Saturday, August 15, 2015

8/13/15: Elqui Valley

Elqui Valley tour today! Finally! In La Serena, there are four big tours that are generally available – Elqui Valley, Fray Jorge National Park, Punto Choros and Isla Damas, and the observatories. With the poor weather the past couple of days (lots of rain, and then cloudy skies to follow), most of the tours weren’t possible. Luckily, the Elqui Valley tour was.

The bus was supposed to pick us up between 8:45 and 9 am, but when it hadn’t come at 9:15, even I started getting a little nervous. It was only about 15 minutes late, but the tours before had been pretty on-time, or had contacted me somehow. Turns out there was nothing to worry about.

Our tour guide, Vale (nickname – I can’t remember her full name), spoke good English. She apparently lived a year in San Diego, but there were times when she couldn’t remember some English words. Still, with the Spanish that I knew and the context, I was able to understand everything, which was a marked difference from the tour I took to Lago Chungara where I understood basically half. If that. She also made sure to translate often – she would finish a thought and translate it directly into English, which was also a marked difference from my tour to Puno’s Uros and Taquile Islands, where the guide basically translated 25%, if that. Also, since Dad and I were the last to get picked up, we got to sneak a peek at the list of passengers. Apparently, the $25,000 CLP that we paid for the tour was less than what some others had paid - $28,000 and $30,000 per person. That made me sigh of relief, because I had been quoted $25,000 from the beginning and hadn’t asked for a better price. That’s my bad – we might have been able to get a better price, but at least I know we weren’t ripped off.

The Elqui Valley is quite pretty. Apparently, La Serena is the transition zone between the Atacama Desert of the north and the more moderate and rainy climate of Santiago and central Chile. The Elqui Valley embodies this transition, and there’s a dam that sort of marks the cloudy area and the sunny, temperate areas.

Our first stop was a pisco distillery. In case you don’t remember, pisco is a type of alcohol that I liken to vodka – though my knowledge of alcohols is quite limited. It generally comes from Peru and Chile, which are fighting over who “invented” the drink, and is often taken as pisco sour, which is the drink plus some lemon.

This particular distillery, Aba Pisquera, has been in the same spot for 3 generations and is family-owned. They grow their own grapes and process them all independently, which was also the case for the vineyard that I visited in Ica about two months ago (wow! Time flies!). They basically smash the grapes and make wine, which is then distilled into four types of alcohol – methanol, ethanol, propanol, and butanol – from which the ethanol is separated and used to make the pisco. All the piscos sit for 2 years before being bottled to recover the flavor of the grapes and the wood barrels that hold them in the meantime.

We were able to taste some samples – the mango sour and other fruit sour (some more specialized fruit that is imported from Southern Chile) were quite sweet and things I would imagine would be popular as shots at a college party. We were also able to try straight-up pisco – unflavored – which was like taking straight-up vodka. Ugh. Not a fan. At 40% alcohol, it was not an easy drink. Dad wanted to buy some, so he did, but I don’t think I’ll have any more.

We stopped by two little towns afterwards: Pisco Elqui and Monte Grande, which weren’t all that exciting. There was very little going on in either, especially since the Plaza de Armas and main church in Pisco Elqui were being renovated. Monte Grande was the hometown of Nobel Laureate in Literature, Gabriela Mistral. She is apparently extremely revered in the Elqui Valley (but only after she was recognized by the Nobel Prize committee), and she was an extremely dedicated teacher. Every little town in the Valley has a street of her name – probably the main street – and she has a school with her name and a playground with quotes from her poetry in Monte Grande. There’s a small museum with her personal effects in the town, but it’s two rooms and really nothing to see.

