October 17th, 2018
We left the cloudy beach of La Serena early enough to hit a grocery store and gas before making our way eastward to the small town of Vicuña on the Ruta de las Estrellas – the route of the stars. Vicuña is world renown for star gazing and observatories; there are lots of them. This area claims some of the cleanest air in the world and they get an average of 300, yes, 300 days of sunshine a year so that means lots of clear nights for star gazing.
We had a reservation at the Pangue Observatory but had to be at their office today before 1pm to confirm the reservation and pay. The office is right on the town square
and after paying, we were advised that we could go up there early and then park to spend the night outside the gates if we wanted. This worked for us as the transportation provided to get from town to the site (about 17 km away) cost extra and driving back to town to a camp spot in the dark after 10:30 is not what we like to do. As it was, the visit cost 23,000CLP (about $34 USD) each.
We walked around town a bit; it’s a cute little town with lots of hotels/restaurants etc. as they get a lot of tourists and they were really advertising the solar eclipse for next July as Vicuña is almost right on the path of it.
We found a parts store for something we needed for Tigger and then made our way up to the observatory to get parked and spend a quiet afternoon overlooking a valley. It’s super quiet up here with little traffic on the dusty dirt road; we drove up to 1500 m / 4900‘ and parked outside the gates to the observatory as we’d been told we could.
At about 8pm a car drove up and opened up the gates and then at 8:20 we walked up. There are two astronomers here and a couple of telescopes. The one used for the tour was 25”. On this site is also a remote observatory which is operated from Italy and you can rent time on it if you want from wherever you are in the world.
One of the astronomers pointed out Venus, Mercury and Jupiter almost right away that we could see with the naked eye!
A group of 7 French tourists arrived and the viewing began. Our first look through the telescope was to view Jupiter and three of its moon orbiting it as well as a fourth moon’s shadow right on the planet itself. Next came Saturn in all its ring glory – amazing!
We then spent some time viewing the 58% moon we had that night. This observatory does not do showings five days before and five days after a full moon and we are 7 days out so it is somewhat brighter than ideal conditions but the sky is totally cloudless. At this point, we were able to give him our phones and he took pics of the moon’s surface for us
We could see craters and mountains and a “sword” shape in a large crater which is visible apparently only once a month. (below is a pic “borrowed” from the web)
The “red planet”, Mars was visible near the moon to the naked eye but of course we also got to view it through the telescope; it was more orange than red but we could see its polar ice cap!
We then viewed a star cluster and a planetary nebula – spectacular then it was Uranus (which is bluish green) and finally Neptune (which is greenish blue). Neptune is 30 astronomical lengths away from us; one length is the distance from here to sun so that’s freakin’ far!
The evening ending with a viewing of a nebula in the Milky Way where stars are “born”. It was all very fascinating and so amazing.
We walked back to Tigger at 10:30 where we had a super quiet night with no traffic, dogs, roosters, fireworks or trains.
Thursday morning we drove back to Vicuña (17 km) and went to the small family run Alfa Aldea planetarium to view the sun. Gabriel greeted us and we were a bit early (we’d actually forgotten what time our tour was!) so we did a few things around Tigger while waiting for our eleven o’clock time slot.
About 10:45 Gabriel came out and we were offered white wine (a little sweet) from their vineyard or lemonade and a fruit plate while he spoke about radio telescopes and a bit about the area. We then viewed the sun through their telescope – it was so red
but its activity level was low and we saw no sun spots or flares. Next we were taken into a room to listen to radio waves from Jupiter and the sun
We then watched a short NASA documentary about the Stereo satellites launched in late 2006 capturing imagery from the sun – very interesting stuff. These satellites assist with predicting space weather – solar flares and the like. (photo from documentary below)
They offer overlanding camping facilities here so we decided to stay one night (time for showers!) but first wanted to go to a solar restaurant for lunch as recommended to us by overlanding friends. We saw that Gabriel had a coupon for one on his reception counter and upon learning it was more than 6 km / 4 mi away, we decided to drive there, have lunch and then return.
We arrived at Delicias Solar and here they offered a “menu of the day”.
