Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Just a couple of hours drive from Paranal is the city of Antofagasta. We now in an area known as Norte Grande and Antofagasta is the largest city of this region and the second largest city in Chile after Santiago. Throughout Chile, the town is called “La Perla del Norte” (The Pearl of the North), for both its historical and economic importance and as such has the highest GDP per capita of Chile at 37.000 US dollars. Since mining hit the region in the 19th century, profitable nitrate mines of the last century and the recent silver and copper mining from the nearby mountains brought many foreign settlers to the city. Today, Antofagasta is the distribution point for copper mined at La Escondida and Chuquicamata--the latter of which holds the distinction of being the largest open-pit mine in the world. After a visit to the tourist office,located on Plaza Colón (the main square in town), we are told that there is currently only one campground open during winter and it is on the south side of town. As we leave the tourist office we are struck by the unique architecture of the buildings around us. Due to the influx of foreigners over the decades, there is a markedly European feel in the city’s architecture and ambiance. The clock tower in the plaza is an exact replica of Big Ben and as we drive through the Barrio Històrico we see many historic Victorian buildings. Just as interesting to us is the fact that with more than 20 km (12 miles) of beachfront, Antofagasta has been developed as a year-round beach resort. Unfortunately the information the tourist office is not up to date and even the campground they sent us to is closed for the season which was actually okay because it looked run-down and a bit seedy. Our spirits were buoyed by the fact there was large coves with long stretches of sandy beaches so we are confident we will find a place to park for our stay. Enter Playa Llanalcan, a popular surf spot with fabulous curling waves a couple of mile south of town. In addition, it was clean and there were plenty of level areas to choose from and of course, plenty of space for Winston to run. Our plan is to stay here for a few days and explore the town and immediate vicinity as there are quite a few monuments to visit just outside the city. As evening approached quite a few surfers from town came to enjoy the waves and the majority of them were very good. A lady who was with them and who seemed to be the “unofficial” photographer and videographer introduced herself to us, speaking very good English. For the rest of the evening, we chatted with her as she told us of places that we must see, all the while watching the surfers who put on quite an exhibition and Winston who seemed content to run in large circles, smelling everything in sight. After the sun set, the surfers left and we had the beach mostly to ourselves for the rest of the night. Very quiet with very little street noise, just the way we like it.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Observatorio Paranal – Paranal Observatory.

Located in the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on Earth, at the top of a mountain consisting of an amazing “out of this world” cluster of buildings and telescopes, Paranal Observatory truly is “in the middle of nowhere” and it looks exactly like a lunar landscape, except for the blue sky and a paved road. Belonging to ESO (European Southern Observatory) co-founder Dr. Massimo Terenghi, orchestrated the design, construction, and implementation of the observatory. For science and astronomy enthusiasts, Paranal has in scientific terms a VLT (Very Large Telescope). A VLT actually consists of four 8.2 meter (26 feet) diameter telescopes and four smaller meter-size (3.2 feet) telescopes which can be operated independently or as one and for the time being is the most powerful optical array in the world. However for the star struck enthusiasts of a different kind, the futuristic looking observatory is the place where portions of the James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace” was filmed. We had heard that the free of charge, Saturday only tour had to be booked months in advance but our luck held with us and we were able to reserve a place for this coming Saturday for the morning tour. Our luck continued to hold because when we checked in at 10 am, there was only one other gentleman, an Italian visiting Antofagasta for a convention, who would be with us. The security here is strict and as we entered the property, we were given a short talk on the do and don’ts of the tour. The best part though was that filming and photography of any part of the facility was allowed and that there would be plenty of time for photos. Cool! As to be expected our two guides were knowledgeable not only about the observatory, telescopes and all the technical data but were also entertaining and easy to understand. The tour started with a walk around the exterior of the four large telescopes housed in their individual buildings and the smaller telescopes which combined become a VLT. We then moved inside one of the buildings to see one of them up close. Each telescope has a team of technicians who check and double check the cables, equipment, mirrors and casings every day so the telescopes are fully functional every night. How sophisticated are these telescopes? Well, there are no eyepieces and the astronomers are not allowed in the domes even at night! They are so complicated that they are run by engineers trained to do nothing but operate them every night from a control center. That’s right; these telescopes function by way of commands sent through banks of computers that micro-adjust the mirrors and coordinate 1, 2, 3, or all 4 of the 8.2 meter telescopes at once. From there we went to the control center and observed the computers that monitor and run the telescopes. It is from here that the telescopes are programmed, either individually or combined to watch the night sky for whatever project is being studied at that time. While there are 12 resident astronomers at Paranal, because of the VLT, they often have visiting astronomers who stay anywhere from a week to a couple of months. Most of the 120 staff work on a week on, week off basis and live at the observatory so from the command center, our final stop was the architecturally award winning hotel and living quarters. The hotel is built into the side of the mountain and as we entered through the main doors into the lobby, the place looked like a scene from Shang-ri-la. Huge tropical plants and trees gave way to a sparkling swimming pool complete with lounge chairs. Off to one side was a restaurant were all the staff ate (and ate very well, according to our guides). Since most of the activity is at night, we were cautioned to be quiet as much of the staff sleep during the day and even now at 1pm, there were only a handful of people, sitting around reading or on their laptops. “How cool would it be to stay here” I asked Tom but the guide told us that besides staff, only visiting astronomers were allowed to stay overnight. The 3 hour tour flew by and we had a great time and give this observatory tour a big thumbs up. As we drove back down the steep hillside back to the main road, a bus turned up the road, then a couple of cars, then a van. The 2pm afternoon tour. We were glad we went in the morning.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar

