If you walk down Avenida De Aguirre some 2km to the coast from the city of La Serena (central Chile), and head north along the beach for another 25 minutes, you’ll be in for a real bird-life surprise. At the mouth of the River Elqui and on the surrounding beach you’ll find flocks of birds of numerous different types, to the extent that it’s an almost eery place to be – alone amongst so many birds.
On the occassions we went it was just us, the odd lone fisherman a little upriver, a rather windswept lone nudist, too much polluting rubbish, and a hell of a lot of birds. Initially timid, they soon ignored us (the birds that is) and regrouped all around, waiting we presume for the sea tide to bring them some fish for lunch. It was fascinating to sit quietly and just watch their movements & behaviours (note – we know sod all about birds!).
La Serena was the second city founded in what is now Chile by the Spanish imperialists, in 1544 (basic history on wikipedia), not long after they’d invaded south America. It sits some 2+km inland from the coast, for the simple reason that back then the wetlands (or delta) of the River Elqui was vast, running some 8km north to south, and over 2km inland. These days if you walk down to the coast and turn south, walking towards the sister city of Coquimbo, you are faced with some 7-9km of unsightly beachfront developments – for La Serena is one of Chile’s main seaside resorts in the high summer season (December to February), when it’s population almost doubles from its permanent one of about 200,000. What remains of the wetlands north of Ave De Aguirre are being increasingly encroached upon by further holiday-style housing developments, and at the same time the water of the river is being slowly drained by increasing agricultural & mining use inland.
The River Elqui is formed some 100km inland in the lower western Andes (see map), by a number of tributaries from higher up the Andes, and by the runoff from snowcapped peaks. Together these form what is known as the Elqui Valley, a stunningly beautiful valley that has perhaps 3 distinct climatic zones as you head east inland uphill towards the Andes. Some 6km wide as you leave La Serena going inland, the valley eventually shrinks to less than 100m.
It’s distinct zones provide the basis for 3 types of agriculture – starting with common veg such as potato, onion, tomato, lettuce, beets, carrots; then papaya and citrus fruits; and lastly as you climb into the Andes it is a major grape vine area growing grapes for both wine and ‘Pisco’, which are amazingly sweet. To facilitate this agriculture a huge damn was built around 18 years ago – the Puclaro Dam is some 40km inland from La Serena and is specifically for supporting agriculture we were told. However, worryingly, the Coquimbo region is also home to over 2300 mineral mines, mainly small, but eating up water & potentially polluting too. Strangely, you never see them from the main road…let’s up hope Chile’s voracious demand for raw materials to support economic growth doesn’t turn into a greater environmental disaster!