Saturday 23rd April 2016 –
The cloud of drizzle that had loomed over Valparaiso during my time there, followed me up the coast to La Serena. It merged with the sea, a mysterious white blanket of mist and water breaking over the jagged coastal rocks. It certainly didn’t feel like I was entering the desert.
Despite original intentions, and a still lingering thought that I was doing the wrong thing, I didn’t go to Mendoza, so I’ll have to say a belated goodbye to Argentina. It’s a slightly devastating realisation. Almost as bad as the one that I won’t have gone to the cinema there. Really though, I just felt I couldn’t justify it basically to taste some wine, and I’ve been doing plenty of that anyway. Just in a less professional setting, is all. It turned out God had sided with me though, as when I boarded my bus to La Serena, an Italian bloke told me the pass had been closed, and would be for a few days. Maybe God thinks I should cut down on the drinking?
Being brutally honest, I actually couldn’t remember the last time I hadn’t drank at least a little each day. OK, maybe in Torres del Paine, but even then my dad and I had a couple of boxes of wine. I figured I should probably give it a break for a couple of days, so that’s what I did. For those couple of days, I abstained from almost everything.
Quiet and calm, La Serena was the perfect place for some reflection on where I really wanted to go, and what enthused me. Aside from the off passion fruit beer (tastes just like juice, if you want to know) with Sjoerd, the hostel itself was also ridiculously quiet, so I was able to thoroughly bore myself to death with non movement. It may sound strange, but this boredom is an integral part of the travel itinerary.
This strict to do list didn’t last long though, and soon I was off again, revitalised. After a visit to the local museum to see the only Easter Island head not residing on Easter Island, I went to see some stars. Nearby Mamalluca observatory has these in abundance (or can see them, if you want to be pedantic), and despite seeing barely any in La Serena, a whole bunch of tourists hopped onto the bus.
Ice Age was our introduction, a five minute short showing that apparently the little ratty guy caused the big bang, before we were whisked off to the telescope. Finally a theory I can get on board with. The telescope itself was pretty big, and had its own little amphitheatre with electronic roof and turning mechanism – real space stuff goes on here. Our guide was really enthusiastic, showing us Jupiter (the only planet visible at the time) and various stars through the scope, while simultaneously answering dozens of questions and pointing out different constellations. If only I was able to remember
them all any of them.
There was only one downside to the tour. It was practically full moon (just a couple of days away) and this meant we couldn’t see the Milky Way properly. The brighter, closer stars, sure, but not the cloud itself. Still, this meant that we got to see the moon in all its glory through another telescope. Not all bad, eh?
I travelled to Pisco Elqui next, right after finding out that a bunch of the guys from Pucon had been there the day before. Sods law really, isn’t it? I wasn’t really sure what I was expecting – only that Chileans had recommended it. In fact, pretty much every Chilean, despite it not really being a highly visited gringo area. It’s basically a beautifully green valley crushed in the middle of a barren mountain range. Oh, and it’s famous for making pisco. Now you understand why all the Chileans go.
I took the bus, which turned out rather more complicated than it should have been. I bought the ticket at the terminal, before waiting for the bus to arrive 45 minutes late. Unfortunately, two hours of bus later, it became apparent that on this bus standard practise was to pay the fare when you got off the bus. I couldn’t find my ticket anywhere – I didn’t want to pay twice for the late bus though. As I got off, the bus driver waited for me to produce said ticket. There was only one option – make a big show of searching my bag and take as long as possible, while muttering under my breath in Spanish. And it worked! Hurrah! I really should be an actor.
Stage one complete, I wandered around the village (taking all of five minutes) before renting a bike to cycle to a pisco distillery, and the villages further on. Apparently, it would be a difficult uphill on the way, but obviously nice coming back down. Just as I left, I bumped into James from back in Pucón, where he promptly took a selfie of us to prove we’d met. Apparently this was important.
Back on my way, I made my way uphill, muttering once more about my dislike for cycling. Too much effort, too many hills, the wheels don’t move as they should do, etc. Then the bike broke. Upward, I crawled, and then SNAP! The chain broke straight off. I tried to fix it, but like my brothers childhood tendency for constipation face when smiling, there was no helping it. It was gone. I was left with a terrible decision – having only gone a mile and a half, I could turn back and just walk to the distillery after, having to retrace my steps, or walk the bike another mile to the distillery, and back again. I opted for the latter.
I was pretty sweaty by the time I got there, and red in the face, but it turned out it was a good decision – Pisquera Los Nichos was only 10 minutes into the last tour of the day. I jumped on, and listened intently as the Spanish swamped my ears. The actual creation process may have gotten lost in translation. Oops. Nevertheless, I found out that’s its created either in an ex-catacomb, or like catacomb, area. I’m going to go for ex-catacomb because it sounds better. I also found out what it tastes like, and bought some. When in Rome…
I walked/rolled my way back into town, and deposited the bike with its disbelieving owner. “Did it break on its own, or did you crash into something?”. Yes, I crashed and the chain broke, but nothing else, obviously. It was too late to walk elsewhere though, so I contented myself with relaxing in the tranquil square. I definitely couldn’t remember the last time I relaxed. Nope, definitely no…
Evening’s arrival saw me on the bus once more, this time toward one of my newly planned destinations. In the middle of the desert, a hand creeps out of the ground, ready to grab unsuspecting persons and pull them under. A hand of a giant. I reckon so, anyway. Called (surprisingly) El Mano del Desierto, it lies about 40 miles from Antofagasta, Chile’s second biggest city, which itself lies in the middle of nowhere.
I’d been worried about getting there as public transport does not run past it, despite the road going directly to Antofagasta. The bus companies I asked said the bus companies took another route by the coast. The sole helpful guy I asked also informed me it wasn’t really worth going to. Apparently the site is permanently littered with rubbish and graffiti. I hedged my bets anyway, and decided I would try and get a lift from the convergence of the two roads, ten miles from the hand. That, or walk with all my bags. Fortunately, it turned out easier than that.
The bus driver must have taken pity on me, because as I was dumped off the bus just after sunrise, I turned to see the hand in the distance. We had taken the other road! I strolled over, and imagined the possibility of some giant hominid life form. Maybe it was a fallen God? Maybe I’ve been reading too many Steven Erikson books.
Aside from this, there wasn’t any more to do, so I looked for a way to Antofagasta. Also quite easy. After a bus ignoring me, I eventually hopped on board with a couple of Chilean guys in a car they were driving north to sell. I reckon I’m pretty much an expert at this hitch hiking lark now. Kindly, they drove out of their way into central Antofagasta.
Mountains swamped us as we drove through a barren desert valley, and I marvelled at the starkness of it all. Antofagasta really was in the middle of nowhere. Soon we reached the city though, jammed between the city and the coast, and I said goodbye to my new friends.