After leaving Caldera, we followed route 5 to Chanaral and then took a minor provincial road Pan de Azucar National Park. Meaning “Sugar Loaf National Park”, it was founded in 1985 and covers an area of about 43,000 hectacres. It is well known for its diversity of sea life primarily the Humboldt penguin which breeds on an island off shore and varieties of cacti, although since it is winter we are not sure what we will see. One thing, with it being off-season we won’t run into many tourists. The road is fairly well maintained and along the way, we started to see a few different types of cacti, some really tall and others more shrub-like and close to the ground. One that interested us looked like a soccer ball, round with medium sized white flowers – very pretty. There is supposed to be a charge at the entrance but when we passed, the ranger station was closed up and no-one in the time we were visiting the park asked us to pay any fee. It crossed our minds that maybe the park is closed for the season, which will mean the campgrounds will also be closed, but we press on. Worse thing is we will have to park on the beach. As we drive we pass a few gorgeous white sand beaches although some had the access road closed off and signs indicating that fauna renovation was underway. Our destination is Caleta Pan de Azucar, the main settlement where there is a couple of campsites with facilities. However again, due to it being winter the only campground open is the one owned by CONAF at Playa Piqueros. With ecology in mind the place operates on solar power. The problem is, it is winter and the cloud cover sticks around most of the time so, no sun, hence no power. It also meant no hot water for showering, brrr!! On the positive side, the place is clean and quiet and each site has its own palapa with a table and benches and a large barbeque pit. However at a cost of over $20.00 for the night, we decide to stay only one night and then “wild-camp” on one of the beaches. Another positive is we have great views of Isla Pan de Azucar where Humboldt penguins hang out and Winston gets a lot of time playing on the beach. Tom barbeques chicken for dinner and we eat early as the sun sets as after dark this place will be pitch black. The next day, we doubled back to check out one beach, Playa Refugio, which other overlanders claim to have “guerilla” camped at. Unfortunately, it looked to us that people were living there in tents and the beach was filthy with mounds of trash so we headed a little way back north to another small cove which had no name. It also had no signs indicating we couldn’t park there and it was clean and trash-free. We found an almost level spot so with just a minimum of effort, one block under each of the left side tires achieved the desired result. We spent the day, checking out some of the walking trails and climbing to the top of a rock to check out some sea lions but tomorrow we will head north again. Although the park is pleasant, it is probably a lot more interesting in the summer months when everything is open, as long as you can stand all the tourists, that is.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Copiapo and Caldera

Today is Tom’s birthday and our (my) main goal is to be somewhere where we can find a restaurant for dinner. Leaving the Penguin reserve behind, we go back down the same dirt road that we came in on to route 5. From here the Pan-American heads inland and we soon start to climb in elevation. Passing through the town of Vallenar, we toyed with the idea of going to the Huasco Valley and Parque Nacional Llanos de Challe. This park is extremely remote about 60 mile out of our way on yet another dirt track and is really only supposed to be interesting in the summer or in the winter on the years when there has been a lot of rain and so the desert has what is known as a “desierto florido” when latent, parched plants explode in a multi-colored display of wildflowers, turning the area from a desert landscape into a flowering garden. Since this has not been a particularly wet year and it is still a little early for the desert flowers to show, we decide to keep going. We had thought we would stop and stay in the larger town of Copiapo. This has been a mining town since the 1700’s. First attracting gold speculators, then silver and now Chile’s multi-million dollar investment in copper mining. Chile is the world’s leading copper exporter. In spite of all the money that has been poured into the city and maybe because of its blue-collar roots, the town turned out to be disappointing. It has a seedy, well-worn feel to it and neither Tom nor I really wish to stay. The next town of any size is the beach town of Caldera. This will make for a long drive day for us, about 300 miles total, but we go for it. Built in 1852, South America’s first railroad, from Copiapo to Caldera was begun and as we continue on route 5, we catch glimpses of the old, narrow gauge track as we meander through the mountains before dropping back to sea level at Caldera. Caldera is on the south shore of a bay and during the mining boom it was the second largest port in the country. Whilst we had read that it is a popular resort in the summer, right now it is deserted with much of the town boarded up. We cruise the road along the beach looking not only for a place to park overnight but a restaurant for Tom to enjoy a birthday dinner. The beach is run down and a little dirty and to our dismay had lots of tents where it looked like the destitute lived. We move a little further down and find a level area for the motorhome. Close by is the pier where the fisherman haul their fresh catch in every morning and there is a market plus a couple of restaurants. We walk Winston on the beach and after feeding him, set out for the wharf, passing some more tents along the way. At the pier, we browsed the few stalls that were still open but did not buy anything. We will come back in the morning to purchase fresh fish or shellfish for dinner. We also spied a restaurant at the end of the wharf with outside tables to watch the sunset. After looking at the menu, we both settled on crab dishes for dinner and their specialty, cerviche mad with Chilean Sea Bass for a starter. We also ordered a couple of pisco sours and settled in to watch the setting sun. I toasted Tom and quietly sang “Happy Birthday” to him. It may not be the fanciest restaurant in the world but the view across the ocean was brilliant and the food was very good and fresh. Happy birthday to Tom!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Pingüino de Humboldt National Reserve (Humboldt Penguin National Reserve)

