We’re stuck, but there’s no better place to be!
La Serena: a beautiful name for a beautiful city
I always thought a city with a name like this must be worth a visit. Fortunately, it lives up to the beautiful name, or at least the centre does. It has a lovely central park, a lot of colonial style buildings and churches, and there appears to be a building code which restricts the type and height of buildings, so it retains its character without the encroachment of high rises. (Those are left for the beachfront area which is just one long development site!) Often the new buildings are also designed to really fit in. And it’s a small city, making it a pleasure to walk around in.
So if you visit La Serena:
Wander around the city centre where every street offers something new and interesting. Some buildings have lovely courtyards, reminiscent of Mexico, often containing a restaurant, café or bar – a nice place to take a rest and relax with a drink.
Take a pleasant stroll along Avenida Francisco de Aguirre, a tree-lined avenue with dual carriageway and a pleasant park down the middle, featuring many copies of original and well-known classical sculptures.
Visit the Archaeological Museum – though small, it has quite an impressive collection of pre-Colombian artefacts from Chile. The most interesting for us was the Easter Island exhibit, especially the 2.5m-high moai (statue), since we have never been there and are unlikely to go.
We stayed 6 days.
We also shopped: in the large supermarkets to stock up on things you can’t get in the tiendas in small towns; for a new external hard disk – our new cameras produce much larger files than the old ones – and we found what we needed in La Serena (fortunately this type of electronic equipment is one thing that is reasonably priced here in Chile). We also had success finding a place to fill our empty gas cylinder, which is no mean feat in Chile!
Initially we had thought La Serena might be a place to stay a while – find a campground or other nice place to park Berta , and I would look for work teaching English . But first, we had difficulty finding a quiet place to stay for even one night. We tried the beachfront, but were woken in the early hours by a car of young people, blaring music and having fun. Then we tried a road, a block back from the beach, and it turned out to be a popular thoroughfare at all hours of the night. Finally we found a big empty paddock between the beach and the centre, but it was not a long term prospect. We also researched campgrounds in the town. There appeared to be some but when we went to check them out, there was usually a multi-story building at that address. And, we also found it just a bit too cold and realised that it would only get colder.
So, a nice place to visit, but we didn’t want to live there!
Valle de Elqui: recommended by 2 out of 3 English students as a must-visit!
So we said goodbye to beautiful La Serena and drove east through the Elqui Valley. It has a big reputation – many of my students in Santiago suggested it as a great place to visit in Chile. Initially it appeared to be fairly green, even though there was not much sign of the actual river. About 40Km out we understood why – in the distance, and coming closer, was a huge dam wall. The Embalse Puclaro dams the Elqui River and only a trickle runs downstream. But then we drove up the mountainside, past the wall, and along the rim of the dam, and … not much water on that side of the wall either!
Most of our nights in the Elqui Valley were spent parked in what would have been the dam (had it been full) near a village with the impossible-to-pronounce name of Gualliguaica. It was a wonderful place to sleep – no lights, no dogs, no roosters, no noise – and we even got good mobile internet. We would drive the 10Km into Vicuña to shop at the supermarket, bakery and the weekly fresh food market when we needed to, then return to the embalse. It was on this part of the road that we noticed, and started to photograph, the mosaic-adorned bus stops .
We also checked out the town and visited the tourist info. This small tourist town has some interesting old buildings and appears to be loved by the people who live there. Juergen was surprised and pleased to discover it also has some great street art . At the tourist information we found a nice guy who spoke English and was very helpful. He also explained that the area had suffered 10 years with no rain – maybe 20mm a year – and the embalse is at 10% of its capacity. There are 3 provinces in Chile that are suffering badly – Elqui and Limari in Region IV Coquimbo, and Petorca in Region V Valparaiso – and Limari is the worst off. We have now driven through all three provinces since leaving Santiago and have certainly noticed the results of this drought.
