Vern: We bussed down to another small town in the Elqui Valley called Vicuña. It's somewhat bigger than Pisco Elqui and has a grocery store (which excites us more than it should) and bizarrely a store called Canabis which sells children's party supplies. We found a family run hostel, checked in to a peach coloured room with a wooden chair painted peach too (which was almost invisible in poor light) and after a cup of coffee we went out to find activities to keep us busy. As we stepped out of the hostel a man approached us with a green box in his hands and babbled on about something to do with a rehab centre. We were about to change to the other side of the street when he opened the box to reveal four baked filo-pastry goodies covered in manjar (a delicious caramel spread also called 'dulce de leche' elsewhere on the continent) and dusted with icing sugar. Our resistance crumbled and we agreed to buy one for CH$1000 and support his untranslatable cause. We handed over the cash and he handed over the whole box. Result! And that is how we accidentally bought desert and the following day's breakfast.
The next day we walked up the hill, Cerro Virgin to the statue of Mary which watches over the city. Turns out the Catholics had chosen a prime location because a few years later the cellphone company engineers chose the same spot and now the path we followed leads into a little labyrinth of steel towers, cables, aerials and satellite dishes. Up there we found a couple of persistent parishioners who'd located the statue amongst the buzzing sounds and were lighting prayer candles. We tried to take a few photos of the empty vineyards and distant snow-dusted peaks from the viewpoint but wires hung into all our shots so we soon gave up and headed back down to town.
When in doubt as to what to do in a small town, do what the locals do: Posters all over town advertised Family Bingo and so at 3pm we filed into the courtyard of the Rotary Club and bought a bingo-card each. We were issued with a handful of dried corn kernels to mark the called numbers with. We found a seat at a rectangular table and were joined by a lady and her mother - a professional who'd refused the kernels because she'd brought along a tub of tidily-winks - and then by a couple of excited woman in their fifties who'd worn a lot more make-up than the event called for. The place filled to capacity and we started late because most of the players move slowly. They started calling numbers and we panicked a little - the white-haired leather jacket clad announcer was speaking quickly and 'sesenta' (sixty) sounds very similar to 'setenta' (seventy) making the O column rather tricky but as we settled in we did quite well in comprehending him. It was all business, there were no little catch phrases like "Lucky legs B11" or "B4... and after" but when O69 was called the excitable ladies at our table led the room with a roar of, "Ohhhhhhh!" and giggled hysterically (in each and every one of the nine games). And oddly when G55 was called, one of the ladies yelped, "Número Gringo" then remembering we were sitting at her table threw her hand over her mouth, glowed red and looked at us very embarrassed. We chuckled and wondered what on earth 55 has to do with white people.
The first few prizes were a bit crap: plants and blankets and fluffy toys but things picked up and after a particularly fortunate father and daughter pair (who turned out to be from Bolivia) won a radio-controlled car and restaurant vouchers and then a wine hamper two games later the crowd's jealousy began to show. The loud woman chanted, "The Bolivians are lucky,
the Bolivians are lucky...But we have the sea!...We have the sea!"
She was referring to a very sore point: Decades ago Chile had fought Bolivia for a large chunk of mineral rich desert and won, leaving Bolivia landlocked and still to this day very grumpy about it. I guess when the prizes get good the gloves come off.
We had a great time even though we won nothing. And the Chilean townies were great, perhaps slightly odd, but during our short time in town we kept bumping into bingo friends who greeted us warmly and we felt like the most connected networkers in Vicuña. That night while we were making dinner in the hostel kitchen an eccentric banker with black hair but grey streaks on his temples was making coffee and started talking to us, enthusiastically practicing his English. He worked in Vicuña and stayed there five nights of the week returning to his family in La Serena only on weekends. He was obviously a bit lonely because after we were done eating he asked whether we'd like to walk to the pharmacy with him. We politely declined, washed our dishes and retired to our room. Half an hour later while I was in the shower he knocked on the door. Andrea opened it and he gave her a present for us - two corporate gifts: a notebook and a leather cardholder embossed with 'BancoEstad'. "Um, thanks."
The next day we checked out as late as possible so as to minimize the amount of time we had to kill before the night bus left. We spent some time in an Internet cafe and then on benches reading in the main plaza. Here, the municipality plays easy listening music on evenings and weekends. We wondered if this to keep thugs from congregating - I imagine that despite wearing a Slipknot hoodie and smoking a shoplifted pack of cigarettes a teen's street-cred is seriously diminished if he's hanging out under a speaker blasting the Three Tenors.
The clouds had parted slightly and we made our may to the Observatory ticket office and asked the lady there, "Will there be a tour and stargazing tonight?"
"It's very difficult you know, with these clouds", she responded as if she was trying to relay the news gently and minimize our heartbreak.
"Right, so should we come back and ask again later?"
She then realized that her vague comment wasn't enough to shoo us away. "One moment..." she poked her head into the next room and then returned, "...no, all tours are suspended."
That was weird, we agreed when we left. She was really trying to avoid being the bearer of bad news.
Instead, we went down to the Capel pisco distillery but were too late for a tour so a little defeated we wondered around trying doors. We'd walked a little out of town to get here and were in no rush to get back. We found the tasting bar and just sat down. The same guy who had turned us away found us in there looking unloved and let us try a few free shots of dessert wine, mango-flavoured pisco sour and a delicious creamy mango colada premixed cocktail. This was all we really wanted out of a tour - we've seen enough booze making machines around the world - so we chalked this up as a successful visit.
Our last hour in Vicuña was spent sipping over-priced hot chocolate in a smart restaurant (we wanted a warm drink but not coffee because we wanted to sleep on the bus and this was the only place catering to this need) and then boarded the night bus to Santiago.