From Vicuna, our plan was to bypass La Serena and go north up the coast to the Humboldt penguin reserve. Leaving the Pan-American at Trapiche, we followed a dirt road past Choros Bajos to Caleta Punta Choros. We had heard varying reports on the condition of the road but it was in fairly good shape with hard compacted dirt and only a few “washboard” areas. We were disappointed when we arrived that the few camping possibilities that were advertised were all closed for the winter. As we drove from one to another, we were getting closer to the wharf and CONAF office where boats left for the islands. After checking out the pier, at least now we know where to come in the morning, we drove to the north end of town to a secluded cliff overlooking the beach and with relatively easy access for Winston to run. The next morning, the first thing I did was check the weather outside. We are lucky, it looks fairly calm. When we had visited Mamalluca Observatory, Richard (the California gentleman) had said he had come from here but the weather had been too rough and the boats were cancelled, so he missed out on the penguins. We do have the luxury of waiting a few days but would rather get further north. However, when we got to the pier we were told that the islands are currently closed on Monday and Tuesday. Today is Tuesday! They said for us to return in the morning. This is a tiny fishing village and it is winter so there is very little to do or see. We return to our place on cliff and park for another night. Winston has a great time, running on the beach with a couple of other dogs and Tom decides to do a couple of maintenance projects around the motorhome. I clean, sweep and do some writing as I am woefully behind. We actually enjoyed the laziness of the day after being so busy sight-seeing in the Elqui Valley. The following morning we showed up as directed at 9:30am. Besides the fisherman and the man at the ticket office, there is no-one around. We are now told that there needs to be a minimum of 10 people for the boat to leave. Shoot. However we were told just to wait as usually other tourist arrives and often a tour from La Serena gets to the dock around 10:30. Sure enough, within the space of an hour or so, three other couples arrived and then a small bus with about 8 older ladies on board. Yeah! I walk over to the CONAF office to get the required tickets to walk on Isla Damas and was surprised to learn that today it is free. A savings of about $10.00 but I could not discover why today there is no charge. We were then taken to the dock, provided with life jackets that we were told to wear at all times on the boat and then we were off. The Pingüino de Humboldt National Reserve (Humboldt Penguin National Reserve) is a protected nature reserve located about 6 Km (4 miles) off the coast of mainland Chile. Consisting of three islands: Islas Chañaral, Damas and Choros, it has a total area of 859.3 hectares (2,123 acres). The reserve takes its name from the Humboldt Penguin that nests on the rocky island of Isla Choros. These penguins breed along the Chilean and Peruvian coasts and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists them as a “vulnerable species” with only an estimated population of 12,000 breeding pairs. They say that if conservation measures are not put in place, the species could become extinct in the next few decades. The possibility of seeing penguins in this area, near the Atacama Desert is something extremely exceptional and it’s because of the Humboldt Current, a cold, low-salinity ocean current that flows north-westward along the west coast of South America from the southern tip of Chile to northern Peru. Our boat will take us first to Isla Choros and then to Isla Damas for a total trip of about 4 hours. It is June and winter so many of the penguins and other species have left but we are told there are still some penguins to see. Landing is not permitted on Isla Choros and so we begin to circle the island. The first thing we saw was a solitary Humboldt penguin on a small cliff but it did not take long to see several groups of them on the shore. They are similar to a Magellan penguin but a little smaller and with extra bands of black around the face and head. Besides the penguins, we see several large sea lion colonies, groups of otters playing in the water and slithering over rocks and massive rookeries of cormorants, gulls, boobies and a myriad of other species that we could not identify. As we continued to circle the island, with the boat captain pointing out various rock formations, fauna and of course penguins, pods of bottle-nosed dolphins come very close to the boat. As they cavorted in the water beside us, seemingly showing off for the tourists, the cameras were clicking. We wound our way through natural arches made from the erosion of rock over the millenniums where the water was quite choppy and around several coves and inlets before turning to head to Isla Damas. This island is the closest of the all three to the mainland and the only one where boats can land. There is usually a mandatory fee, payable to CONAF (today is free) and a maximum of 60 visitors per day who can only stay1 hour, due to conservation efforts to keep tourism at a minimum and reduce impact on the island’s bird population. A ranger greets us, takes our names and where we are from. She then showed a map of the island and the various trails and we were cautioned to be back at the dock within one hour. The small island is capped by a granite summit and has two snowy white sandy beaches. Playa La Poza where we landed is gorgeous and we take some photos before starting on the trail that will take us to Playa Tijeras, a 1km. walk away. From there we will circle back to the dock. The trail is well maintained and easy to follow. The fine white sandy beach of Playa Tijeras comes into view as we round a cliff and it is also beautiful with calm, turquoise blue water. Darn, if it were summer and warmer we could go for a swim but right now the ocean is pretty chilly so we content ourselves with taking some photos. From there it is another easy half mile (1Km) walk back to the wharf. There are quite a few different species of birds which call this place home and we try to identify as many as we could on the return trip. The last spectacle of the trip came on the return journey back to Caleta Punta Choros. Off to the left the captain spied a plume of water and the driver immediately slowed the boat and gently steered it towards… a whale. A hump-backed whale to be more exact and according to the captain, a young one. We watched as he swam in slow circles around the boat, flipping his fluke and spouting water from time to time. It was quite a show and a great finale to a fabulous boat trip. By the time we arrived back it was four o’clock and Winston greeted us exuberantly. Since it is late, we will camp out on “our” cliff for one more night before leaving. That evening we grilled some chicken and had a glass of wine as we watched the sun set. What a great day. We are glad we made the detour to come.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Star gazing at Mamalluca and Del Pangue Observatories.

