Probing the Secrets of the Elqui Valley

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Monday, December 20, 2004

Eastbound Ruta 41 climbs gently inland from La Serena through the irrigated vegetable and fruit farms of the lower Elqui Valley, while the surrounding hills become drier and drier again. The quiet, shady town of Vicuña is the hub of this prosperous agricultural area, as well as being a tourist centre of some note. There are many small grape- growing operations nearby, as well as several major pisco distilleries, and visitors come from near and far for farm tours and to sample the fiery brandy. No, the grapes themselves are not sour - in fact, some varieties yield sweet dessert wines - but many of the thirty million bottles of pisco produced each year are used to make delicious, but potent, pisco sours. Other attractions in the area include the village of Monte Grande - the birthplace of Gabriela Mistral, one of Chile's foremost poets - and the remote community of Cochiguaz, which has gained a dubious reputation as a centre of concentrated new-age cosmic energy, and for attracting eccentric characters and UFOs!

Another significant feature of the area is that it boasts the highest concentration of astronomical observatories in the southern hemisphere. Atmospheric conditions are so conducive to star gazing - the perfectly clear night skies are amazingly star-studded, even to the naked eye - that many international astronomy institutions have set up research facilities here. Such esoteric equipment as the Atacama Large Millimetre Array, clusters of VLTs (Very Large Telescopes) and even an OLT (Overwhelmingly Large Telescope), scan the heavens and unlock the secrets of our galaxy and the universe. On our visit to the 'Observatoria Comunal Cerro Mamalluca' just outside of Vicuña, we learned about the birth of stars, nebulae and super galaxies, and observed closed and open star clusters and a comet through a modest 12-inch telescope. Later, back at our campsite, we lay back in our lawn chairs and used our field glasses to track the progress of several satellites, check out the details of star clusters in Orion's dagger, belt and bow (he is standing on his head down here) and study the craters on the newly waxing crescent moon.

The next day we tackled the somewhat more 'down to earth' task of making our way across the mountains to the Hurtado Valley - a trip generally only recommended for high clearance, 4WD vehicles. Not to worry, we found the road in good condition, and were able to enjoy the rugged stark beauty of the desert hills, multi-coloured rock outcrops and flowering cacti. We often caught flashes of sunlight reflecting off the futuristic domes of several observatories atop an adjacent range of hills. Occasionally we came across small vineyards - verdant green etched against the arid landscape - with their long rows of wire-supported vines, just dripping with clusters of luscious sun-ripened grapes.

The sleepy village of Hurtado beckoned us to stay a day or two, so we camped down among the lush vegetation and myrtle trees alongside the infant Rio Hurtado and were treated to freshly harvested apricots. This village is famous for its naturally grown fruits - small, but packed with flavour and great for making juice or drying in the sun. Each household seemed to have a least a few crates stacked at the roadside waiting for pickup and transport to the local processing factory. The atmosphere of the area was very relaxed and easygoing, and reminded us more of rural southern Europe, with modest but well-run and productive family farms and irrigated smallholdings. Everyone was very welcoming and had time for a friendly greeting as we wandered the village.

In the evening we stopped in at the only eating establishment in town, 'Restaurante Benita', where we were treated to the special welcome of waitress, chef and owner Señora Benilde. Upon our enquiries about the menu for dinner, she hurried off to consult with herself in the kitchen and then returned to inform us that she could rustle up some steak, eggs, rice and chopped tomato and onions. This was definitely not a 'fast food' joint and we quietly enjoyed a draft Schop beer and watched the soccer match on the oversized TV screen. By the time our supper was ready the bar area was humming with patrons enthusiastically enjoying the game. Señora Benilde appeared with a twinkle in her eye and mysteriously beckoned us down a rear corridor. Imagine our surprise to find that our meal was ready and waiting for us nicely laid out in the quiet of the family dining room. Small village hospitality indeed!

On our journey back down to the coast, we stopped in the immaculately clean agricultural town of Ovalle to visit an Internet Café, and then stayed overnight in Valle del Encantado to check out the communication network of an earlier age - the petroglyphs and pictographs of the El Molle culture of fifteen hundred years ago. This is also a wine producing area - beautifully maintained vineyards with picturesque homesteads - bordered by roads with blue-flowering chicory and giant thistles, fragrant wild fennel, and profusely flowering oleander, hibiscus and bougainvillea. Our last stop, before our Christmas destination of the 'garden city' of Viña del Mar, was at the fishing town of Los Vilos to sample a shellfish ceviche lunch, freshly made from the catch being brought in at the docks alongside the restaurant


Another poem - this time the lyrics to a song. Our very good friend Elisabeth-Anna Loewen sings in the Spirit's Call Choir in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She wrote to us recently about their concert in late November and told us "...remember, I was singing for you two...and in memory of Michael". Lizzie continued ...."the words spoken & sung by gospel singer Meredith Spears came to mind. Meredith is from California and has an strong contralto voice and sings with such expression! She is coloured and appeared in dreadlocks and a beautiful African dress. We provided the back-up on a song called "Breaths" written by a Nigerian poet named Biraga Diop. She sang the verses and the choir did the chorus...the words and harmony were just amazing....it was so powerful! When Meredith introduced the song she said that in some African traditions one is not dead until the last person speaks one's name. Those words really touched me!" Here are the words of the song:

Breaths
Those who have died have never, never left
The dead have a pact with the living
They are in the rustling trees
They are in the groaning woods
They are in the crying grass
They are in the moaning rocksThey are in the woman's breast
They are in the wailing child
They are with us in our homes
They are with us in this crowd
The dead are not under the earth.

The chorus, repetitions sung softly in harmony by the choir, goes like this:

Listen more often to things than to beings...tis the ancestor's
breath, in the voice of the waters. Whooosh....aaaaaahhhhhh!
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