Vicuña, Chile: Appreciating the Charms of this Historical Little City in the Valle de Elqui

Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Calle Gabriela Mistral, Vicuña, Chile

If there is one thing you can say about Americans, it is that we believe we have a sense of control over our lives if we plan for our futures. When we accept a job, we make sure to ask as many questions as possible so that we know what we are getting ourselves into. When things don’t go as we expected, we often react with indignation, frustration, or even anger.

Having spent 20% of my adult life living and/or traveling in South America, I sometimes believe I’ve learned to let go of expectations and that I’ve gotten better at recognizing that I don’t actually have any control over how things turned out. And then I realize that quite a few expectations have crept in, and I learn to readjust them yet again. It is a constant practice as I continue to grow and explore my own spiritual path.

I still recall a conversation I had with a dear friend from Buenos Aires back in 2007, when I was visiting my former home during my travels as I did research for my Master’s thesis. It was late evening and we were chatting over helado at one of the many heladerías around the city. I was probably talking about my concerns about my future, as I was halfway through my Master’s degree and had no idea what I was doing my life. She said to me, “That’s the thing about Americans. You believe that you can plan for the future and always have a five-year plan and a bank account for retirement. Here in Argentina, we can’t count on the future. In the blink of an eye our currency lost its value, so we always have to readjust our expectations for the future.”

While I am paraphrasing her words, the sentiment has stuck with me, eight years later. Why do I bring this up? Because my initial arrival to Vicuña was full of letting go of my expectations. When I signed the contract for my job, I thought I would live in Paihuano and researched the town as much as I could to see if I could live there. I don’t even remember reading anything about Vicuña!

While I was in Lima for a couple of weeks before starting work in Chile, I learned that the Chilean program coordinator had actually found me a home in Diaguitas, a small (very small!) town in the comuna (similar to a county) of Vicuña. Just like that, I was forced to readjust two of my biggest expectations. Naturally, my American side started to freak out, so I sought advice from an Italian-Peruvian friend living in Lima. Wise as all my friends are, she said, “If you wanted things to be stable and predictable like in the US or Europe, you wouldn’t have chosen to live in South America.” Touché!

Diaguitas, Valle de Elqui, Chile
The Valle de Elqui Looking More Mystical on a Cloudy Day

So after a week of preparations while reacquainting myself with Santiago and catching up with friends there, I boarded a night bus, destination Vicuña. The buses to Vicuña stop first in Coquimbo, then La Serena, so even thought it was early in the morning I was wide awake as we enteres the Vallw de Elqui. I remember gazing out of the window over a cloudy, foggy valley, trying to feel the mystical energy so many of my Chilean friends talked about. And then, after an hour around the twists and turns of the now-familiar highway, I arrived to the Vicuña bus station, gathered my three backpacks, and hopped in a Diaguitas-bound colectivo (shared taxi) to my new home.

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on


Gabriela Mistral’s Stone Head, Plaza de Armas, Vicuña, Chile

A few days later, my host family took me to Vicuña so I could get a sense of the city and check out the fería (farmer’s market) and buy some much needed food supplies. It was the middle of summer, so the skies were a brilliant blue and the plaza was lined with stands with artisanal crafts, food items, plants, and other interesting wares. We stopped at the giant cement head in the plaza, honoring Gabriela Mistral, the Valle de Elqui’s patron saint, who was born in Vicuña.

Plaza de Vicuña, Chile
Plaza de Armas, Vicuña, Chile (pre-construction)

(Mentioning the plaza is a little awkward as of the writing of this post, because the plaza has been under construction since the heavy rains in March, and won’t be finished until 2016. Instead of a pleasant central plaza, there is a boarded up perimeter, which is partially covered in beautiful bright murals. The artisan fair has relocated to an empty lot next to the bank.)

Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Plaza de Armas, Vicuña, Chile (under construction)

Despite the fact that there isn’t too much to see or do in Vicuña, I actually like the calm city. It has a number of little charms, and I am happy to repeat my same routines on each visit. Moreover, I can buy just about everything I need there, with the occasional trip to La Serena for some less-accessible supplies, clothes, or high speed internet. Vicuña has a neighborhood-y feel, and I always run into someone I know. It is a nice central hub for people living in the Valle de Elqui and is well worth exploring on a sunny day.

Museo Gabriela Mistral

Museo Gabriela Mistral, Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Museo Gabriela Mistral, Vicuña, Chile

Gabriela Mistral was born in Vicuña and raised in nearby Montegrande, and she is celebrated almost everywhere in the Valle with schools, businesses, streets, you name it named after her. After feeling a bit overloaded by the constant celebrations in her honor in April, the month in which she was born, I realized I needed to get to know her story for myself.

Museo Gabriela Mistral, Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Museo Gabriela Mistral, Vicuña, Chile

The Museo Gabriela Mistral is located down a pleasant commercial street also named Gabriela Mistral, which is lined with small businesses and hostales, which are busy in summer but appear closed in the off-season.

