The Penguins, the Pisco, the Sand and the Stars

We’ve been in Chile for two weeks. “Wait a minute,” you say, “weren’t you in Bolivia last week?” No, but I was writing about Bolivia. There was still a lot to recount and our first week in Chile wasn’t exactly action-packed. I mentioned in my last post that Lea and I had taxed our forty-something bodies’ tolerance for high altitude, cold showers, lugging backpacks up steep inclines, and what have you. After our mad dash through Peru and our month on the oxygen-deprived Altiplano, we’ve spent our first two weeks in Chile convalescing for want of a better word.

I spoke last week of my aching desire to get out of the mountains and down to a nice, pleasant beach. Did I get what I wanted? Well, yes and no. Here’s a Chilean beach:

Finally, right?

THAT PICTURE LIES. It looks warm and pleasant, but no matter how bright the sun and how inviting the sand, the harsh reality is that Chile, even more than Ecuador or Peru, is plagued by the despicable Humboldt Current from Antarctica. This photo offers a much more honest appraisal of the Chilean coastline:

Shiver me timbers.

I’d be lying to say that it wasn’t at least pleasant to sit near the beach for a while, listen to the waves, and smell the ocean air. Lea and I just had to bundle up in warm clothes to do it. Let’s settle on this photo for a happy medium:

Still, brrrrr….

Serene, tranquil, crystal clear, and cold as a bucket of ice on a polar bear’s butt.

Anyway, here’s the travel report:

San Pedro de Atacama

As I mentioned last week, San Pedro is the sister city to Uyuni, Bolivia. It’s entirely a backpacker town, full of hostels and travel agencies. After coming down from the Andean Plateau, the main thing San Pedro has going for it is that it’s warm and has actual air pressure. Even though we were still higher in elevation than Denver, it made a world of difference. We took off our jackets, slung on our backpacks, and felt like superhuman demigods with all that oxygen suddenly coursing through our veins as we hiked to our hostel.

Sandy San Pedro.

There’s a lot for a tourist to do around San Pedro de Atacama, but much of it seemed just like the stuff we’d covered in our three days across the Bolivian desert. The place we stayed was breezy with a nice porch looking over a garden and hot water in the shower. We got groceries and bus tickets, then didn’t leave the hostel for two days. (It would have been nice to do laundry, but there are no laundries in San Pedro. Oh well. Surely we’d be able to do it later…)

It’s dunes all the way down.


Eight hours down the coast is the village of Caldera, which our Australian friend Simon (who had traveled ahead of us) recommended as a place to recoup. Instead of a room in a hostel, we found a little guest house right off the main square on AirBnB. It had a fridge and a microwave if not a full kitchen, so we went back out for dinner and groceries.

Oh My God. The grocery store was packed like the one open Piggly Wiggly on the night before Thanksgiving. Any comments we made about how crazy crowded the store was were met with a shrug and a rapid-fire blast of Chilean Spanish. We didn’t find out what was really going on until the next day, when we were down to our last clean anything and tried to take our clothes to the only laundry in town (open Monday, Wednesday, Friday). It was Friday, and it was closed. After much ringing of the doorbell and yelling “Hola!” someone appeared to tell us in Chilean Spanish (más despacio, por favor) that it was closed for the holiday and would be open the following Monday.

Side note: I keep saying “Chilean Spanish” because what the Chileans call Spanish isn’t Spanish any more than what a cattle auctioneer is speaking can legitimately be considered English.

Anyway, the holiday. November 2 was Reformation Day, a holiday that commemorates Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg in 1517. The holiday is only observed in Germany, Slovenia, and Chile. We knew that southern Chile at least was supposed to have some German influence. So far we haven’t seen any bratwurst. Instead, we got to wash clothes in our AirBnB’s (cold) shower and hang it in the courtyard for anyone walking to Caldera’s central plaza to see.

Despite the frustration, we did get more recovery time on our surprise holiday weekend. The town has a pleasant park to hang out in, a nice little museum of paleontology with some megalodon fossils among other things, and a tiny beach with no shade or bars. We took a cab over to Bahia Inglesa, the supposed “tourist side” of the area, to find it wasn’t any more exciting. We did meet up with a guy named Jorge on Couchsurfing who took us careening over some sandy trails in search of seafood by the bay until finally settling on a restaurant in town. (The fried eel was fantastic, by the way.)

