Where in the World is Connie? travel blog

The moon, seen through the telescope

Our high power telescope at Cerro Mamalluca Observatory

The Elqui Valley

Grapevines grow up the hills in the Elqui Valley

Muscatel grapes

Church at Pisco Elqui

Statue and flowers at Pisco Elqui plaza

Approaching Monte Grande on my walk through Elqui Valley

Monte Grande Church


Traveling south from San Pedro, I stopped in the Elqui Valley for two very specific reasons: (1) star gazing, and (2) Pisco sampling. I used the little village of Vicuña as home base; it's a pleasant easygoing place at the base of the Elqui Valley, and it provides good access to the Cerro Mamalluca Observatory.

Some of the largest observatories in the world are located in Chile, but the recently opened "Cerro Mamalluca" is the only observatory in Chile built specifically for public use. The way I understand it, tourists can visit some of these other observatories but they don't actually get to look through any of the telescopes ... in my opinion, that's the coolest part, so otherwise why bother?!

Cerro Mamalluca can only be visited on a guided tour that's led by an astronomy student or enthusiastic amateur. In order to catch the night sky, my tour started at 11:30pm. We did get to view the southern night sky through a large 30cm telescope, which can magnify selected images up to 140 times. Kind of knocks the socks off of any other telescope I've look through! Even though it was close to full moon and therefore still quite bright, even at midnight, we were able to see a fantastic range of stars, planets and constellations. I will admit to feeling quite the idiot, not really knowing the difference between a galaxy, nebula, cluster and such, but at least I recognized the moon!! I even got to see the Southern Cross for the first time, a constellation that's only visible in the southern hemisphere. Our guide was telling us how he hopes to one day see the Big Dipper, a constellation only visible in the northern hemisphere ... I didn't have the heart to tell him I've seen that old thing probably thousands of times! Anyway, made you realize that I really am in a different hemisphere now.

The Elqui Valley is quiet, rural and beautiful. The valley floor is entirely used for cultivation - papaya, custard apples, oranges, avocados - but, most famously, provides the vast majority of muscatel grapes that local distilleries transform into Chile's powerful brandy and undisputed national drink, "pisco". The consistently high temperatures, light alkaline soil and brilliant sunshine found in the Elqui Valley produce grapes with high sugar content and low acidity; perfect for pisco distillation.

There's kind of a hop-on, hop-off bus service that runs along the Elqui Valley stopping at various tiny towns along the way. I took this bus to Pisco Elqui, home of one of the most popular distilleries in the Elqui Valley. You can't imagine how disappointed I was to arrive and find the doors locked and the place closed for renovation!! Oh well, I still enjoyed a snoop around town but sadly couldn't find another place offering pisco sampling.

Instead of taking the bus back, I decided to walk along the valley to the next town of Monte Grande. It was hotter than blazes but only about an hours walk, and it was a perfect way to admire the beautiful grapevines growing throughout the valley and spreading up into the hills.

I didn't linger in the Elqui Valley for very long as by then I had to travel quickly to Santiago. I had an important series of flights to catch that would eventually take me to destinations much much further south ...



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