Elqui Valley, Land of pisco grapes, mystical valleys and star studded skies
We rented a car and spent a week traveling about 200 miles north of Santiago, Chile, to an area known as Elqui Valley. The landscape along the way is similar to Baja with one big difference. It is even drier. There is one cactus every 100 yards because there isn´t enough water if they get any closer. It doesn’t rain much!
Once you arrive in the Elqui Valley area, the landscape changes to steep, dry desert mountains that drop into V-shaped river valleys. In the desert landscape, it is hard to believe there is so much clear water, but it originates in snow fields high in the Andes. The rivers form long ribbon-like oases of green where the people have diverted them into aqueducts to water avocado, lemon and orange trees and the ever so prominent pisco grapes..
Evidently pisco grapes love the lousy soil, the endless sunlight, and the drip systems. They are used to make wine which is distilled to create a 40% alcohol called pisco. This is typically consumed in a pisco sour, a famous Chilean drink that is sweet and sour and sneaks up on you quickly!
The blend of spectacular desert mountains and green valleys creates a landscape reputed to have mystical qualities. As written in Lonely Planet, one of the towns has “an extraordinary concentration of cosmic vibes, a vortex of powerful synergies, much-publicized UFO sightings and formidable healing powers”. We hoped the vibes and powers would make us younger, richer and more beautiful, but it didn’t work out that way!
During an all day horse-back ride in one of these valleys we learned more about how the communities manage the water. Evidently they have meetings to discuss how frequently each aqueduct will get water. The valley we were riding in receives it every 8 days. One person has the key to the aqueduct gates, and they open the various gates to let the river flow into particular aqueducts on an 8 day rotation.
The hacienda where we stayed has two ranch hands who manage the canals within the ranch. When their day hits, they work all day and night to ensure that all of the estancia’s fields, gardens, trees, water tanks and orchards get water. A couple of years ago there was a serious drought, and the community agreed to a 15 day cycle. Many plants died then. We saw dry aqueducts high up on the sides of the valley with dead plants below them. Evidently the overall trend during the last 10 years has been less and less water, and the people have gradually agreed to shut off the higher aqueducts altogether, letting the trees and crops dies, so the lower levels will have water..
We were fortunate to see a gaucho practicing for a rodeo. A 20 second video of him riding his horse sideways is here.
This area is great for star gazing. The skies are free of smog, clouds are rare, and there are no city lights to interfere. We drove up long roads into the mountains on clear nights and enjoyed two star gazing tours. The Observatorio Mamaluca was unbelievably good, partly because we had an English speaking astronomer guide and only one other person in our group. The other was all in Spanish, so all we can say is that the rest of the audience seemed captivated. We learned several interesting differences between the northern and southern hemisphere skies:
- Everything is upside down. Orion is standing on his head! (though it’s hard to tell).
- The three stars in the belt of Orion are considered to be the three mothers rather than just 3 stars in his belt.
You can see two galaxies with the naked eye. They look like little patches of fog, sort of like pieces out of the Milky Way. How cool is that!
- Here they have the Southern Cross whereas we have the North Star inthe North. The North Star told early explorers how far North/South they were. The Southern Cross just tells the explorer which direction is South.
- The Roman and Greek legends about the zodiac signs, and the other constellation associations were unknown to those in the Southern Hemisphere.
Elqui Valley´s Nobel Laureat
In 1954 a remarkable woman named Gabriela Mistral won the Nobel Prize for poetry. It´s particularly impressive when you consider that she´d grown up in a small village in Elqui Valley, and never received a college education, or even a high school education.
Pictographs and Beaches and other favorite photos.
As we headed south we stopped at a couple of beaches and Valle del Encanto where the indigenous people left pictographs. They were the El Molle culture, which inhabited this area from the 2nd to the 7th century AD. Pictures of these (and other favorite photos) are in the slide show below.