Caldera’s central plaza and church.

We had to get up before dawn on Sunday morning to catch our next bus. When we woke, not only was the shower still cold but all the power had gone out. We put on our wind-dried outfits, gathered our belongings by the light of our headlamps (Always be prepared!), gave up on the idea of washing ourselves, and once more hit the road.

La Serena

By now it had been a week since coming down from the mountains and it was time to ease back into seeing stuff and not hiding in our hostel. La Serena is the starting point for tours to the nearby Humboldt Penguin Reserve, one of the “must see” spots on our trip. But first we needed hot showers, clean clothes, and something to eat.

Instead of a hostel, we booked an honest-to-god apartment for four nights. The apartment had hot water, a kitchen, and an actual washing machine. Granted, it was small and had no dryer. There was a drying rack (also tiny) on the patio and two small bedrooms in addition to the master. Among our gear are two retractable clotheslines that we normally take camping to hang up towels. We strung those up in both the spare bedrooms and between them and the balcony were slowly able to do our own laundry over the course of several days.

The apartment was right around the corner from the travel agency (sweet!) and right across the street from a shopping mall with a supermarket. The less we eat out the more we save, so after rinsing several days of sand and dust out of our hair we set out across the giant American-style parking lot. As we approached the supermarket (called “Lider”) we saw a familiar logo. We thought, “That looks like… Surely it can’t be… No.”

Yep. For real, y’all. Chile has Wal-Mart.

Apparently Lider was a local chain that Wal-Mart bought out and kept the name. Everything inside, though, is just what you’d see in the States, down to Wal-Mart brands, sale stickers, and fonts on the labels. The arrangement of the store was confusing with plenty of quirks to remind us we were still in South America: huge wine selection, no cheese to speak of, and giant bone-in cuts of meat. But just like Wal-Mart back home, we had to keep going back every day for one more thing.

La Serena’s central park, far from the Wal-Mart

La Serena is split by the Pan-American Highway, east of which is the city proper with a green central park, some nice European architecture, the usual assortment of museums (that we didn’t visit) and a post office. Functioning post offices have been a rarity on this trip and postage rates in the first three countries we visited were sky-high, so we’ve lugged around an accumulation of items to be mailed back to the U.S., waiting for the right moment.

We pounced.

Going by the single data point of the post office in La Serena, the postal system of Chile is much more pleasant to interact with than our own. Not that that’s a high bar to clear.

Anyway, about those penguins…

On our last day in La Serena, with the last batch of clothes drying on lines spread through the apartment like the work of a giant spider, we got on a tour bus heading north to the coastal village of Choros, where we piled onto a boat and made our way to the islands where the penguins live.

Humboldt penguins are small, cute, and extremely shy – so skittish around humans that they’ve been known to jump off cliffs to get away from us. Therefore, you’re not allowed to get off the boat on the  islands where the penguins are. The penguins nest on top of the island and only come down to the shore to fish. According to our guide penguin populations are down this year for reasons unknown, but we were still able to spot a few as well as plenty of other birds, sea lions, and a pod of fin whales.

Our first penguin.
Two more penguins.
Three lazy penguins.
Colorful rocks.
This magnificent bastard.
Too cute.
Drying his wings.
Under all that water, the second largest whales in the world.
And yet this bird is not impressed.

There is one penguin-free island where we were allowed to disembark, hike, and look at rocks, gulls, and cacti. The weather was cold, cold, cold. I looked up La Serena’s latitude and realized that it’s just as far south of the equator as Jacksonville, Baton Rouge, and El Paso are to the north. November is late spring, equivalent to May in the northern hemisphere, so why was I still freezing?

Geography. The Andes have more influence on weather patterns here than anything else. Chile’s central valley is warm. The coast is frigid. The temperature in La Serena fluctuates from 50⁰ to 70⁰F all year round, even in “high season” – which is January and February. If you want to experience spring and summer, you have to get away from the coast. Which we did.


