"A narrow, mesmerising valley amid the mountains" Monte Grande by Glospi
Monte Grande Travel Guide: 1 reviews and 4 photos
Located 104 kilometres E of La Serena, Monte Grande (S 30º05'38,2"/W 70º29'40,5" - Alt. 1029) is an essential point in the Elqui valley, as it is the "heart" of it because everybody must pass through the town, whenever somebody goes deep into the valley.
While the main town of Vicuña, 42 km. to the west, is the main hub for communications, transportation and other activities (there are banks, a hospital and two airstrips), Monte Grande is the place where everything happens at some point; is the place where you must chose where to go: left to Cochihuaz, or right (to Pisco Elqui and Alcohuaz); the place to decide if you want to leave or to stay in the valley, and where you get the first taste of the special -by any means- atmosphere of it.
There has been always something special about Monte Grande: Gabriela Mistral, the Vicuña-born Nobel prize poet, lived and spent most of her youth there, working as a rural teacher, and then, after serving as ambassador to the UN and other countries, was buried in the hillside, in front of the church and next to the school where she taught.
Monte Grande, and the Elqui valley itself, is the ground for the bizarre adventures and teachings of Domingo Zárate, aka El Cristo de Elqui ("The Christ of Elqui"), and if that was not enough, it is where every sect, esoteric or naturist cult, or whatever ranging from wild poets to UFO cults meet at some point.
Many artists -or so- have moved to the area, but despite the proximity of other small and charming towns, such as Paihuano (12 km. N of Monte Grande), they have preferred Monte Grande and beyond.
Nowadays, not only artists and esoteric people have colonised the area, but also many New Age (and the like) businesses, offering therapies, magic, and supernatural things of every kind.
This might have something to do with the word spread by some local esoteric cults, saying that the Earth's magnetic centre moved from the Himalayas to the Andes, and specifically to this very valley... (don't look at me, don't even ask me: I was not the one who said that: they were), so not only esoteric cults came to the valley, but also UFO cults and even some Tibetan Lamas are usually seen having a cold beer in the only restaurant in town.
As a result, the while valley is purported as the new magnetic centre of the Earth.
This looks picturesque at the beginning, but sometimes it feels like "too much", and if in summer you add to this the flood of holidaymakers, ravers and hordes of one-day visitors, any peace is lost.
Anyways, I like to go there in low season, when most of the people you see is the local people (peasants, goat herds, shepherds), and when most of the campings and touristic attractions are closed and crowds are far away, either because it is colder, or simply because it is too silent and peaceful for them to be of any interest.
The town itself is tiny and narrow, extending for about 4 kilometres from its lowest, northernmost point, to the river junction and the road to Pisco Elqui.
Its most noticeable feature is the church's chime tower, which is visible from the road down from Pisco Elqui, and when you arrive from the north.
Next to the church, is the site museum at the former Gabriela Mistral's house, the bus stop, the main grocery store, the school and a pisco (firewater) factory with a donkey in exhibition (the donkey was the star of a TV commercial some years ago).
Some 1200 metres to the SE, after the detour from the main road leading to Pisco Elqui (paved), is the junction of the Derecho ('Right') and Cochihuaz rivers, where a bridge marks the beginning of the 19-kilometre unpaved road to Cochihuaz and El Colorado, the main area for cults of every flavor, UFO spotters and the like.
No public transportation goes to Cochihuaz.
If not going to Cochihuaz, you can take the road south to Pisco Elqui, a tiny and peaceful town 4 km. from Monte Grande, with a few cozy hotels and hosterías, a couple of good restaurants and a church that has a fountain decorated with figures of children.
Pisco Elqui is a good place to buy pisco (Chilean firewater) and other locally produced spirits (see "Shopping" section).
Other than the abovementioned, seasonal hassles, the Valley (this means el Valle, as locals refer to for short) is peaceful and has many things to go and do, regardles of its apparent narrowness and lack of alternate places to go: the Valley itself seems to be many plaves in one, depending on what your interests are: camping, partying, esoteric things, mountaineering and rock climbing, hiking, or just daytrips.
Some people -both local, and outsiders like me, but who are frequent visitors- feel that there was a time when the Valley saturated itself with too many of everything: too many cults, too many weirdos, too many drunks, too many good vibes that turned into bad ones, etc.
And it was like that, at some point, for the past -say- 15 years, but it slowly turned back to what it should have always been.
Some 5 years ago, things began to slow down: rural tourism came, cults went out of style (although the true, or really serious ones, remained), weirdos disappeared in the air, and there was a significant disminution on people-who-sees-UFO's-and-talks-with-aliens, so most terrenal (so to speak) problemas caused by that, also disappeared.
But luxury spas and esoteric, New Age business took their place, building nice, sometimes strangely shaped houses and huts to run their businesses, and although these are much more physically intrusive than those old mud and wicker huts of the cults, their customers and managers have a lesser imprint on the local life and customs of the whole valley; they mind their business, and leave alone all the rest.
I am not sure of what is better, although the current status seems to be much more manageable under common sense (explaining this in depth would take more space than that allowed by VT, so sorry: ask locally about comunidades, its climax and decline, and you would get the complete figure from somebody there... or email me and I'll tell you).
Today, one can get to the deepest, remotests, highest and most deserted parts of the valley with little or no hassle from local landowners, unlike 20 years ago, when this was frowned by the same people, as there were some incidents with a couple of cults who -according to them- tried to ilegally take over areas of the upper Cochihuaz canyon.
Now, for most of them, an outsider with a backpack is just a hiker; 20 years ago, the same person was a threat to their property, and police was called in.
But, setting aside all that, one thing you will never forget, is the sunset light on the mountain cliffs that are everywhere in the valley: the lights is so warm and bright, so pure and clean, that just looking at its color brings peace to the mind.
The picture: Sunset over the peaks deep in the valley (November 2005)
Nikon D100, Zoom-Nikkor 80-200 2,8D, ISO 400, 1/40 sec., f, 7,1, POL filter, 3008x2000 pix, resolution
- Pros:An unique place where you decide which way to go
- Cons:Crowded in high season, overly noisy in summer
- In a nutshell:When visited in the right time, is the first contact with Elqui's peacefulness
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