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Vicuna and Mamalluca

Written on: Thursday January 17th, 2008

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: Vicuna, Chile 

Author: Julie 


In the early morning, before the valley warmed up for the day we checked out of the hotel and grabbed the first bus leaving the valley. Our destination was the small village of Vicuna which had been founded by the first president of Chile (Bernardo O?Higgins) to secure sovereignty of the valley area. We arrived at the small bus station mid-morning and wandered down to the main plaza. We were trying to find cheap accommodations for one night and figured there would be some in that area. 

As we were wandering, looking up and down streets for hostel signs we ran into our friend Thomas with whom we had parted ways a few days earlier in San Pedro de Atacama. He had stayed for a couple more days to see the Tatio Geysers and the Valley of the Moon. He really loved it and although we felt a pang of regret for not seeing them we knew that the time we had traded for our stay in the peaceful village of Pisco Elqui had more than made up for it. He was also in Vicuna for the same reason as we: he was here to see the Mamalluca Sky Observatory, located high in the hills above Vicuna. 

With our backpacks on, we consulted our guidebooks and decided on checking out one just around the corner. The door front was a restaurant so I wasn?t sure if we had found the correct place but we walked in and inquired if they had rooms when they asked if we wanted to see the menu. They certainly did and walked us through the restaurant and out the back. Outside was a small courtyard with a two story building with motel style rooms at the very low price of 7000 (14$) pesos per night for a private matrimonial room with TV. We dropped our bags down and paid for the night. We were all starved at this point and although we were staying at a restaurant we decided to wander around the town center to see what else there was on offer. We stopped at a cafeteria style place where we ordered hot beef with cheese sandwiches called a Barros Luco, named after a past president. 

Our next stop was the Mamalluca observatory tourist information desk. We needed to buy our tickets for that evening?s tour as well as booking a shuttle up. We could have booked and taken the same tour from Pisco Elqui or La Serena but the agencies were charging 30,000 pesos (60$) when in actuality the cost of the entrance and shuttle from Vicuna was only 5,000 (10$) each person. Add that to the cost of the bus from Pisco Elqui and our room for the night and we were saving close to 80$. Our shuttle was schedule at 10:30 PM for the English tour so we had most of the day to pass before the night descended. 

Looking around we decided to visit the Capel Pisco Distillery just outside of town. Cooperativa Agrícola Pisquera Elqui Limitada (CAPEL) is one of Chile's biggest spirits company and producer of pisco. Most of its croplands are in the Elqui Valley where the company was founded as a producers cooperative. The walk took about 20 minutes and we passed through the Plaza, out past the bus station, along the main highway to La Serena then left onto the lands of the vineyard and its tourist entrance. There were Spanish tours being given every half hour but the English tour was only schedule in two hours at 4:30. Thinking to wait out our time on the nice patio, Thomas walked up the bar and asked to buy a bottle of wine. Turns out they manufacture Pisco on site, they sell Pisco in the store at the end of the tour, but the bar only serves soft drinks and water to the waiting visitors and they don?t have a license to serve alcohol on site. Thomas had difficulty believing it so he tried to negotiate with the girls working behind the bar to sell him a bottle but they really couldn?t. It was funny to watch him try to get them to bend the rules. We were laughing at him and so was he at the end. With only a coke to drink for the next couple of hours we decided to attempt the tour in Spanish. It turned out to be a very similar tour to the pisco distillery we had visited in Ica, Peru so although we might not have understood everything that was said in Spanish we were familiar enough with the process. It was a very modern factory with most distillation steps being automated including the bottling process. We watched, from a high platform, the workers boxing the bottles with one guy having the boring job of placing flat, folded boxes into the distributor over and over again. The tour ended with a quick visit to the store where we were allowed to sample the different flavours of the manufactured pisco. I choose the berry flavoured and really liked it so I bought a one liter bottle for 1900 pesos (3.80$), which was a steal. 

Our walk back was pleasant and we arrived at the plaza around 4 PM. We had nothing else to do so we sat down at the only outdoor café in town and ordered drinks. I asked for a pisco and coke and the boys got a couple of 1 liter beers. On the first sip of my drink, my eyes crossed, it was half pisco and half coke. It was so strong! Luckily they had brought over the can of remaining coke that hadn?t been poured into the glass for me to further dilute my drink. One drink was enough for me for the afternoon. Every time I took a sip, I would pour more coke into it trying to lower its potency. 

We had a quick supper of a hot sandwich again and we returned to our rooms. Thomas wanted to walk to the top of the nearest hill to take photos of the sunset over the valley but we wanted to check our email. I know, how boring are we? We found a place around the corner and spent an hour catching up on family news. We then returned to our room to watch a bit of TV and wait out our shuttle departure time. At 9 PM, Thomas was back so I broke open my bottle of pisco and went spent the next hour catching up on things we had done since parting ways, including the flooding that was experienced two days after our departure in San Pedro de Atacama. They had a freak rain storm which rained down 40 mm of rain within 1 hour when they usually receive 10 mm a year. Roads were flooded and a lot of damage was done to the buildings. We missed the most significant rain storm in fifty years in the world?s driest desert! 

