20.01.2015 - 25.02.2015
After failing to have been impressed by La Serena, whose only claim to fame is its 29 churches, we set off for Vicuña. It was an extremely fun drive with big looping turns hugging the valley, over a huge dam that created a reservoir of bright blue water and through vineyards.
The vines here are used to produce the local liqueur, Chilean Pisco - a grape brandy. Having already tried a couple of Pisco sours in Santiago and with a number of 'cool' new bars popping up in London dedicated to the drink we decided to learn how it was made. We went on the tour of the Mistral Pisco, named after the local Nobel prize winning poet Gabriela Mistral. The tour itself was relatively basic and we were slightly disappointed in the fact our 'tour of the vines' involved us walking through a small garden and not being able to explore the valleys. The tour gave us a basic idea as to how pisco was made and showed us the distillation process. The tours saving grace was the taster session and free cocktail at the end. Shame we were on our bikes as the Pisco sours was incredibly refreshing in the 30 degree heat.
In the Elqui Valley there are 320 clear days a year and with the high mountains it makes for the perfect place to see the starry sky. We paid for a tour in the Mamalluca Observatory 1,200 meters above sea level. Here our guide, who was extremely knowledgable and interesting, showed us various constellations, nebulas and star clusters. Maybe most importantly he showed us how to find North, as you can't see the Pole (North) Star South of the equator. Coming from light polluted Europe, being able to see a sky filled with stars, the Milky Way and other galaxies with the bare eye was quite phenomenal. As it is impossible to take a photo that does the sky justice, it is rather frustrating trying to convey how impressive this view was - but take it from us, this tour is well worth it. Cheaper than the pisco tour and more worthwhile.
We had a lot of miles to cover over the next couple of days, with a couple of one night stays in towns that don't have a particularly glowing review in the guide book. So we rested up, attempted to make something that resembled fajitas and discussed the stars and space with Fidel, a Peruvian IB maths and physics teacher, whose knowledge was slightly better than ours. We were leaving Vicuña impressed with the small town and the entire Elqui Valley Region.