Saturday June 13 2015 Valle del Elqui, Chile
It's almost 9 before the sun pops above the horizon at this time of the year, so the early morning mucho frio stroll to Boquerdano for the metro to Universidad de Santiago terminal feels more like the middle of the night rather than the start of office hours.
I'm headed north out of Santiago to La Serena, a seven-hour bus journey along the Pan-American Highway. Much of the sun-drenched scenery is pure spaghetti western with millions upon millions of cactus atop dry hills that start in the foothills of the Andes to our east, and finish in the dunes and crashing surf of the Pacific coast to our left. The only significant breaks in this scenery is for the odd dry coastal town such as Los Vilos, the Parque Nacional Fray Jorge, and concentrations of huge wind towers.
I arrive in La Serena in something of a quandry. My original plan was to come here for Argentina v Paraguay, kicking off after 2.5 hours. Problem is I have no ticket. So I've booked instead to spend the night one hour away in the mysterious Elqui Valley. Predictably upon arriving and seeing thousands of Argentine fans and a police cordon around the Argentine team's hotel, I am tempted to hang around and see if I can buy a black-market ticket outside Estadio La Postada, which is only 400 metres away from the terminal (not that I fancy my chances with so many Argentines here also looking for tickets). On the other hand, there is no bus to Vicuna after the game so If I don't get a ticket, I might end up marooned here with no bed...so I spend 15 minutes deciding to leave and then changing my mind to stay, before I alter my thoughts again and jump on the bus out of town. It's typical of my nature that as soon as we begin leaving La Serena and Messi behind, I'm furious at my decision. I should have tried! It's Argentina for God's sake!
Vicuna is only an hour away in the very Moroccan-looking Elqui Valley. I check in to Hostal Valle Hermoso and manage to book myself on the night tour to El Pique Observatory, beginning an hour later. Thirty minutes into Paraguay v Argentina, just as Sergio Aguerro gives Argentina a fortuitous lead, I leave the bar near my new hostel and jump into a 4WD bound for the observatory.
Valle del Elqui boasts some of the finest stargazing conditions on earth. Half a dozen major observatories are located on the mountain tops around here, benefiting from the predictably clear skies, lack of wind and lack of light pollution.
The dusty 4WD trek up to the observatory is exciting in itself but doesn't prepare you for the pure majesty of the cellestial skies here. Only an hour after sunset and with Paraguay pulling back to 2-2 , 70 kilometres away down there at the head of the valley, the temperature is already down to five degrees, and the sky as clear as an arctic winter's night. Immediately, a shooting star streaks across the starry darkness infront of us, burning up like an expensive firework.
I am priveleged to be on this tour with just two guests: Susanna from Chile and Wilson from London. Our guide Christian is a charming and knowledgeable astronomer who shows us Jupiter, Venus, Omega Centauri, Nebula galaxies, spiral galaxies, binary stars, Andromeda and finally Saturn and its rings and moons, through his 30-centimetre telescope, a green laser - like a Star Wars light saber - pointing up to the heavens to show us points Christian wishes to make. The stripes on Jupiter are visible as are Saturn's rings, and the view through the lens of the tarantula nebula is unreal; all of this during the dark of the moon. It's an epic, spell-binding experience, five meteors streaming across the sky during the two hours at El Pique.
I'll be honest: by 10pm all thoughts of Messi, Aguerro and co are forgotten as I reval in the final moments staring up at the magnificent celestial heavens of valle del Elqui; the kind of evening which will not only remain one of the highlights of this trip, but of all my two-decade long travels.
Thanks to Wilson for letting me have the image above this blog from our visit to the observatory.