Mar 5, 2011
After lunch today, I took a small bus to the village of Pisco Elqui in the Elqui Valley. The name is not a coincidence. This region is a major producer of pisco, the strong grape-based liqueur used to make pisco sour, a popular drink found throughout Peru and Chile. In fact the climate in this region (sunny and dry) is ideal for growing grapes. Besides using them to make pisco and wine, grapes are exported abroad .
Pisco Elqui is about 2 hours from La Serena, driving west toward the Andes. From the town, the mountains look close enough to touch. And at night, the clear skies let you see tons of stars (when you can find a dark corner, which is not hard to do). In fact the region is home to several astronomical observatories and I've booked a tour to go visit one tomorrow night!
For the next three days, I'm staying at Tesoro del Elqui, a beautiful and peaceful resort that was recommended to me by the owners of the hostel in Valparaiso. For about $30, I'm renting the whole 3-bed dorm (in a little cabana near the restaurant) which means I also have the bathroom (outside the room) to myself. It feels almost as luxurious as that room I rented near Cafayate for my birthday, for a fraction of the price. It also has a pool with view on the mountains, and a poolside bar with a chatty bartender. After unpacking this afternoon, I went for a beer and had a good talk (in Spanish) with Carlos, the bartender. Very good pratice. I haven't had a chance to really practice my Spanish in a while.
After a little rest, I went walking around town (just a few streets really) and had dinner at a local restaurant that was advertising "pastel de choclo". However, this one was not nearly as yummy as the one I had in Valparaiso, and it was a lot more expensive. But I got to try a glass of red Chilean wine. Strangely, in a country that produces so much wine, this is only the second time I have wine in 10 days. Perhaps the reason is that I eat a lot of fish and seafood here, and most of the wine available by the small bottle (one glass worth) is red.
Back at the hotel, I walked all the way back to the pool, which, as I was hoping, was in complete darkness, and I sat in one of the chairs to look at the stars. This was a "wow" moment. Seeing all these stars, it's impossible to believe that we are alone in the universe. Probabilistically, it doesn't make sense. But it's more than that. Within half a minute of staring at the starry sky, I was just thinking "no way, there is other life out there, there has to be". And then, listening to the crickets and looking at the sky, I started to cry... for no reason at all. Weird. Perhaps I'm too wound up. Well, I'm going for a massage tomorrow, so this should help. :) These are going to be 3 days of complete relaxation... well, almost complete. As with every "perfect" place, there is always a blemish. In this case, I discovered it as soon as I got off the bus near the main plaza. What is worst than four stray dogs? A pack of four stray dogs. Actually there are a lot more than four stray dogs in this village (probably due to the lack of cars that could otherwise kill them off). But the plaza has a pack of four stupid dogs that keep running around, barking, trying to f*ck each other (facing the wrong way – so they're either retarded or degenerate) and causing total mayhem. They freak me out and I intend to stay away from this plaza as much as possible from now on. Geez I HATE dogs.
Another nice sunny day. I slept pretty well except for an hour or so where I couldn't fall asleep after completely waking up on the trek to the bathroom (and the noise from a rooster and more barking dogs). But this hotel is just so pleasant with its rocky trail through flowery bushes leading to the pool and its restaurant with views over the mountains that loom really close by.
I got up late (since breakfast is served from 9 to 11 here), had a shower, then breakfast (with bread, cold cuts, cheese and homemade jams). I wandered down the street as far as the last house (a bright pink house as it happens) with views over the valley. The cultivated valley is bright green, which contrast with the dry brown mountains. Small rivers run through the valley and are used for cultivation and to provide running water to the villages. I had no special plans for this morning, so I sat by the pool with a sudoku for a while. Then I went for lunch before heading for my 3 pm massage. This was a one hour massage, but of a kind I've never had before. I mostly wanted a massage for my neck and shoulder, but Alejandra insisted that all the parts of the body were related, so she proceeded to give me a complete body massage (from toes to head, litterally) mixing techiques from thai, shiatsu and swedish massage! Very interesting. After that I had a dip in the hotel pool, sat down to dry a bit, then had a fruit shake at the bar and another conversation with the young bartender. He seemed rather lonely over there, with most people obviously more interested in working on their tan rather than practicing their Spanish.
A thorough shower followed, to wash off the chlorine and whatever remained of the massage oils. Then I had a piece of chocolate/pear cake and a small coffee to fortify myself for my night tour to the observatory. Unfortunately, the sky started getting cloudy, and the agency called to say that the 7:30 pm tour was cancelled. This is one of the places with the most reliably clear skies in the world, but I don't seem to be lucky with clouds on this trip. I'm still waiting to hear if the 9:30 tour will go.
Another beautiful sunny morning. I did end up going on the 9:30 tour to the observatory last night, and got back at 2:00 am! I will need a nap this afternoon for sure.
It was a one-hour drive to the Mamalluca observatory, mostly on very curvy mountain roads, which always make me a little nervous, especially in the dark.
The observatory had a 30 cm telescope under a dome and some smaller ones outside, and our small group of 10 all got a chance to look through them at nebulaes and star clusters, which look pretty much like looking at the sky with the naked eye. It's like zooming on a fractal really! We also got a look at a nebulae in another galaxy, but that looked pretty faint. And the coolest: a look a Saturn where you could clearly see the planet and the ring around it. We were fortunate that it was a new moon yesterday, so no interference from the way-too-bright moon. The tour was in English, and even though the astronomer's English was basic, he was very informative, although some of what he talked about I knew already. All in all, a very good night. On the drive back, my mood was halfway between wanting to fall asleep and fear that the driver would miss a curve and go flying off the cliff. But we made it in one piece and here I am, ready to enjoy my last day of relaxation in Pisco Elqui (hint: this day "will" involve pisco!)
And later that day...
Ahh, this was nice. After breakfast this morning, I did a few "maintenance" things, then spent an hour sitting by the pool admiring the mountains, trees and flowers, because very soon all I will see will be grey buildings and grey streets.
The pool looked very inviting but the water was too cold for my taste (the nights are cool, so I usually wait until the sun has had time to warm up the water). I almost fell asleep on my chair!
A bit before 1 pm I walked down to the El Mistral distillery to learn about the process of making pisco, the main liqueur in these parts. The tour was in Spanish only ("Chilean" Spanish – very hard to understand) so I only got bits and pieces. Basically pisco is a liqueur made from grapes. The beginning of the process is similar to wine, the difference being the distillation process that concentrates the alcohol. When you mix it with lemon juice, sugar and ice, you get pisco sour, the ubiquitous drink of Chile and Peru. We had a taste of two piscos, a young one and an aged one. The price of $10 also included a pisco glass and a pisco sour (or juice/pop for the kids and non-drinkers). By 2:15, I made my way back to the hotel, feeling a little drunk, had lunch at the hotel restaurant, then collapsed into bed for a 2-hour siesta.
At 5:30 I woke myself up by taking a dip in the pool. Probably my last pool dipping for a long while. :( I had a water melon juice at the bar and chatted some more with Carlos the bartender. In fact we're going for dinner tonight at a restaurant he recommended which makes pizzas on the grill. I'm getting hungry thinking about it!
Dinner was very good last night. Probably the best pizza I've had during my whole trip. I also had a bottle of artisanal beer, and topped it all off with tiramisu!
I'm leaving this morning to go back to La Serena, from where I'll take a bus to Santiago on Sunday. And so the process of returning to Toronto has begun...