La Serena and Elqui valley

Trip Start Mar 31, 2010
Trip End Mar 31, 2011

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

La Serena was a seaside resort that felt a bit like Eastbourne; it was a stopping off point for us before heading inland to the Elqui valley.  We arrived in the early evening and were completely thrown by the sun not setting until after 9.  We have spent all of our trip near the equator, or further north in the northern hemisphere winter, so it has been dark by 6pm everywhere we have been.  To suddenly find it was still light at dinner time was very hard to get to grips with.

The Elqui valley was one of the most unique environments we've seen.  It climbs through dramatic mountains that are a monochrome yellow-brown of rocks bleached by a blazing sun.  They get a bit of drizzle once or twice a year, which supports a few cacti here and there.  Although it is not even in the Atacama desert, it was so dry that even the air felt completely devoid of moisture.  But from the high Andes further inland, there flows a gushing river which has been used to irrigate the valley floor: so surrounded by barren rocks there is a strip of lush land covered in vines, fruit trees and vegetable fields.  Constant sun and plenty of water made for some eye-popping vegetables at the markets, beetroots that were the size of a cauliflower and cobs of corn as thick as a large bottle of mineral water.  The majority of the land was planted with vines for making Pisco, the Chilean (and Peruvian) brandy.  We did a very good guided tour of a vineyard and thought that their Pisco was excellent.  It is almost a waste to use it in a Pisco Sour cocktail, but we've found them to be a perfect and refreshing drink at almost any time of day, and they are so popular that you can get a well-made one cheaply in any bar or restaurant.

The Elqui valley also apparently has the world's clearest night skies, and is home to several of the world's biggest astronomical telescopes.  As we drove along, we could often see their impressive shiny structures on the top of the highest hills.  We did an evening tour of one of the older ones that is open to the public and were taught about some of the constellations and had a good look at the moon, Jupiter (and 3 of it's 65 moons), Sirius and Betelgeuse.

Afterwards we went back to our extremely cool accomodation, which was a 2-storied tent with the bed upstairs and a removable roof.  There was an almost full moon which was so bright that you could read by it outdoors.  Luckily it disappeared behind the horizon by about 1 in the
morning and we saw a fantastic night sky from under the duvet.  From there we also marvelled at the dramatic temperature difference between day and night.  It had been 35c for much of the afternoon - although this was remarkably bearable since the air was so dry and there was always a breeze. But after dark it fell close to freezing; it was 10c in our tent and under two blankets and a duvet, we were blissfully cosy.
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