Tag Archives: Chile

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Last Post from the Atacama Desert

Sandstone bluffs are the doors to the Valley of the Moon
Sandstone bluffs are the doors to the Valley of the Moon

Florence in January and February is mostly gray – gray medieval or renaissance stone palazzos, gray cobblestone streets, gray rain, gray skies, gray clothes – so it warms me up to think back to hot days on the high, high, high Atacama Desert of Chile with its rose and peach wind-shaped bluffs, its white-silver salt flats with pink flamingos, its blue-black midnight skies with a moon hanging within reach.

The Valley of the Dead leads to an ancient volcano
Death Valley leads to an ancient volcano

Before I arrived at the Calama airport, I thought I knew deserts, but the Atacama is unique with geysers at altitudes that steal your breath, volcanos – both active and sleeping, and salt flats, curdled hard after centuries of sun, surrounding saline pools teeming with flamingos.

El Tatio Geyser Basin at 12,500 feet above sea level in the Atacama Desert
El Tatio Geyser Basin at 12,500 feet above sea level in Atacama

I thought the desert might provide the peace I needed after the chaotic Santiago streets, but debated whether Patagonia might be more a more interesting escape. What I found in the Atacama Desert made me wish I had two weeks rather than four days to explore its variety. On my next visit I fantasize that I will try sand surfing, but probably not.

A sleeping volcano known as Licancabur
A sleeping volcano known as Licancabur

Florence is not know for its wildlife (or even as a place for a wild life). There are a lot of gray pigeons and at home, Dante and Guido – they are gray-furred, too.

A lone vicuna, one of twenty at the geyser basin
A lone vicuña, one of twenty at the geyser basin

I didn’t think the “dead” Atacama Desert would have many colorful birds or animals, but it does – vicuñas, llamas, alpacas, and guanacos, as well as flamingos, Andean geese, Andean gulls, grebes and condors.

Hundreds of flamingos spend months on the Salar de Atacama
Hundreds of flamingos spend months on the Salar de Atacama

Florence feels closed in during January and February. It’s cold, but not too cold. It’s damp, but without the excitement of a thunderstorm. I am encouraged to hibernation. At the Hotel Atacama I found that just listening to the wind move along the sand was invigorating. I can almost still hear it now.

Week-old llama gets a kiss from his mother at the Hotel Alto Atacama
Week-old llama gets a kiss from his mother at the Hotel Alto Atacama

The Atacama Desert stretches on forever with all its space, variety and color. The  memories will get me to March when the crocus and iris will greet a pale sun in the Tuscan countryside and promise an April bursting with color.

Alto Atacama Hotel
Alto Atacama Hotel

 

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Life Rules (the book) is coming in Summer 2014. Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

 

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Seeking Stars at La Silla in Chile

Sometimes Tuscan Traveler wants to go someplace out of this world. La Silla Observatory run by the European Southern Observatory seemed to be the best place to start.

Nebula Carina seen from the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at La Silla Observatory
Nebula Carina seen from the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at La Silla Observatory

ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in the Atacama Desert region of Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. ESO’s first site is at La Silla, a high desert mountain 600 kilometers north of Santiago, Chile. It is equipped with several optical telescopes with mirror diameters of up to 3.6 meters. La Silla has been an ESO stronghold since the 1960s.

The La Silla Observatory seen from the road beyond the entry gate
The La Silla Observatory seen from the road beyond the entry gate

And, among other things, they are looking for earth-like planets, which may be important two days from now.

The La Silla Observatory is located at an altitude of 2400 meters (about 6,250 feet). Like other observatories in this geographical area, La Silla is sited far from sources of light pollution. It has one of the darkest night skies on the Earth. Unfortunately, folks like us can only visit during the daytime.

So we rented a Suzuki compact (first mistake) in Santiago and headed north on Highway 5 toward La Serena. We overnighted at Hacienda Santa Cristina (great choice) near Ovalle. The next day, despite the fact that we had a strict 1:30pm appointment at the La Silla entry gate, we decided to take in the fish market at Coquimbo (second mistake) where we were so intrigued by the swords made out of swordfish blades, we dropped an hour behind our schedule.

North of Las Serena, Highway 5 becomes a two-lane winding road full of long-haul carriers climbing over 6,000 feet from sea level to the high desert. No place to pass.

Finally off Highway 5 our driver refused to go another kilometer
Finally off Highway 5 our driver refused to go another kilometer

But there is worse to come. Once on La Silla’s private road you really need an SUV. For over five miles the washboard road shook the Suzuki to bits.

