Big starry skies – the Elqui Valley

2 Jul

The further North we travelled in Chile the drier the climate and landscape became. Lush, green and forested hills were replaced by dry, multi-coloured mountains studded with cacti. The Elqui Valley starts roughly 30 minutes inland from the coastal city of La Serena and stretches to the remote mountains bordering Argentina.

Blessed with around 300 days of sunshine per year and very little rain, the valley is dotted with farms, orchards producing lemons, oranges and papayas, and vineyards producing Pisco. The region’s cloud-free climate means that the area is the best place in the world for stargazing – as a result the biggest and best observatories are found here. We based ourselves in Chile’s second oldest city La Serena, which offered a comfortable and convenient base to explore the surrounding area.


The centre of the city is filled with colonial buildings, busy pedestrianised shopping streets and tranquil plazas. 20 minutes walk from the centre is a long strip of white sandy beach – one side is very natural with a quirky looking lighthouse backed by lagoons and the other side is more built up with high rise apartments, restaurants and surf schools.


We spent a day getting to know the Elqui Valley and headed first to a village called Pisco Elqui which is a 2 hour bus ride from La Serena.When we left La Serena a chilly fog hung over the city and caused us to wrap up warm but once we got into the Valley the temperature soared to nearly 30 degrees. The tiny village of Pisco Elqui is clustered around a small plaza and an ancient church.


There is a spiritual vibe to the village as the valley is said to be situated on ground with powerful energy and it’s experiencing an eco-tourism boom. It’s possible to practice yoga and meditation here and in the plaza cute craft stalls sell products made from natural materials and hippy girls offer to make friendship bracelets or braid your hair.

Pisco Elqui is home to two distilleries producing Pisco with age old methods.


Pisco is a clear muscat grape brandy produced in the wine making regions of Chile and Peru. There is fierce rivalry between the two countries as to where the origins of the drink actually lie and local historians have recently been going to some lengths using written records and artifacts to prove their theories. In 1939, tension between the countries grew and the Chilean president Gabriel Gonzalaz Videla attempted to gain the upper hand over the rights to Pisco by creating Pisco Elqui by officially changing the name from La Union. However, Peru already had a small port town South of Lima called Pisco and so they continued to claim exclusive rights to use the name Pisco on their label, with Chile only permitted to identify its product as ‘Chilean Pisco’.


We hitch-hiked 4 kilometers to one of the valley’s oldest distilleries called Los Nichos and took a guided tour to learn about the process from vine to bottle.

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The process for distillation has remained virtually unchanged for 400 years and we witnessed the wine being heated in copper vats, the vapours collected and then the liquid aged in large wooden barrels for up to six months.

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The tour included a small tasting at the end and we felt the 46% alcohol warming all the way down to our tummies. Pisco is famously served throughout Chile as a sweet tasting cocktail called Pisco Sour which consists of a shot of Pisco, lime or lemon juice and copious amounts of sugar – and we were really quite partial to this tipple after 3 months in and out of the country!


As the Elqui Valley is one of the best places in the world to go star gazing, we took a trip to Mamalluca observatory, 9km North West of Vicuna. The centre runs very interesting and informative nightly trips for tourists and offers the chance to view planets and stars through a 12 inch digital telescope. Our guide had been working as an astronomer for the last 20 years and shared his wealth of knowledge with a real passion.


Our group of around 15 people gathered together in the dark looking up at the immense star filled sky above us. With very little light pollution and cloud free skies, the stars shone with an intensity we’d rarely seen before. Our guide explained that there are 88 constellations in the sky – 37 belonging to the Northern Hemisphere and 51 to the Southern. Our guide picked out some of the constellations for us using a laser pen and common names we’d known but had never been able to see in the past such as Orion the Hunter, Pegasus and Scorpius suddenly came into clear view. The guide also explained that ‘dark cloud constellations’ are patches within The Milky Way that stand out and cast shadows. The dark clouds, which are more prominent in the Southern hemisphere, were used by several civilisations such as the Incas and the Aboriginies who attached spiritual significance and important symbolic meanings to them. The dark clouds were called ‘Yana Phuya’ by the Incas and the Milky Way the ‘Mayu’ which means river in the Quechuan language. The llama was at the centre of the animal constellations in the sky and this was mirrored in Inca religious ceremonies in which black llamas were sacrificed to appease the gods.