Museo Gabriela Mistral, Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Museo Gabriela Mistral, Vicuña, Chile

The museum begins with a reconstruction of the house where it is believed Gabriela Mistral was born, complete with period furniture and housewares. After peeking into her house, you can walk around the little plaza containing a Vía Láctea (Milky Way) marking all of the many places Gabriel Mistral lived during her life.

Museo Gabriela Mistral, Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Gabriela Mistral’s Personal Milky Way at the Vicuña Museum

After crossing Mistral’s personal galaxy, you arrive in a modern museum containing lots of displays with objects, quotations, photos, and other artifacts from her life. You can retrace her childhood upbringing in Montegrande, see furniture she used in one of her diplomatic offices, find out about her love of education, and learn about her travels.

Museo Gabriela Mistral, Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Museo Gabriela Mistral, Vicuña, Chile

I was actually profoundly moved by the exhibits, realizing that there are many ways to live a life. Mistral certainly did not follow a traditional path, and she struggled to pursue her passion for education and receive recognition for her writing in her native country. But she is much loved and remembered for all of these things today.

Museo Gabriela Mistral, Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Library at the Museo Gabriela Mistral, Vicuña, Chile

After exploring Gabriela Mistral’s life story, you can head into another building where temporary exhibits show local artists’ textiles or photography. On site, there is also an interesting library dedicated to children’s literacy, which is a cause that is also dear to my own heart. In addition, there are collections of Mistral’s poetry and local literature, worth perusing.

Museo Gabriela Mistral, Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Lavender in the Garden of the Museo Gabriela Mistral

My favorite part of the museum is the beautiful garden located behind the museum and library. This garden is full of lavender and rosemary plants and honors the fields and orchards Gabriela Mistral grew up with. In the off season, the museum receives few visitors, so the garden is a quiet oasis in noisy Vicuña.

Museo Gabriela Mistral, Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Museo Gabriela Mistral, Vicuña, Chile

Casa Solar de los Madriaga

Museo de la Casa del Solar de los Madriaga, Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Casa Solar de los Madriaga, Vicuña, Chile

On my friend Sara’s recent visit, I finally satiated my own curiosity and took us both to another museum on Calle Gabriela Mistral. The Casa Solar de los Madriaga is one of the traditional houses that you see all around the Valle, but you can actually explore inside. Many years ago, the family converted the front of their house into a museum, preserving the family’s history and lots of period decorations, furniture, and appliances. Your guide is the owner, and he is friendly, funny, and open about his own life story.

Museo de la Casa del Solar de los Madriaga, Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Inside the Casa Solar de los Madriaga, Vicuña, Chile

Most of the house is preserved in its original condition, and a few of the rooms have been converted into a modern hostal, where you can stay in great comfort. There is also a small dance studio that can be rented for events and a lovely garden in the family’s living quarters. Cafe Frida, located next door, rents space from this giant house-turned-museum, so it is possible to appreciate the vintage charms over a Mexican-inspired meal.

Museo de la Casa del Solar de los Madriaga, Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Succulents in the Garden at the Casa Solar de los Madriaga

Torre Bauer and Iglesia Inmaculada Concepción
Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Torre Bauer, Vicuña, Chile

Another place that characterizes Vicuña is the distinctive red Torre Bauer on the corner of the plaza, kitty corner from the attractive old church. This tower was made in Germany and then brought over to Vicuña, where it was constructed on the site of the old Cabildo. Behind the Torre Bauer, you find all the municipal offices, including the post office. The tower hosts a small museum.

Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Iglesia Inmaculada Concepción, Vicuña, Chile

Across the street is Vicuña’s pretty church, the Iglesia Inmaculada Concepción. I haven’t actually been inside as it is usually closed when I pass through town, but like most of the churches in the Valle de Elqui, it is worth stopping by. It is about a century old and retains the regional charm from this era.

Café Oveja Negra

Oveja Negra, Vicuña, Valle de Elqui, Chile
Hanging Out with Sara in Café Oveja Negra, Vicuña, Chile

I have recently started to frequent Café Oveja Negra, located on Calle Gabriela Mistral, right on the plaza. With comfortable benches in the window and outside seating, it is a great place to spend an afternoon people watching. The café is small but cozy, with lots of sheep decorating its walls. It is a pleasant place for a pot of tea, fresh juice, freshly prepared sandwiches, and tarts (known as kuchen here in Chile), and has a long list of coffee options. And they have free wifi, which makes it a nice option for writing emails.

