Archive for June, 2019


Thursday, June 27th, 2019

Peruvian Pelican

So Tuesday was supposed to be a fairly easy travel day – drive from Vicuña to La Serena, fly to Santiago, change planes to fly to Antofagasta, pick up our rental car that we have reserved, and drive to the vacation rental apartment.  We got to Santiago, got off the plane, went down the corridor, and followed the sign that said “Conexiones / Connecting Flights”.  And found ourselves outside of the secure area and in the place where you’d be if you just come into the country.   We had less than an hour to get to our connecting flight, and we were facing immigration, customs, who knows what. 

So we talked to the officer at the immigration line, who took us to the Latam counter, where we got moved to a later flight.  And then an old guy with a fancy ID hanging from a lanyard came and led us and about a dozen other confused ducklings through the airport to a secure door, entered a code in a keypad, and then pointed us to our new gate.  Whew!

So we got to Antofagasta, and amazingly our luggage had been transferred with us, so we were feeling good.  Out we go to the rental car counters.  Hamner, what rental company is it?  National.  Hmmm…. Europcar, Budget, Avis, etc. etc. … No National.  Hamner digs out his email from the rental company, which gives us instructions on how to get to them from the airport.  Sigh. One of the horde of taxi guys who had been orbiting us came up, we told him where we wanted to go, and after a lot of consultation with his buddies, we loaded our gear in his totally unmarked “taxi” and off we go.  For a really long way.  The National rental agency is in Antofagasta downtown, basically, miles from the airport.  We pull up to a very seedy looking place at the address given.

Sketchy car rental place  UntitledSketchy car rental place.

It says “Alamo” in grungy letters on the façade, and there’s a locked grill at street level behind which there are some cars.  Our taxi guy yells at the window, pounds on the grill, no dice.  Finally Hamner finds the phone number, and we get taxi guy to call them; the Alamo person says he’ll be there in 20-30 minutes. Peggy by this point was convinced it was an elaborate scam.  Sure the email has a nice logo, anyone can do that; they’ve taken Hamner’s credit card info and directed us to a place where there used to be an Alamo car rental years ago, but it still shows up on Google Maps.

At the sketchy car rental place

Hamner and Peggy put a brave face on it, though Peggy knows it’s all a scam.

I was starting to wonder, but after about 15 minutes a guy wearing and Alamo shirt (Alamo and National did merge, right?) shows up and lets us in.  But then we have to wait for his boss to come do the contract.  Hey, we were supposed to be there at 4, it’s now 6.  Of course, Google Earth says the place is open till 8, but whatever.  Finally his boss shows up and she’s very nice and apologetic that we had to wait.  And poor quasi-taxi guy has waited patiently the whole time to make sure we’re okay.  We paid him with a sizeable tip, as he’d been super helpful when we were pretty lost.  And then we drove to the apartment.

At least Maria, who’s renting us the apartment, is prompt and very nice, and we get our stuff upstairs and get ourselves situated.  I don’t even want to talk about what it took to get the rented SUV parked in the underground parking garage; suffice it to say that we plan to walk places for the few days we’re here.  And in fact, we walked a couple of blocks that evening to the nearby Lider supermercado to get food for dinner.  We’re about two blocks from the ocean, and the Lider is right on the waterfront.  Based on the logo, it’s owned by Walmart, but it’s about four times the size of the Walmart in Cape.  In any case, we managed to buy bread, cheese, ham, olives, and plenty of wine.  We had a lovely meal and then slept like the dead.

The next morning I got up about dawn and took my binoculars and scope out on the balcony.  From the 11th floor you can see the ocean, a couple of jetties, a wharf with a lighthouse, and some of Playa Paraiso.   View from balcony at Montevideo 143

And as it turns out, you can also see Peruvian Pelicans, Neotropic Cormorants, Kelp Gulls, Gray Gulls, and one Whimbrel with a pretty bad limp.

