The hand-painted sign posted next to a rickety wooden footbridge signaled that we had found the home of Hermano Pacho, the best-known mystic in Chile’s very mystical Elqui Valley. Loosely translated from Spanish, it said: “My mission is to capture with science mankind’s new humanity. I am grateful to serve everyone. Hermano Pacho.”
One by one, my wife, my two little boys and I walked across the narrow bridge toward a decaying A-frame-shaped cabin where I hoped to find a wise octogenarian spiritualist who reportedly subsisted on little more than potatoes and his own urine.
Hermano Pacho wasn’t expecting us, but I hoped to ask him how the Elqui Valley came to be known as the Ruta de la Sanación, or Healing Path, a sort of rugged new-age South American Tibet, filled with mystics, swamis, psychics and stargazing ufologists.
The cabin didn’t look big enough for more than one or two people, but there were enough items — a broken refrigerator, discarded pieces of furniture, toys — strewn about the property to suggest that Pacho had disciples living with him.
I knocked on the door, but no one answered. A neighbor had told us that Pacho was hard of hearing, so I yelled out, “Hermano Pacho!” a few times, feeling very much like a deranged intruder.
“Maybe we should just go,” said my wife, Jennifer.
But it had been a tribulation to find the cabin. We couldn’t afford a rental car, and there was no public transportation in the area, forcing us to hitchhike to Horcón, a village about 15 minutes outside Pisco Elqui, the town named after the iconic drink where we were staying.
A company called Tour Misticos offers a Ruta de la Sanación tour onboard a vintage psychedelically painted VW bus that includes visits with Hermano Pacho and Silvia the Gypsy (Silvia Guerra), another local mystic.
But I was too cheap (and frankly too skeptical) to pay for an audience with mystics, so there we were on Hermano Pacho’s doorstep wondering what to do. The door was slightly ajar, and there was no padlock on the latch. As if reading my mind, Jennifer said, “You’re not going to just barge in, are you?”
I missed out on Woodstock, I’ve never seen the Grateful Dead in concert, and I don’t own any bongs or tie-dyed T-shirts. And I’m generally distrustful of retreats that advertise themselves as centers for “healing” or “spirituality.”
The Elqui Valley is full of these places, but I was seduced by the region’s other claims to fame — world-class stargazing, thanks to 320 days of sunshine per year; artisanal pisco distilleries; and the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the poet Gabriela Mistral, an Elqui Valley native who was the first and, so far, the only woman from Latin America to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
We toured Los Nichos, a family-run pisco distillery where they claim that they’ve had four Chilean presidents fall down drunk on the premises, and signed up for a stargazing tour operated by Turismo Migrantes, a local tour company. But I realized after talking to the manager, Leonidas Tamblay, that I was more intrigued by Elqui’s hippies than its pisco and stargazing opportunities.
Mr. Tamblay said that the Elqui Valley was an oasis for dissidents during the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s and ’80s and became a mecca for hippies interested in meditation and Eastern religions in the mid-’70s, after a pair of Tibetan monks came to the valley, apparently because Lhasa is 30 degrees north, while Elqui Valley is 30 degrees south in latitude.
We would hear variations on this theme several times; no one was certain of the timeline or what happened to the monks, but several people told us that all of the energy, indeed the magnetic center of the earth, had flipped from Tibet down to Elqui.
Claudia Rodriguez, a Chilean hippie who served as our interpreter on the stargazing tour, told us that the arrival of Halley’s comet in 1986, and a widely publicized “U.F.O. crash” in Paihuano, a nearby town, in 1998, brought swarms of mystics, plus ordinary hippies like herself, to the region and further enhanced Elqui’s Tibet-like reputation.
“I moved here because this is where I found my tribe,” she said.
Ms. Rodriguez said that if I wanted to understand the spiritual side of Elqui, I had to meet her guru, a Dutchman known as Swami Ritu. I had never taken Westerners who embraced Eastern religions seriously, perhaps because I had heard too many celebrities prattle on about the benefits of meditation.
But after two chance encounters with meditation devotees — Sasha Contreras, a Californian who moved to Cochiguaz, a deeply eccentric hamlet reached only via a 12-mile jaunt down an unpaved road, and Mario Contreras, a Chilean guru — my wall of suspicion was melting.
And our good luck on the hitchhiking front had me feeling that we had landed in a peculiarly welcoming place. A married couple from Valparaíso, Hector and Fernanda Vargas, who were meditating on what to do with their lives in a domed cabin in Cochiguaz, gave us a ride and also insisted on buying us dinner in Pisco Elqui.
