In Part 1, I tried to give some local flavor of the Elqui Valley. In Part 2, I’m just going to go through where I went, what I saw and share lots of pictures. I stayed just outside a little town called Rivadavia at the junction of Ruta 41 and D-485, which is the road to Pisco Elqui. I had three goals on the trip. The first wasn’t really a trip goal but I had a lot of grading to do and doing that away from the students and office is always a good idea. The second was to see more of the southern stars from a dark sky. I’ve made (and written about) several such trips in my time here and try to do something each new moon. In March, I stayed at Hacienda Los Andes, in the Hurtado Valley, which is just over the ridge from the Elqui. I hope to get back to Hacienda next month. From the Hurtado, the Elqui is a tough drive. Also, with the Hacienda’s dedicated observatories, I don’t get much sleep, due to staying up until dawn, which makes touring difficult. That interferes with my third goal: see the sights in the legendary Elqui Valley.
So, the plan was to find a spot where I could spend a few hours each night watching the sky and then get some sleep to drive and hike around the area. I had planned to grade on my first afternoon but I forgot to bring pens. I finally found some pens in a nearby town and did actually manage to get my grading done by Sunday night. Goal 1 accomplished but with difficulty.
I also managed to pick a really good spot for observing. It’s always hard to tell what a place is really like from the internet – lodging descriptions usually focus on the room but don’t discuss how much light trespass exists from surrounding properties and towns – but it looked like a quiet little inn outside of town. Fortunately, the owner did not light up her property at all and I was able to set up right by the river, just outside my cabin. I spent four or five hours the first night with my little travel scope and I also set up the camera. Unfortunately, it’s nearing winter and I was set up right by a river. The temperature fell to around freezing and the result is that the lens of my camera dewed over and I got basically nothing from the first night of imaging. On the other hand, I had a fantastic time with the scope and enjoyed many fine views, revisiting southern objects I will not be able to see once I return north. You can read about my other southern astronomy exploits: Starry Sky over the Atacama, Observations from Hacienda Los Andes.
On Friday, I was out the door by ten, headed to Pisco Elqui. The drive started out great and then the road was closed due to a rock slide. The detour was outstanding, winding through a dirt lane that wove in and out of vineyards on the river bottom. It took about an hour to go the 25 kilometers to Pisco Elqui, passing through the village of Montegrande on the way. In Pisco Elqui I was able to make most of the purchases I’d hoped to make. I walked around the town a bit and was struck by how quiet it was. There are many small inns and tasting rooms and tourism is clearly the only thing other than wine production going on in the valley.
Looking back toward Rivadavia from near Montegrande.
Waiting for traffic to clear on the detour, looking through some vines. This was taken sitting in my car.
I continued down the road to Horcon, a small village with an artesinal fair. The road deteriorated quickly after that and I turned back. Just before Montegrande, I turned east to head up another branch of the valley. There was a spa I’d been told about by the owner of the cabana and it actually showed up on google maps so, why not? A massage could be excellent. Passing through the town of Cochiguaz, I saw a site called something like “astronomy village” with several cabins and two observatory domes. Unfortunately, it looked like they were all in disrepair and there were crews working on the main building. I also saw, later, an advertisement for another astronomy village but didn’t get the time to check it out.
When I arrived at the spa, well up the hill from the main road, it did not inspire confidence – it looked fine but there were two dudes hanging out at the gate who, er, I did not want to receive a massage from. Maybe they were just hanging out. I decided my Spanish could get me in trouble here and I made my way back to the road. I continued east until the road ran out and I had a fine view of the valley back the way I’d come.
The view from above Cochiguaz.
Between Cochiguaz and Montegrande.
When I got back to Montegrande, I stopped for an empanada and to walk around the town a bit. It’s a very pretty, very quiet village. It was a Friday afternoon but I walked by a school and it was quiet. I never did figure out what most of the people were doing. Surely most of the adults were working in the vineyards but I never saw much activity. It will remain a mystery.
I should add: the valley is incredibly steep in these parts and the villages hang on the hillside tenaciously. Heading south, left turns take you sharply down, ultimately to the river bottom. Vines spread out from the river to near the top of the smaller ridges. Living here would give you strong quads.
The church in Montegrande.
Montegrande. The statue is of Gabriela Mistral, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945 and who grew up in Montegrande. She was born in nearby Vicuna.
The sunset Friday night behind clouds. I graded a bit and hit the sack at 8pm. I set my alarm for midnight and was happy to find the sky had cleared. I set the scope up, dodging dog, cat and kitten to do so. I lay back to watch the sky as my eyes adapted to the dark. The center of the Milky Way is at 29 degrees south declination. The spot where I lay on my back was just north of 30 degrees south latitude. This means that the center of the galaxy would pass within a degree of straight overhead from where I watched. It did this around 2am and was incredible. The Milky Way stretched from the northeast horizon in Cygnus to the southwest horizon in Vela and spanned dozens of degrees above and below that plane. The Milky Way is simply the haze we see because we can’t resolve the individual stars. Though none of those stars is visible to the naked eye, their combined light shows up as a band that is legendary. If you live in a city, or even a modern small town, you likely can’t see it well, or at all, due to light pollution. But out in the dark, away from lights, it is plain to see. Looking toward the center of the galaxy, we see many more stars as we’re looking through the thickest part of the disk. There we see the milky band even brighter. The stream is blocked in places by opaque gas and dust which gives us things like the “great rift”, a dark lane splitting the Milky Way from Cygnus to Centaurus. I would spend 15 to 20 minutes at the eyepiece and then have to lie back and just watch the galaxy climb in the sky.