The sign does not tell you how bad the road is for 10 kilometers
The sign does not tell you how bad the road is for 10 kilometers

But having started out from the fish market an hour behind schedule, we arrived only 15 minutes late, just about the time 50 Chilean schoolchildren in two rickety buses, a young couple in another Suzuki, and a older pair of Swiss nationals in a four-wheel-drive (you can count on the Swiss to be prepared) arrived. The caravan, duly checked in, wound up the last 1,200 feet in altitude (losing the buses to overheating) to the observatory. A burro mother and child made better time than we did.

Semi-wild burros graze on slim picking at over 6,250 feet above sea level
Semi-wild burros graze on slim picking at over 6,250 feet above sea level

At La Silla, ESO operates some of the most productive 4-meter class telescopes in the world. The 3.58-meter New Technology Telescope (NTT) broke new ground for telescope engineering and design and was the first in the world to have a computer-controlled main mirror (active optics), a technology developed at ESO and now applied to most of the world’s current large telescopes.

View of La Silla from the top of the largest telescope - ESO 3.6 meter
View of La Silla from the top of the largest telescope – ESO 3.6 meter

The ESO 3.6-meter telescope is now home to the world’s foremost extra-solar planet hunter: High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), a spectrograph with unrivalled precision.

The telescope attached to the
The view from the ground of the buildings housing the ESO 3.6 meter telescope

The infrastructure of La Silla is also used by many of the ESO member states for targeted projects such as the Swiss 1.2-metre Leonhard Euler Telescope, the Rapid Eye Mount telescope (REM) and the TAROT Telescope gamma-ray burst chaser, as well as more common user facilities such as the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre and the Danish 1.54-metre telescopes. The 67-million pixel Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre Telescope has taken many amazing images of celestial objects, some of which have now become icons in their own right.

Carlos Corco knew all of the history, facts and figures in two languages
Carlos Corco knew all of the history, facts and figures

We toured with Carlos Corco, an excellent guide (speaking both English and Spanish), who is a graduate student in Astronomy and Physics at the university in La Serena. Three other students, who corralled the 50 school children with great skill, assisted him. For three hours we saw most of the facilities on the mountaintop, including the dormitories (scientists stay from Monday to Friday), the research offices (full of computers , but empty of personnel on Saturday) and the two main telescopes, the NTT and the ESO 3.6 meter.

The ESO telescope with a 3.6 meter lens constructed in 1970
The ESO telescope with a 3.6 meter lens constructed in 1970

Not only did we tour the outside of the facility , but we entered the freezing inner sanctum of the ESO 3.6 meter telescope and then climbed to the narrow observation walkway clinging to the side of the dome.

Silvia endures the wind to enjoy the view of the Atacama Desert north of La Silla
Silvia endures the wind to enjoy the view of the Atacama Desert north of La Silla

Just as we were getting ready to leave the manager of the facility arrived to give us the extra treat of a 360-degree ride on the NTT telescope.

Dormitory for scientists who stay 24 hours a day/5 days a week
Dormitory for scientists who stay 24 hours a day/5 days a week

With about 300 publications in scientific journals attributable to the work of the observatory per year, La Silla remains at the forefront of astronomy. It now takes about a year in the waiting line for a scientist to get their project on the night’s list for time on the appropriate telescope.

Lightening up about lightning strikes at La Silla - scientist humor
Lightening up about lightning strikes at La Silla – scientist humor

La Silla has led to an enormous number of scientific discoveries, including several “firsts”. The HARPS spectrograph is the undisputed champion at finding low-mass extra-solar planets. It detected the system around Gliese 581, which contains what may be the first known rocky planet in a habitable zone, outside the Solar System. Several telescopes at La Silla played a crucial role in linking gamma-ray bursts – the most energetic explosions in the Universe since the Big Bang – with the explosions of massive stars.

Swedish telescope - my favorite, but decommissioned
Swedish telescope – my favorite, but decommissioned

Since 1987, the ESO La Silla Observatory has also played an important role in the study and follow-up of the nearest recent supernova, SN 1987A. On February 2, 2011, astronomers using the Wide Field Imager on the 2.2m telescope discovered an unusual pure disk galaxy christened NGC 3621.

Time lapse photo from the top of the larges telescope on a moonlit night
Time lapse photo from the top of the larges telescope on a moonlit night

Although the tour is in the daytime when nary a star is seen, the experience of being high above the Atacama desert with panoramic views in all directions make this an out of the world experience.

Alma, just open for business, looking for the beginnings of the universe
Alma, just open for business, looking for the beginnings of the universe

Next time I am in the Atacama Desert I want to go to visit Alma, which had its official opening two weeks ago. Alma is located at 16,000 feet in altitude hundreds of miles north of La Silla. Read about Alma here. This time I will fly in for the visit.

