By Bus Through Chile: La Serena and the Elqui Valley

La Serena

Further up North is La Serena, which is nice a pretty little town with lots of hair dressers, but otherwise nothing spectacular. The beach nearby is so-so, unfortunately nothing much going on there, even to find a drink is a bit difficult, and I didn’t catch any fish there either.

The best thing we experience here is a terremoto (earthquake), which is the name of a strong local cocktail made with Pisco, liquours, soft drinks and ice cream.

The other good place is a bar which serves clay jugs of fruit wine, or rather jugs of wine filled with fruit.

Our hostel, El Arbol. costs 8000Pesos a night for the dorm bed but it has big lockers and it’s spotless. By now Mary and Anja, two German girls we met at Don Santiago, have caught up with us and we’re travelling together. We have a good BBQ in the back garden. I love hostels with a BBQ.

Pisco Elqui and the Elqui Valley

A couple of hours in a bus and we’re in the village of Pisco Elqui. A dry vine growing region (for Pisco), this village is small, quiet and charming. Hostels are a bit more expensive (the first night we book in a place called Triskel for 10000/pp/dorm) but we manage to find cheaper lodging (Gabriela’s) with a lady who lives on a plot on the fringes of town.

The main tourist attractions are a trip to the Mistral Pisco brewery, which is right in the centre and all bling-bling. You have to pay for a tour (6000 I think). We decide to do another option: we take a nice 4km walk further up the valley and there we visit the Los Nichos brewery instead. This is excellent.

Firstly it is much more original: the farmyard, the old brewing tools, the cellars, all look like an old Pisco brewery with people working there and not completely set up for tourists. You’re just visiting a brewery. Additionally, they take us through the place and show us around without charge, and we get to taste a handful of Piscos and sweet wines they produce there.

Of course we buy a couple of bottles to take with and they’re not tourist-priced either. During the there and back walk there are a few nice farmyard shops you can visit and buy things like honey, nuts and dried fruit.

You can do nice day walks in the surrounding mountains and get beautiful views of the valley and mountains from there. Just ask the local folk at your hostel or otherwise and things will become clear. Beware that the terrain is quite steep and sometimes loose, so your best bet is to approach the mountain on its ridge and stay on that.

Titanic pose – aaaaaaw…

The other big attraction around here is to visit observatories (star watching) and the most popular one to visit seems to be the Mamalluca Observatory, tours for which are sold at various outlets in the village for about 15000 or so (It is cheaper if you can arrange it yourself), including transport. As we heard from other people, groups are generally 15-20 people or more. With actual telescope-time of about 1.5 hours, we calculate that this will leave precious little time for each person to do the telescope observations – which is what we’re really interested in.

Again we decide to do things our own way and we’re thankful for it in the end: with the help of the lady we’re staying with we get in touch with the guy in charge of the Alcohuaz Observatory and arrange to do a tour there. The observatory is higher up in the mountains than the others in the region, which makes it ideal due to reduced light pollution. Groups don’t generally exceed 9 people so your experience is much more relaxed. Our “landlady” arranges for us to catch the public minibus (cheap) up into the village of Alcohuaz; though it’s half an hour late, everything around here is and we still end up getting there on time – as do the other five people on the same tour that night. The guy who runs it is a nice chap, really into his thing, happy to explain everything. The view up here is astonishing! Never has the milky way looked so three dimensional to me. The galaxy, the magellanic clouds… wow! And in the observatory we all have plenty of time to look at all the different stellar objects – it’s a beautiful sky up there. We even carry on beyond the scheduled time. A great experience.

Essential Tip: For those of you who like the finer things, in Pisco Elqui you won’t only find great Pisco, but some artesan shops sell high quality essential oils at very good prices. We picked up exquisite Jasmine and Rose oil, but they also had Eucalyptus, Lavender, and more, which when mixed with a decent base oil makes a revitalizing skin treatment, especially useful when you’re visiting the harsher climates out here.  And you can make them last a long way.