December 13, 2005
Vicuna sits at the gateway to the Elqui valley, a region of Chile famous for making pisco, the national drink. This morning, I bought a bus pass to go to a few towns in the valley, eager to take a tour of a pisco distillery and sample some free pisco.
My first stop was Pisco Elqui, a village of about 500 people that is surrounded by vineyards and mountains. It felt like I was in Italy than Chile when I saw how many grapes were growing all around me. I walked around the central square for a bit and went to the Solar de Pisco Elqui, Chile's oldest distillery. Unfortunately, the distillery was closed to the public due to remodeling. Undeterred by this unfortunate occurrence, I decided to go to Los Nichos, a private distillery 4 KM outside of town.
When I got to Los Nichos, I was given a free tour of the small, family owned distillery. First, I was shown the pisco being bottled and labeled. Next, I was led to the wine cellar, where hundreds of bottles of 100-year-old wine were being stored. When I asked how much they were worth, the girl giving me the tour only would tell me "a lot." I wasn't aware that they also made wine, but it made sense when I found out because both pisco and wine are made from grapes. Next, I saw about six kegs where the pisco was aged to perfection. I asked why they made so little pisco, to which the girl responded "lower quantity means higher quality." This was confirmed to me a few minutes later when I got to try some of their pisco and wine. It had a great strong-yet-sweet flavor. I was impressed enough to buy a bottle of it, anyway.
It was getting late, so I started making my way back to Vicuna after visiting the distillery. However, I still had enough time to make one more stop at Montegrande. The town was the childhood home of Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral, a fact which became obvious as soon as I saw the town. Absolutely everything in town was named after her: restaurants, hotels, the main square, the church, and I think even her tomb bore her namesake. I had never heard of her before today, but after seeing her name plastered everywhere, I still felt the need to saunter around town for a few hours to respect her memory.
I originally just left La Serena to see the observatory and head back the same night. The only reason I stayed in Vicuna overnight was because I wouldn't be able to catch a bus back to La Serena when the tour ended at 1:00 in the morning. Still, I'm glad I was able to spend some time in the area. It's full of some beautiful scenery and has a great small-town atmosphere to it. Of course, getting to drink free wine and pisco in itself made visiting the area worthwhile.
After visiting Montegrande, I began a long night of riding buses. I had to ride a bus back to Vicuna, pick up all of my stuff, ride another bus to La Serena, then catch an overnight bus to Vina del Mar, which is next to Valparaiso. I know I've said this before, but Chile is so big that getting anywhere seems to require riding a bus for at least eight hours.
The photo album for this entry is here.