The night sky, the beach and very strange Chilean papaya
23.03.2012 - 27.03.2012 22 °C
Last week, I headed 7 hours north (towards the equator) and to my absolute shock, it became autumn. I had to put away my sandals and dig out my hiking boots for the cool evenings. For a few days, I set up shop in Vicuña in the sunny Elqui Valley. This is a fertile agricultural area producing grapes, avacadoes, oranges, papaya, pomegranites, etc. This surprised me given the soil was dun coloured and the hills were covered in enormous cactii. It was harvest time, so all of the trees were loaded with fruit, including the cactii. The grapes were not for eating (god forbid), but for producing the local brandy, pisco. I had tried Chile's national drink (Peru also claims it), the pisco sour, on several occasions and had assumed that pisco was sweet. When samples were provided during my tour of the local distillery, I was stunned to realize that pisco (at 35% proof) tasted more like a whiskey than liqueur. There was also an artesanal flavour to the area, where locals sold dried fruit (i.e., raisons figs and papaya), nuts, jam, sweets and various handicrafts at roadside kiosks. I did a little mountain biking trip through surrounded by gentle hills and peaceful grape vineyards. It was very relaxing.
The Elqui Valley has another claim to fame. Northern Chile (from the Elqui Valley to San Pedro de Atacama) is apparently the best place on earth to observe the stars. On average, there are only 30 cloudy nights a year. Other countries (e.g., US, EU) have invested billions of dollars in building telescopes in this area. I was lucky. I visited Mamalluca Observatory on a clear night where there was a new moon (i.e. no moon). I am useless at astronomy and was floored by the luminous night sky made fascinating by the lesson on constellations provided by our knowledgeable guide. I saw the southern cross, orion's belt and the milky way. It was quite funny. The guide pointed out several "clouds" which I would have just thought were normal clouds. He indicated that they were sky fixtures (umm, galaxies). Sigh. I didn't pay enough attention in school!
Afterthe Valley, I headed west to the coast and La Serena, hoping for a little bit of beach time. I got to La Serena and it was 5 degrees colder than the Elqui Valley. Sigh. So much for beach time, (or I thought)! Nahh, all was not lost. I discovered that after lunch (2pm) or so, the sun came out and it was warm enough (23C) to sit in the sun and enjoy the crashing waves. The beach was really long! I walked along the water for about 1 hour, and did not make it to the end!! Oh yes, the strange Chilean papaya. It didn't look like a regular papaya, but it smelled ripe so I bought one anyways. It was disgusting and sour and had the texture of plastic. Turns out, chilean papaya needs to be boiled with sugar to taste like something worth eating. Live and learn!
Tomorrow, I am off to Easter Island!!