In a dirt parking lot behind the Wal-Mart, we picked up the bus inland to Vicuña, gateway to the Elqui Valley (Chile’s wine country) and heart of the country’s astrotourism industry. With some of the clearest skies in the world, northern Chile is vitally important to the study of astronomy. There are many world-renowned research facilities, such as the cleverly named Very Large Telescope and the even more original Extremely Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert. While some facilities allow limited tours during the day, no way are they going to let you go at night. (Besides, modern research telescopes don’t have anything like an eyepiece you can just walk up and look through.)

Vicuña, on the other hand, has several observatories open to the public for night visits and stargazing tours. Having seen the night sky from the Altiplano (in the freezing cold) I wanted another good look before we went south into more humid, and probably cloudier, regions of the country. After hearing about some of the expensive private tours to observatories farther out of town, we elected the cheap route and chose to visit the nearby Mamalluca Observatory instead.

This may not have been the best choice. It saved us money, but we ended up being two of nearly sixty to eighty at the observatory that night. The English-language group had about twenty people, which means that even during a two hour tour the group was only able to view five celestial objects and no one individually got much telescope time. Not to mention all the idiots trying to take pictures of the sky with their iPhones using the flash.

However, the sky was clear and beautiful. We could see the Milky Way, and the guide pointed out the stars Canopus (brightest in the southern sky) and Alpha Centauri (nearest to our own Sun, if you count Proxima Centauri as part of the same system). When he pointed out the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, my brain blew a fuse and I stared at the sky like a cat fixated on a laser pointer.

A little background: The Magellanic Clouds are two smaller galaxies that orbit our own. They’re the Milky Way’s “moons” so to speak. Some personal background: I’ve been an astronomy nerd since I was a kid. It was my first career path, and I actually taught college-level astronomy for a couple of years in my early twenties. Alpha Centauri and the Magellanic Clouds were talked about in every book about the night sky that I devoured as a child, but I never thought I would see them. And there they were right in front of me. It was an exhilaration as powerful as what I’d felt watching humpback whales leaping from the water off the coast of Ecuador. I was looking at other galaxies with my naked eyes, and I hadn’t thought it was important to bring my camera.


The next day we did something that we hadn’t done since La Paz, and almost never did in Peru. We went to Jaime, the hostel owner (at Hostal Las Delicias, if you ever want to book a room) and asked to extend our stay.

Jaime’d helped us book a tour of the wine region that we were going on that morning. The original plan had been to leave town the next day. Instead, we decided to stay so we could go out at night to someplace dark and take pictures of the sky. Jaime called around to several cabbies and tour companies to see if anyone would drive us. We ended up going with the same company, Elki Magic, who would drive us on the morning tour as well.

The church and plaza in Pisco Elqui.
The vineyards of the Elqui Valley.

The Elqui Valley is a splash of green amidst the Chilean desert thanks to the Elqui river and lots of irrigation. The valley is lined with vineyards, fruit groves, and quaint towns that have maximized the amount of greenery on display. They don’t just make wine in the Elqui region, though. They make Pisco.

The door to the distillery.
Drinking yourself to death indeed.

Pisco is an amber-colored brandy made from Muscat grapes, a signature high-proof spirit from both Chile and Peru, and the key ingredient in the Pisco Sour, one of the finest beverages known to man. On the tour we visited Fundo Los Nichos, the oldest pisco distillery in the region. It smelled heavenly. We saw the distilling equipment, the fermentation chambers, and the old Masonic club room beneath the distillery in which the club’s members were entombed behind bottles of pisco. We tasted samples and I was shocked that no one tried to sell us a bottle or five on the way out. We would’ve been easy marks.

The good stuff.

Later we went out and took pictures of the stars until midnight. The next day we slept in, lounged around, drank a bottle of Carménère pinot for lunch and had four pisco sours for dinner.

More of the good stuff.

That’s all caught up for now. I’m logging this from sunny Valparaiso. Next week I’ll be able to report on the largest swimming pool in the world. Hasta later, dear readers.

The sky looking back at Vicuna.
Orion rising upside-down.
That fuzzy blob I’m pointing at is the Large Magellanic Cloud. Up and to the right is the Small Magellanic Cloud. The bright star down and to the left is Canopus.

P.S. We’re finally back where there are flowers! It’s time for more of:

Lea’s Macrophotography

One thought on “The Penguins, the Pisco, the Sand and the Stars”

  1. My favorite episode! Except for all the laundry haha. Star gazing was heavenly, so well described, and great pictures. Want a pisco sour.

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