Day 08 : Highway to the Stars

Saturday 24 May 2014

Sometimes people ask me why I travel. They are surprised and admiring, as well as confused, as to why I’d want to go halfway around the world, visiting strange obscure countries who speak languages I can barely say my name in, quite a way off the ‘typical’ British tourist trail. They wonder why I put myself through all these bumpy local bus rides, and eat all these strange street foods.

And I have to say, at times today made me question things. Why did I go to La Serena in the first place, a trip of 7 hours by bus when I have to go all the way back again on Monday. And then, on the way into the Elqui Valley on a cramped minibus, why didn’t I stay all four days in La Serena; why did I come out all the way to the Elqui Valley to stay the night when I could have just done an organised tour from an operator. And, having to change buses in the small but focal town of Vicuna, why didn’t I just stay there instead rather than taking a further hour’s bumpy bus journey to the town of Pisco Elqui in the middle of nowhere. And finally, having left my coat on the last bus (a coat that contained my money and my passport), why did I do any of this travelling at all; why couldn’t I have just stayed at home and looked at other people’s pictures.

This is my answer:

The church in the village of Pisco Elqui.
The church in the village of Pisco Elqui.

Sometimes the end is worth it. No picture could really do this justice; a small village in the middle of a large valley in the Andean foothills. Mountains all around. Very little noise. Air fresher than you can imagine. Cloudless sky. This is why people travel; because sometimes the end does indeed justify the chaos.

The Elqui Valley is ‘famous’ for, amongst other things: Astronomy (very large observatories – the road in from La Serena is called ‘Ruta de las Estrellas’), the alcoholic spirit known as ‘pisco’ and usually served as a ‘pisco sour’ with lemon/lime juice, UFOs (those three may be connected), the poet Gabriela Mistral, a base for trekking and horse-riding, a hippie vibe, and, apparently, papayas.

When I was plotting my route around the world, my initial idea was to go from Valparaiso to Easter Island, from there I’d island-hop across the Pacific until I hit Australia. However, this was scuppered when I found out the flight from Easter Island to Tahiti cost £912. The flight from Santiago to Sydney, conversely, was only £800-ish.
Then I contemplated visiting Easter Island anyway, but doing it as a side trip from Santiago. I thought about this for a long while, but figured that walking around a relatively expensive small island for 3 days, probably in the rain, looking at statues that all look the same, would probably try my patience. One day I could easily handle, but any more than that and I might get bored.
So I wondered if there was anywhere on the Chile mainland that I’d be interested to visit, that wasn’t at either end of the country. And what I read of the Elqui Valley made it seem potentially quite appealing. In the end, I decided to go there instead of Easter Island, hence why I ventured up to La Serena on Thursday.

Don’t get me wrong, it is quite a tourist ‘hotspot’, but for a certain kind of tourist – it’s very much geared towards, well, people with my mindset I guess. The reason to come out all this way is to explore nature – mountain-biking is quite a popular expedition round here, as is (as I say) horse-riding and trekking. There’s also at least three large observatories in the Vicuna area – the dry conditions, altitude (Pisco Elqui itself is only about 1,200m up but it is in a valley; the observatories on the mountains are much higher), and the lack of towns (Pisco Elqui is small and seems to have no streetlighting) – so it’s very prime territory for stargazing; indeed the observatories are often open for public visiting. There’s not much to do in town itself, of course, but there’s plenty of tour operators so the town’s more a ‘base’ than a place to visit in and of itself.

And yes, I did nearly leave my coat on the bus. I’d obviously taken it off as I’d been sat down, and ‘d put it in the overhead rack. But when I came to leave, I simply forgot it was there, and was about half a minute down the road before I realised. By which time of course the bus had moved on. Fortunately Pisco Elqui was the terminus, so with the help of another local driver, we reached the road where the buses stop and rest, and the bus I’d been on was still there; it hadn’t made the return journey to Vicuna yet.
I’d make a self-memo but to be honest this happens an awful lot; I’m just naturally prone to things not occurring to me until after the event.

I’d also ‘wasted’ an hour in La Serena; according to all the info I had, some buses to Elqui Valley left from the main bus station but many left from a small specific terminal in the East of the centre. After getting lost trying to find it, I eventually ended up on the right road only to find what looked like the framework for a street market in a large square that was otherwise completely empty. Seems this specific bus station no longer existed and everything was indeed leaving from the main bus terminal.

No-one speaks English at the hostel of course; this is what you get for planning ahead and pre-booking accommodation at the only place I could easily find online. Had I just turned up I could probably have taken my choice of place to stay, some of which had English-language signs outside. Note that many of the instructions inside the hostel are in English, but the staff … yeh.
Interestingly the bulk of people staying here seem to be French.

Anyway, I’ve booked myself onto a short horseriding adventure tomorrow lunchtime and, if enough other people turn up (as it requires a minimum of 4), a visit to one of the observatories tomorrow evening. Still not quite sure how I’ll get back to Santiago on Monday – it may depend what time I get up and what time the buses back to La Serena are.

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