After a seven-hour bus journey from the seaside resort of Viña del Mar, past cacti-covered hills and glimpses down to deserted bays, we arrived at the pretty Chilean town of La Serena. After a cup of tea at our hostel, we wandered the paint-peeling streets and admired the sunset before tucking into some Chilean specialities – pastel de jaiba (crab pie) and chupe de mariscoes (seafood chowder) at a simple eatery near the market.
The following day was Mother’s Day – something the Chilean people obviously take quite seriously. Everybody in town seemed to be out and about buying roses and balloons from street-side stalls for their beloved madre. After months of feeling like we had been getting up hours after the locals, it became clear that the Chileans aren’t early risers; we had to wait until 11am for a coffee shop to open! After that, we had a set lunch, which tend to be great value-for-money options in South America. The weather was breezy but warm and we walked the palm-tree lined avenue down to the beach where a monstrous mock-colonial lighthouse visibly crumbles into the sands.
In the late afternoon we caught a local minibus service inland to the town of Vicuña. The journey took us past a huge, turquoise lake and gnarled vineyards clinging onto life in the arid Elqui Valley. We made a beeline for Hostal Donde Rita, which had come highly recommended.
Rita and her dog were indeed adorable and as her only guests, we ended up with what was, in effect, our own private apartment on the top floor of her house. Perfecto! After some ice-creams (we had to guess the flavours and ended up with banana and aniseed – apparently the most popular combination) and a stroll around the few streets that make up the town centre, we watched some of the free concert for Mother’s Day in the plaza before getting some dinner. I managed to find a traditional veggie dish I’d been keen to try – humitas – baked and mashed up maize which is served wrapped up in the leaves and is pretty damn tasty!
In the morning, after a nice breakfast with Rita’s home-made jams, we took a bus to the nearby village of Pisco Elqui. We spent a few hours looking around the village, although most of the cafes and shops were shut up because it was Monday. The sun was baking and the sky was a perfectly bright blue. Chile is very proud of its famously clear skies – the band of blue on their flag even represents it.
That night was our visit to the Mamalluca Observatory. After warming up with multiple layers and a bottle of red wine (oops), we took the tour up to the observatory in the hills beyond Vicuña. Our guide pointed out the constellations with her green laser, and later we got to see Saturn, Alpha Centauri and the Moon through their telescopes – a great experience in a country for renowned for scientific star-gazing.
Mamalluca may just be a ‘tourists’ observatory’: The cameras are relatively simple and no real scientific studying is done here. But the sky – that crisp, clear, close-enough-to-touch blackness – is the same. I don’t expect to ever so so many stars ever again in my life. An unmissable experience.