Another reason we wanted to explore this area of Chile is because of the plethora of observatories. Of all the astronomical telescopes in the world, 30% of them are in Chile. Over the last few decades, the country has become acknowledged as a world leader in the field of astronomy. Many international astronomical organizations have invested and settled here and Chile is now host to the biggest and most powerful astronomical ground-based observatories on Earth. Why Chile and why this area. Well, the Atacama Desert and surrounding areas has some of the driest and moisture-free air on the planet. One of the most noticeable features of the region is the quality of the night sky resulting from a rare combination of geology and geography. The effects of the atmospheric conditions from the Pacific Ocean, the winds across desert floor and the altitude of the Andes come together to form sunny days and crystal-clear, cloudless nights, more than 300 days per year. This combined with a total absence of light pollution thanks in part to the Chilean government investing millions into changing the lights in the towns of the region to sodium vapor, make for ideal star gazing activities. Another reason why Chile was chosen is because of the curvature of the earth, there are many important and unique objects in the southern sky, including the center of the galaxy and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds that are not visible within the Northern Hemisphere. While many of the observatories are for scientific studies only, a few are set up for tourist viewing and still others allow visitors to tour their facilities. One of the most popular for tourists is Mamalluca Observatory and our first encounter with the observatories of Chile. Located nine kilometers (6 miles) northeast of Vicuña, on top of Cerro Mamalluca at 1,200 meters (4,600 feet) elevation, the observatory was built specifically for public use and is run by the Municipality de Vicuña. We made our reservations in town and were told to be ready to leave from their office at 6:30 pm. The ride up to the observatory took about 30 minutes and by the time we got to the top, it was already quite dark. From there we were divided into groups and each group was given a guide. Ours was naturally an English speaking group, and besides us there was Richard, a gentleman from Chico, California and a young couple from Latvia. The two and a half hour tour started with us viewing the night sky through the large main telescope, a 30cm (12 inch) Schimdt-Cassegrain donated by the nearby scientific-only Cerro Tololo InterAmerican Observatory. With the guide operating a GPS remote control, we were able to see a dazzling display of stars, planets, galaxies, nebulas and clusters, including Jupiter, Saturn’s rings, the Orion nebula, the Andromeda galaxy and Sirius. From there we moved to a smaller telescope, where we viewed a couple of binary stars, the Southern Cross and an elliptical galaxy. The tour ended in an auditorium where we watched a short 10 minute film on the history of the universe and how to access certain web-sites via the internet in which you can plug in the date and city where you are to learn what is visible in the night sky at that time. We had read some derogatory comments regarding this tour stating amongst other things that it is overcrowded, over-rated, and cheesy and aimed at complete beginners. We could not disagree more. With only five people in our group, we were never rushed and had plenty of time to look through the telescopes. Luis, our guide was knowledgeable and informative. He answered all our questions in a way we would understand without being too simplistic and he adapted the tour to our interests and not some set format. All in all, we had a great time and looked forward to delving into the mysteries of the universe further. And further means the other show in town, Observatorio Del Pangue (Pangue Observatory). This is a private observatory run by a French astronomer Eric Escalera, who holds a Ph.D. in Astrophysics. Eric, who runs all the tours and is one of the guides, advertises his observatory trips as being more personalized, more exclusive and more advanced than Mamalluca. We are looking forward to checking out the differences. The first difference is that there is only one group and the maximum number of people he takes per night is 10. We understand that during the summer months you have to book Pangue Observatory well in advance however being winter there are only tours Thursday through Saturday and there were only 4 people to our group. After meeting at the downtown office, we were taken via car to the observatory. Located 17 km (about 10 miles) from Vicuna, the observatory sits on a mountain at 1500 meters (4,800 feet) elevation and is close to the scientific observatories of SOAR, Gemini, and Tololo. The night sky from the top of the mountain is stunning and much more remote than Mamalluca. From our vantage point, there is a wonderful 180 degree panoramic view of the sky with virtually no light-pollution from the surrounding area. Assisted by two other guides, Eric leads us through some astronomy basics before letting us loose. With the option of 4 telescopes, their equipment is high quality and we are allowed to operate the GPS remotes and assist in programming the telescopes to view whatever pleases us in the night sky. The entire staff is very competent and friendly and switch back and forth between Tom and I, speaking in English and the other couple, who speak only Spanish. With their help we located stars and planets, viewed elliptical and spiral galaxies and checked out a “dying” star. We viewed our own galaxy, the Milky Way sweeping across the night sky so visible with its opaque “milkiness” and studied and learned about the different star clusters. The few hours that we were on top of the mountain flew by and we loved every minute of it. It seems whenever I look at the sky, stars, planets and universe in its entire splendor, I am forced to think about the big question in life, Is there a God? It is written that Darwin spent nearly a third of his 5-year voyage around the world in Chile studying evolution. But for me, I am a believer. Why? After admitting that my beliefs are undoubtedly influenced by my Catholic upbringing, I am also struck by the remarkable beauty and magnificent grandeur of not only our own planet but of the cosmos. Reason and intuition tell me that this magnificence could not have come about through natural forces alone. Of course there is the multiversal argument, the likelihood of life evolving elsewhere in the universe and what this might mean for religion and theology. Many astronomers are convinced that with the upcoming space-based and ground-based telescopes virtually every star we will be studying will have planets and that surely there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Ah, the mystery of life, death and our place in the grand scheme of things. We gave a big thumbs up to both of these touristic observatories and if ever you are in Vicuna, check them both out.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The word on Pisco

