Valle del Elqui, a beautiful place like no other - green valleys set between steep rocky yellow hills. A place known for its production of famous brandy-like national drink - Pisco, which is also a constant source of dispute between Chile and Peru. That's what we've heard about it from people and the guidebooks. Ivan, being a fan of anything distilled and matured in a barrel (thanks for spoiling me, Tomáš) definitely wanted to give it a try. We didn’t know that we were about to experience the strangest night (okay, the earthquake was maybe better)before managing to do so. But more about that one in the latter part of this blog post. :)
The next morning, we made it to Pisco Elqui and it really was a sight. The contrast of the bright green vineyards with the surroundings - well, basically a desert, that was something.
Valle del Elqui is a strange place, but a perfect one to cultivate the grapes. It's mainly thanks to its unique climate - less then 70mm annual rainfall, but yet enough water supplied by river Elqui. An excellent environment for the grapes. You could potentially try to make pisco anywhere else, the process is not that hard, but you'd hardly find such a perfect place.
And even if you did, only distilleries in Chile’s regions of Atacama and Coquimbo have the right to call their drink Pisco (well, and those in Peru, of course).
We relaxed a bit, while waiting for an English tour to begin. In the end, it was actually a private English tour (private because everybody else took the Spanish one).
In the beginning of the tour, we walked around the museum, enjoying a rare sight of the original pisco-distilling equipment and the production area, where our guide tried to explain the whole process of making pisco. We especially enjoyed to look at all the old distilling stuff :)
As we were thoroughly educated about the process of making pisco, let me shortly explain it to you :)
It starts with grape harvest, from february to may, when they select the best grapes (mainly Muscat, but some use Torontel or Pedro Jiménez) and extract the grape juice. Then the juice is macerated to obtain must. The must is left in fermentation tanks together with yeast, which converts grape juice into alcohol, ready for distillation.
Distillation is the heart of the production process, it involves heating the wine to high temperatures (90’C), when alcohol vapors and aromatic components emerge - then, after a cooling process, these are condensed to obtain an alcohol of high quality. As you probably expected, the distilled alcohol is then put into barrels (Mistral uses American oak barrels), which gives it characteristic colour, flavour and aroma. Similar to other famous distilled alcohol (whisky, rum), the distilled alcohol then rests in the barrels, from few months to several years, depending on the type of the pisco.
After the tour, we enjoyed a tasting of two types of pisco, young and strong (Pisco Tres Erres 40), and older and finer (Pisco Mistral Nobel) - and Ivan was already convinced he’d buy at least a bottle (which he did and it kept us warm in the cold Patagonian weather). Happy that we could could keep our pisco glasses, we enjoyed a famous cocktail made from pisco - Pisco Sour. Basically, it’s pisco with lemon juice, sugar and sometimes egg white. Based from what we’ve seen, Chileans also like to drink piscola - pisco with coca cola, or alternatively sprite.
The night before
Remember the bit about a strange night? Well, if you want to read a bit, here it comes. (If not, skip the text and look at some photos of the night sky instead :) )
We arrived to the Valle del Elqui quite late, so naturally we wanted to find a place to sleep first. But as we were there off season, the ones we were counting on were closed and there weren't many others. The steep hills of Valle del Elqui were doing their work and the darkness was quickly coming.
We checked a few other places, but after a drunk camp owner tried to use the late hour to his advantage and to rip us off, we've had it. Scr*w the camp for tonight and let's find a free camp somewhere. That wasn't so easy, as the whole valley is fenced and it's almost impossible to go anywhere off the road. But after a while, we found a back road going somewhere off the city.
The small road went up to the hill and to a small village, where after a bit of discussion, we decided to ask the locals where to go. Janka bravely went to ask the locals at the small kiosk, if they can point us somewhere and she found a guy who offered to show us a place - 5 minutes and a drive through a bit dodgy village (to be fair, everything looks dodgy at night) where everybody saw us following our helper's pickup truck, we were at a nice spot. Well, we guessed, as it was completely dark, but in the morning we would have enjoyed a nice view.
Long story short, we thanked and said goodbye and the man went off. For a few minutes, Ivan was trying to find a leveled spot... and then when we found it, a guy on a motorcycle came from the village and stopped about 10 m from us.
"What is he doing? I think he's doing something on his phone". "No, he just sits there and... is looking at us." In total silence, for about 2-3 minutes. We might have been silly, but this stranger scared us a bit, just staring at us, not saying anything, before doing something with his cellphone. Needless to say, we went off and decided to just park on the square in the nearest village.
And so we did. The village was totally empty, no traffic nor people whatsoever. With mixed feelings, we talked about what just happened and thought if we weren't just silly. While we talked, we saw a truck approaching from where we left - and it was the same pickup truck that showed us the first place. He slowly went around us, and after about 100m he turned around on the road and slowly went back, didn't stop or ask us anything, just went straight back where he came from. Basically, he checked us out.
Again, maybe he only wanted to check if we were ok, but it was definitelly more than strange - he would have asked us at least, we thought. Same as the first guy on the motorcycle...
Needless to say, we waited until he was gone, left and headed the opposite way from the village, so if they really were up to something bad, they would go the other way. We found a place to stay on iOverlander - a local observatory, where a night guard should let you stay during the night. See an amazing sky and sleep there? Win-win, so we thought :)
After a few not-so-successful attempts (basically wandering around the hills and trying to find the correct gravel road, if you can call them that way), we've finally found it. And hey, was it worth it. Have a look:
In the end, we didn't see the tour, because you cannot book them on spot, but only during the day and in a city 20km from there, but the 74 year old night guard gave us a "private tour" when everybody left. He was very kind to us, wanted us to take pictures and showed us absolutely everything, including the new toilets they were constructing for the next season... :) But we were very grateful and took a few pictures, as it made him very happy that he can show us around.
But we didn't sleep there as well, cause there are security checks during the night and our extremely friendly and polite night guard could have had trouble if they found us there. Exhausted, we drove to the nearest bigger city and as everything was closed, we found a nearest gas station and the guards let us sleep there.
Lesson learned, you do not search for a place to sleep late at evening. For the night is dark and full of terrors. ;)