After making the choices that they offered, we enjoyed some delicious bread and chicken soup as the starter after which we realized it seemed like our meal was not solar cooked as we could see the solar ovens outside on the patio with us! Doug went in to inquire and was told they only do solar cooking in the summer months but that the rice would be solar cooked with our main course. Oh well!
We enjoyed some chicken, rice and salad before being offered a choice of dessert – all included in the daily menu price of 6000 CLP so for less than $20 total, we had a three course lunch with a beverage. It wasn’t what we’d planned but we have no regrets.
We returned to our camp spot, went for our daily walks with Spanish lessons before having a shower and spending some time online.
After a quiet night we took it slow on Friday morning and before lunch left Vicuña for the town of Pisco Elqui.
Located in this town is Chile’s oldest pisco distillery. If you’ve been following us for any length of time, you’ll remember that Chile and Peru have a bit of a rivalry over where the drink, pisco sour, was first created. Pisco is made from grapes like wine but fermented much longer and is a hard liquor.
We took a tour, all in Spanish, and with the tour came two tastings in a souvenir glass as well as a bottle each of what is a new product they offer, a Mistral Ice – a type of cooler. (We tried them a few days later; not going to rush out and buy some but they were okay.)
On the tour with us were an older couple from Germany and a young Chilean couple. The couple from Germany, Klaus & Brigit, come to South America every year on vacation and we joined them for a very nice lunch in the distillery’s restaurant.
As there was no good camping in this area we made our way back to Vicuña, stopping to call the Tololo observatory at 2:30; we were told to call back in a half hour and when we did, we were told there had been cancellations for the afternoon tour and we were in! Doug was very happy.
We gassed up in Vicuña and decided to stay another night but we made the mistake of not returning to the place we stayed at last night because there was a hotel right in the town that was supposed to be somewhat cheaper; well it turned out the price was now the same but without power which is not a big deal for us but the drawback was the bathrooms were at the hotel, not at the parking area (about 100m away) and the internet was also only in the hotel and it kept crapping out. Oh well, it’s only one night.
As we don’t have to make it to Cerro Tololo for the tour until 1:15, we had showers and took it easy before heading down there. It’s off the highway on the south side about 35 km / 21 mi on a dirt road.
We turned off the highway just before eleven o’clock to drive up to the observatory; three clicks down the road we were stopped at a gate. This is a security checkpoint for the Observatory and we were advised we could not make our way up there until 1:30 for the 2:30 tour. This was not great news as our plan had been to scout out a wild camp spot along this road for the night after the tour. Oh well, we pulled off to the side and then asked if it would be possible to park here for the night after the tour; nope but he suggested that we could go back down the road towards the highway and there was a side road that might work so Doug went for a walk to check it out while Fran worked on editing photos (a never ending job….).
At 1:30 we were able to make our way to the observatory; there are many, many telescopes here.
There were about ten of us on the tour (us the only Gringoes though!) and the guide did begin translating into English most of the time, but that seemed to diminish as time went on. This site is used for the study of astrophysics and they capture light from stars and infra-red rays which they read and study.
Into the first observatory we went after some history about the location. Tololo means “edge of the cliff” in an indigenous language. The site is located at 2200m / 7200’ and we were told most of the clouds only reach 1200m / 4000’ in this area so the observatory is above the clouds unless they are cirrus clouds. The humidity here is only about 3-6% which also helps with clear skies.
Here our guide spoke about the history of telescopes with the invention by Galileo and the subsequent re-invention with mirrors by Newton. The telescope in this building had a mirror size of just over a meter (a bit more than a yard) and is no longer in use.
He demonstrated how the roof opens
And how the telescope can be pointed and directed. We then we moved over to the main attraction; the building with the 4.1 metre telescope that for twenty years was the largest in the world. It was also the telescope that showed a super nova back in 1987 and with this telescope in 2011, a Nobel prize was won.
We were taken to the “control room”
Then up into the actual room where the telescope is house and used for about ten minutes. This room is quite cold as the camera lens must be kept cool and it’s huge.
From here you can see the three other observatories we saw in Vicuña: Gemini, SOAR and the under construction LSST.
