After just a few days cruising down the foggy coastline of northern Chile we find ourselves eastbound on a bus to the famous Elqui Valley. This is a sunny and dry region, home to many vineyards and the designated location for the production of Chile’s pisco.
There is a longstanding heated debate between Chile and Peru surrounding the origin of pisco. Chile even named one of the towns in this valley Pisco Elqui for the purpose of establishing its origin in Chile. For anyone unfamiliar with this liquor, it is made out of sweet moscatel grapes and has a taste similar to the italian grappa. The most typical way of drinking it is in the cocktail called pisco sour, which is basically pisco mixed with lemon juice, simple syrup and egg white, similar in taste to a margarita. Also university students drink it with coke, calling it a piscola, but this is frowned upon by the industry. A terrible crime.
Our first stop in the elqui valley is a town called Vicuña, where we spend the night camping on the lawn of an adorable hostel run entirely by people over the age of 70. We pitch our tent as the elder folk shuffle about the garden, pruning and watering and picking things up using a hook on a pole. Hard of hearing, we raise our voices and speak slowly to negotiate the rental of some simple bikes that we use to tour the town.
There is a definite hippie vibe to the town, with lots of graffiti art painted on the walls of the small houses and a central plaza where locals perform acrobatics, hanging from the trees.
After a nice dinner and a good night’s sleep in our tent, we catch the local bus in the morning to take us further up the valley, to the town of Pisco Elqui. We rent bikes again, and take a tour along the hot paved road through the town and the surrounding distilleries.
The oldest distillery is called Los Nichos. It used to be called Tres Erres, after the initials of the owner. This brand has since been bought by a big distillery. Los Nichos offers an excellent tour for $2. When we arrive for the tour we realize it will just be us and the tour guide. No matter. He introduces himself to the group (us) and gives us all of the details behind the distillery.
Because they have preserved the old method for creating pisco, they are only able to produce 30,000 bottles per year – that’s what the bigger distilleries produce in a single day.
The process is pretty straight-forward. They harvest the grapes, and juice them. The grape juice sits and distills in large, old tanks. They then use eucalyptus wood to create a fire that boils the wine into liquor, dispensing with methanol and other liquids until they have the basic ethanol they will age in wood barrels until it becomes pisco. The final product is about 20% of what they’ve harvested: not the most lucrative endeavor in low volumes. However, the government controls the production such that only vinyards from this valley can produce pisco. It’s a matter of heritage, and thus they can continue to operate.
Seeing the basic mechanics of this distillery was impressive, but the story behind the distillery became even more interesting once the guide began to tell tales of the famous people (presidents, poets, etc) who used to frequent the underground grotto where they kept the pisco cool.
The walls contained small niches (hence the name los nichos) that served two purposes: storage for fine wines that would age for decades and, because they are shaped like tombs, resting places for the ghosts of frequent guests. It became clear that the drunken evenings that occurred in this small underground chamber had such an impact that the location would call these guests back upon their death.
Between the niches you can find framed epitaphs celebrating the drinking and revelry that attracted so many fine men. Dancing skeletons were painted on the walls, depicting the continued celebrations of the undead in the grotto.
After emerging from the grotto we are presented with pictures people had taken, in which ghosts appear. Also shots of pisco. Magical.
Upon our departure we purchase a few bottles of pisco, leaving the logisitics of how to get them home for later.
Back on our bikes, under the hot sun, we venture a bit further up the valley to a small artisan community by the river. It’s a strange place, where the hippies who hang out there are watching a Metallica concert on you tube, blasting the music, while we wade through dream-catchers and organic face creams.
We take a dip in the river to cool off our bodies, then hop on our bikes to make our way back. The sun sets on the valley, and we take public transport from one bus to another, through the night, all the way to Santiago.
We have a plane to catch down to the southern tip of Chile, where my parents will meet us for an adventure in patagonia!
Categories: Posts in English