We spent much of the morning eating, washing clothes, and looking at birds at a distance from our apartment, and then a little before noon we walked down to the beach. The beach is called Playa Paraiso, which seems like overselling it a bit, but it’s nice enough.  We walked on down a way to where we could see the wharf with the lighthouse on it, and saw Guanay Cormorants and Red-legged Cormorants.  There was a fish market, and we ate empanadas outdoors at a little café next to it while sea lions, cormorants, and pelicans played around in the harbor next to us.

We went back to the apartment and dropped off our binoculars and such, and then Hamner and I went on an expedition to get dinner supplies.  Lider/Walmart didn’t have any fresh fish, so we went to the fish market, where we were accosted by every booth owner in the place.  There were lots of different entire fish, but that seemed ambitious given the supplies in our kitchen.  But every one of the booths seemed to have a bunch of the same kind of very nice fresh-looking filets, so we bought some of them.  I asked the girl who sold them what kind of fish they were, and it sounded like “Jueneta” to me; this was wrong, but Robin later figured out it was reineta.   In any case, we baked the filets with a little olive oil, salt, and oregano, and we made a fresh mango/pepper/onion/garlic salsa, and served it all with rice.   Nobody complained.

Dinner at Antofagasta

Stars, Pisco, and a Rare Bird

Wednesday, June 26th, 2019

View from the Mirador Cerro de la Virgen  View of Vicuña from the Cerro de la Virgen. 

I skipped Saturday night earlier, so I’ll start with that.   We signed up for an astronomy tour, since after all we’re at the Centro Astronómico Alfa Aldea, and it was very good.   Maybe 25 people showed up, including some kids, but we were the only Norteamericanos.   We started in the larger white geodesic dome/tent, where we saw a short film about the origin of the earth, and they told us about the radio telescope they’ve built at the Centro.  Then we adjourned to a little open-air amphitheater where we got to look at several objects in the southern skies with a 16 inch Dobsonian telescope.  The tour leader was a young guy who retold everything in English for our benefit, and was an excellent presenter.  Turns out he is completely self-taught, and a better teacher than many I’ve worked with. Peggy, of course, was excited, but we all enjoyed it.  We got to see Eta Carinae, the largest known star, and had nice views of Jupiter and Saturn.  I think really the best thing for me was something Peggy pointed out to us; with the naked eye we could see the Magellanic Clouds, nearest sister galaxies to our own.

Sunday we went to Puclaro, which I’ve already talked about.

Monday I got up at first light and bundled up for a walk.  It wasn’t that cold, admittedly; only 40s or 50s for lows, but it had become overcast overnight, which made it chillier, and in any case the sudden jump from summer to winter has caught me off guard.   Binoculars and camera on as always, I wandered around a bit in the vineyards.  The other day I’d seen a bird I couldn’t identify in one thorn bush, so I had a look at the bush again.  A Chilean Mockingbird was perched in the top – one of a half-dozen or so on the property.  But down in the middle, a smaller mockingbird-shaped critter was flitting about.  I could see the long tail, and when he moved around, it flared to show bold white sides with a dark center.  He had a big white wing bar with a black edge below.  When I dug into the book, I was sure I was looking at a White-banded Mockingbird, which I’d suspected the first time I saw it.  This time he stuck around long enough for a couple of decent low-light photos that were good enough to put in ebird, since the species is listed as rare.   It’s daunting to claim to see a rare bird in an unfamiliar country, but I’m pretty confident on that one.  

White-banded Mockingbird
White-Banded Mockingbird

The weather forecast predicted rain in the late afternoon or evening, and we’d figured it would be a good day for some indoor touristing.  We couldn’t go see the Mamalluca observatory because their tour was full, so we decided to go to a Pisco distillery.  Pisco is a brandy made from Muscatel grapes grown in the high Andean country of Peru and Chile, and the Elqui river valley is known for it.  We started driving out of town while still trying to find an appropriate distillery in Google Earth.  I finally hit on one called Fundo Los Nichos, and Peggy had seen something mentioning it in a list of smaller distilleries, so we figured we’d go.  It was only 15 miles away.