Some of the facts we heard were really hard to comprehend and actually blew our minds.  For example, our guide explained that there are 200 – 400 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way, but there could be as many as 500 billion galaxies in the Universe, each with as many or more stars than The Milky Way. So, multiplied together it’s estimated that there could be 200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the Universe!

The largest known star is the humongous VY Canis Majoris and this star is thought to be 1,800 times the size of our sun. The closest star to our galaxy is Proxima Centauri, located 4.2 light years away. That means it takes light from the star more than 4 years to reach the Earth and travelling on the fastest spacecraft ever launched, it would take us 70,000 years to get there. We suddenly felt very small and insignificant!


Our guide led our group into the dome shaped observatory and up a small staircase spiralling around the inside wall of the building. The lights were off and we followed the guide’s torch light to a circular shaped room. We could make out the outline of a huge telescope in the middle of the room and the group gathered around it looking inwards. The guide lowered a giant panel on the side of the metal roof of the dome and the night’s sky instantly shed light into the room. There was a new moon that evening which is apparently the best time to visit the observatory as the stars can be seen more clearly without the moon’s light obscuring them. The guide explained that in years gone by the task of finding a star in the sky was a manual process and took a lot of skill and patience but that nowadays it’s all done by GPS – all he needed to do was type ‘Jupiter’ into his computer and the telescope would locate the planet within a matter of seconds.

With the press of a button the observatory jumped into life. The telescope rotated and dome’s walls started to move around so the opening to the stars was matched up with the direction the telescope pointed. A loud and deep mechanical sound filled our ears and shook the ground we were standing on – it was like something from a James Bond movie!


With the telescope aimed towards Jupiter, which looked just like a bright star in the sky, the guide asked individuals in the group to step forward and take their time observing the planet. We felt a flutter of excitement as if we were about to enter another world. The view of the planet was truely awesome. It was almost like the guide had stuck a picture of the planet on the other side of the glass and we looked in disbelief up at the sky and then back into the telescope’s eye-piece.

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We learnt that Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and it’s surface is made up of liquids and gases. Interestingly, it’s gravitational pull is so strong we would be three times as heavy standing on Jupiter as we are standing on Earth. Luckily for Planet Earth, Jupiter’s gravity means that it sucks in comets, asteroids and meterorites which could collide with our planet…

With fresh co-ordinates entered into the GPS the telescope span into position once again and the dome clunked and grinded to follow it. Saturn is the second largest planet in the solar system and as we peered at this graceful orb through the telescope it glowed tones of pale pink, yellow and white.

It’s impressive rings shimmered with millions of tonnes of rocks and dust and we learnt that the planet has a solid inner core which is surrounded by gas. Saturn has the lowest density of all of the planets in our solar system and in theory it could float on water if there were a sea large enough. It takes 29.5 Earth years for Saturn to complete one revolution of our sun.

We turned from looking at planets to stars. We learnt that even though it generally looks like the stars are all by themselves in the sky, many actually come in pairs. These are called binary stars and it occurs where two stars orbit the same centre of gravity. In some systems stars can be clustered in threes, fours and when we looked through the telescope at a star that looked like only one shining light, it was in fact hundreds of stars which filled the whole eye-piece!

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It can also look like all stars are white in colour, however, we viewed stars ranging from red, to white, to blue – red being the smaller stars and the coolest, and blue the largest and the hottest.

Our guide explained that the most productive ground based telescope in the world is based in Chile and we laughed when we learnt the name was ‘VLT’ – or ‘Very Large Telescope’. It has four individual telescopes each with a primary mirror 8.2 metres across and each telescope alone can detect objects roughly four billion times fainter than can be detected with the naked eye. A project to build the world’s largest optical telescope is now underway in Chile. The telescope will be jointly owned by fourteen European countries and will cost 1.3 billion USD to be built. The telescope will be called the ‘European Extremely Large Telescope’ (at least their names are consistent if not original) and the primary mirror will be 42 metres wide. The Chilean astronomers are very excited by this project as even though the telescope will be owned soley by Europeans, Chile will have exclusive access to the telescope for one month for allowing it to be built in their country. The advances in space knowledge this project can offer the human race are potentially limitless.

We left the centre close to 11.30pm and took a mini-bus the hour drive back to La Serena. Our brains were bulging trying to process information which we knew was just the tip of the iceberg. To quote a well known starship captain, we’d “Boldly gone where no man had ever gone before” and we knew after this experience we’d never look up at the night sky in the same way again!

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