30 Apr 2012
For visitors seeking an off-the-beaten-track destination, small and scenic Ovalle flies under the radar as one of northern Chile's richest jumping-off points for archaeology aficionados, fresh produce fans and lovers of the natural world.
One of Chile's first UNESCO World Biosphere Reserves, Fray Jorge National Park (9,959 ha, 90 km southwest of Ovalle) holds the distinction of providing sanctuary to 226 species of the country's endemic flora, plants found nowhere else on earth. The park protects northern Chile's only remnant of dwarf coastal cloud shrubland habitat, an island of temperate forest bypassed by the last glacial advance.
Other unique offerings include the Limarí River, whose headwaters spring forth from the park, and evergreen tree species from the south of Chile over 1,000 km away. The park's border with the Pacific Ocean results in a perpetual coastal mist that maintains sufficient moisture for temperate forest growth in this otherwise arid region, so come prepared with rain gear.
Hikes and sights in the park include an informative interpretive trail, the headwaters of the Limarí River and the rolling coastal hills along the Pacific.
Ovalle's local fare
Thanks to the Mediterranean climate of the Coquimbo region, Ovalle boasts some of Chile's most out-of-this-world goat cheese, olives, grapes and raisins. These local foods and countless others can be scouted out in Ovalle's enormous, spotless farmer's market, which one enthusiastic visitor christened, "the best farmer's market I've been to in Chile."
Regardless of the time of day, you might also find yourself tempted to sip some pisco samples, Chile's national alcohol, at one of the region's famed distilleries. And all of this good food and drink may incline you toward a stop in Ovalle's lovely central plaza for a short siesta in preparation for an afternoon of archaeological exploration. Before leaving town, a visit to Ovalle's excellent archaeological museum showcasing artifacts from the Molle and Diaguitas cultures will help familiarize you with the region's indigenous civilizations.
Monumento Nacional Valle del Encanto – Enchanted Valley National Monument
20 km west of Ovalle, history and culture converge at the Enchanted Valley National Monument where petroglyphs and pictographs dating back to 700 A.D. adorn boulders and rock walls at a large outdoor archaeological site. Archaeology enthusiasts will have no trouble spending a whole afternoon marveling at the variety of figures carved into the stone or imprinted using natural paints.
While rock paintings and carvings may be the major attraction here, almost equally intriguing are the mysterious groupings of holes carved into rocks on the site. The function of these holes is unknown, but it has been postulated that they were aligned with night sky constellations, used to mix the ceremonial hallucinogenic peyote or utilized as mortars to grind the natural paints applied to nearby rock faces.
Perhaps most mystical about this enchanted valley is the sensation of being in the middle of nowhere, afloat on an ancient atoll amidst a sea of vineyards.
Limarí Province, home to Ovalle and the above attractions, is most conveniently accessed by car. The town of Ovalle is serviced by buses from Santiago, and rental cars are available in Ovalle. Public transportation from Ovalle to Fray Jorge National Park and Monumento Nacional Valle del Encanto is not available. If you're planning to rent a car and drive from Santiago, take Route 5 north and follow signs for the exit to Ovalle.
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