Elqui valley near Los Nichos pisquera

Fifteen miles, of which half was super winding narrow mountain roads, it turns out.  Nevertheless, we found the place, and were about 15 minutes early for the next tour.  We were the whole tour group, as it turns out.  The guide didn’t speak English, so Robin translated.  Or, as it turned out, Robin translated, then Peggy and I negotiated with her to come up with English words for the various sorts of equipment used in the process.  

Fermentation tanks at Los Nichos

We really hit the jackpot with our more or less random choice of pisqueras, as Los Nichos is the oldest one in Chile, founded in the 1860s.  It’s an artisanal operation with only two stills, heated with steam from a wood-fired boiler.  It uses local wood for the heating and composts the spent skins, seeds, and stems for fertilizer in the vineyards.

Still at Fundo los Nichos

The founder, Rigoberto Rodriquez Rodriquez (RRR), had a weird macabre sense of humor. The Pisquera is named for the niches in the wall where RRR put bottles of wine to commemorate his friends; each niche has an epitaph over it for the friend, in advance of his demise.  I think these got written while they were all getting drunk in the wine cellars.  The bottles are still there, over 100 years old and undoubtedly turned to vinegar and sediment.

Niches at Fundo Los Nichos

Here’s a sample epitaph:


Translated, it says “Here lies Don Manuel Vinto, a most obsequious dentist. He practiced his profession solely in bars.”

The tour, of course, ended with a tasting session.  We tried two styles; the 10-month aged Los Nichos, and the 3-year aged Espiritu del Elqui.  The first is marvelously smooth, with all kinds of fruit notes – I said banana and peach, at least.  The second is much drier, with a hint of black pepper in the subdued fruit.  Both were really good, though Hamner had to give most of his to Robin, since he really didn’t want to consume too much brandy before the drive back down.

We ended the day at the Guayacan brew-pub in Vicuña, where we had too much pizza and beer.   I recommend their IPA, but I think the big hit was the Chañar, which Hamner, Peggy, and Robin all said was the best coffee stout they’d ever had.  And then when we asked the waitress, it turns out that it had no coffee in it at all, but was made with this fruit? nut? called chaña.   She, by the way, looked amazingly like Professor Barbara Lamont in the music department at Southeast.

Anyway, back we went to the Centro to pack and finish the half-bottle of wine we had left over from the night before.  Tuesday is a travel day.  A bit hectic because we got lost trying to make the connection from our La Serena – Santiago flight to our Santiago – Antofagasta flight.   Wound up outside security and were escorted unsearched by an official to the appropriate gate area, where we took a later flight.  I write this on the plane, and there will be more about Antofagasta next time.




Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

Andean Condor


So today after spending the morning poking around the Centro Astronómico Alfa Aldea, we decided to go to the big reservoir below Vicuña.  A dam across the Elqui river provides irrigation for 20,000 hectares of farmland, and forms a lake — El Embalse Puclaro.   We stopped first along the upper part of the lake, where there are mudflats and other inviting bird habitat, and saw a number of new species, including Red-Gartered Coots [not Grebes, thanks Bill Eddleman, yes, I'm tired], Yellow-billed Pintails, Yellow-billed Teal, and Great Grebes.

Even when they’re not in breeding plumage, Great Grebes are pretty impressive.
Great Grebe

Then we drove along the northern edge of the reservoir to Guailliguaica, a town on the reservoir known for kitesurfing.  After driving around and being sort of lost for a bit, we concluded that you can’t in fact drive all the way around Puclaro, and went back out to highway 41.  Heading west, and missing various turns and being confused a bit more, we finally found the way to the observation area on the dam.