We returned to Restaurant Halley in Vicuna the following afternoon. The spacious colonial style restaurant is lovely with beautiful interior dining areas supported by substantial indigenous wood columns and a patio with a thatched ceiling. More important they have free Wi-Fi so over pisco sours and appetizers, we were able to chat with the kids via Skype. Pisco sours are the tangy cocktail made from Pisco, a grape brandy and are served in a champagne flute with a coating of sugar around the rim of the glass to offset the sourness. They are delicious and are considered to be Chile’s national alcoholic beverage. Unfortunately, the Peruvians make the same claim and a rivalry between the two countries over the liquors’ origin has raged for decades with Peru winning a slight victory in 2005 when they obtained an endorsement from WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organization) for the Pisco title. The Peruvians have strong historical evidence on their side as it was in Peru that the Spaniards first introduced vineyards and records indicate that Pisco was made and consumed in that country since around the early 1600’s. However undaunted, the Chileans point out that pisco has also been produced in Chile for centuries, that its pisco is superior to that of Peru and that they produce, drink and export more Pisco than Peru. To that final point, there can be no argument and it is in the Elqui Valley that more of the Pisco grapes are grown than in any other region and that Vicuña is the major center for pisco production. Pisco brandy is actually an extract from pure grape juice and around 15lbs (6 kilos) of grapes are needed to get one liter of pisco. It contains no other ingredient but the fermented “must” from some of the eight types of grapes known as pisco grapes. These grape types include Quebranta, black, Mollar, Uvina and the aromatic Muscatel among others but it is the fermented must that gives pisco its own unique flavor and the distilling process that gives the liquor it’s transparent, colorless, crystalline quality. Known as pisquerias, Ruta Norte, Capel, Mistral, Tres Erres and Artesanos de Cochiguaz are all local distilleries with plenty of awards and accreditations for their product. Capel is the closest one to town and is without doubt the largest pisco distillery in the area with a plant that turns out 36 million bottles of the stuff every year for both the domestic and international market. Besides visiting the Capel distillery and watching how pisco is made, there was also a museum and a tasting room on-site. Interesting and fun. Cheers and Salud.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Vicuna and Villa Seco.

