make a sweet wine.
The bottling process was as interesting as the distilling process. All of them are labeled by hand by a small group of women.
The most interesting part of the tour for me were the niches (hence the name, Los Nichos) where the founder of the distillery would stash pisco for himself and his friends. There were entertaining letters posted next to each niche and even a human skull there to warn others from taking the pisco.
After the distillery tour, we had a two hour lunch break in the town of Pisco Elqui. Lunch was huge. We had a choice of main course, a salad, drinks, and dessert. Once we finished lunch, we had time to explore the village. It’s a tiny village in the mountains with about 4 streets through town. Everything is pretty much situated around the Plaza de Armas, which includes a beautiful blue wooden church, Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Rosario, and a fountain. There are also a few craft shops and lots of benches for sitting under the trees and relaxing. On one end of the plaza is another famous distillery, Pisco Mistral.
The next stop was the village of Montegrande. This was home to the Chilean Nobel Laureate, Gabriela Mistral. In 1945 she became the first Latin American, and still the only Latin American woman, to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her childhood home, which doubled as a school, is located in a museum (Casa-Escuela Gabriela Mistral) at the post office in the town. Her bedroom and school room are kept as they were during her childhood.
In the plaza, there is a small church and a statue dedicated to Mistral. She is buried just outside town on a small hill.
The last stop on the Valle del Elqui tour was in the town of Vicuña. It is the largest town in the valley, with the only banks, hospital, supermarket, and other facilities. It was also the birthplace of Gabriela Mistral. The rest of the group had 30 minutes to wander around, while I was left here to wait for about three hours until my observatory tour. I walked around the Plaza de Armas and sat on the benches for a while to do some people watching. A museum of entomology and natural history is also on the plaza. It’s supposed to be good but I didn’t visit.
Around the plaza are a few buildings of interest. The first one is the Torre Bauer, a red Bavarian tower built in 1905 by the German mayor of Vicuña, Alfonso Bauer. Across the street from the tower is a really beautiful church, Iglesia de la Concepción. It was built in 1909. Gabriela Mistral was baptized in the font in 1889.
I had an expensive touristy lunch at a small restaurant off Plaza de Armas, Club Social de Vicuña. I ate machas parmesanas (parmesan mussels).
I then went to the pickup point for the Mamalluca Observatory tour. I got picked up at 8:30pm and was taken up a pitch black road up a mountain for about 30 minutes. The group arrived and met with our guide, Luis. He did an amazing job explaining the constellations, stars, different things about astronomy, and how the telescopes worked.
The only negative thing about the tour was the amount of people. The room was very crowded, with about 20 people trying to get a look into the high-tech telescope. We were shown three points in the sky – Jupiter, a nebula, and a cluster of stars, and it took an hour for everyone to get a look.
We were shown a computer presentation about the stars and given a website, Stellarium, to download an astronomy program. It is an amazing program for anyone interested in the stars. Then we went outside to use a basic telescope. I kind of stopped paying attention at this point and just looked at the naked sky. It reminded me of the sky in the Sahara desert. I could look up and see everything clearly. Chile has one of the best skies in the world for stargazing, and it’s no wonder some of the most advanced telescopes in the world are located here.
The tour ended around 11pm and I was driven back to my hostel where I slept very well after such a long day.