I was up by nine on Saturday and ready for a day heading toward Argentina on Ruta 41. The owner of the cabana told me it was a drive not to be missed but warned me not to go all the way to Paso Agua Negra, the border pass with Argentina at over 15,000 feet elevation. It’s okay, despite the border being only 150 kilometers away (about 100 miles), google maps predicted a 4 hour drive. If you follow the link above, you’ll see why. I planned to go as far as I could go in two or three hours and then turn back. It turned out, I couldn’t go more than halfway, which took about an hour and a half. Chilean border control is located at a reasonable location, over 70 kilometers from the pass at about 7,000 feet. When I arrived, it was closed, gates locked. The pavement ends here and becomes gravel and narrow and steep. At about 10,000 feet it becomes snow covered starting in late April and they close the pass until it melts. Only 200 or so vehicles per year cross the border at Paso Agua Negra and no one lives further on, so there is no need to keep the road open past the checkpoint. They are planning a tunnel but I sort of hope it doesn’t happen. As you’ll see below, the half of the drive I did on Saturday was phenomenal and, in large part, because there is very little traffic. I would expect resorts and tourist “traps” if there were significant traffic through this beautiful stretch.
Most of the traffic on Ruta 41 is headed to Pisco Elqui and, so, turns off at Rivadavia. Heading east from town, I had the road mostly to myself. The drive climbs gently through vineyards, and ruins of vineyards, as the valley starts to narrow. The colors are what really make this drive. Each mountain is, seemingly, a different color, or set of colors as most of them are streaked with veins of minerals. Each time you think you’ve seen the best view, you round a corner and a red snow-capped peak lines up just behind a yellowish pile of rocks. You’ll have to see the pictures and, even then, they don’t give the full effect of how total the ruggedness and beauty of the valley is. Or the silence when you pull over and kill the engine. I saw maybe a dozen cars in the four hours I was out, covering about 200 kilometers. Most were families pulled over in a picturesque spot having a picnic. I had my own picnic astride a large boulder on the bank of the aptly named Rio Turbio, surrounded by steep mountains and an unexpected copse of trees.
I could go on and on. Perhaps you think I have. Instead, I’ll provide these photos and tell you that, if you ever have the chance, make this drive.
I drove back through Rivadavia still on a high from the mountain views. It was a shock to see traffic again. I passed through Rivadavia and cruised through Vicuna, the largest town in the area. I suspect I could have purchased a towel at this point but I was rolling with my kitchen towel and saw no need. Vicuna has several “astronomy inns” but it’s a largish town and I saw enough streetlights to think it probably isn’t a super setting for stargazing.
Back at the cabana, I got a quick nap and organized my stuff. I tend to embrace entropy when I arrive in a new place and I had expanded to fill the cabin. I think the owner was a little shocked when she came to bring me my, well her, propane tank back. I got as packed as I could and then set up the gear under a brilliant blue sky that was crystal clear. The forecast called for clouds starting around 9pm and so I wanted to enjoy the two hours or so of clear sky before then. As it happened, it was clear at least until midnight.
I wrote about my view of the moon setting behind the mountains here. It was an incredible few minutes.
I got the camera up and running and the wind kept the dew off for awhile. I shared some views with the cabana owner’s handyman who, apparently, lived in the woods on the other side of the river. Seriously, I wish my Spanish was better. I thought I offered to lend a flashlight as he crossed the bridge. However, his interpretation of what I said was that I was giving him the flashlight. Maybe I should have let him have it but I ended up chasing him down in the woods and retrieving it. He was in a hammock, smoking a cigar, watching the skies. Not a bad gig.
Back at the scope, I caught a few dark nebulae featured in the June Sky and Telescope that Mary had brought down. My little Dob was the perfect scope for it. Dark nebulae, as I wrote a bit above, are patches of opaque gas and dust blocking background stars. The patches are smaller than the Great Rift but still big for a normal scope. My little scope, for reasons I won’t go into here, has an unusually wide field of view perfect for such large objects. Here is the photo I managed that night of one such dark nebula, the so-called “Dark Doodad” in the constellation Musca. The fuzzy patch at one end of the dark nebula is the globular cluster NGC 4372, a particularly loose globular cluster.
For a look at full resolution, click here.
Finally, around 11:30, I realized I had an early day, needing to get back to La Serena to try to catch an earlier flight and/or spend time in the airport bar grading papers. So, I dismantled the travel scope and got myself mostly packed, leaving the camera running as I did so. A little after midnight I closed up the last of my gear and got my bags as close to packed as I could be. I then crawled under the electric blanket and slept hard until a little past 8. I was on the road by ten and my vacation up in the valley came to an end.
It’s a beautiful place and very, very quiet, especially compared to Santiago.
I really enjoyed my stay at La Cabana del Rio Claro. I gave it great reviews on booking.com, where you can find it listed. I do worry that folks looking for luxury accommodation would be disappointed. It’s very comfy, I was able to prepare my own meals and the owner was very gracious. But if you want central heat and air or a giant shower with neverending hot water, it isn’t your cup of tea. But, then, you probably shouldn’t be looking to stay in the hills of Chile, anyway.