After settling in at Las Pataguas, we spent the first couple of days in the Elqui Valley exploring the town of Vicuna. This is really the only town of any size and is only a 15 minute bus ride from the campsite. Our first stop was at the tourist information office located in the Torre Bauer (Bauer Tower). Built in 1905 by a German mayor and brought over from Germany, the rust colored clock tower looks like a castle. The two men at the tourist center were very helpful and spoke not only English but also German. They gave us maps of the area and pointed out some activities not to be missed. Next to the tourist office on the northern side of the plaza is the Church of the Immaculate Conception, a pretty white church with a simple bell tower. After checking out the church, we ambled through the Plaza de Armas. This is a beautiful square with aged indigenous trees lining the paths. At its center the square has a huge copper and brass portrait of Gabriela Mistral’s face looking up at the sky. One of Chile’s most famous literary figures, the poet was born in Vicuna in 1889 and later went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. The motif is in honor of the award winning poet but it is quite a strange looking. A short walk from the plaza down Avenida Gabriela Mistral is a museum dedicated to her life and achievements. Next door to the museum, we found an internet café and took the time to check our emails and write home. Walking back to the bus station we passed a restaurant with a Wi-Fi zone, so now we know where to go with our own computers. The following day, we decide to go to Villa Seco. This tiny village is famous in the Elqui valley for its solar restaurants where all the food is cooked by the sun. In 2000, firewood was becoming increasingly hard to find and that gave birth to the solar “kitchens” at these restaurants. As there is no bus service to the village and we don’t particularly want to move the motorhome, we opt for a taxi. There are several restaurants to choose from and we decide to let the cab driver pick one for us. Perched at the top of the hill, Restaurant Delicias del Sol is rustic and charming. We found a table outside and on this gorgeous clear day we were able to see endless vineyards and in the nearby mountains the observatories of Mamalluca and Tololo. However the restaurant’s outdoor “kitchen” absorbed most of our attention for now. Scattered around the patio and deck area were a number of metal boxes, some with glass fronts and aluminum doors set wide to reflect the sun’s rays against the glass. Inside these we could see cast iron casserole pots, hopefully cooking lunch. On the boxes without a glass front, the aluminum doors reflected against pots and pans set on glass plates. There is no menu and our waiter simply explained the food to us. A set lunch comprising of either a salad or beef empanadas, followed by an entrée of pork chops, braised goat or chicken with rice and vegetables and dessert, all cooked by the sun. Both Tom and I chose the empanada but while Tom went with the pork chop, I chose the goat which our waiter had said was a house specialty. He brought us our drinks, beet for Tom and sparkling water for me and explained the food would follow shortly. We had already been told by both the tourist office and the owner of the campground that because it is winter, there are less hours of sun and so the food takes longer to cook. So we assured him we were in no hurry and wandered around the kitchen area, watching the ladies take pots from some ovens replacing them with yet more pots and adjusting some of the others so they cooked more evenly. I can only say that the food was delicious. Tom’s pork was very good but we both agreed that the cabrito (goat) was amazing, tender with not a hint of greasiness or fat. For dessert we had baked flan and then while we waited for a taxi to take us home and sipping on our coffee, we took more photographs of the solar kitchen and the incredible views. Oh, and the price, less than $20.00 for the two of us. On the way back to Las Pataguas, we both agreed that this was a unique experience and a must-do for anyone visiting the area.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Valle de Elqui (The Elqui Valley).

The drive through La Serena was easy with not as much traffic that we have found in some large cities and soon we were in a verdant green valley with the arid mountains above us. The Elqui Valley is considered to be one of the most unique regions on earth for a number of reasons. Reason #1. This valley, which benefits from a unique microclimate, is famous for its production of fruits and grapes including the Pisco grape needed for the Chilean national alcoholic drink. Irrigated by two rivers which feed the numerous vineyards and fruit fields of the surrounding area they create a thin strip of fertile land where vegetables, papayas, and vines grow on hillsides covered with cacti. Reason #2. The Elqui Valley is famous for sunny, clear days, it is said that the sun shines here for 300 days of the year and cloudless nights. The region has what is considered to be the clearest atmosphere in the world. The valley is located far enough away from the city lights of La Serena, and has a climate that is so calm and stable, there is very little wind and precipitation to disturb the air. Scientists and astronomers come here to study the stars in many professional observatories, because of this natural atmospheric phenomenom. Except on nights with a full moon, and even then the difference too amateurs is barely noticible, the starry sky is absolutely magnificent. The Milky Way is very “milky” in the deep blackness of the sky and the stars and planets are simply spectacular. Reason #3. For a smaller number of people, the Elqui Valley is known for its cosmic location and its magnetic energy. They believe that with the new millennium and the cosmic era change from Pisces to Aquarius, that the magnetic and spiritual energies of the earth have been shifted from 30 degrees north to 30 degrees south. Before this change, the Earth’s magnetic center was located in Tibet in the Himalayas, now it is in this area of the Andes. Since 1960 many esoteric groups linked to astrology, yoga, shamanic teachings and meditation, have settled their communities in the Elqui Valley due to this source of magnetic energy. To give some credence to this belief, in 1982, the magnetic forces on the ground were measured professionally by satellite for the first time. The map of Magstat showed a large positive energy point between 27 º and 33 º south right where the Valle de Elqui is located. So the sciences of Agriculture, Astronomy and Astrology exist side by side in this beautiful valley, now is that cosmic harmony or what! We plan on staying in the area for about a week and have a great camping place at Las Pataguas which is located a short distance from the town of Vicuna. With a great place to stay and a perfect place for Winston to run since Las Pataguas has a few dogs of their own for him to play with, we are looking forward to exploring this unique valley.

