Thursday, March 2, 2017

Pisco Tour!

The area around La Serena is really known for two things: penguins and wildlife around the Isla Damas sanctuary, and the beautiful Elqui Valley. As it turned out, it was our good fortune that we took the penguin tour yesterday as the tour was cancelled today due to rough weather at the coast! (This bad weather was localised, and had no effect on us as we headed north and in-land to the valley.)

Of course, we started again with a long bus ride; this time our first destination was a papaya plantation!

Well, a papaya store, anyway, with one sad looking plant out front. When booking the tour, we had been warned about getting too excited about this first stop. Inside the store, we tasted papaya jam and papaya honey - with assurances that the fruit was all locally sourced Though we couldn't taste it, Mindy and I also were tempted by a locally-made cherry-based liqueur: Guindao.

A small store, so a brief visit. We carried on to the Puclaro dam to see an unlikely lake in the middle of the desert.

The Elqui Valley is so arid that the vineyards don't even have to use anti-fungals on their grapes (making South American wine more environmentally-friendly than I realised). In fact, part of the reason grapes grow so well here is that grapevines prefer dry, rocky, marginal soil.

However, this area wouldn't be so productive if it relied entirely on the less than 3 inches of rainfall each year, and so the Puclaro dam was built to take advantage of the massive rains every seven years.

This is the beginning of the seven-year dry cycle, and so the lake is at it's most impressive, with cacti down the mountainside meeting the edge of the water, and a thick belt of green down the middle of the valley below.

We watched fish leaping out to catch insects at the surface, and even saw someone water-skiing on this water reservoir! As the Andes become a less reliable water source (melting ice caps) and weather patterns become less reliable, the fragile Elqui ecosystem will be among the first to suffer.

Walking back to the car, we stopped at one of the many market stalls to buy a copao fruit from the copao cacti that were everywhere. (The copao look vaguely like the exceptionally slow-growing saguaro cacti in the Arizona desert, and so I was confused how there could be so many! Turns out it's a different plant.) This tasty fruit was reminiscent of a sour kiwi, and so we bought another for later (which ultimately got squished in our bag and thrown out).

Next on the agenda was the town of Vicuna - the "busy metropolitan centre" of the sleepy Elqui Valley. The designated tour stop at this point was the museum to Gabriel Mistral, Chilean poet and diplomat, but as all the explanations and recorded tours were in Spanish, Mindy and I spent more time wandering around the main square; as usual, I was drawn to the main church to see what devout Catholicism had stationed here.

Finally, the namesake of the tour: a Pisco vineyard and production centre. Akin to whiskey, pisco can be made the easy and cheap way for a harsher blend, or in a careful and controlled manner for a premium product. The Aba Pisquera is one of the top pisco vineyards in the region, making a craft pisco according to the most stringent standards. Economic realities being what they are, this means that Aba Pisquera pisco doesn't sell much product in Chile, opting instead for the more lucrative export market. (Canada is one of the main importers of this pisco, though not the LCBO in Ontario.)

We wandered the stunning vineyard with mountain views in the background before retreating to the naturally cool fermentation rooms where giant casks house the developing product.

Finally, the tasting room to try the standard, premium, and smoked pisco on offer. If this is a premium, smooth version of pisco, I can only imagine what the cheap stuff is like! A miniature shot hits hard! Nonetheless, we bought a bottle for pisco sours in the summer in Ajax. (One of many things I love about travelling is collecting an assortment of regional liquors and liqueurs. This Pisco joins the Guindao from the papaya store and Grappamiel from Uruguay.)

Back to the town of Vicuna for lunch, we had some fantastic traditional Chilean food - for us vegetarians, it was another corn dish. (I had ceviche and fried fish yesterday, but this baked corn dish was compelling.) We wandered around Vicuna a little more after our meal, but this small town had little to offer beyond the main square, a few market stalls, and another church.

We also noted that, here in the desert, they watered the pavement as much as the grass...

On the way home, we stopped at a final look out to appreciate the incredible beauty of the Elqui Valley (fittingly paired with my beautiful wife).

Back in La Serena, Mindy and I went for another run along the beach with a pack of wild dogs in tow. We came upon the Club Elqui runners and made tentative plans to join them for a workout on Saturday morning - if we are still in La Serena. Maybe we'd find some more incredible sights and people on another group run?

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