12 Feb 2012

Elqui valley - the capital of pisco...

or so say the Chileans...

The Elqui valley is extraordinary in that as you are rumbling along the coastal road heading south towards Santiago with the desert landscape of northern Chile and southern Peru behind you, things begin to soften a little with some greenery (but not much) and then suddenly it goes very green and you are surrounded by fields of vines, vines and more vines. Turn inland and the vines continue as the road begins to climb, very gently this time, but still surrounded by vines.

The alcoholic beverage known as Pisco is big business in this area (if you don't know it already its a grape brandy in the same family as cognac, armagnac etc and worth a look) - although if you talk to any Peruvian they will claim ownership of its origins over the Chileans :) 

The two countries actually treat it differently in terms of how it is processed and hence the end products vary, either way it has been around since the mid 16th Century and lots of it is consumed in this part of the world.

Still lined with rows and rows of vines the road continues up the valley wending its way between very proximate, very high and totally barren hills. Just goes to show what a bit of water can do, for where they irrigate is absolutely covered with vines (did we mention that?) and every now and again an orchard.

What this place doesn't lack are clear blue crystal clear skies, which is why we came here, not for the Pisco or the fruit but rather to spend a few nights in a rather special place.

About 70 kms up the valley is a hostelry where one can rest ones head whilst gazing at the stars through the open top of the geodesic dome of the cabin/tent/hut, which as there are hardly ever any clouds is worth doing.

Yup, they let you remove the roof so that you are literally sleeping under the stars whilst being very comfortably ensconced in a bed (with two duvets as it gets a tad 'chile' at night) on the upper deck of your two story geodesic tent thingy with a mini-bar, bathroom and living space downstairs, all very glamorous as far as camping goes, or glamping as we now know it...

An intro tour of the stars through proper telescopic instruments and a couple of pisco sours later and all was right with the universe.

La Serena - 3 days of geodesic comfort and we headed back to the coast to La Serena (Chile's 2nd oldest town).

Note to self - next time stay on the bus and travel through La Serena without a pause.

and so onto the great city of Santiago...

9 Feb 2012

San Pedro de Atacama - some like it hot and dry...

San Pedro de Atacama is situated in the Atacama salt flats  (22 degrees south of the equator) part of the region known as the Atacama desert and commonly known as the driest place on earth (average rainfall of 1mm a year). Travelling from Lima that means a total of 42 hours on buses and bring your own water.

A settlement or other has been on the sight for a very long time, around the oasis, but its modern vibe is predominantly focussed on tourism as we all flock to see the magical sights, with some mining (copper/lithium) and star gazing thrown in (Llano de Chajnantor Observatory - which is apparently the latest in international technology in looking up).

The sights that we squeezed into a 3 day campaign were:
Valle de la luna - which is one of the driest places on earth as some of it hasn't received any rainfall for hundreds of years. It has also been compared to the surface of Mars and a rover was tested here. Rare shapes carved by the elements are peppered around the vista, abandoned salt mines abandoned, dunes sculpted by the wind, you get the picture... The thing to do is watch the sunset, so we did.

Mineral lakes - There were only 6 of us on this tour for the day + our guide Alex who picked us up at 0645 with tunes already playing. He took us to the salt plains proper to see flamingoes and then 2 other lakes of differing altitudes and settings, all very beautiful. Throughout the entire trip we were accompanied by his own medley of 1980's then 90's tunes, to which he sang gently in the background. Every time we awoke from a moments slumber, there he was singing along...and oh yes the lakes, fab... amazing tones of blue accompanied by grazing guanacos and vicuñas.

The Geysers of El Tatio
The following day saw a 0430 start - excellent - to be driven through the night for 2 hours to 4000 metres above sea level at -7 degrees c (average temperature of our trip so far: 25 degrees c) = shock to the early morning system! 

NB We spent the morning 'discussing' the correct pronunciation of geyser, eventually agreeing that a geyser is what is in front of the camera and a geezer behind it...assuming that the Americans know who Guy Ritchie is...

We were also told the story of the four people that have died in these geysers since they were opened up to tourists in the 90's. The last to cook was a Chilean gentlemen who neatly folded his towel next to the pool and then, wearing no more than his trusty speedos, jumped in. Due to the temperature of the water being upwards of 70 degrees c, his skin promptly peeled off. The other 3 tales were equally gruesome.

And then a final fly by through cactus valley. These babies are amazing, apparently scientists have now measured growth rates of the plant at approx 10mm per year, so 4-5 metre beasts are approx 400+ yrs old, which is why they are now protected to stop people using the 'wood' of the inner core as fuel/building/art.

Some like it hot, it was in every way (other than at 0430!) and dry dry dry...