As she graces the front of Chile’s 5,000 peso note, thousands of Chileans and tourists see the face of Gabriela Mistral every day. But while the image of the famous Nobel laureate has become commonplace, getting to know the place of her origin is a special experience requiring just an overnight bus trip north of Santiago.
Mistral is from Chile’s Elqui Valley, a short bus ride outside of La Serena, on the southern edge of the Atacama Desert. The region will soon be well known as the place where the poet was born, as a US$11.4 million project to turn the area into a cultural route based on her life and work is underway.
While the route is expected to take two years to develop, the area remains a hidden gem and is well worth the visit — the valley is not only where the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature got her start, but also the heart of astronomy country and of production of Chile’s famous liquor, pisco.
To the Valley
Getting there is easy: a two-hour bus ride from the main terminal in La Serena costs just over US$5 (CP$2,500). As you leave the city and head for the hills, the natural beauty of the area shows itself. Under big, blue skies, the bus snakes through the dry, dominating mountains — the first real taste of the Atacama Desert north of Santiago — surrounded by row after row of green vines, where grapes are grown to make Chile’s famous pisco.
Most travellers will take the trip straight through the valley to Pisco Elqui, a small town renamed from La Union in 1936 to recognize Chile’s pride in the drink. Small guest houses and hostels have popped up in recent years, one of the best being El Tesoro de Elqui (The Treasure of Elqui). From its large, beautiful wooden cabins with full kitchens and private bath, to its dorms for those single backpackers, the lodge has something for everyone on every budget. A pool with a view of the mountains and a restaurant with warm, homemade pumpkin soup and fresh fruit juices, complete the place.
Following Gabriela Mistral
After getting settled, take a breath-taking two kilometre walk down the winding road from Pisco Elqui to Monte Grande, where Mistral spent her childhood after her birth in the nearby city Vicuña in 1889.
Monte Grande is little more than a few streets, but the town makes the best of it, with a church, town square, a few clean and new restaurants and of course Mistral’s childhood home and, on a hill overlooking the valley, her tomb. Even though Mistral only spent her youngest years here, and went on work as a teacher in La Serena, Antofagasta, and Punta Arenas, among other places, she specifically asked to be buried in the hot but breezy mountain community, saying her “beloved town of Monte Grande” was her true birthplace.
Today, Mistral’s small, one-level home is a museum, free of charge save a suggested donation, with photos of the town when Mistral was still the little girl known as Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, and then during her many visits back as an accomplished writer.
One of the rooms in the home was used as the town’s first school, where Mistral´s eldest sister was the head teacher, and now photos of the family and earliest student bodies grace its walls. On display are pieces of Mistral´s original writings and accounts of her trips abroad, growing international recognition and eventual Nobel prize, which she won in 1945.
A short walk up a nearby hill, past the churchyard where local artisans display copper bracelets and earrings made with local flower petals, and you will find Mistral’s tomb. Next to a simple wooden cross, the stone is inscribed with some of her words: “That what the soul does for the body, the artist does for her people.”
Look up, way up
If Mistral’s story is the draw to the Elqui area, the starry Atacama skies and strong Pisco Sours will be welcome surprises.
From any hostel or cabaña, a tour to a neighbouring observatory is easily arranged, and a must if you are up in the valley — home to some of the clearest skies in the world.
From nearby La Serena to Antofagasta in the far north, Chile is one of the few places that controls light pollution from urban centres. So, to ensure the best viewing of the Southern Cross and Orion’s Belt, avoid visiting on a full moon, when the stars will be dimmed by its presence. Otherwise, any night is prime for star gazing.
Observatorio Cerro Mamalluca is one of the most popular and sits atop a hill just outside of Vicuña. A tour including the entrance ticket and transportation to and from your guest house should cost between US$25 (CP$10,000) and US$32 (CP$15,000) per person. If in a private car, you will only pay the small fee for a guided tour by one of the centre’s incredibly knowledgeable astronomers, which will cost you less than US$11 (CP$5,000). For directions and information, visit www.mamalluca.cl.
The fruits of the region
Several pisco plantations and distilleries in the area are also open for tours. One of Chile’s top brands, Pisco Mistral, opens its doors in Pisco Elqui to visitors who are curious to know how the grape becomes the drink. The special climate of the valley means on average the grapes see 300 days of sun each year, very little rainfall, and the perfect combination of hot days and cool nights.
The tours include access to the giant concrete vats which store the pisco, the distillation room, and a small museum showcasing some of the first equipment used for picking and carrying the grapes and other local fruits, including a sack made from dried-out cow’s udders.
The tour finishes off with pisco tasting and a cocktail out on the distillery’s cool and quiet restaurant patio.
As the valley stretches out in front of you, full of bright desert flowers and a setting sun, the drink is the perfect digestive to end a fascinating visit.