You have to walk in a bit from the parking area, and when you reach the dam, there’s a huge metal sculpture that is an Aeolian Harp, with four piano wires that sing in the wind.  While admiring this and listening to the Big Ears-appropriate music it made, I saw two big black birds soaring over the lake, wings slightly uptilted in a shallow V.  Peggy asked what they were, and I said “Turkey Vultures,” brought up my binoculars, and added “I tell a lie.  Those are condors!”   The two proceeded to circle back and forth right over us for several minutes and about a hundred photos.    With a wingspan of almost 11 feet, they’re the largest flying birds in the world, and they’re really impressive.
Andean CondorThey disappeared over a ridge finally, and didn’t show up again while we were there.  I hadn’t expected them in that location at all, but what a great surprise!  After a long walk across the dam and back, we headed back to Vicuña, where we had a terrific lunch at the same place we ate dinner last night, El Chivato Negro.  You eat in an enclosed patio out back, and the food and beer are all locally sourced and reasonably priced.  Several cats wander around the place — last night I paid the bill with one sitting in my lap — and we saw Green-backed Firecrown hummingbirds in the trees. For dinner tonight we bought bread, cheese, salami, and olives at the grocery store, and we’d already stocked up on wine.  I’m beat.  If you’re keeping score at home, I’ve recorded 32 species on the trip, of which 19 are new to my life list.  But more locations to come!   At El Chivato Negro

Chile trip, day 1 or 2 or something

Saturday, June 22nd, 2019

It’s a little hard to say how far we are into our vacation.  We left Cape on the puddle-jumper to Chicago at noon on Thursday, and then caught a flight to Miami, and then one to Santiago, and then one to La Serena, and then rented a car to drive to Vicuña.   We arrived at our first destination, the Centro Astronómico Alfea Alda, at about 3 PM on Friday.  The trip was more or less uneventful,  though we should have received a flight discount for walking a significant part of the distance to Chile through the airport to get to our connecting flight.

Anyway, we pulled up at the Centro Astronómico, checked into our rooms, and although I was totally exhausted, I couldn’t go to bed.  I had to go out and look at the birds.  The place  is in the Elqui Valley, with desert mountains all around, and has vineyards on most of the property with a few fruit trees and ornamentals.  The place was alive with birds.  The moment I got out of the car, several Chimango Caracaras were shrieking overhead, with others responding from their perches on the vines.

Chimango Caracara

I wandered around the place in a daze for a couple of hours.

Centro Astronomico Alfea Alda

When you’re in a country where you’ve never birded, ever movement in the corner of your eye is a life bird, and it’s hard to focus on one because the others keep popping up.   Peggy joined me — she’s dangerously close to becoming a birder — and we had birds everywhere.   By the time we left for dinner around 5, I had nine new species on my life list (one from lunch in La Serena), and I was pretty sure I’d missed a few others.  The highlight of the day, if I can pick one, was the raucous flock of Burrowing Parakeets (parrots, as far as I’m concerned; they’re 18″ long).   A guy we met on the patio in the Centro was telling us that a flock of these birds destroyed an adobe church nearby by making nest holes in the walls till it collapsed.

Burrowing Parakeet


The next morning I got up and walked around in the winter chill before the sun peeked over the mountains.   Saw a Grassland Yellow-finch, and then as I was looking out the window at breakfast, a Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail.    Hamner, Peggy, Robin and I all wandered around with binoculars looking a birds till noon, then we went to town and bought some souvenirs.     Peggy got a Vicuña eclipse T-shirt that was very nice — have to get a picture later.  And we found a little booth shop where a guy was selling jewelry he makes.  One of the best pieces, which Peggy snapped up, was an intricate thread macramé necklace.  Also possible photo later.

We met a young couple at the Centro yesterday who were from Cambridge (England, that is, not Mass) and who had been working their way up from southern Argentina mainly hitchhiking and camping in a zigzag back and forth between Argentina and Chile.  They left this morning, heading northward for warmer weather.  I was faintly jealous, but sleeping in a bed in a heated room last night reminded me why I don’t do that kind of stuff any more.    We’re resting this afternoon, and then we have an astronomical tour this evening.  Stay tuned!