Saturday, 27 June 2015

Elqui Valley

For our last proper excursion of South America we decided to hire a camper van and head north from Santiago, where we had arrived overnight from Mendoza, to Vicuña and the Elqui Valley. With an average of 360 cloudless nights a year, Northern Chile is one of the best places in the world to stargaze and home to some of the worlds most powerful telescopes, so having planned our trip to avoid the full moon and have clear skies, we took the van for a four day camping experience under the stars. The drive to Vicuña was expected to take around six hours but took almost nine after a exploding tyre on the motorway which we fixed only to find out, after a short lived celebration, that the battery had died! After joining the Ruta del Estrella or the Route of the the Stars, we found an area of land available for us to camp on so had the fun task of learning how to set up in the pitch black! After cooking dinner and setting up the fire and camp, we enjoyed a few classes of wine under the incredibly stunning stars that were sprawled above us, and enjoyed an evening of playful bickering over which constellation was which.

The van was well equipped for the five of us with a tent on the roof which simply unfolded to provide sleeping quarters for all of us meaning our first night under the stars was a comfortable one. 
The following day we ventured to Pisco Elqui which is where the liquor Pisco is made. We went to Fundo Los Nichos distillery and learnt how it is made; a process similar to wine. Pisco is made from a grape which once processed is heated to around 90 degrees. The evaporated liquid is then cooled down instantly to produce the 60% spirit which is commonly mixed with Coca Cola, or with egg whites and syrup to make the famous Pisco Sour cocktail. 
That afternoon we whiled away the hours driving around the valley and soaking in the stunning views and warming rays before finding a camping spot by the river on the outskirts of a village. As all the settlements in the valley are small, light pollution is practically non existent which promises a nights sky twinkling in all its glory.
For our last night we made reservations at Observatorio Cerro Mamalluca, a popular observatory high up in the valley. Although the telescope is only 30cm on diameter, we were able to see both Saturn and Jupiter clearly which was a mind-blowing experience when the distances are explained - 588 million km and 1.2 billion km away, respectively. With the naked eye we were able to see Venus which was lying low to the horizon and also the Southern Hemisphere constellations. In Peru we learnt of the Llama constellation which the Incas introduced and have been trying to map it out ever since. Only here at the observatory did we learn that this constellation is actually made with the negative black space in between stars. Another example of the ingenuity of the Incas! As the sky was clear of clouds or light pollution we were even able to see the formation of the Milky Way, the black hole it centres around and three dimension star clusters. 
Being able to see all of this so clearly puts everything in perspective when it dawns on you how minute our existence is in the grand scheme of things. This was a humbling, out of this world experience (pun intended) which I will never forget!