Sunday, November 24, 2013

Mini-Vacation to La Serena!

Hi everyone!

It's been a few weeks since my last post (no, I have not dropped off the face of the earth), and I've been on more adventures! I finished my schoolwork and exams about two weeks earlier than the end of the semester in order to be able to travel, and let's just say that I needed a vacation... school in another country and another language is pretty mentally trying. So I traveled northward in Chile, farther than I've ever been thus far --- La Serena, a coastal town about six hours north of Santiago.

Waiting at the bus station in
Santiago with Kristin,
Hayley, and Emily
I left with the other three girls from Grand Valley studying in Chillán --- Hayley, Kristin, and Emily --- at 5 am Monday and we arrived in La Serena around 8 pm; talk about a lot of bus travel. We spent the rest of the night relaxing after our loooong journey and planned what else we wanted to do during our short stay in the city. 
Me with the La Serena sign

On Tuesday we signed up for a tour of la Valle de Elqui, an area that produces a lot of wine and pisco, and also for an evening at a makeshift observatory because the actual observatories were on strike --- a common occurrence in Chile. Then the four of us explored the city a little.  

The Courts of Justice, the Archdiocese,
and the Cathedral 
La Serena is the second oldest city in Chile after the capital Santiago and was founded in the mid 1500s; for this reason, the city has a distinctly colonial feel in its format, architecture, and general flavor. Some of the buildings that we saw during our excursion have been around since the early years of the city and emphasize the colonial aspect of La Serena. After exploring, we spent the rest of the afternoon browsing through the city's markets and shopping.

Cacti everywhere!
In the evening, we journeyed to the vineyard where our observatory evening was to be situated. We passed through the Precordillera, or the pre-mountains, of the Andes and made it to the vineyard after about an hour of driving. I loved seeing the mountains closer than I had before, and also seeing all of the cacti blanketing the hills and mountains surrounding us. 

Red at night, sailor's delight
Upon our arrival, however, we discovered that it was too cloudy there to see stars, unlike the clear skies over La Serena; we rescheduled to return the following night and had the opportunity to take pictures of the beautiful red sunset over the mountains and vineyard, which was utterly spectacular.

Kristin, Emily, and me in the papaya forest

Wednesday we started off bright and early with our tour of the Valle de Elqui, or the Elqui Valley. First we went to a papaya plantation and learned about the growth and production of papaya products, and we also learned a little bit about the chirimoya, which wasn't in season during the time of our visit, unfortunately. We got to try some papaya products, though, which were really good. I'd never had real papaya before my semester in Chile, and I've discovered that it's a pretty delicious fruit.

Next, we once again entered the Precordillera and proceeded to Tranque Puclaro, an artificial lake created by a dam in the Elqui River. We walked along the dam so that we could see on both sides of the dam --- one side to the dry, populated part of the valley, the other side the lake nestled between the mountains. The area was utterly gorgeous; I just couldn't get enough of the rich blue-green color of the water against the deep hue of the mountains and the sparkle on the lake. 
On the dam

Cholla fruit!
After spending a little bit of time admiring the view, we headed back down to a handicraft fair at the edge of the dam to browse through the tourist trap items for sale. I got to try a little bit of Chilean cactus fruit, called cholla, which was actually quite tasty; it  was kind of like kiwi, though it did have some sugar added for extra flavor. I definitely wouldn't be opposed to having it again, though!

Church in Vicuña
We then traveled to Vicuña for a short while, which is the principal town in the Valle de Elqui. It was also the birthplace of Chile's famous Gabriela Mistral, the first and only Latin American woman to win a Nobel Prize for Literature to date, and I'll discuss her a little more later in the post. We visited the main center of the town for a bit and visited a few of the shops, but since we only had a half-hour in the city we didn't explore too much.

After venturing further into the mountains, we had the opportunity to stop and take photos. It was incredible to see the lush green of the grape plants stretched out alone the imposing gray of the mountains, and I was thankful for a lovely day to enjoy the sunshine and beauty of Chile that surrounded me. 

GV girls

Me with the huge
barrels of pisco
The next stop on our tour was the oldest distillery in Chile, Los Nichos. Located in Pisco Elqui, the only place in the country where authentic pisco is manufactured. We learned about the distilling process, and toured the buildings. 
Nothing like being in an underground
wine crypt

Our guide told us about the history of the owners and showed us the underground quarters where the original owner kept his wine. Let's just say that he had a dark sense of humor --- he shaped the wine storage areas in the walls like crypts and had skeletons painted all over the walls, as well as statues of Roman and Greek goddesses of wine. Also, we got a few samples of pisco, wine, and, my favorite, pisco sour.

Boat graffiti
After lunch and exploring the town a little, we headed back to Monte Grande, a little town in the Valle de Elqui where Gabriela Mistral spent the first portion of her life. After Gabriela's father left she was only two, her mother moved to Monte Grande. Gabriela's older half-sister taught in the school there, the future poet lived and attended classes there until she was eleven. The schoolhouse where Gabriela lived with her mother and sister is now a little museum, and our tour group visited there for a short time to learn more about the writer. I will admit that I was a bit disappointed with the size and quality of the "museum", but since nothing monumental happened during her life there, and since Monte Grande is such a tiny, out-of-the-way town, I can understand why there was very little to see there. 

We returned to La Serena late in the afternoon with the tour group, and shortly after we turned right back around to head back to the vineyard from the previous night for our evening at the observatory. There was a brief presentation prior to the actual viewing of stars to give us some background information on astronomy and the history of astronomy in Chile, which is quite extensive. San Pedro de Atacama, a desert area in the northernmost portion of Chile, is the home of one of the largest telescopes in the world, but the area surrounding La Serena is pretty good for star-gazing on account of the mountains and lack of huge cities for light pollution. 

When night fell, our guide pointed out several constellations and let us look through the telescope at various star formations, all the while teaching us about the southern hemisphere's sky, which is different from that of the north. We learned the history of several constellations and how to find the southern axis, because there is no South Star, as opposed to the famous North Star. It was awesome to see so many stars above me in that remote area, and I loved learning about how certain formations got their names; I can even point out a couple of constellations in the southern sky now!
Lighthouse along the beach
After our late night at the observatory, we spent the late morning and early afternoon of our final day in La Serena at the beach. Although it wasn't nearly as warm, sunny, and beautiful on Thursday as it had been the previous two days, it was still marvelous to visit the Pacific Ocean again and just enjoy being on the beach; I don't think that I could ever get bored of watching the waves crash and topple over each other as they rush towards the shore. We splashed a little in the water (it was very cold, almost like Lake Superior but salty), enjoyed the brief moments of sunshine, and played and wrote in the sand. After a couple of hours, we ate lunch, then boarded our buses back to Chillán.

It was really great for me to take this mini-vacation, especially after the intense school stresses of the previous week. Now I look forward to my last big adventure of my semester abroad: I'm leaving for Peru on Thanksgiving Day, and Argentina after that! Stay tuned for posts about my adventures in these countries!

Thanks so much for reading! Sending my love from Chile!


In front of Tranque Puclaro

Kristin and me

Papaya plantation

So many yummy papaya products!

The dry side of the dam

Me on the dam