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Pisco Elqui

Written on: Wednesday January 16th, 2008

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: Pisco Elqui, Chile

Author: Julie

Hola!

We woke up this morning with excitement to go see the Humboldt penguins 2 hours away at Isla de las Dama in appropriately named Parque Nacional Penguino de Humboldt but those plans quickly changed. We showered, dressed and had a quick breakfast before our pick-up time. About 20 minutes late, the bell finally ran and we quickly loaded up into the van with 10 other travellers. The van drove away, turned the corner and stopped at the travel agency office half a block away from our hostel. The guide announced that due to bad weather at the island we would have to wait 30 minutes to see if the weather would change. Kevin and I laughed at the distance we had covered and the odds that two years in a row the weather would cancel the trip, but we crossed our fingers that the fogs would lift and the winds would abate. Alas, it wasn?t to be and the tour was cancelled. Back at the hostel, we asked the owner if he knew what the weather would be like for the next couple of days since we had come to La Serena specifically to see the penguins. He checked the weather report and it didn?t look good, so Kevin turned to me and said ?We?re heading to the Pisco del Elqui Valley?. So our time in La Serena came to a quick end.

We walked down the street following the directions the owner gave us to the bus station and found it beside another mall. We bought our tickets to the town of Pisco Elqui that Kevin had driven through a year ago with our friends Tom and Anne. He remembered that he really liked the vibe of the place and had wished he had spent more time there. With time to kill, we visited the mall to get a cheap bite to eat before our three hour bus ride (we should call our trip Malls of Chile 2008). Back at the station we boarded an old, beat up bus and left the pacific shoreline behind and headed back into the bone-dry desert mountains of Chile.

Our drive took us into the Valle del Elqui which the guidebook describes aptly as ?Big sky observatories, muscatel vineyards, Pisco distilleries, and papaya groves, and New Age fancy all call this fertile valley home?. The valley is narrow and at its depth is a river of aquamarine water. On its slopes grow grape vines, marking a sharp contrast with its bright green foliage to the light yellow scorched earth. The road took us through the valley and the deeper we got the more vineyards there were along the bottom. Some of the most enterprising had planted vines on the sharp topmost slope of the valley forming strange shapes of green patches in otherwise plain dry earth.

The bus dropped us off at the small Plaza de Armas with its small church up the slope and a sparkling fountain in the middle. It was surrounded by mature trees and rose bushes. Within the first few moments, I could feel the relaxed vibe Kevin had experienced in his past visit and I could see why he wanted to come back. The village of Pisco Elqui was built up the slopes of the valley and the view from most places was of the river running far below and the vines of the local Pisco distillery. We grabbed our bags and started down the main street looking for a hostel recommended by the hostel owner in La Serena, but we didn?t get far. Right beside the Plaza was Hotel Elqui and its sign of ?Pool? attracted us in. I was sure it was going to be too expensive but surprisingly it was affordable and we booked our small room with a small porch overlooking the plaza for three nights. The first order of business was to get changed out of our warm clothes (it was warm but the wind was cool in La Serena) and jump into the pool. It was cold on our warm skin but it felt so good to be swimming, especially knowing it was January. If we hadn?t been on this trip we would most probably have had to shovel our cars out that morning and looking out of our office window hoping it wouldn?t snow again this afternoon before we made it home thru the traffic rush.

In the evening we experienced the early evening supper rush that no one else in South America experiences. The waitress was there putting out the dishware and cutlery for the evening meal and the chef hadn?t arrived it yet. It was 7:30 and we were hungry, we hadn?t realised that even though to us it was a perfectly normal hour to enter a restaurant for an evening meal, that it would be considered too early in Chile. I?m sure we weren?t the first to do this as she knew what items on the menu were available at this hour. We both ordered a pizza and salad and were quite happy with the meal.

The next day we didn?t do much but spend the day at the pool. I spent my morning working on the blog while Kevin played his guitar. In the afternoon, once the sun had crested the high valley walls and was shining down on us, we grabbed the only chairs with cushions around the pool and spent the afternoon there enjoying the heat, getting a tan and drinking copious amounts of excellent Chilean red wine. At 3 dollars, a large full-to-the-brim glass was a bargain. We watched the Chilean kids, who were here for the week-end, play in the pool. Like all kids around the world they created their own games, jumped and belly-flopped, chased each other and the girls squealed when sprayed by the boys. The difference was most of these kids were overweight. We had noticed an inordinately high number of kids who were considered overweight by North American standards in Chile. I?m not sure if it?s the high sugar diet of soft drinks and breads or maybe it was just coincidence and we only saw the ones that were pudgy. Anyhow, there were like all kids and spent the afternoon running around laughing and having the time of their lives.

Once things started to cool down, we walked around the streets of the town. There were a few artesinian shops, a few restaurants, a Pisco distillery, a few bike rental shops, a couple of horse rental agencies but mostly it was a small village with houses proudly cared by the locals. Every house was different with large roses or bougainvilleas in the front.

Time flies when you are having fun and our last day arrived quickly. We slept in that morning and only woke up close to 11 AM. What lazy people we are! We again went for a long walk around town and found a small café inside the living room of a woman?s home where we ordered a couple of Completo hotdogs loaded with avocado, mayo and tomatoes. There is an art form to eating these heaping hotdogs which we haven?t mastered yet. We ended up staining her beautiful linen tablecloth with ketchup and mustard. We left her extra money along with the tip to cover the cost of getting it cleaned. In the early afternoon I worked on the blog some more, then as the evening approached we found an internet café across the street to do our blog uploads and the catch up on family correspondence.

After a supper of a quick sandwich near the hostel, we walked over to a bike rental place and rented a couple of bikes for two hours. There was a 20 kilometres circuit that went to the nearest town further up the valley and back again. We left Pisco Elqui behind us as we followed the gravel road up and down rolling hills, following the valley. Occasionally a bus or truck would pass us by as we peddled along. It was mostly uphill to the next village and we had fantastic views down the valley and all the vineyards crowding the flat areas around the river. We passed a bridge and climbed a steep hill to finally arrive to our destination. It was a cute place with small stores selling fresh fruits from the area along with marmalades and a type of caramel called Dulce de Leche. We turned around and coasted back to Pisco Elqui. Along the way we re-crossed a bridge, saw a small cemetery and met up with a group of horses being brought home after a ride with tourists. They were all without saddles and ran with a freedom we never see with trained horses. They were happy to be done a day of work.

We returned just as the sun was setting. We retired early as we had an early morning bus to Vicuna.