The tour ended around 4:30 and we went back down to the security gate and just slightly past it to a quiet wild camp to spend the night.
Sunday morning we began our drive further south to check out Combarbalá for Chile’s national stone which was a bust and then decided to go as far as the National Chinchilla Reserve.
Here you pay an entry fee for the park which includes camping with bathrooms, water, and power. As it turns out chinchillas are nocturnal so we didn’t see any in the wild but the visitor’s centre has a “nocturama” where there are chinchillas to view as well as a few other small creatures including one of only three marsupials in Chile.
This was quite cool but unfortunately, we cannot take photos so these are highjacked from the web:
There are two species of chinchillas and they are slightly larger and more robust than ground squirrels. They are native to South America and live in colonies. Historically, chinchillas lived in an area that included parts of Bolivia, Peru, Argentina and Chile but today, colonies in the wild are known only in Chile along with their relatives, the rabbit looking viscachas. The chinchilla has the densest fur of all mammals that live on land (in water mammals the equivalent is a sea otter). One of their hairs is equivalent to about seven of ours. By the end of the 19th century, chinchillas had become quite rare after being hunted for their ultra-soft fur. Most chinchillas currently used by the fur industry for clothing and other accessories are farm-raised. Chinchillas are sometimes kept as pets, and may be considered a type of pocket pet. They are very sensitive to sunlight in which they can overheat and die hence they are nocturnal.
Then we were taken to a small watering hole where birds and degús come to drink. A degú is a small rodent that looks similar to a chinchilla but doesn’t have an issue with daylight. The ranger told us that after five minutes in the light, a chinchilla’s brain could “fry” and it will die; now that’s a serious problem!
We went for a short hike on the trails to view cactus and plants;
saw one viscacha running away from us and a few birds before going back to the little pond to watch the action there.
We had a quiet night and left the next morning heading back towards the coast.
We arrived at the coast looking for a place called Punta Pite which we’d read about on Atlas Obscura – however although we think we saw it from the road, it appears access is now prohibited by a new luxury housing community that is private.
We carried on down the coast to Viña del Mar just on the north side of Valparaiso, Chile’s main port city. The beach at Viña del Mar is quite beautiful and the beach is long and has lovely sand (although not white sand as advertised in our guide book). The coast enroute here was very developed and there are many, many high rises near this beach.We made some lunch after parking and sat on a bench to eat before taking a walk down the malecon. They have developed the beachfront well with a decent sandy beach area, a walking malecon, bike lanes and a four lane road and the buildings are all on the other side of the road except for a few small beach front restaurants and kiosks.
We then drove into Valparaiso to spend the night. We had three places in mind as possible safe parking spots; the first did not pan out due to insufficient street space and the next was parking lot that did not have any room and the final was another parking lot that was more expensive but they had room and Doug negotiated the price down to a more reasonable one though still pricy for what you get (only service was a bathroom). After parking we went to walk around and check out the city.
Valparaiso has seen better days for sure but it has some interesting mural/graffiti and lots of hills with little alleyways and staircases to wander into. The residential homes/buildings are colourfully painted and the vibe is nice is most areas; sketchy in others.
Going down one of the sets of stairs, Fran turned her ankle on a depression in the step; it was a little painful for the rest of that evening. The main attractions for us were that plus the many funiculars around the city.
We took the one nearest our parking spot up, wandered over to another but it was closed for maintenance and then found a third one near a restaurant with a view over the city where we had a drink before looking for a restaurant for dinner.
We saw many murals:
And we stopped in a souvenir shop to check out the national stone: Lapis Lazuli. Fran wanted to get a small piece of jewelry made from this stone. Earrings were her first choice but as she likes lever back earrings and they had nothing in that style, she looked at rings and picked out a sterling silver one.
Lapis lazuli is a deep blue metamorphic rock used as a semi-precious stone that has been prized since antiquity for its intense color. It is the lazurite in lapis lazuli which gives it its distinctive blue hue, the calcite which causes white streaking, and the pyrite which lends it its gleaming gold flecks. It was mined as early as the 7th millennium BC in northeast Afghanistan. Lapis was highly valued by many ancient civilizations and it was used in the funeral mask of Tutankhamun (1341–1323 BC). Cleopatra is said to have used ground lapis lazuli as her eyeshadow.