Friday, July 12, 2013


By the time we left Valle del Encanto it was two o’clock in the afternoon and after checking our maps and guides, we decided to get back on Route 5 but then take a loop road around the coast to Tongoy. Located on the coast, we hoped we would find parking for the night and a nice stretch of beach for Winston. When we arrived at around 5pm, we encountered this amazing red beach. Yes, red, with so many different sea birds most of which we couldn’t identify either on the shore or floating in the water. We stopped off at the naval guard station, which serves as a tsunami evacuation center and chatted with a very kind officer (he had all kinds of medals on his uniform) who told us he was in charge of the station. He pointed out some places close by on the beach where we could park overnight and also offered the kitchen, bathroom and shower facilities for us to use in the station. He also told us that the beach is red because certain currents in the ocean which trap a type of algae which then gets swept by the tides into the bay. This also explained the wide variety of sea birds who feed and I have to say some of the most enormous pelicans we have ever found. After parking, we walked Winston along the beach to the fish market on the pier. This is where the numerous fishing boats come to sell their daily catches either to restaurants, buyers from the nearby large city of La Serena or to individuals – like us. We purchased some crab, a kilo of cracked and a kilo of claws (4lb total) for a mere $17.00. With dinner taken care of, we wandered back to the motorhome, photographing some of the incredibly large pelicans which were perched on rocks and rooftops. Unfortunately these were the highlights of Tongoy. The town is very poor and very dirty. The beach is completely littered with trash, old fish netting and whatever else the tides swept in. Too bad really because with a little money this could be a beautiful bay. We parked by the beach, close to the naval station and it was ok except for drunks passing by hassling us for money until we closed the door for the night. After that it stayed quiet. The next morning, I got up early to walk Winston. Watching the ocean changing colors in the reflecting sun is splendid and I never tire of watching. In addition, Winston gets to run and play before too many people are around. But again, the walk along the beach appalled me; there is just so much garbage, what a shame. Instead I watched the ocean and the thousands of birds milling overhead waiting for the fishing boats to return. Feed time in paradise for them. Before leaving we went back to the wharf and purchased some freshly caught Chilean Sea Bass that they obligingly filleted for us. We have dinner for tonight. Tonight we hope to be in Vicuna, the main city in the Elqui Valley but to get there we need to pass the large city of La Serena and shop for groceries. It is a long drive but with luck we should make it.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A visit to Valle Del Encanto (The Enchanted Valley)

Located in the Limari Valley about 20 km west of the town of Ovalle, The Enchanted Valley (Valle del Encanto) is home to the largest collection of pre-Colombian rock art in Chile and is noted for having various archaeological petroglyphs and pictographs from the Molle culture dated from 100 to 600 AD, as well as traces of hunter groups from around 2000 BC. Discovered in 1946 and declared a Historic Monument Archaeological Monument in 1973, it is accessed by a 3 mile (5 kms) dirt track. The valley is a boulder strewn ravine in a rocky tributary canyon of the Limari River that allows low scrub and cacti to grow. At the entrance to the area, there is a small guard house manned by a very enthusiastic character. He not only expounded on the history of the area, he also donned an indigenous feathered headdress to help illustrate the Molle people, played a small flute type instrument with hauntingly beautiful melodies and cheerfully posed for photograph with us. The valley floor is divided into three sectors and as we drove to the access point for the first sector, I said to Tom that we would need to stop on the way out and purchase something from his small collection of memorabilia. We took a wrong turn and wound up in Sector 2 first. It seems if we stayed left on the main track we would arrive at Sectors 1 & 3, which makes no sense, but that’s the layout. After parking in the designated area and putting Winston on a leash, we walked the narrow trail following the small river, which at this time of year is simply a stream. The petroglyphs are distributed over many rocks and boulders, in a random fashion, along a mile stretch of the valley but in this sector, we had a hard time making out any of the art. We had read that the best time to visit the valley is around noon when it seems the sun doesn’t cast as many shadows so you can see the rock art more easily and depending on the time of day, some drawings may be lighter than others. Also, those that were carved in low relief are still clearly visible while others have been faded by erosion over nearly 2000 years. Well, in this sector we could only make out a little of the petroglyphs despite it being noon. Easier to find and more easily visible are the “tacitas”, stone cups similar to a mortar. These are found in large boulders with holes hollowed out, some quite large. It is believed they were used for storing and grinding food and in some of the rocks there were over 10 holes. However, because of the water that runs close by and erosion by wind and rain these holes are growing in depth and diameter and over time will catch more water and erode to large pools. Sectors 1 and 3 were much more interesting as far as petroglyphs were concerned. Here we saw many examples of carvings and drawings. The etchings are of geometric shapes, stylized human figures and faces, often with headdresses and eyes and some with antennas. Of course no one knows the why, what for, or meaning of the petroglyphs, although many locals point to the square heads, unusual accessories and antenna of some of the figures, as evidence of extraterrestrial contact. I remain skeptical of this theory. We spent a couple of hours climbing up and over boulders, crossing the stream and walking up hills exploring the different drawings and enjoying the silence and solitude of the place. Winston was excited that although kept on leash, he was allowed to be with us instead of having to stay in the motorhome. In addition, the entire time we spent there, only one other vehicle came in. As we left we stopped off to visit with the guard again, take a couple more photographs of the valley and we purchased one the small flute instruments from him, which he obligingly played one more time for us. This was an interesting detour inland and we are glad we made the time to check out the site.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Some coastal towns of Norte Chico, Chile

