13th March, over a month since we arrived in Chile for Part II of our trip and we are finally heading north!! We leave our hotel near Santiago airport after a few days’ rest, a major repack after our trip South and Easter Island and a skype call to my niece for her birthday. It feels good to finally be following El Norte signs. We repeated our preparation of several envelopes with exact change for the numerous toll booths – on our way south, they occurred every 50kms, and were 700 pesos each and because stopping, finding neutral, taking gloves off, finding change can take a while at toll booths, Anthony had come up with this great idea of pre-paring several little envelopes. I prepared 6 more, some with the exact change, some with 2 notes. Good planning hey?! Ha!! Not quite because the distance between booths going north is completely different and every single booth asks for a different amount!! Oh well, at least I know how much is in each envelope.
We want to get some distance under our belt before exploring more of Chile, so we take the Ruta 5 north. It is a beautiful 2 lane each way highway. It is an easy ride but quickly becomes tiring as it doesn’t require as much concentration as dirt roads. The scenery becomes very dry and barren very quickly. After the wine growing area and we cut into another valley, a fruit growing valley by the fruit trees we see and the number of fresh juice stalls along the road. The air smells sweet – it smells of pineapple. Then we ride through sparse grazing land, with rocky and scrubby hills in the distance. We hug the coast for a while, it is wild, the waves rolling and crashing spectacularly. It is tempting to stop but we have set ourselves La Serena as a target for today which will make us feel like we are finally progressing north, then Vicuña east of there the next day.
Then we ride through numerous wind farms, in the middle of nowhere. They are obviously owned by different power generation companies based on the advertising flags along the perimeters. Yes, wind farms does mean it is windy but nowhere as much as I had expected from what I had read. Maybe, as Anthony once said, it is because we “grew up” (our first bike riding experience) in Cape Town which is incredibly windy. Or we were very lucky…
All along the way, we ride past numerous tiny roadside cafés and restaurants, with Coca Cola or other suppliers’ advertising flags. Unlike the new wind generation farm flags, these are in tatters, sometimes you only see the first 2 white letters on red background, having been pounded by the relentless gusts for too long.
While riding, I find myself wondering how much I want to get more experience on dirt roads, as seeing Anthony coming off has brought back my fears of seeing him getting hurt – feelings and flashbacks reminiscent of my PTSD after his Dec 2012 accident rearing their ugly head – that took so long for me to get over… For the first 3 months on the road, I was terrified watching Anthony coming so close to grief, especially in Russia and Iran, yet he remained so calm and sure of himself (his anti-depressants at the time masking most emotions), I eventually relaxed myself too and started enjoying the challenges along the way and loving the way he rode.
We meet 2 Argentinian bikers now living in Santiago at a petrol stop. As you do when you meet fellow bikers, we discuss our route options to Vicuña – they thought the route was tarred all the way but we show them our detailed map which showed otherwise. They are going via Ovalle first instead of La Serena which we were going to do. It looks like a good idea so, quick change of plan, and we decide to aim for Ovalle too. As we ride off, Anthony and I both opt for the easier but longer option to Ovalle. His ankle is quite painful today and the thought of any type of riding challenge is totally unappealling.
The winding road is easy, through many more wind farms so yes it is a little gusty at times. The scenery has changed again, we see many cacti (pad thai’s Anthony thought I said!).
We have to ride right across Ovalle to get to the Limari hotel the 2 bikers told us about and go through an endless number of traffic lights. At one time Anthony goes through a green to orange light, so I stop. Carabieneros to my right on 2 trail bikes notice we have been split up and wave me through the red light – so nice and intelligent policing. The truck driver on the inside of the cops realises too, so waits for me to ride through. I already love Ovalle. As we ride out towards the hotel, we ride past a shopping centre with a living wall: it is the first time I have seen such a ‘living’ wall on the outside of a wall, the plants really looking like they had a heart beating in them as they moved in the breeze. So magical.
After an interesting chat with the 2 Argentinian bikers near the pool that turns out to be too cold for a swim, we have a dinner of delicious ceviche with a pisco sour. When the bill arrives we tell them it is wrong as it is missing the drinks – no, that was a welcome drink!! Wow, nice surprise! The hotel has an interesting garden, full of interesting plants, birds, rabbits and a llama. To finish off, we are treated to the most stunning sunset.
In the morning, we discuss route options to Vicuna with the 2 Argentinians – the state of road depends on who you talk to, as is often the case, from all tar from the receptionist to 50kms of bad ripio by one of the many bikers staying at our hotel. Neither Anthony or I can be bothered with 50kms of bad ripio today, not as a choice. Somehow, the thought of one of us coming off and Anthony struggling with his ankle churns my stomach. We opt for easy road.
It is only about 130kms but by 110kms, we are both tired. Often the shorter rides feel like they’re much longer. We finally reach the pisco growing area. Not far now.
We find the hostal I booked a couple of hours earlier, the Casa Museo Solar de los Madariaga. All windows and doors are closed. Hmmm… I knock twice, wait, then 3 times a little louder on the big door knocker – nothing. We have a sandwich next door and I check my email. Booking has gone through and they have responded. After lunch, I go back to knock again, louder this time. I am greeted by lovely Alberto and Mitzi. We are the only guests and the place feels so serene. There is a lovely breeze, the courtyard full of flowering bushes, the sweet scent of jasmine and lavender in the air, the sound of chattering leaves in the gusts of wind, it feels lovely. I unpack the bare essentials out of the panniers while Anthony changes – it is not long before he snoozes in the sound of the wind which he loves and I type my notes. It is so lovely here, we ask Mitzi if we can stay an extra night. No one else is expected tomorrow so the room is ours for 2 nights. Perfect!!! 5pm, time for an afternoon walk for me, leaving Anthony snoozing.