At the end of the middle ages, lapis lazuli began to be exported to Europe, where it was ground into powder and made into ultramine, the finest and most expensive of all blue pigments. It was used by some of the most important artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods and was often reserved for the clothing of the central figures of their paintings, especially the Blessed Virgin.
Today, mines in northeast Afghanistan are still the major source of lapis lazuli. Important amounts are also produced from mines in Russia, and in the Andes mountains in Chile. On September 20th, 1984, lapis lazuli was named the National Stone of Chile.
We then took a taxi back to Tigger and slept in the parking lot. It was not as noisy as expected but we were ready to move on the next morning.
Today we are headed to the capital city, Santiago, not so much for sightseeing but to go to a camper repair place to have a few things done. Camper Travel is located just north of the city and they make custom campers in a large warehouse like shop. It comes highly recommended on iOverlander.
The drive here was quick and smooth and the roads are wonderful; freeways like in North America with proper exits, 2-3 lanes each direction, good signage and speeds. You can see the affluence of the country with mostly newer cars, few motorbikes, a metro system and lots of malls. There is also a haze of smog which can distort the views of the Andes in the east.
We had emailed Camper Travel about a week ago with our issues, and they advised they thought they could help with most of them. We arrived just before lunch hour was over but when it was, we were invited to drive in and they began helping us right away. Sebastian, Hector and Victor were friendly; the former is a German now living in Chile and he spoke good English and helped with translation when needed. Hector fixed our power issue, the skid plate bolt and attempted to fix our security camera problem but it was beyond his capabilities. Victor fixed our bathroom door issue but could not fix our toilet issue as he did not have the part. Sebastian gave us the name of a place that might have the part and we are trying to call there. He also tried to call several Chevrolet places that might carry our fuel pump but had no luck.
Sebastian said we could stay the night and we’ll figure out what to do next. We parked outside for the night (as the internet did not work inside) and had a quiet night. We left before 8 when the gates opened on Wednesday to try and way our way across the city to the RV place that Sebastian recommended that might be able to help us with our toilet and also with importing items from the US (car parts). Ignacio did not have our toilet part (only a complete toilet) but had an agent in Miami whom he dealt with to import parts (he sells StarCraft and other American models of motorhomes). We found the parts online that we wanted and after Ignacio calculated the shipping costs, agents fees, duty and tax, realized that it would cost around $400 in “costs” to get $400 worth of parts here so we bowed out and we’ll make do. We then began a search for new jerry cans after learning that you cannot buy metal ones here and Ignacio advised we buy the ones the COPEC gas stations sell as they are “certified” to hold gas.
We stopped at a COPEC as need to fill up anyway, and bought three new “bidones” but our rack will need to be modified to hold them. As things are services are pricy here in Chile, we thought we’d buy them now and then find a welder in Argentina to get the rack modified to fit them.
So now we were still trying to find a Chevy dealer that might have our fuel pump and some oil filters; after a couple of places that bombed, we found a Chevy parts store that said he could order the pump for $500!!! (it’s $150 in the US) and that we’d find filters at a different Chevy place in an Auto mall. That did not pan out either so we decided it was maybe just time to head to Argentina a couple of days earlier than planned and stick to the former plan of bringing those parts back with us even if we had to pay duty in December – at least we won’t have the shipping and agent’s fees to deal with which were the better part of that $400 Ignacio quoted anyway.
After looking into border crossing requirements, we opted not to grocery shop in case fruits and vegs were confiscated at the border and we made our way to a truck stop with hot showers to spend the rest of the afternoon and that night. It certainly was not a pretty place but the showers were super-hot. We were tucked in between two big trucks and the night was surprisingly quiet for a trucker’s stop.
So on Thursday morning we said “hasta luego” to Chile and began the drive east to the Andes.
(As both Chile and Argentina are large countries, many overlanders crisscross the border many times trying to fit it all in – we’ll be crossing a few more times before reaching the tip of the continent for sure.)