At 10:15 we walked over to the Mamalluca tourist office for our departure. There were quite a few people there but most were waiting to follow the shuttle to the observatory with their own cars. The parade of cars pulled out behind our white van and we drove through the small town and up the nearby hills. We zigzagged up the sometimes steep gravel road leaving Vicuna far below. Soon only its lights could be seen winking without any form. We continued on and the air got noticeably colder but we could finally see the stars were out in great numbers, it would be a good night for stargazing. Kevin had been here the previous year and he was excited to be back. On his return to Canada, he couldn?t stop talking about everything he had learned concerning the creation of the universe, the far off galaxies, nebulas, white dwarves, etc that we couldn?t see with our plain eyes yet that were above our heads every night.  This particular area in Chile is considered one of the best locations in the world for observatories due to its excellent dry atmospheric conditions, low incidence of water vapours and clear skies 320 days of the year. Its remoteness also ensure that the front-line astronomical observations to be carried out there will not be disturbed by adverse human activities, e.g. dust and light from roads and mines. 

At the parking lot, we were met with the sight of a large observatory dome like you see in movies. There were guides waiting for us and we were sectioned out by language tour. Our guide took us to the 4 nearby telescopes mounted on pivoting tripods that were situation on the edge of the hill below the observatory. These telescopes had an element of 1.2 meters in diameter which was equivalent to 100x the human eye. Our guide is an amateur observer who offers his guiding services to the observatory in exchange for observation time on the large telescope. He was passionate about those twinkling lights in the sky and really wanted to share this immense knowledge of what was there. Our first object was the brightest of the night: the moon. He zoomed in to the bright face of the moon and had each one of us take a look at the close-up of the craters. After every two or three people he had to re-adjust the positioning of the telescope. The minute movements of the earth were made obvious when looking at this far off object in the sky. The light turbulence caused by our atmosphere cause a constant vibration which made looking at the moon difficult. We tried to take photos of the moon through the eyepiece of the telescope but we couldn?t get a clear shot. 

It was now our turn to spend time in observatory dome so we climbed a circular walkway that took us to the top of the building. Inside was a telescope not much bigger than the one we had used outside. The difference was the lens was .5 cm bigger and it was attached to a computer system which controlled it?s positioning with extreme accurateness. It was worth 35,000$ which surprised me since you always hear how much more expensive they can be. The other observatories in the area had telescopes worth a few million dollars but since this one was only intended for touristic purposes and not scientific the larger most expensive lens was not needed. We spent 30 minutes in the dome. We looked at the moon again, which cast a bright light in the dark dome. We then shifted over to the constellation of Orion and focused on the star cluster located in what looks like the middle star of the knife. On closer inspection it?s actually a cluster of four young stars grouped closely together. Also located on the belt of Orion is the star Betelgeuse (meaning ?hand of the central one? in Arabic) known to be one of the largest stars in the known Universe.  Next was the constellation Alpha Centauri and although it appears as a single point to the naked eye, Alpha Centauri is actually a system of three stars, one of which is the fourth brightest star (Arcturus) in the night sky. Alpha Centauri is famous in the Southern Hemisphere as the outermost "pointer" to the Southern Cross, but it is too far south to be visible in most of the northern hemisphere. 

Our time was up and we headed down to the exhibition hall below the dome. Chairs were placed in a semi-circle around an overhead projector. We sat down and for the next twenty minutes watched a slide show explaining the life cycle of stars, how to identify young stars (bright, irregular shape) from old ones (spherical shape and more of a red tinge), what are nebulas, white and black dwarfs, etc. Then it segued into the various astronomical observatories located in this particular region of Chile and the planned construction of a few more. In 2004 and 2005, the first two of four Very Large Telescope (VLT) were built in Antofagasta. These consist of 4 observatories of 8.2 meters in diameters each and worked together to view large areas of the sky uniformly. There is a talk of building an installation with a telescope of 21 meters but the challenges of the build, the limitation of existing technology and the over all price tag of 100 million dollars has put it on hold for now. The interesting part was that any observatory with a telescope bigger than 10 meters is actually a series of hexagon shaped glass, very similar to the eyes of a bees. 

On the completion of the presentation, we returned outside for another look through the telescopes. Mars had risen and we took a closer look at the Red Planet and our nearest neighbour. Then the telescope was rotated to another planet in our solar system: Saturn. We were able to see a close-up of the famous ringed planet. We could see the slightly off-kilter angle and the circular rings around its main body. We then refocused on the constellation of Orion and moved towards the 2nd brightest star of Sirius. 

It was close to 1 AM and the tour came to an end. We were taken to the obligatory souvenir shop where I bought a small postcard of a nebula illuminated in red and purple waves of color. We all loaded up on the bus and headed back to Vicuna.