I looked for brushes to give Streak and Storm a good clean. The Supermarcado and all the stores in town remind me of the stores in the UK when I was a little girl visiting my grandparents: they have a long counter with goods behind on shelves or in locked glass cabinets around the store and someone serves you. I find the word for brush – I obviously don’t speak Spanish so the guy mimics brushing teeth, no, I lift my foot up and mimic brushing shoes. Too easy!!
Shopping done, I stroll through town. All the bars are buzzing with shouts, gasps, cheering – I walk into a couple: they are watching a soccer match on the TV or big screen. I get to the tourist office as she is closing – yes, I am too late. On to the cathedral. Before walking in, I take my hat and sunglasses off. After admiring it, and taking a photo, I walk out, having noticed a donation box with a notice to tourists and ignoring it. I have a slight pang of guilt but continue on my walk. Stop at a green grocer advertising 4kgs of tomatoes for 1000CLP ($2), walk into see what they’re selling and discover a most amazing mural around the store. We must come back here before we leave Vicuña and buy some fresh fruit (“eat more fruit” we kept being told in Iran still rings in my head). I am now 100 metres from our B&B, look into my bag to put my hat back on and discover it is missing. I know exactly where it is: I must have dropped it when I took the photo inside the cathedral. I return, make a donation and chuckle at myself for having been so stingy and being taught a lesson!!!
As the sun is cooling off, we decide to wash the bikes. I had asked Mitzy if that was ok and she said yes. We find a pot in the garden we can use as a bucket. It is only when she comes over some time later that we find out she is about to go out for the evening, for a meeting on the shortage of water (they had very poor winter snow fall for the past 4 years and therefore the town has a shortage of water). We are glad we decided to use a bucket and minimise the amount of water we use. Anthony’s ankle is too sore and he goes to lie down. I finish washing and drying both bikes – the chain will have to wait until tomorrow.
The reason for coming to Vicuña was to visit one of the several astromical observatories and a pisco distillery. The Elqui valley where we are has 300 days of clear skies a year and is renowned for having the clearest skies in the world. Because we often change our plans and timings, we hadn’t booked anything yet and we are too late for a tour tonight. Mitzy tried to call several times on our behalf but kept getting an answering machine. I decide to try and book online and follow up with an email.
We have a lovely evening at a restaurant nearby – we share a plate of 6 bruchettas with veggies. Delicious. When we return to the darken B&B, open the front door with a massive old key, it reminds us of “a night at the museum” movie, for this place is also a museum. The house has belonged to Mitzi’s family since 1880. Her grandfather used to be a trading merchant so half the house was used as storage. The walls are all 60cm thick, the ceilings 5m heigh. They have cordonned a large part of the property as a museum showing furniture, utensils and equipment used by her grandfather. There is no air conditioning or fan but the room has stayed cool all day. Our room looks onto a beautiful courtyard, full of flowering bushes, the roof dripping with different ‘creepers’. There’s a passage way that takes you to another courtyard and back garden. It is simply gorgeous.
At 4am I am still awake because of the incredibly loud thumping music outside and we find out over breakfast that Mitzy couldn’t sleep either and even called the carabinieros.
We have the most delicious breakfast – huge plate of fresh fruit each, plate of cold meats and cheese, home made jam, fresh pot of real coffee and green tea. Amazing.
I get an email back from the observatory I contacted and yes we can join a tour this evening, I just need to drop by the agency between 12 and 2 to pay. Brilliant. We were going to take a local taxi to one of the pisquerias at lunchtime but Mitzi organises for one of her friends Lorenzo to take us around for the same price – excellent. We go Aba pisqueria first: good timing as a busload of cruiseship tourists arrives just as we leave after some interesting tasting (and the purchase of a half bottle!). Pisco is a local brandy made from muscat grapes – ancient documents reveal pisco was already been made in this valley in the 16th century. You can drink it as an eau-de-vie or in a cocktail such as pisco sour, which is pisco based of course with some sour citrus juice, some sweetner and sometimes angostura bitters. I have tried a few while in Chile (and Peru) and while they have all been very tasty, they never taste the same! We go to another pisqueria outside Vicuña, much larger and more commercialised but they are overrun with cruiseship visitors so we leave. A lovely little Sunday outing though.
Time for me to hunt down some sandwich in sleepy Vicuña and bring it back to the B&B for lunch. The afternoon is spent reading, researching, writing and cleaning the chains after which we adjust Anthony’s chain and tighten up a few bolts that rattled themselves loose. Time for a shower before we get picked up for the observatory tour.
Oh what a night!!!!! Our visit to the Observatorio del Pangue, situated 19kms south of Vicuña, where the only man-made structures nearby are 3 other scientific observatories, was out of this world!!!!! We saw galaxies with the naked eye, a mere 200,000 light years away, we saw a galaxy (Sombrero or M104) through the telescope which is 60 million light years away, so far that we could clearly see its entire shape, we saw the only existing supernova in the entire universe, which is an exploding dying star, and we saw a slowly collapsing dying star, we saw Saturn with its rings and 4 moons. We also learned that the point of the southern cross id made up of twin stars and saw them. And of course, we saw shooting stars. We saw and learned so much… It was a completely mind blowing experience… It makes me feel like visiting more observatories with bigger lenses and learn more. Can’t wait to camp again under the stars soon.
Tomorrow, we head north, slowly towards Antofagasta.