He asked us where we were from, then followed with a stream of everything he knew that was associated with the USA or England.
“California, New York, Boston, Texas, Florida, Washington, Barack Obama, George Bush, Ronald Reagan…. Manchester, Liverpool, London, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher.”
Only after we’d nodded in approval at every reference did he sell us entrance tickets and give us a map. We’d come to the Monumento Archaeológico Valle del Encanto, a 4,000 year old site best known for evidence left behind by the El Molle culture (200-700AD).
It was an easy 5km walk from the crossroad where the bus dropped us off. The route was flat and straight until near the end when the dry land opened up and plants and rocks jumbled together in its depths. The little admission office stood on the edge of the road as it headed downwards. The man stood outside, looking through a pair of binoculars, seemingly aimed at us. We stopped to photograph a flowering cactus, and he followed our movement until we were right before him.
He explained the three different sectors of the valley where we could see evidence of the people who had lived here hundreds of years ago. Both mundane in their use and profound in their proliferation, are ‘cup marks’ or mortars, hollowed out of thick rocks by ancient hands grinding foodstuff and pigments. Faint traces of red waves and lines can be seen on rock faces, though what the pictographs are supposed to be is difficult to tell. More spectacular are the petroglyphs; carved images of people, masks and headdresses. Some are just a foot tall and barely visible except at the right angle. Stick figures dance alone or in groups like a child’s drawing of a family. Square faces with antennae-like protrusions recall a parallel to other ancient sites that purportedly represent aliens. Other petroglyphs are elaborately etched in deep relief, grinning, or grimacing skull-like, with deep lines and decorated bodies more than six feet high.
We felt like children on a treasure hunt, following the crude map to all the little x’s and looking out for painted arrows directing us to each individual piece of rock art. We scrambled over rocky outcrops and past towering cacti that looked like they were growing toothpicks. Occasionally we’d see a small creature run away; a long-legged mouse with a furry black-tipped tail. Birds chittered and flew from rock to cactus to scrubby bush.
A shallow river runs through the valley – the same water source that led people to settle here 4,000 years ago. Trees growing along it give plenty of shade for picnic tables and BBQ areas, but we were the only ones there until we found a small campsite and a few people cooking lunch. Looking at the sizzling meat, I wondered what the Molle people had eaten here and whether they had ground the same spices these modern day cooks were using to flavour their meal.
The valley got narrower to the west and the river dropped away steeply. We had to climb over big boulders to follow its course, but there was one thing left to see: the Baños del Incas. Two giant rocks had huge depressions in them, two or three meters wide and of the same depth. The sides were smooth and rounded, just like the small holes of the mortars. Despite the name, it’s hard to believe these could have been made by people. Millions of years of water pounding down on these rocks is more likely to have caused the wearing away, but this was the only evidence of a much more powerful river and ancient waterfall that must have been here.
Back up at the admission office we turned for one last look at the Valley of Enchantment. The binoculared man smiled and asked us if we had enjoyed it.
How to get there:
Valle del Encanto is about 19km from Ovalle. A taxi costs 15,000 Chilean pesos return or 10,000 one way.
Any bus from Ovalle heading west will drop you off at the crossroads for 2,000 pesos. However, they will NOT pick you up again from the same spot. You need to hitchhike back to town or walk around 9km to the nearest bus stop.
Tickets cost 500 pesos. There are some old and dusty souvenirs for sale (postcards, T-shirts, replica pottery) ranging from 200-15,000 pesos.
There are outdoor picnic and BBQ areas, but bring your own food and fuel as none is available on site. Remember to use the garbage cans provided or take your litter back with you.
Camping is permitted at the western end of the valley in sector three. Bring your own equipment. Porter-cabin toilets are available.
See more pictures in our photo essay.