We stopped by the town/city of Vicuña as well. It’s the largest of the Elqui Valley and home base to some of the observatories in the area. Chile is apparently projected to have 60%+ of the world’s atrsonomy research by 2020 because of its clear skies – something that I could see very clearly in San Pedro de Atacama at night. Region 4, Coquimbo, has 10 observatories in itself, some touristic and some for actual scientific research. This prevalence is due both to the ideal climate for astronomical observation and its economic development, which allows it to host these observatories. Because Vicuña had renovations on its Plaza de Armas and main church as well, we weren’t able to really see it.

Before lunch, we stopped by a wine distillery. Like the pisco distillery, we were shown the processing techniques, along with the bottling that was done half by hand and half by machine that produces between 3000-4000 bottles of wine a day. Apparently, white wines should be drunk within a couple years, but purple wines can be stored for long periods of time. To let the wines sit, they leave them in various barrels of French Oak – which are divided into quality oak (for higher-quality wines) and regular oak (the difference being the processing of the wood). Like the pisco, these wines are not widely distributed to supermarkets and stores. I have long known that I like wine far less than other alcohols, but the sweet white wine was decent.

We finally stopped for lunch at the restaurant with solar kitchens! It’s the first of its kind, and definitely most artisanal. In summer, it takes about 45 minutes to cook a loaf of bread. In winter, it might take an hour and a half to two hours, but luckily they had our orders ready when we got there. What was most awesome about the “stove” was that the guy could hold a piece of paper at the center of the mirrors where the rays are concentrated and catch it on fire within seconds. It was simultaneously fascinating and scary. They also had ovens that work not on visible rays but rather with radiation, so they work even on cloudy days.

I had a chicken soup and some goat-ish meat and potatoes, and then a dessert that was a mix between pudding and tres leches cake. Quite good. I also got caught up a in a little conversation with the Spanish-speaking travelers and our guides, and of course the conversation of where I learned Spanish came up.  

I’m not sure whether I’m proud of the Spanish I know now or whether I’m still frustrated that I don’t know enough. Nevertheless, I got the impressed remarks of “Wow, you’re so brave to travel alone with no Spanish!” and the “You speak very well for only having learned it while traveling!” It feels good, I’m not going to lie. Still, almost three months feels like a lot to me, and I find myself getting frustrated when there’s something I don’t understand. In the long scheme of things, I guess it’s pretty good, but the world doesn’t care if I’ve only been learning and speaking for less than 3 months. It only cares whether I can speak or not.

The last viewpoint we crossed was the dam that we saw on our way there. It makes for quite a beautiful view, but unfortunately the water is only at 2% of its capacity. The dam, which was built just in 1996, reached a really high level at its 2004 maximum. This allowed people to do all kinds of tourism and water sports on the lake that formed, and made the relocation of the small town that used to be there worth it. However, in the years since, the Chilean mining of copper and other elements has used up a great deal of the water, leaving just the tiny bit still left today. Apparently it’s a controversial topic because mining has been so key to Chile’s economic development and its great standing today in relation to other countries in South America. It’s a really tough decision and would take a president/leadership really dedicated to protecting the environment to stop. Still, there’s already been a dam a little south of La Serena that is already completely dry due to mining activity. Maybe it’s a sign.

The last stop of the day was a little shop with lots of papaya products. The papaya tastes a lot different than what I’ve been used to in the US and in Bolivia, but Dad and I bought some juice and candy just to try. Overall, great day! Very pretty place, but the Elqui Valley isn’t as fantastic as some of the others that I’ve been to.

When Dad and I went to go buy bus tickets, we first tried to buy tickets with an automated machine. It wasn’t taking his credit card, so I asked the lady at the counter. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take credit cards of foreigners – what?! – and to buy from the counter costs an extra $1000 CLP. While that translates to roughly $1.50, I feel like that’s ridiculous! I mean, what the hell! Oh well.

While waiting for the bus (it leaves almost at 1 am because the drive to Valparaiso is only 5-6 hours), I took some time to check out the mall, which is right across the street from the bus terminal. It’s extremely nice and has all kinds of American products, as well as free bathrooms! Except for the Spanish, it felt like being in Lakeline Mall in Austin for a second. 

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