Important note about my frequent travel: these are my experiences and observations I share eagerly and enthusiastically. I receive no compensation in cash/kind/discounts, etc. in any way from any business/locations I’ve visited. None of the businesses paid for my travel expenses or offered any free services.
I’d only planned nighttime astronomy tours in Elqui Valley. I hadn’t planned anything during the day because I wasn’t sure when we would wake up or how tired we’d feel. We’d relax during the day and stay up late stargazing. Our first astronomy tour was at Cielo Sur Observatory. On our first full day in Vicuna we woke up to very strong, dry winds called terral. Roberto, our host, told us in winters when the temperatures are high there is usually very strong wind in the morning from mountains in the north. It usually lasts a few hours. Even though August is winter in South America, the temperature in Vicuna was 85 deg F (29 C). This was one of the warmest winter in years. After a week in Patagonia, I welcomed a little warm weather.
The B&B had a pool, great views, BBQ, fire pit, firewood, hammocks, and lounge chairs. There was everything we could have wanted for a relaxing vacation. Since we were the only guests at Elqui Terra B&B so we had the whole place to ourselves. It also gave us a chance to talk to our host, Roberto. Breakfast at Elqui Terra included local, organic eggs, coffee, freshly squeezed orange and papaya juice, cheese, and veggies, pecans and walnuts from his garden. He also had delicious, locally made marmalade.
Over breakfast Roberto told us about what to do, where to go, and what uniquely Chilean things we must try. He suggested we visit Herminda and Alicia’s place after breakfast. Their home/garden is a short 5 min walk from the B&B and that’s where he gets his delicious marmalade. Herminda and Alicia are two 80+ years old widows who make and sell marmalade and Mistela (fortified wine) from the fruits grown in their garden.
Roberto called and told them we’d be stopping by to purchase some mistela. Options for mistela included mango, papaya, custard apple, strawberry, raspberry, peach, cinnamon, lucuma (a native south american fruit), orange, anise, lemon, barley and many more. We tasted most of these and every single one was delicious and strong. After tasting a few fortified wines, they gave us a tour of their garden, picked off a few guavas, avocado, and custard apple for us to eat.
They didn’t speak any English and our Spanish was minimal at best, but thanks to google translate, we talked like old friends for over an hour. This was one of my favorite and best memory about Elqui Valley. This isn’t something listed on Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet, or any other travel website. If we weren’t staying at Elqui Terra, we never would have met these amazing, wonderful women who make strong, delicious liqueur from whatever grows in their garden.
We bought a bottle of custard apple, mango, guava, and whiskey liqueur. Our initial plan was to bring a few of these bottles back with us as gifts but we realized they weren’t pressure sealed. We couldn’t bring these bottles back to USA with us. We would just have to enjoy them over the next few days. After a few drinks by the poolside, we took a taxi to De La Piedra Al Bamboo Restaurant, about 3 miles away. It’s a sushi and pizza restaurant. It’s a strange combination but common in Chile.
It’s a very affordable place but we didn’t get any sushi. Chilean sushi has cream cheese. I also wasn’t sure exactly how fresh the fish was going to be in the desert so we ordered one salami and sausage pizza and one olive, onions and steak pizza (tasted better). Both the pizzas cost about $9 total. Elqui Valley is probably the most affordable tourist destination in Chile. Since food in Chile isn’t very good, we decided to get a few basics from a grocery store before heading back to the B&B.
On our way back, we tried to take a shared taxi, called collectivo. Shared taxi needs at least 4 people before they can go anywhere. These taxis drive along a specified route and costs 900 CLP (about $1.40 per person). We waited a few minutes for our shared taxi to get two more people but it was siesta hour. All the small shops close between 1 and 4 pm for siesta. Only the supermarket chains are open during those hours. Everyone was on their break. After about 5 minutes of waiting we decided to just take a regular taxi back to Elqui Terra which cost 3,500 CLP (~ $5.50 USD). We wanted to relax for a few hours before driving to the Observatory.
The drive to Cielo Sur Observatory in the town of Alcohuaz is over an hour long. Half the drive is though curvy, mountain roads with lots of switchbacks. There are no lights along the drive to preserve the night sky so it took us about an hour and half to get to the observatory. The last 5 km to the observatory is through narrow, unpaved, dirt road. We made it to the observatory at 8 pm and realized we were the only people taking the tour.
Once we checked in, we followed our tour guide to the edge of a river. It was one of the darkest nights I’ve experienced so I couldn’t see the river. I could only hear it nearby. We parked our car near two domes that housed the telescope. The tour started with us looking at the constellations and how the sky changes throughout the year. After about 10 mins we went inside the dome and it was time to look through the telescope.
Cielo Sur Observatory has a Celesteron 11 inch azimuthal telescope with Schmidt-Cassegrain televue eyepiece. Our tour guide was very nice. He was great at maneuvering the telescope but he didn’t have too much knowledge about astronomy. He had memorized what objects to show and what information to give. It was amazing to look though the telescope and see Mars, open and closed star clusters, rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s red spot, galaxies, nebulae, and so much more.
The “private” tour lasted a little over an hour and cost 11,000 CLP (about $16 USD) per person. We drove back through the unpaved, dirt road and the mountains. On our drive back, we wanted to get dinner but we were in a very small town. All the restaurants closed around 9 pm. We couldn’t find a single place open. I was so happy we’d stopped by a grocery store earlier in the day to pick up some basics.
Our 10th wedding anniversary dinner included an avocado from Herminda and Alicia’s garden for appetizer. Entree was boxed beans cooked with onions, random herbs from Roberto’s garden, and merken. Dessert was custard apple mistela. This turned out to be one of the best meal we had in Chile. By the time we finished dinner it was past midnight and we were tired. We relaxed in the garden, stared at the milky way for some time before going to bed.