SOUTH AMERICA – THE JOURNEY PART 7
Vicuña – Pisco Elqui – La Serena – Coquimbo, northern Chile
Orange streaks crawled across the sky only to be overtaken by the dark night. Daylight had morphed into dipped car lamps speeding along the road. It was useless trying to cycle with no lights, I’d have to try my luck at hitching.
It had to be a pickup truck, nothing else – including the buses – would take both me plus a bike back to Vicuña. I could barely make out the vehicles whizzing past, their shapes were obscured by their dazzling headlamps. A pickup drove past and ignored my pleading face. Damn. It was getting too dark to see anything. Suddenly the driver reversed back and lowered his window.
His face was nearly a silhouette but as he leaned forward, his genuine smile reassured me.
The journey back to Vicuña was punctuated with blank faces and elementary Spanish conversations. Chile’s win in one of their World Cup football matches earlier that day dominated the ride with plenty of cheers from the driver. At the insistence of another backpacker, Tanya, who’s obsessed with football, we’d set out on bikes after the final whistle was blown, to Pisco Elqui. We were greeted along the way by horn-tooting locals proudly holding their flags and children with their faces painted in the national colours.
The two of us cycled alongside arid hills and an aquamarine coloured river until the road turned to an uphill struggle. A bus screeched to a halt and allowed us to tote our bikes onto it before pulling away. We then weaved through small villages each with their own church and surrounded by plentiful vineyards.
Pisco Elqui is situated in the desert-like Elqui Valley, northern Chile. Somehow the year-round dry conditions are ideal for cultivating pisco grapes, used in the national drink pisco sour. It contains the namesake wine, eggs, bitters and lime juice. The teenagers mix their pisco wine with coke. Ugh.
The vineyards came to an end at the Mediterranean style village where we jumped off with our bikes. We whizzed down past bright coloured houses and gauchos, South American cowboys, donning leather hats, jeans and chequered shirts trotting solemnly on their horses.
The bucolic landscape swallowed us up as we continued downhill, slowly being pushed into dusk. I wasn’t going to cycle in the dark and decided to hitch back to Vicuña, it was madness trying to ride with no lights. Tanya, meanwhile, with reasons only known to herself, decided to peddle on. About five kilometres from Vicuña we found her struggling to see in the pitch black and picked her up. The driver being Chilean, which is generally simultaneous with courteous, dropped us off right where we needed to be with a wide-grinning chao.
The heavens open up on La Serena
Before Vicuña, I travelled from Valparaiso to La Serena, a church-obsessed town on the Pacific coast. It’s home to 29 churches including an open-air chapel. A year’s worth of rain was unleashed from the heavens on my arrival, perhaps my punishment for my blasphemous comments about a kitsch, neon-flashing Virgin Mary I’d seen. The downpour didn’t rein in for 24 hours, leaving the town in a foot of water. La Serena, I was told, sees only six days of rain per year, how apt that I should be there for one of them.
Sporting webbed feet I ventured over to nearby Coquimbo, a port town that features a British neighbourhood. Attracted by the copper, silver and nitrate mining prospects in northern Chile, British firms moved in to Coquimbo after Chile received its independence from Spain in 1810. As cheaper, more lucrative options became available, the Brits moved out but their presence is still felt in Coquimbo with top hat figurines standing on several buildings’ balconies.
Liverpool comes to Coquimbo
Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang seem to be what Britain has to offer to world. At least that’s how the UK is remembered in Coquimbo with two bizarre sky-grappling statues of the film characters. The British area is actually a street with bars on it and no expats in sight. I stumbled across the Liverpool Hotel, a rather run down establishment befitting of Bootle Docks in my home city.
Unlike Liverpool, which is Britain’s only city to feature two cathedrals, Coquimbo instead has an eyesore of a giant cross. Standing at 103 metres tall, it’s South America’s tallest monument and built from grey concrete. The area’s priests had to obtain a blessing from the Pope before it could be erected in 2000. The towering cross gives extensive views across the town and holds church services every Sunday.
Walking uphill to the Third Millennium Cross had left me famished so I headed to the fish market, a must-dine place in Coquimbo. Uber-fresh fish and seafood chowder is on offer at the ten or so restaurants vying for potential diners. And it was here that I befriended the entire neighbourhood’s stray cats.
WHERE ON EARTH?
- Makes some of South America’s best wine (or so I’m told)
- Will be celebrating its 200-year anniversary of independence in September this year
- No matter where you are in the country, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the Andes mountain range
- The place to go to star gaze at Mamalluca Observatory, one of the world’s leading observatories
- (you might be interested in a previous post of mine about Mamalluca: https://southamericajourneys.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/starstruck-at-mamalluca-observatory/ )
- Receives, on average, only 26 days of cloudy skies per year
HOW TO GET TO VICUÑA FROM LA SERENA
Take the bus from either the bus terminal or outside the main fruit market in La Serena. It takes 1.5 hours and costs 2,500 Chilean pesos (US$5). Buses leave frequently.
HOW TO GET TO THE PISCO VALLEY FROM LA SERENA
Buses go from La Serena’s main bus terminal. The bus company is Via Elqui.
HOW TO GET TO PISCO ELQUIE FROM VICUÑA
Buses leave every half hour from the main terminal in Vicuña and tickets cost 1,500 Chilean pesos.
HOW TO GET TO COQUIMBO FROM LA SERENA
Take the cream coloured bus signed for Coquimbo from Colo Colo Street, just before the road reaches O’Higgins Street.