Sunday, July 11, 2010

Old News

I don't know if anyone is still interested in our Chilean trip, but I have narrowed down the second half of it to a mere 47 photos. Frankly, I guess I don't really care if you're interested or not, as I have discovered Blog2Print, which is a service which will print out my blog posts as a nifty little book. I will then have a completed scrapbook like item in my hot little hands at the end of each year for what I think is a reasonable price. Hence, I choose to plow ahead. If you care to read (or skim) on, please feel free:

After returning to Valparaíso, Seth and I quickly rented a car, which was not quite as easy as it sounds. It helps to have a "contact" when doing this in Chile. John had "tamed one," as Kate put it, and went with Seth to pick the car up from the VW dealer from whence we rented it. Anyhow, we got it and Seth drove us out of Valp'o. That was a little hairy. They like to make extra lanes of traffic where there really aren't any and just cut you off left and right all with a good dose of honking to really keep things interesting. After getting out of there though, the driving was super easy. Hardly anyone travels until after Christmas (remember that's at the very start of their summer vacation), and once you get out of the city, there are hardly any people around anyhow, and quite a few of them cannot afford cars. So on Dec. 23, we drove north up the coast past the touristy beach towns to Zapallar, which would be a touristy beach town if it had any hotels, but it pretty much only has enormously large, enormously expensive, enormously impressive houses. If you had connections...ooh, la, la. There is one hotel: Hotel Isla Seca. It is also pretty expensive, but it sure had a great view, fancy avocado and prosciutto salad, and, of course, Pisco Sours.

The 24th we got up and drove back south about 15 minutes to another small town called Cachagua. At the north end of their bay is this amazing island just covered with PELICANS AND PENGUINS. I was SO mad that I didn't have my binoculars (again, I still didn't know they had been stolen), but we could see them pretty well because it was so close. Still, it was far enough that you couldn't get to it, so they were totally unmolested. It was awesome.

After bird watching, we drove north some more. On John's suggestion, we stopped for a drink at El Pirata Suizo in Los Molles (which looked very small and mellow), and he sold us mango sours. He pretty much decides what you're going to have as far as I can tell. I really could take an entire blog posting to tell you about El Pirata Suizo, so I think you should just go read his website. He was totally crocheting one of those ponchos while we were there, and I showed him my knitting, too. I particularly liked the Water table, which was appropriate because he went on at length about the world's precious, and preciously small, fresh water supply. He even gave us a Christmas present of a little vial of water with a golden bead to represent the fresh water.

After that brief stop we continued to LaSerena, which is on the coast, but we never even found the beach! It was crazy busy with last minute shoppers everywhere. We found a decent enough hotel with a little fridge and since we figured not much would be open on Christmas, we went to the grocery store. It was the absolute most crowded store I have ever been in. It was most of a block big, but you could hardly move. Then when we got up to the checkout, there was, of course, some problem with checking out our melon. We finally got out and back to our hotel at about 6:30. We went back out to look for dinner, but at 7 p.m. everything closed up tight as a drum and the hordes of people just evaporated. It was eerie! We ate our snacks in the room and watched the Simpsons in Spanish on the telly. I got all gloomy because it was all so un-festive and I missed everyone. Even hard salami and knitting hardly improved my spirits.

On Christmas morning we woke up and there was still not a soul in sight. I mean we literally saw: the 2 grumpy people working at the hotel, about 10 cars driving past, two (!!) other people and 1 dog on the streets. This is not a small town. We decided to blow on out of there even though we were unsure of what accommodations might be in store for us; we figured we'd figure something out.

We drove west about an hour to a small town called Vicuña (sorry fiber fans, not a one in sight) and, Lo! life abounds. People were strolling with their kids in the plaza. We had a Christmas dinner of cabrita asada (grilled kid [goat!]) y cervezas. It was dry and chewy--kind of like jerky--but quite tasty. We signed up for a late night astronomical observatory trip and then we drove up the Rio Claro valley to a little town called Pisco Elqui. This was such stunning scenery. It was not the prettiest place I have seen, though it was certainly lovely; nor was it the most awe inspiring, though it was that also to a degree. It was, however, the most surprising. For one thing the hills turned into mountains pretty much immediately and they were steep and dry and covered with almost nothing but pink and brown gritty soil and these cacti. In the valley itself was dark dark green lush foliage of mostly grapes for the pisco, and other foods just for subsistence. There was a distinct line between the two. It was such a shocking contrast. The air was so clear there that the mountains looked as if they were made of paper cutouts. Later we learned that this meant our distance-depth perception was way off and things which appeared very close, or close together, were actually quite distant. Funky.

