Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A weekend in El Norte Chico: The mystical Valle de Elqui

En el valle de Elqui, ceñido
de cien montañas o de más,
que como ofrendas o tributos
arden en rojo y azafrán

I turned in a 10-page analysis on Gabriela Mistral’s poetry the week after I explored the Elqui Valley where the Nobel-Prize winning poet grew up. The narrow slice of paradise protected by looming desert mountains on either side inspired dozens of her poems. Although Mistral left behind her humble beginnings in rural South America to travel the world as a foreign diplomat and live in Madrid, Nice, Naples, Lisbon and Santa Barbara, she insisted that the grand azure sky, oppressive sunshine and voluptuous figs of her childhood home would always define her.
The Elqui Valley is in Chile’s Norte Chico, or “Little North,” about six hours up from the port of Valparaíso. In the lush basin farmers harvest a mouthwatering list of produce including avocados, papaya and olives. The sunny skies drenching the vineyards make for the sweetest grapes in the country, ideal for the production of the national drink, pisco (similar to brandy).
The air in the sleepy towns of Pisco Elqui and Vicuña smells sweet. The fragrance drifts from the tiny, juicy grapes drooping down the terraces and the mandarins adorning the trees. Coral and amethyst blossoms and golden leaves punctuate the rugged, sandy panorama. The strong sunlight casts a warm glow on the rugged landscape and the rustic steeples. And speaking of steeples, the buttercup yellow church with aqua trim in the flourishing main plaza of Pisco Elqui is storybook perfection. I found myself comparing the tranquil and mystical atmosphere to New Mexico -- The two regions share colonial and adobe architecture, lots of cacti and a majestic mountain panorama. 

In both towns my friends and I, an exchange student from South Dakota and a couple from Versailles, France, lingered over the spread of artesenia in the markets, boutiques and sidewalks. I'm currently obsessed with stocking up on woolen winter accessories hand knitted with fleece from Chile’s sheep farms. But instead of cold weather gear I picked out a pair of delicate lapislázuli dangles, the semi-precious gem mined in Chile similar to turquoise but royal blue. I resisted the urge to buy a jar of papaya marmalade or manjar with walnuts but finished off a half-kilo bag of raisins, which were mouth-puckeringly sweet dried grapes just plucked from the vine, stems and all.

The region’s clear skies (averaging more than 300 sunny days a year) make it a choice destination for the highest-tech U.S. and European astronomical observatories, where astrophysicists make the majority of current discoveries. We toured the Mamalluca site because it offers night stargazing to the public. It's the most visited facility despite being one of the oldest and smallest because of its accessibility. The big-time observatories open occasionally for daytime (No looking at stars! I was so disappointed when I called.) tours that must be booked months in advance. 
Our little guide left us all dumbfounded with a Powerpoint presentation on the vastness of the universe and the mortality of our solar system, making me nostalgic for my two semesters of honors astronomy with my genteel NASA-employed physics professor. Then he made Star Wars Jokes after we climbed upstairs to take turns peering into the telescopes for glimpses of Saturn’s rings, galactic clumps and details of the lunar surface. Outside we shivered in the damp night air and contemplated the unfamiliarity of the Southern Hemisphere sky. I'd just spotted the Southern Cross when we had to descend the hill early after a veil clouds suddenly concealed the stars.

Our last day we toured a garden-like pisco factory deep in the midst of beige, leviathan mountains with snow-crusted peaks in the distance before returning to our home base La Serena two hours away. La Serena is a pleasant colonial city known for Chile’s oldest, most elegant churches and breezy beaches. That night on the overnight bus trip home our bus broke down. We were stuck from 4 to 7 a.m. in the middle of a desolate nowhere, with rugged coastline on our left and sandy hills dotted with cacti on our right. 

... Now that I'm reading up for my upcoming trip to Bolivia I think the delay was a warm up for the misadventures to come in the true Third World.

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