Liz and John's South American Grand Cruise 2014 travel blog

Observatory

Elqui valley and surrounding desert


Monday/Tuesday 20/21 January

Days 20/21 - Sea Days on the way to Coquimbo, Chile

We had a later start and we've both put on weight - not a lot but it's back to protein and veggies for a couple of days! I still had a fair amount of discomfort in my shoulder and neck which wasn't surprising but a swim and hot tub sorted that out. John is still walking around the deck several times and doing his Pilates. Again we got into the routine of shipboard life. I sing in the mornings with the choir and although it's not that great, the Musical Director says it never is at this stage of a cruise. John always plays golf or one of the other competitions provided. He also went to a meeting of Firemen and Police Officers where some war stories were swapped. He quite enjoyed that. We play Trivia a couple of times a day and have a fun team though not always very knowledgable. However in the first morning session we resoundingly lost, John did guess the group name for giraffes. He guessed a Tower. I thought that was pretty neat!

We are getting lectures on sea days about the areas we are visiting. Today's was on the history and politics of Peru, Chile and Argentina. It was really interesting but incredibly complex so I don't think much will stick. The lecturer was a Canadian lady, Tommie-Sue Montgomery, who is also in our present Trivia team. She is very bright and knowledgeable and our evening Trivia sessions success rate has improved since she and her pilot husband have been on the team - not that we are that competitive!! When you get a place (1st, 2nd, 3rd) you get paid in cruise dollars and we've amassed over $100 now. On the last couple of days you can exchange them for merchandise from the shop and some of it is quite good but more stuff to lug home!

We had another formal night tonight so we had to get all dolled up again. We are resisting all the attempts to get professional photos but we are taking a few of our own. We shrub up pretty well. We are also continuing to get some incredible shows. Tonight's was called Graffiti Classics with two violinists, a viola player and bass player. It was introduced as 16 strings, 8 dancing feet and 4 voices and they danced while they played well known classics with humour added in throughout. The Bass player had a wonderful tenor voice and intermittently sang involving the audience as well. It was brilliant and they have a second show in two days time. We're really looking forward to it. The second night was an Argentinian guitar player, Fabiola Zini who had everyone spellbound. We can't get over the quality of the shows on the ship.

We are continuing to meet some really nice people although there are one or two that we don't make an effort to spend time with. There are a lot of older single American women on the ship and they form tightly knit groups. They have their bridge, Mahjong, Scrabble and knitting groups but they are definitely very closed shop. I find it interesting to see the various groups join together as the cruise goes on. However one of them has just received a medal from the shipping line for reaching 1500 days at sea with HAL. We are just over 100 days. You do wonder whether she has done anything else for the past few years.

Wednesday 22 January

Day 22 Coquimbo, Chile

We had an eight hour tour today through Coquimbo and then out to see an Observatory in the desert so it was an early start. We then had a long but picturesque run out of Coquimbo on a very comfortable coach with big picture windows. We drove out through La Serena and saw the big cathedral, a large cross on a hill and surprisingly a large mosque. Then we drove through the fertile wine growing Elqui Valley which was surprisingly green despite the low rainfall and total dependence on a large dam put across a very small river. It's a bit like Australia and floods only occasionally and the last time in this valley was four years ago when the dam was full. Now it's down to 10%. We then drove through quite desolate but beautiful mountainous desert with very little vegetation except cacti and some stunted shrubs. There was some greenery deep in the valleys but otherwise it was bare. We had a really steep climb, taking about an hour and a half to Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory located 7200 feet above sea level. It was a winding dirt road with sheer drops either side and was quite an amazing engineering feat in its own right but to build the enormous observatory in the middle of mountainous desert was really quite amazing. It is the largest observatory in the Southern Hemisphere and the air is so clear that they can photograph the heavens without any pollution on over 300 nights per year. Apparently most other observatories have about 100 days when they can take photos effectively. It's a mirror observatory and the largest mirror at the moment is about three metres across but by 2016 they will have a mirror telescope many times the size and will be one of the largest in the world. There are multiple small telescopes there with domes visible all over the place but we were shown inside the main one and it was very interesting. There seemed to be quite a lot of permanent staff employed judging by all the cars parks and the accommodation blocks visible from the observatory. We had been told there were only 12 steps to get into the building but in fact there were 48 but I managed them remarkably well although I had to bring up the rear very slowly. I'm glad I made the effort though because the tour, by one of the scientists, was really interesting.

We left after about an hour and a half and standing and climbing all the stairs really knocked me about. However I was fine once we got back into the coach. There were some magnificent views of the valleys below but it was hard to photograph because of the vastness of the area.

We eventually got back down to a little village called Vicuña where we had lunch. The main course was an enormous steak the size of half a cow with a very large plateful of rice. The whole table could have shared one meal and still eaten well. The dessert was papaya which I though would be like our paw paw. In fact it was cooked in so much sugar, that was all you could taste. We were all given a pisco sour which is the traditional drink of Chile and that was OK but they left the raw egg white off it because of the risk of salmonella! We had a two block walk back to the bus in 35 degree heat which was heavy going so after 8 hours we were pleased to get back to the comfort and air conditioning of the ship. We both crashed that night.

We get into Valparaiso tomorrow but haven't anything planned apart from John getting a hair cut! The water temperature in the pool is down to 18 degrees now so swimming is out until we go north again.

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