La Serena and Valle de Elqui

Trip Start Nov 13, 2008
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5
Trip End Feb 11, 2009


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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Starting with a Geography Lesson
I figured since my blogs are about to get more into the details of my travels within Chile, I'd start with a little geography lesson for those who might not know much about the different regions of Chile.  (I didn't know until I got here!)  Chile is over 3,000 miles long and never more than 221 miles wide.  The Pan American Highway runs down the spine of the country and connects every imaginable climatic zone.  In the far north, "El Norte Grande" is the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on earth. In certain places rain has never been recorded.  Once you get out of the desert region you get to "El Norte Chico" which is the agricultural heartland of Chile and where I went for this blog entry. The middle of the country is Santiago and wine country which of course is where I spend the majority of my time :)  Further South is the Lake District which I will write about in my next blog entry as I'm going there when Pete comes to visit.  The Lake District has (obviously) many lakes, an active volcano belt (currently 55 active volcanoes) and a large German influence.  The far south is where I will be going in late January to Punta Arenas, the southernmost city of its size in the world and the gateway to the Chilean Antarctic.  A bit further south is Tierra del Fuego the "land of fire" at the tip of South America that Chile shares with Argentina and beyond that lies Antarctica.  So now that you understand the geographic wonderland of where I'm living, here's my blog about my trip to "el Norte Chico". 
 
La Serena
On Saturday morning Paulina, Roberto and I took off to head North towards La Serena, a beach town about 4 hours north of Santiago or as the guide books like to put it the "little north" of Chile.  The ride was a straight shot on the Pan American Highway with beautiful mountain views.   Around 3PM we made it to La Serena and stopped for lunch since they have incredible seafood there.   The food was absolutely delicious!  We ordered an appetizer called machas parmesanas which are razor clams covered in Parmesan cheese.  Yum!

Pisco Valley
After lunch we started heading towards the Andes and drove through the valleys.  It was absolutely gorgeous.   This is the know as the Pisco region of Chile - where they grow the grapes that make Pisco alcohol.  They serve this at all restaurants here in Chile as an aperitif - Be careful it is VERY strong!  We went on a little tour of the distillery and I sampled a pisco mango sour at the end of the tour. 

Valle de Elqui
We continued to go through the valleys and entered into small, adorable towns to try to find a place to stay for the night.  The small village of Vicuna is the birthplace of Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral.  We ended up at Hotel El Galpon which is a hotel I highly recommend.  The staff is great and it couldn't be a more relaxing atmosphere.  Paulina and I took out our laptops to work on the international expansion plan and the hotel manager treated us to a pisco sour. We had a light dinner and headed to bed.  The German owner had a cute (very fat) beagle that became my friend and I let him into my hotel room when no one was looking.  Breakfast here was wonderful - everything was homemade to include the bread and marmalade and the juice was freshly squeezed.  These pictures show the amazing view from the breakfast table. 

Boutique Vineyard
The next day we were off to go see Chileangourmet's dulce de leche producers in the Coquimbo valley.  Little did I know that we would be driving through the Andes on a dirt road, but before we did that we stopped at a boutique winery that we saw as we were leaving Valle del Elqui.  We walked into the dark wine cellar which was a completely new experience.  We were surrounded by oak barrels of aging wine and opera music was playing loudly.  The daughter of the owner came in to greet us and told us that her father gave up his career as a psychiatrist to make wine and believed that opera music helped the wine age better.  Their winemaking process is certified organic and their vineyard is one of the highest altitude vineyards in the world.  They have only been in the wine business for less than 10 years, and their wines have already begun to win awards.  Of course, we all bought a few bottles to take home :)

Bumpy Ride
The next four hours was an adventure I'll never forget.  We were on a regular road for about an hour and then the dirt "road" started.  Luckily, Roberto was driving an SUV.  Since we didn't see any other cars as we were driving for the next three hours, I would have to say that we took the "road less traveled" to go meet the dulce de leche producers in the valleys of the Rio Hurtado.

This region is known to be one of the clearest locations in the world and therefore is home to a number of important astronomical observatories...all of which we passed in our journey.   The Andes provide a barrier to moisture, driven by the prevailing east winds, and three major facilities are located in the coastal foothills:  Cerros Tolol Inter-American Observatory (USA), European Southern Observatory, and Las Campanas Observatory, run by the Carnegie Institution.  One of the observatories is shown in this picture, but I'm not sure which one it is.

Just when I thought the bumpy ride might cause my breakfast to come up, we made it to the goat farm.  Roberto knew about my affinity for dogs so he warned me in advance that the dog on the farm was only there to ward off goat predators and to keep my distance.  As soon as I saw the dog, I understood what he meant.  Surrounded by goats, we chatted with the goat caretakers and Paulina and Roberto caught up on the farming gossip while I tried to find some shade (the sun was brutal there!).  Then we went to the building where the woman actually make the dulce de leche.  Before Chileangourmet, they had been using an old method which required them to stir the substance for five hours straight without changing directions or switching arms in order to keep the temperature even enough for the substance to turn into dulce de leche.  Paulina and Roberto worked with the producers and the Chilean government to fund the new machine posted here which no longer requires the women to stir continuously.  (The power of technology!) 

By that time it was about 3 and for all those who know me I start to lose all energy when I haven't eaten for awhile. The "town" was so small there are no restaurants so we were invited to the home of one of the producers for lunch.  Unfortunately, they were working on the road so we had to wait for about 30 minutes for them to let us go through.  By the time we got to the woman's house at 4:30 I thought I was going to keel over from hunger.  I have never appreciated a hot dog and rice meal so much in my life!  After lunch we got on our merry way and drove back the five hours to Santiago. 
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Where I stayed
Hotel El Galpon

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