January 21, 2015
Oscar, our cab driver, is worried. He doesn’t speak much English and we don’t speak much Spanish, that is one of the things that made the day interesting, trying to retrieve a long lost tongue while helping this former long distance bus driver turned cab driver learn a new language that will help him earn more money from his new taxi cab. Oscar says “No rain.” And we agree, we are in one of the driest places on earth. But we don’t fully understand. “No rain,” not the normal no rain, but literally, no rain, and “no snow.” Well it never snows here, even though we’re now out of the tropics, kind of like Jacksonville is out of the tropics, but no snow in the Andes.
We are driving “Ruta di las Estrellas,” the “Route of the Stars,” that leads from the coast at Coquimbo through La Serena and up to Elqui Valley. It has its name because this I one of the driest places on the planet and, in the mountains above the valley you can see little specks of silver, the domes of giant astronomical observatories. There are observatories owned by Universities and government institutions and even a people’s observatory where folks can go at night for a real live planetarium.
Things may be fine in the mountain observatories, but on the ground we get an idea what it’s like when we get to the dam. It generates electricity for La Serena and provides irrigation and the lake looks half full. The spillway is dry and the powerhouse is discharging more water below the dam than the trickle coming into the lake. I point out to Oscar that it’s January, min-summer, and there’s not supposed to be a lot of water, but Oscar tells me that this is unusually unusual.
Oscar is from Vicuña, a town about 65KM up the valley, the home of the poet, Nobel Laureate Gabriela Mistral. Oacar’s grandmother is a school teacher in the town. Several tours off of the ship travel up the Elqui Valley but we wanted to travel at our own pace and, besides, if you negotiate, you can do the same thing for a lot less money. We met Oscar after a few negotiations. His English was not good but he seemed nicer than some of the more aggressive cabbies and his car was new and clean. It turns out that riding with Oscar is not a thrill ride. He knows people along the route, waves, and sometimes slows down to exchange a few words. At one point a driver in front of us looked confused and was driving slowly. Instead of honking his horn he pulled up next to the confused driver and shouted “Hey Amigo” and was able to give the driver directions. We picked well with Oscar.
The stop at the dam is not a regular tourist stop but locals stop there on this valley drive. Craftsmen sell goods and you can buy fresh and dried fruit. Oscar buys a plastic bag of raisins and a bottle of water with which to wash the raisins. Suzi sees a blue Lapis pendent and buys it. I am fascinated by a sculpture which has drone strings that strike chords when the wind blows through the valley, and as I mentioned, there are the Organ Pipe Cactus and cactus fruit for sale.
As we drive to Vicuña Occar points out the different varieties of grapes and other fruit grown in the valley, and of course the corn. We pass a group of Gypsy tinkers selling bright copper pots and pans. I guess the Roma are everywhere, even in Chile.
Vicuña is a mix of Spanish colonial, adobe and Art Deco and we spend some pleasant time in the towns Plaza de Armas looking at the town that inspired the poet.
Oscar took us back to La Serena where we spent three hours wandering. The town was founded in 1549 and has a lot of old colonial architecture from the 1680, built after the town was sacked by English pirates. It was the home of Chile’s president in the 1940s and he put a lot of effort into colonial restoration, so the city is an delightful mix of restored colonial buildings, colonial style new-builds and the art deco that was popular in beach resorts in the late 30s and early 40s. The town has miles of great beaches and Lonely Planet calls it “the thinking man’s beach resort.” People come here for sun, surf, sand and star gazing up the valley in the observatories.
Suzi and I loved it. We wandered the town and the markets. The clientele is middle class and the town looks prosperous in a middle class way, not like the enclave of the wealthy that is Mira Flores in Peru. The goods sold in the market stalls in the Plaza de Armes and the Recova market were often nice, but not ostentatious, works of art and jewelry interspersed with fruit smoothie stands. There was remarkably little, some but not much, of the t shirt and souvenir kitsch, keychains that say “La Serena Chile” that you see in other beach towns. And the weather was perfect, mid 70s with sunshine and a light and cool breeze.
At about 5 we called Oscar and by 6 we were back in Coquimbo. I should say a word about the port. It is set in, what is called the “English Barrio.” A section settled by English and Americans, wooden buildings made of “Oregon Pine.” It is now an entertainment district, the old buildings turned into clubs and discos. A giant cross (The cross of the third millennium) dominates one hill overlooking the harbor and a mosque, a gift from the Moroccan King, another. As we pulled in the Mayor himself greeted the ship with dancers. TV crews shot the dancers with the ship in the background. There is a new passenger terminal in Coquimbo and TV crews were busy shooting us using it, including one camera following Suzi as she put her backpack on the belt for the customs service x-ray machine.
Suzi is back from tai chi, her morning exercise on the deck, I have been sitting on our veranda and can see the hills of Valparaiso. We are out of the desert, it is overcast and cool. Time for breakfast and two days in Valpo.