Click here to launch photo gallery (and scroll you mouse over the big picture to see the forward arrow to move through the gallery).
The gravel crunches softly beneath my feet and dust rises as I trod uphill on a wide sunlit road, with growing curiosity about what is just around the corner. Behind me is a long line of souvenir kiosks perched precariously on the edge of this mountain road carved into the side of the Elqui Valley of Chile, which must mean that there is something worth seeing just up ahead.
It’s moments like these that make traveling so addicting, this thrill of discovering something that you hadn’t anticipated. No one said anything about this stop on the tour.
With a few more steps , I’m around the bend, and almost blinded by the dazzling sparkle of dark blue water, appearing just below eye level despite being half way up the mountainside. Turns out this road has led to the top of a dam with an immense lake reservoir on the other side.
To think that trickle of water we had just passed beside the road could create such a huge reservoir. The glittering waves dance in the sunshine. So refreshing, like a visual drink in this otherwise parched landscape. Above the water level are cacti, some over 6 feet high, growing for centuries in a desert, now directly above a lake.
The heat of the day and the reflection off the water warm my face instantly and heat up my body right to the bone. I’ve been travelling with a friend I met in Arica, Maria from Germany. This is the first time we’ve been truly warm in days, after dark days of chilling rain along the coast.
The Elqui Valley is famous for its sunny climate, having weather completely different from the nearby coastal city of La Serena. Today it feels like a day the middle of summer, not the end of fall.
After our stop at the top of the dam, we drove further up the valley in a mini bus, looking out over many twisting miles of vineyards. When the road passes over a ridge, you can catch a glimpse down the length of the narrowing valley, and the impression is that the entire valley floor has been covered with a patchwork carpet of green, gold and red rectangles in neat strips and squares, laying flat against dun coloured cliffs, framed by a brilliant blue sky overhead.
Eager smiles and laughter lit up the faces of harvest workers when our driver pulled over to talk to them. They agreed quickly, with big smiles, when I asked to take their pictures. The smiles disappeared as soon as I raised the camera to my face. I couldn’t get it through to them that I actually wanted smiles, not serious expressions. It got ridiculous, so I gave in and just took pictures of them as they wanted, in different macho poses. Then they quickly broke out into wreaths of smiles again when passing big bunches of red grapes over the fence for us all to try.
Many fields had already been harvested, with all their leaves clipped off. But almost half of the fields still had leaves that had turned from dark green to a pale, almost translucent bronze. Other fields were draped in rich red tones, leaves glowing as if lit from within. The fields where they grow table grapes look like they have flat rooves made completely of leaves, since they prune the branches too grow across, not up and down, to allow the bunches to dangle downwards for easy picking. The wine grapes are grown in straight, upright rows.
This part of the Elqui valley is famous for its micro climates of near perfect growing conditions for many different kinds of grapes, especially those used to make Pisco brandy. I was surprised by how small the grape plants were, more like shrubs than the sweeping trees I expected to see in a vineyard.
I thought the highlight of our tour would be a tour of a pisco distillery, but was disappointed. There wasn’t much to see except big vats and huge wooden casks. In one room a man on top with a big wooden paddle stood on top of an enormous cask, stirring slowly in a room steeped in the stench of years of alcohol brewing. In another room women sat around a table peeling stickers off sheets and sticking them on bottles. In fact this shipment was headed for Canada, with special bilingual labels in French and English. I’ve seen bottles of pisco like this in stores in Edmonton and had no idea they were all labelled by hand.
There were other attractions in the valley too, besides vineyards. Our tour included a short visit to the museum of Gabriella Mistral, a woman famous for her poetry and human rights activism in the 1940’s and Nobel Prize for her work, the only Spanish woman to have received such acclaim to date. The museum was in an old building set up like a classroom with wooden desks with ink wells and dark ink stains from years of use. The place reminded me of pioneer days and the one room schools all across the prairies.
Dry Wine in a Dry Village
We stopped in a ‘pueblo seco’- a ‘dry village’ named so not for the lack of alcohol (the dry white wine we had here with lunch was great), but because it’s considered to be located far from a good source of water. Here the main attraction is food cooked in ovens powered by the sun, not fuel.
As we pulled up to a restaurant for lunch we saw a yard full of flat bottomed boxes with metal side flaps, wheeled around to face the sun, flaps positioned so their metal lining reflected the sunward inward to pots sitting inside the boxes. It looked for all the world like a garden of hippy- style box- shaped sunflowers with silver lined petals. This idea was a government project designed to give local women an alternative way to earn a living in a place with few natural resources, and it has proven very successful. I can see why: the slow cooked goat stew made in these ovens was delicious.
Pisco Elqui: Centre of a Brewing Storm
The highlight of the tour for me turned out to be the town at the farthest end of the valley, a town that had been renamed to ‘Pisco Elqui’ in order to secure the trademark name ‘pisco’ for Chile, effectively stealing the name ‘pisco’ from the Peruvians who also claim this as their national drink. It’s caused a lot of hard feelings.
The town itself is a sunny oasis of peace and calm. It’s a magnet for Chileans for short holidays, with its hot, dry climate, pastel coloured mountains, tranquil vineyards, and close proximity to Santiago. There are a lot of resort hotels with classy distilleries and spas, upscale dining, and touristy artesanal markets. The main square, filled with shady and tall pepper trees (a tall dusty looking tree with tiny red hard berries), a quaint church (of course), and attractive fountains and walkways, proved to be the perfect place to relax for an hour before heading back up the valley to gloomy and overcast La Serena on the coast.
The few hours of sunshine would have to last me until our last day in Valpara´iso, a few days later. Next up: pictures of ‘Valpo’ a remarkable city steeped in art and culture, full of steep, winding, cobblestone streets lined with colourful, ornate and ancient buildings.