On Sunday we took a drive further up the valley to visit the area around Pisco Elqui. As we took the right turn into this arm of the valley we were awestruck. It is very narrow, and the mountains rise high above you. There are a number of small towns along the way and the rest of the valley is full of lush green – vines, fruit trees and vegetables.
Pisco Elqui is a lovely town but its streets are almost impossibly narrow and there seems to be no flat ground. With all the agriculture taking up the floor of the valley, the towns have to hug the mountainsides! We parked next to the plaza and walked around. The plaza is pretty with many shady trees, a quaint-looking church and some artisanal stalls. On the walk around town we discovered more impressive street art and interesting old houses, all against the backdrop of the amazingly beautiful mountains. Pisco Elqui is also the historical centre of pisco production, but being a Sunday the distillery wasn’t open.
Rather than drive further into this ever-narrowing valley, we drove back a little way back to Monte Grande which is famous for being the childhood home of Nobel Laureate, Gabriela Mistral. She was born in Vicuña, but lived and went to school here. It is a very small village and some locals helped us find a quiet spot behind the church, which was reasonably level, to spend the night.
Paso Agua Negra: so near and yet so far
On Monday, the 23rd of March we drove up towards Paso Agua Negra to cross into Argentina again. We had read so much about how amazing this pass was that we decided we must see it. We were a little nervous about the 4780m, but decided we wouldn’t try to do it all at once. The trip up the valley became more amazing by the kilometre. As we climbed steadily the mountains became higher. They are immense and make one feel very small and insignificant. And then the colours started to change. I was overawed by the 7 Colour Mountains near Uspallata in Argentina, but these mountains are bigger and even more colourful. I hadn’t thought it possible!!!
The other thing we noticed as we progressed up this valley was the effect of the long drought. There were dead and dying vineyards and even places where nothing but the support framing was left. At one place the road was lined with dead trees. Rain is really needed here!
We arrived at the Chilean border post just before 5pm (closing time) and went through the exit process. At around 2000m it is almost 100Km before the actual border which is at the top of the pass. We continued on another 20Km to a level sleeping place recommended to us. The scenery past the border post kept producing gasps of surprise and groans of wonder as we drove on. These 20 Km were even more amazing than those before – we were certainly looking forward to continuing this journey, and hoping that the altitude wouldn’t defeat us.
When we stopped the sun was still shining but there were dark clouds approaching from behind.
Overnight it started to rain and in the morning everything was soaked, the mountains covered in low cloud and mist. At one point the cloud cover opened up briefly to reveal snow covered mountain peaks all around us, even towards the border post at around 600 metres below us… What to do? We drove back to the border to ask, and were told there was heavy snow further up, making the pass impassable. It was closed.
At first they told us, “maybe later in the day”, but soon it became, “maybe not for a few days”! So we re-entered Chile, narrowly avoiding having our truck searched for ‘contraband food’ (which we had obviously bought in Chile), and drove back to Vicuña.
The drive down was as spectacular as driving up, and completely different. At first it was drizzling and all the mountain colours were enhanced by being wet. After a while the sun started to poke through and we got some very magical views that we definitely hadn’t noticed on the way up. But as we were getting closer to Vicuña it was raining very heavily again. The rain continued and we drove through some Mullumbimby-like torrential downpours. It continued to rain all night, and all the next day. Slowly everything was getting flooded – they certainly needed rain, but… We have since learned that this was the heaviest rainfall for more than 80 years!
In the following days we discovered that:
· the north of Chile had been declared a national disaster area
· Ruta 5, the national highway towards Antofagasta, was cut in several locations
· along the road we had driven down from the border post an entire mountainside had come down, so the road was covered with debris up to 10 metres deep, stretching almost a kilometre. This landslide also dammed the river, so careful removal could take weeks…
So we waited – at our favourite campsite in the embalse, and re-visited Vicuña and La Serena – until a way out opened…
It wasn’t the altitude that had stymied us – but the weather.
How do you deal with situations like this?