And a host of others picked us up — Rodrigo and Violeta, a couple with an aging pickup truck, hauled us around twice; Mari, a doctor from Santiago and her boyfriend, Matthias, brought me to and from Cochiguaz.
Jennifer had feared that hitchhiking with our boys, Leo, then 6, and James, then 4, might be unsafe, or at the very least unwise. But they seemed to enjoy the novelty of hopping in and out of the flatbed of trucks, free of car seats and all the usual rules of the road they were used to.
I shouldn’t have opened the door to the cabin, but I justified my decision to do so on the grounds that the venerable old mystic might be gravely ill or even dead. I opened it slowly, fearing the worst, but the place was empty save for an unmade bed, an oil painting of a woman on the wall and a single rack of clothing.
I set off to find Swami Ritu alone the following day because Jennifer was convinced that my quest to find a swami who kept regular office hours was a waste of time. When I asked for directions to the swami’s house at the Rama Minimarket in Montegrande, as per Claudia Rodriguez’s suggestion, and was met with puzzled looks, I started to think that she was right. Walking outside the minimarket, I saw a sign for the Aguas Claras Condominiums.
I walked down the alley, past a cluster of homes obscured by the fence, and felt like a lunatic calling out “swami?” to a man who, as it turned out, was an Australian disciple of the swami. As he led me toward the swami’s home, a small, wooden two-room affair with plenty of windows facing the mountains, I remembered that Ms. Rodriguez advised me not to visit the swami before noon, since he was a night owl. It was 11:30 a.m. and I feared that he might answer the door in his pajamas and curtly send me packing.
My concerns evaporated when the swami greeted me warmly and welcomed me inside. He was wearing a pair of sweatpants, a fleece jacket and a pair of gray Crocs, and with his collar-length gray hair and ’70s-style tinted glasses, he reminded me of a college philosophy lecturer. The swami, whose real name is Bob Van Elk, told me his story over mugs of Lipton tea.
As a young man living in the Netherlands, he was a “depressed, lost, wretched person” until he found enlightenment while studying meditation in India in the ’70s and ’80s. In 1990, at 46, he fell in love with a Chilean woman he met in India who was half his age. He followed her back to Chile; she left him, but he decided to stay on in Elqui.
The swami started giving Buddhist meditation classes in the area in 1995, and as word spread that he offered not only free classes but also free accommodation, more and more hippies flocked to the area in search of enlightenment.
The swami said that he had played a role in making the Elqui Valley the bastion of spiritualism it is today but acknowledged that many of the local mystics were little more than con artists.
“We have people here calling themselves Zen masters who know virtually nothing,” he said. “Here, I have two conditions. One, I do not seek publicity. And two, I don’t charge anyone to take my classes or stay with me.”
As I thanked him for his time, he said he had something for me, and I feared he might ask me to commit to his courses or make a donation to his school. Instead, he gave me a book he wrote about seeking enlightenment through meditation called, “Seeing Things as They Really Are.”
I’ve never picked up a self-help book or anything remotely like it, but as I started to read it later that night, I wondered if perhaps I had been too hasty in dismissing meditation and Eastern spirituality for all these years. I highlighted lines like, “Tomorrow never comes because it will always be today,” “Desire is a kind of insanity rooted in ignorance,” and “The only thing that keeps us from being happy is the desire to become happy.” Simple concepts but ones I had never pondered before.
Pisco Elqui is a delightful small town built around a palm-tree-lined square dominated by a pastel-colored cathedral that wouldn’t look out of place in rural France.
I thought that the place was just about perfect until we ran out of money and discovered, on the morning we were set to leave town, that there was no ATM within a one-hour radius (Pisco Elqui now indeed has an ATM). Was this an omen? Was I meant to stick around, perhaps to study with the swami?
We considered asking one of our new friends for a loan or hitchhiking all the way to La Serena, more than two hours away, but were spared when Jennifer found just enough coins hidden in her backpack to get us on a bus out of town.
As we walked down a steep hill from our hotel toward the bus stop, baggage and boys in tow, we passed a wiry man with shoulder-length hair who had tried to help us with our bags when we had arrived in town on the bus, days before. At that time, I was certain that he was trying to steer us to a hotel, sell us a tour or God knows what else, so I told him we could manage on our own. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Have it your way,” and stalked off.
After seeing him in the square chitchatting amiably with people on several other occasions in the days that followed, we realized that he was just a kind person, not a hustler. I wasn’t in the same distrustful mood I was in when he first offered to help us. This time, I was ready for some help with our bags, but he just said hello and kept walking.
We stepped onto the bus, which was empty save for the bus driver, and were greeted with the Culture Club song “Karma Chameleon” at earsplitting volume. It was our final only-in-the-Elqui-Valley moment.