In lieu of taking route 5, the main highway in Chile and also the one termed “The Panamericana”; we are going to stay on route 1, the coastal road as much as possible. Leaving Algarrobo, we passed through the pretty towns of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar, where we stopped for lunch and let Winston run on the beach. Due to the geographical topography of Chile, the coast road is really just a narrow strip with the ocean on one side and the 5,000 foot (1,200 meters) mountain range directly to the right. Our stop for the night was at Quintay on the Playa Grande beach. It was very quiet with only some houses in the distant. Unfortunately, the road is really steep entering to the playa and we have to leave the same way but we have the place to ourselves and Winston gets to run. There is a small shrine set into a nearby cliff and several cars come by with people laying small bunches of flowers and gifts around it but after sunset, which because we are on the west coast is magnificent, no-one ventured down the steep road and we had a quiet night. The next day was much the same. The coastline is very similar to Route 1 in California with lots of sandy bays and rocky inlets. The big difference is the coastal range which is very high. Where the mountains reach the ocean, the road steeply veers inland and then equally steeply heads back to the ocean. The following night we stop at Maitencillo. This is a more upscale town set in a wide bay with a beautiful stretch of sandy beach. There are a few hotels and some very nice homes overlooking the ocean which we surmise is probably busy in season but now is very quiet with most of the houses boarded up and only a few residents walking by. The evening is clear and we pull out our gas barbeque to cook dinner. Watching the sun set as our steaks sizzled on the grill and Winston ran and chased errant gulls who dared to venture too close was great fun. Our third day on the road was disappointing. We left Route 1 to go inland onto highway 5. We had read about some supposedly beautiful thermal pools at Socos. We were hoping to stay at Termas de Socos for a couple of days and soak in the thermal pools but the campground is only open December through April and although the hotel was open there was no place to park the motorhome and dogs were not allowed inside the hotel. In addition Lonely Planet has it wrong. The place is not beautiful and the thermal spa “pools” are really just indoor baths, some with Jacuzzi style jets so they qualify for “whirlpool” status. We were told we could use the baths if we wanted but after looking at them it didn’t seem worth our while. We do want to shower however so we go back to the main road and stop at the Copec gas station. This is a big truck stop style station and offers excellent hot shower for 500 pesos (about $1.00). The showers in these stations are serviced and clean with individual small private rooms consisting of a changing area and shower room. There is a lady who takes the money and then cleans the room afterwards. This is as good a place as any for the night and after nightfall was surprisingly quiet.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Photographs of Argentina

Attached via a link are photos of Argentina. Enjoy. https://plus.google.com/photos/118181109521024542820/albums/5896073866136564417

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Photos from - Andes Route 40, Argentina

Attached is the link for Google Picasa for photos of Patagonia, Route 40 along the Andes Mountains. Just copy and paste. View individually or as a slide show. https://plus.google.com/photos/118181109521024542820/albums/5896059794393147409?authkey=CKSewIiJ9oC3pwE

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The legendary Route 40 (Ruta 40)

After much deliberation, checking out maps and taking the weather into consideration, we have decided to stay in Chile and go north to Bolivia instead of returning to Argentina and going north. We have loved Argentina. The land, the people, the food and wine and the culture. Buenos Aires, without a doubt is one of the top capital cities in the world. The large cities in Argentina, Cordoba, Bariloche, Mendoza and others are so different yet so enjoyable to visit. The great national parks of the country, Iguaçu, Los Glaciares and Tierra del Fuego to name just a few are incredible. So, why stay in Chile? The main reason was weather, it is now winter and getting unpredictable and that we would, once again be travelling long distances on Route 40 much of which is unpaved. Along with Route 3 on the eastern Atlantic side of Argentina, Route 40 is the other main artery for travel within the country. It also shows the vast diversity of Argentina and because of its diversity it really does deserve something more than just a quick mention. First, it is the longest road in Argentina passing through eleven provinces (states) in the country. Running parallel to the Andes, it is also in certain areas the highest road in the country. It undoubtedly crosses a large part of the most beautiful regions of Argentina, passing through Patagonia, Cuyo, the Central valley and northern Argentina. The road takes you to some of the most important tourist destinations within Argentina and offers the possibility of getting to – get this – a total of 14 National Parks, 26 Reserves and Provincial Parks, 5 “heritage of humanity” sites, 13 ski centers, 18 significant rivers, and countless secondary ones. There are an unprecedented 41 international border crossings along the way, most with neighboring Chile. Yet for all this, much of Route 40 is still only about thirty percent paved with the rest of it being either gravel or dirt and you can drive for miles without seeing another living soul or another vehicle. The wind, which is created from the cold air coming from the glaciers in the Andes, gains momentum as it blows across the pampas and through the valleys and ravines and is phenomenal in its intensity and ferocity. For many miles, the barren, stark landscape, the wind and loneliness of the road are the only companions and it is for this reason, we decided to download some audio books to keep us entertained on these stretches of the journey. Yet, Route 40 possesses a special magic. Travelling this route has taken us close to the land of the dinosaurs, to the world of unique pictographic caves over 9,000 years old and to petrified forests. We have gone from majestic glaciers of amazing beauty and incredible colors to thermal hot springs where the steam and smell of sulphur fills the air. We have passed through lush, subtropical jungle where seemingly everything grows to barren, arid wastelands which appear to be devoid of any living thing through lack of moisture and then by contrast to acres upon acres of grapevines and trees laden with fruit, ripe for making into wines, olive oil and the commercial markets. We have driven for hundreds of miles across the Argentinean pampas with cattle and sheep farms raising the meats for which the country is renowned and we have passed volcanoes one of which, Copahue was still belching steam and ash from its last eruption. We have passed cascading waterfalls, glistening mountain lakes and rushing rivers with world class fishing. And all of this with the glorious backdrop of the jagged snow-capped peaks of the Andes mountain range to our left. I only mention the contrasts since it is these things that help make Ruta 40, one of the legendary, great travel routes on the planet and it embodies the diverse nature of this beautiful country, Argentina.