Valle Elqui, center of Chilean Pisco Production. Vicuña. Armageddon in an observatory. Brief stop in La Serena. Hospitality in Viña del Mar. Valparaiso.

Travelogue Chile 2003
La Serena to Valparaiso

April 3rd, 2003

Dear Friends,

This is my last report of this trip. I hope you enjoyed reading about my experiences and maybe I could inspire you to travel the world soon. I will inform you as soon as these reports and a selection of the best photos will be available online but this might take some time.

Travelling in the first class bus was not that exciting though quite relaxed and comfortable compared to normal buses. I want to add something about the frequent control points I wrote about: They seem to exist only close to the Bolivian border. Some people even say the main reason for the controls is customs.

Chile: Elqui Valley
The Elqui Valley

From La Serena I continued immediately to Vicuña, a little town in the Elqui valley where the community runs a little observatory. During the day I visited the village Pisco-Elqui, the Chilean centre of Pisco production a very young brandy basically used for mixing. I also could visit one of the distilleries and learnt a few things about brandy production. The valley itself is quite idyllic, it is possible to hike or rent horses. Furthermore I visited an insect museum … after I saw all these creatures and how big they become I might not want to visit the jungle another time. It is a bit strange that we disgust big insects though normally the small ones like mosquitoes, fleas and ants are the real problem.

Chile: The observatory of Vicuña
The observatory of Vicuña

In the evening I visited the observatory. As it was decreasing half moon, and therefore the moon didn’t rise till late in the night. So I couldn’t see it but on the other hand this made the sky very dark and the stars really brilliant. Well, those telescopes were not too big to photograph them, to the contrary they are quite handy being between one and two meters long and having mirrors with a diameter between 30 and 40 centimetres. The range of vision is about 30 arc minutes, that’s about the size of the moon, magnification is about 100. This is enough to see Saturn and its rings, Jupiter, its mayor stripes and its moons as tiny dots of light. I also saw my little nebula in Orion’s sword: magnified that much it’s nothing but a slight haze with a few little stars in it. That is one of the very “young” regions of our galaxy where new stars are born. It is also amazing that here you can see two galaxies with the unaided eye: The Small and the Great Magellan Cloud. By the way: you can see all this at home as there is an excellent program you may test for two weeks. You can download it from the site (but it is some 50MB big).

But the most impressive thing was not part of the planed program: I saw the biggest shooting star I had ever seen. Now you won’t be able to imagine nothing, even if I tell you that it was the biggest shooting star our guide had ever seen and he has worked as a guide in the observatory in one of the best regions for astronomy for years. What is a “bit” shooting star? It is easy to imagine a long one, clear, fast, slow … but big?

Maybe it helps you to know that this thing gave me a shock. Do you know the feeling that breathing hurts after you almost got into a serious accident? I had this feeling and still could feel it the next morning.

But maybe shooting star is not the right best word to use, meteorite might be better. We were just about to end the observations and I yet was pretty tired when something started to glow in the atmosphere above us. Fast it became bigger and bigger and reached the brightness of a welding machine, but being much bigger, sparkling / steaming in different colours, mainly copper green … it is impossible to put it in words. It was growing fast, bigger and bigger, until it burned out abruptly. I guess that it was the expansion that caused the shock as it wasn’t possible to say whether it would continue and there would be a meteor impact. All this happened in fractions of a second though it is hard to tell how much time passed. If you still don’t get the picture watch Disney’s movie “Dinosaur” (beginning in minute 18) though what you see there is a little bigger and worse than the thing I saw.

The next morning I went back to La Serena. Here I had planed to spend a few days at the beach but couldn’t due to the weather. In the inland here the weather is almost always fine but it is often cloudy at the coast as the cold Humboldt Current prevents the clouds to rise and get over the hills. This is the reason why the Chilean Andes are the perfect place for observatories. Generally Chile is not the perfect place for sea bathing. There are lots of wonderful and long sand beaches, but at most of them there is a dangerous current and undertow and therefore swimming is forbidden. In addition south of Antofagasta the water is due to the Humboldt Current very cold, some twelve to fourteen degrees Celsius. I did try it. The water is wonderful clear and nice and fucking cold. Therefore you can mainly come here for sun bathing but be careful, the ozone layer is thin down here. And try to avoid the beaches in high season as they would be packed with people.

Chile: My hosts in Viña del Mar
My hosts in Viña del Mar

So I visited the nice city of La Serena only for two hours before taking a bus to Viña del Mar , close to Santiago . In the bus I heard an older man tow rows in front of me talking on his cell phone in a strange mixture between German and Spanish. Leaving the bus I asked him where he was from and he told me that he was born in Chile and lived in Viña. He asked me where I was from and where I was going to spend the night before telling me rather than asking “So you come home with us!?” So I moved into their guest room and spent there three nights … what an unusual amount of hospitality.

The next day I walked through the town and spent hours at the beaches of the region. There is even a colony of sea lions (you need binoculars to see more than brown dots on a rock, if you have binoculars the sea lions are fun to watch).

Chile: Viña del Mar
Viña del Mar

Wieder einen Tag später dann Valparaiso, eine ehemals sehr reiche Stadt, die aber deutlich ärmer und unsicherer geworden ist. Trotzdem ist noch viel der Schönheit zu bestaunen und zu fotografieren, es gibt viele alte, bunte Häuser und man wandert durch die Hügel, die man als Fußgänger am besten mit diversen kleinen Aufzügen / Seilbahnen erreicht.

Chile: Valparaiso
Chile: Viña del Mar
One of the elevators, this one is actually in Viña del Mar

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© Volker Umpfenbach

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