El Valle de Elqui
While in Valparaíso and La Serena, people kept encouraging Matt and me to visit El Valle de Elqui. They kept referring to it as muy mistico (very mystical), a place where hippies and new age spiritual devotees go to be one with the universe. Sounded too groovy to pass up.
We were also informed that Northern Chile and this valley, in particular, have some of the world’s clearest skies. Thus, it is an ideal place for star and planet gazing. Due to the clarity of the skies, several important observatories with powerful telescopes and astronomical study centers have been set up along the valley. Before this trip we didn’t realize it, but northern Chile’s skies are greatly valued by astronomers and space enthusiasts alike.
Our first night in the valley was in the town of Pisco de Elqui. In a not so distant history, it had a different name but opted for Pisco in their title after becoming a central hub for fine Pisco production. Although quite tiny, the town offers a lot in the way of tourism. There are Pisco tours (like a wine-tour), spiritual conferences, biking excursions around the valley, and guided tours to a telescope on a nearby peak. We were more interested in camping up in the hills outside of town and spending the night searching the skies for shooting stars and UFOs.
The following day we took a colectivo ride out to another tiny town called Vicuña. What it lacks in size it definitely makes up for in historical relevance thanks to being the birthplace of Gabriela Mistral, Latin America’s first Nobel Prize Laureate. She won for literature and is specifically known for her works in poetry. The town hosts a fabulous museum about her life and public works. It also serves as an educational center for children because quality education for all children, via creative teaching practices, was an issue close to Gabriela Mistral’s heart. Also, off the main plaza, there is an entomological museumwith a private collection of dried colorful insects from all over South America. This museum definitely helped me to confront my fears of giant bugs by safely exposing me to all sorts of insects, in detail, safely behind a piece of glass. It also has some taxidermy birds and mammals, which provided education information in a most creepy atmosphere.
Finally, that night, we made it out to go to the Mama Llucaobservatory. We participated in a fun 2-hour long educational experience related to our incredible universe. During our visit, we were afforded the opportunity to look through various telescopes in order to see Saturn, several constellations, and our lovely moon. Even without the telescopes, the skies were so clear that we saw several shooting stars, which was, well, muy mistico! To top it off, the administrators of the observatory had no problem letting us camp out on the grounds of the center. Lucky us – we got to spend the night in the mountains, watch a heavy fog roll into the valley at night, and then see a beautiful sunrise in the morning.