 

Italian Food Rules: The BookItalian Life Rules (the book) is coming in Summer 2014. Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:

Amazon. com (U.S.) eBook for Kindle & Kindle Apps

Amazon. com (U.S.) paperback

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

Amazon.it (Italy)

Amazon.de (Germany)

Amazon.fr (France)

Barnes & Noble (U.S.) eBook for Nook

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – A Winter Earthquake in Chile

Tuscan Traveler escaped the extreme weather of Florence in November by going south of the equator to Santiago, Chile, to visit warm friends and hot weather. There we were urged by on by our good friend, Gerardo, to visit an only-in-Santiago, have-to-try-it-once, eatery for the soon-to-be-famous Terremoto Cocktail. With the proviso that this place was too dangerous to visit at night, we ventured forth.

Gerardo and his Terremoto Cocktail at La Piojera
Gerardo and his Terremoto Cocktail at La Piojera

Supposedly the Terremoto Cocktail only dates back to March 1985, when some German reporters came to Santiago to cover the damage caused by the recent earthquake. Due to the heat (probably in the mid-70s) they went to a tavern called El Hoyo (The Hole), which dates back to 1912, for something to drink. They made the mistake of not asking for a frosty schop (tap beer), but were served the classic pipeño, a sweet semi-transparent white wine. Perhaps it wasn’t cold enough, so their waiter Guillermo Valenzuela (who may or may not have taken a distinct dislike to the foreigners) added pineapple ice cream and spiked it with a bit of pisco, the firewater of Chile and Peru (think grappa, ouzo, etc.). When they tried the concoction, they reportedly exclaimed, “Esto sí que es un Terremoto” (“This truly is an earthquake.”)

Terremoto Cocktail
Terremoto Cocktail

Thus, was born the now legendary Earthquake Cocktail. For those of you who just can’t wait for your own: Pour two gallons of chilled pipeño into a jar. Add a cup of of pisco. Add five tablespoons of ice cream, three of sugar and stir gently. If you want a garnish, top off each glass with a delicate scoop of ice cream. (If you don’t have pipeño or pisco, try a White Zinfandel or an inexpensive Reisling and a cheap tequila.)

I tasted (but did not drink more than a educating sip) a Terremoto at La Piojera, a similar, but newer version of El Hoyo.

Former Chilean President Arturo Alessandri first coined the name “La Piojera” in 1922, when he was invited to visit this bar by the owner. When he walked into the place, full of working-class men, he exclaimed, “What is this place, a flea house?” Thus the name “La Piojera” (where fleas live) was born.

La Piojera, created by Don Carlos Benedetti Pini in 1916, still belongs to the same family, after being saved from developers by protests from its loyal clientele (including presidents and poets). The significance of this locale can be seen on its graffiti-covered walls, which leaves you in awe of the cultural ambience, rather than aesthetics at this cramped, loud drinking establishment.

La Piojera - maybe better in the daylight
La Piojera - maybe better in the daylight

At La Piojera they add the Italian liquor, Fernet Branca, to their Terremoto – the secret ingredient that cuts the sweetness and darkens the pipeño. (Take note: Terremotos go straight to your head. While they go down smooth (once you get past the shock of the sweet, sweet, sweet taste), they carry the name “terremoto” for a reason.) If you still feel up for more drinking after a Terremoto, try a Replica (“aftershock”). This second round is filled with all the Terremoto goodness, but at half the alcohol. Or try the Maremoto (“Tsunami”) with mint in place of the Frenet Branca, but still with a topping of pineapple ice cream.

But what to eat with such a specialty drink? Wine pairing with pipeño is difficult. Add the pineapple ice cream and the problem is doubled. It must be something sufficiently fatty, the kind of dish you would not mind eating before you lose all sense of time and space from all the sweet alcohol. The best advice: a pork leg – not a shank, a leg. Boiled. With boiled potatoes and a side of Chilean salad – tomatoes and onions.

Boiled pork leg, boiled potatoes, and Chilean salad - perfect pairing for a Terremoto
Boiled pork leg, boiled potatoes, and Chilean salad - perfect pairing for a Terremoto

It turns out we were in “good” company. Although he did not choose to grace La Piojera, Anthony Bourdain drank his share of Terremoto Cocktails at El Hoyo and paired it with similarly high fat foods. We are not on film, but he is. View here.

I’ve been writing about Italian Food Rules for some time now. See here, here, and here. Experiencing a soon-to-be-famous culinary creation of a relatively young country like Chile, makes me appreciate the rationality behind those rules all the more.