Empanadas Paladar Arte-sano

Paladar Arte-Sano, Vicuna, Chile
Empanada at Paladar Arte-Sano, Vicuña, Chile

The best place to get empanadas in the Valle de Elqui is Paladar Arte-sano, located on Calle Chacabuco, almost directly across the street from Supermercado Rivera. When I took over this job, I saw several references to volunteers loving these empanadas, and nothing has changed with this year’s cohort. The owners are a friendly, kind couple who share the workload of making empanadas and baking simple, healthy pastries. They have a full list of vegetarian empanadas along with the standard Chilean options like pino, all using quality ingredients, mozzeralla cheese, and avoiding lard. If you are lucky, you will stop in when they have recently baked gingerbread cookies styled after Gengi, the character from Shrek, which kids and adults alike get excited about.

Helado

As with most tourist towns in Chile, Vicuña has (at least) three artisanal ice cream shops, where you can get a number of fruit flavors as well as local favorites like canela (cinnamon) and tres leches (three types of milk). All of the ice cream shops are located on Calle Gabriela Mistral, heading toward the museum.

Permanent Artisan Market

Another place worth checking out is the artisan market located on the plaza, down a small passageway. Because of its bohemian vibe, the Valle de Elqui attracts a number of artisans, and you can buy a number of well-made and affordable goods in this permanent artisan market. I am particularly impressed by the jewelry made from copper and other metals common in Chile.

Temporary Artisan Market

During the summer, there is another artisan market around the plaza, but since the plaza is under construction it has been relocated to an empty lot next to the BancoEstado on the other side of the plaza. Formerly open during holiday weekends or school vacations, it is currently open daiky and may no longer be so temporary. Here you can get local fruit and nuts like papaya and pecan, honey, more ice cream, natural beauty products, and other interesting things, like jewelry, textiles, and handcrafted souvenirs.

Casa de la Cultura

One of my other favorite places to spend time in Vicuña is the Casa de la Cultura, located on the same block as the Unimarc, BancoEstado, and temporary artisan market. Tucked inside the Casa de la Cultura is the public library, which offers free wifi (if you are a foreigner, you can ask the computer room attendant for a code that gives you 1.5 hours of wifi). They also have a pretty sizable collection of English language books.

The Casa de la Cultura has a pretty courtyard with tables where you can sit in the sun, but the most interesting aspect is the small gallery containing exhibits of local artists, many inspired by the Diaguitas culture, regionally popular weaving, or mandalas and other spiritual symbols popular in the Valle.

Govinda

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on


Lunch at Govinda, Vicuña, Chile

In a place known for its spiritual energy, it is no surprise to find the Hare Krishnas in Vicuña. While they have an EcoTruly in Diaguitas, they also have a restaurant located on the main plaza serving fixed price lunches. For a vegetarian like me, this is one of the few places I can get a full meal instead of a salad or empanada.

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on


Lotus Window at Govinda, Vicuña, Chile

As you can see, Vicuña is a compact city which still boasts some quality food, art, and museums. I am sure there are a number of hidden corners I will still discover in the time I have left in the Valle. Since coming back from my vacation, I realized how much I like pleasant Vicuña and I will definitely miss its charms when I leave at the end of 2015.

Recommendations for Vicuña, Chile:

  • If you are coming to the Valle de Elqui from Santiago, you can take a direct bus to Vicuña on Expreso Norte, but these buses are only semi-cama. The bus leaves Santiago twice daily, once in the morning and once at night, and leaves Vicuña twice daily at 11AM and 9:45PM.
  • Alternatively, you can take any bus to La Serena and transfer to the Via Elqui bus in the La Serena bus terminal (or the Coquimbo bus terminal), or take the Sol de Elqui bus from its stop across from Líder, anywhere along Calle Brasil, or from the Unimarc parking lot next to La Recova.
  • Since I live here, I haven’t stayed in any of the hostels, but after seeing the cute rooms in the Casa Solar de los Madriaga, I would suggest staying there.
  • As of writing, the Museo Gabriela Mistral is free to visit and absolutely a must-stop for anyone interesting in the history of the Valle or Chile’s Nobel-prize winning poet.
  • If you are curious about the traditional houses of the Valle de Elqui, you can get an intriguing peek inside at the Museo Casa Solar de los Madriaga, which costs $900 for a guided tour. I really enjoyed my visit.
  • The best empanadas in the Valle are at Empanadas Paladar Arte-sano, located at Chacabuco 448, a block from the plaza, across from Supermercado Rivera and not far from the bus terminal.
  • Don’t forget to check out the artisan markets and shops around the plaza and peek into the Casa de la Cultura to see its temporary exhibits or enjoy the sunny courtyard.
  • On Saturdays, Vicuña has a fería, or farmer’s market, where you can get local produce and food items at low prices. The fería is located in the market area next to the Shell station and is especially fun in summer when there are lots of things in season.
  • If you want to visit the Mamalluca astronomical observatory, the ticket office is located the municipal complex off the San Martín side of the plaza, behind the Torre Bauer. It is much more affordable to book your tour and transfer from the municipal office if you stay in Vicuña, rather than booking with a tour agency in Pisco Elqui.

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