Some 8 hours by bus from Santiago, the sweet neo-colonial framework of La Serena made for a welcoming embrace to the north of Chile. Vast stretches of beaches, a myriad of white statues, friendly locals and beautifully fresh air, this was my pick up point for an observatory tour in the purposeful beauty of Elqui Valley.
My hostel was first port of call on the route, giving me time and peace to bask in the sunset as we snaked around the coast; zoning out the futile Latin hip hop on the radio, just me and the lighthouses gazed away from land, a cruise liner steadfast at sea, a sky so large the sun seemed to fall from dusk like a stone, a halloween orange stabwound maimed the lilac mist over the port, had someone painted a masterpiece just for me?
As we arrived, now with a family of five Colombians*, high up on a dark plateau, I damn nearly broke my neck clean off trying to take in the night sky, now more colourful than the sunset two hours earlier. The iridescent Milky Way photoshopped the night, and I had to be dragged inside for the start of the tour. Introductions out of the way we headed back to black; shooting stars fell like bonfire rain, The Large Magellenic Cloud visible to the naked eye had my mind set to full wonder. Finally we reached the ‘pièce de résistance’; just as Galileo had 400 years ago, we peered into the heavens with a telescopic eye on Jupiter, the heavyweight champion of the solar system, and it’s four main constituent moons that once put paid to the Ptolemaic model of the universe, and thus had Galileo tried and convicted of heresy by the Catholic Church. The advancement of science, which he is the father, allowed us a clarity on the heavens last night that supporters of heliocentrism in the 1600’s could only have dreamed of, the unwavering, ultra-violent storms in Jupiter’s atmosphere looked like dark racing stripes strangling it’s super massive body.
The final death throes of our visit were spent awing once again at the Large Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy of a billions of suns orbiting our Milky Way, 130,000 light years away. To put that into perspective, anyone in that galaxy peering back through a telescope at us on that night, would have seen a primitive mankind yet to leave Africa, and watched Neanderthals still roaming the plains. Fucking WOW.
An evening of wonder in my life, only matched by the Nou Camp in ’99.
* my translator informed me on our exit, the Colombian girl I had been sharing my cigarettes with turned out to be a reality TV star/glamour model (Pilar Ruiz) on holiday with her family.
San Pedro de Atacama
I had such high expectations of this little town in the desert, unfortunately disappointment was all I left with. Set in the most sensational of surroundings, the driest place on earth, to its detriment this town has made western tourism its ‘be all and end all’. Inflated prices on beds, food and drink, tacky souvenir shops and charmless buildings, you could be anywhere in the world that isn’t the Chilean desert. I hung around for a night at the comfortable Hostal La Florida (strangely the best shower i had in South America, was in the driest place in the world), to make the most of the hammocks and to avoid the pressed slacks and Freudian camera lenses of the package tour brigade, I left the day after on an afternoon bus for Iquique in the North.
Not really a backpacker destination, more aimed at holidaying Chileans, Iquique is a half lively beach town high up in the north of Chile. A cool place to break the monotony of ancient relics, and uncomfortable bus journeys. With a little crew of new friends; three Canadians in Dana, Taylor and Jarod, plus Lisa (from my time in Buenos Aires), we spent our days at the beach watching paragliders fall from the cliffs above, and spent our nights partying in makeshift castles, karaoke dive bars, one night we even broke into the beachfront sea lion enclosure, Dana tried to rescue a pigeon from a vent inside, it thanked her by relieving itself on her.
Heading back to Peru was a 32 hour, two bus affair. The first dropped me near the border at 11pm, an intimidating audience of night crawlers awaited me at the terminal, trying to act cool I managed to book an onward bus for the morning, and jump in the first taxi I saw. For only the second time, I followed a lonely planet accommodation guide to End of the Trail Hostel (the closest one to the station), like most of my trip, the impromptu brought with it great rewards; the taxi dropped me in the dead of night by what looked like a row of abandoned houses, a larger than life American stood in one of the doorways, Franklin, as he would reveal himself, turned out to be the most welcoming of hosts. He and his wife had fulfilled their dream of retiring to the pacific ocean, their homestay was the perfect place to rest for the evening. Franklin and I chatted for hours as I made my way through a bottle of scotch on his back terrace, set to the glorious sounds of the mighty Pacific ocean at night, he regaled me with tales of his time exploding avalanches on the slopes of the world, and even more interestingly his years served in the Vietnam war, and his penchant for collecting the ears of the opposition soldiers he had felled.
His wife prepared a feast in the morning; fresh coffee, warm bread, an array of fruit, cereal and yogurt, and then before I knew it I was back on a bus, with yet another country at my back.
I adore life.