We wound our way up this skinny, crazy valley to Pisco Elqui. {The Chileans claim to be the home of Pisco, but I think you would get a pretty big fight from the Peruvians if you were to ask.} The first place we tried for accommodation was closed, but a place next door, which I think was called Las Datiles, was open and the woman stood up from her Christmas dinner with her family to show us a little cabin. It wasn't the cleanest cleanest pace in the world, but it was really cute it had a little kitchen, the gardens were colorful and shady, and it was Christmas, so we snapped it up for 2 nights. We simply spent the afternoon lounging by the only slightly green pool (I swam anyway--it was so hot and dry there I figured any green that stuck to me would dry up and die instantaneously once I got out of the pool). A humongous humming bird flew by for a few minutes. It was almost as cool as seeing penguins!

That night we drove back down to Vicuña for our observatory tour. El Observatorio del Pangue is run by a Chilean [PhD. in Astrophysics at the Toulouse University (France)]who simply wanted to share his knowledge with regular people. He chose this area for his little observatory becasue it has like 360 good viewing days a year (did I mention how dry it is here?). There is almost no moisture in the air so it is incredibly clear. There are quite a few big, professional observatories in the area, but you have to be a real astronomer and get on waiting lists and all that to use them. Eric, and his "amateur" assistants will show you all the wonders of the night sky for hours on end if you have the stamina. Eric is tri-lingual English/Spanish/French and his assistant, Christian spoke at least some English, so it was totally clear what we were looking at. They drove us about half an hour in a jeep up and up this gnarky twisty dusty dirt road with pretty steep drop offs much of the way at about 40 mph (it seemed really fast). We got to the site just in time for sunset. It was totally gorgeous. While we waited for it to get dark, they pointed out various stars, planets, other big shiny observatories and the like. It was the last day for tours that month because the moon gets so bright it obliterates everything else. It was just shy of a waxing quarter and we got to look at it through the telescope. It was so big in the eyepiece it was blinding (spots, spots, spots) and Christian took this photo through the telescope with my cheesy little digital camera! We saw gorgeous nebulas, a globular cluster, and towards the end they were showing us reallyreallyreallyreally distant fuzzy stuff. Their computer tracker was broken so they found it all by sight. Wow. It was totally one of the most amazing Christmas nights ever. They even showed us the Southern Cross, it takes a long time to rise all the way, and explained how you have to line up two of the stars to pint to the south pole--not so easy as the North Star. We were SO glad we had left LaSerena behind. I mean wow.

The next day we explored around the Elqui Valley. It attracts a lot of "alternative" people. ( I find that term a bit distressing because it sounds like "substitute" or somehow not as good, but I can't think what else to say). There is good energy there apparantly. It sure felt like it to me. I actually had to buy hand cream it was so dry, and I found some totally organic locally made stuff. It was great. It's a bit too moisturizer laden for me here in Eugene, but it was most welcome there! We drove here and there looking at murals (this is of Gabriela Mistral, a local woman who became one of Chile's most beloved and prestigious poets), tasting pisco and visiting a nifty artist/artisan market. I bought a little dream catcher and a long hanging decoration of seeds and sticks and pods and limes and whatnot, which seemed to be a common decoration around there. I didn't even think of it as "food or seeds" when we went through agricultural customs in Atlanta. Good thing or I would have given myself away. I just can't lie to customs (as certain people now know). We had a fresh corn and chicken casserole dish called pastel de choclo (choclo is corn in Chile. If it is crowded, it is "achoclonado"-- all packed together like corn kernals!) for lunch at the Mistral Pisco Distillery resaurant, and then we had Argentinian barbecue for dinner at a place called something like Sabor Calor that had the big old wood burning grill right in the bottom half of their building. It was run by a Chilean artist and her Argentinian cook husband, who live in the US half the time also. She had her art and other local artists work as well. A lovely dinner under the stars topped off a few days full of positive energy in the Elqui Valley.