Chile is renowned for many things. Amongst these are having some of the clearest skies in the world, and pisco, its national drink.
Pisco is a colorless grape brandy made in both Chile and Peru – both of whom claim to be the original inventors of the drink. When mixed with lime, whisked egg whites, syrup and bitters, pisco becomes the classic, delicious and lethal cocktail, the Pisco Sour.
The Elqui Valley in Chile brings in many visitors for these two reasons being that it houses both pisco distilleries, and national and international observatories that the public can go and visit. In addition, the valley is simply very beautiful and picturesque and in its own right would be a draw for many tourists.
As you head into the valley, soon you pass gently rolling mountains either side with the lush green valley floor filled with grapevines and farmland. It’s these vineyards that serve the local pisco distilleries with moscatel grapes, with the valley also producing papayas and other fruits and vegetables. The River Elqui runs through the middle and helps to irrigate the land. Further along there’s also a dam which creates a beautiful lake behind it.
Vicuña, is the main tiny little town in the heart of the valley. It is a typical small mainly one-storey old Spanish colonial town with lemon trees growing in the street and plenty of red and fuschia pink bougainvillea. It’s great to use as a base from which to explore the valley and from here, it’s only a short walk to the local Capel Pisco distillery.
Pisco, unlike traditional brandies is matured for a much shorter period of time, from a month up to two years maximum. The distillery tour takes in the whole pisco making process after which you get to taste about five different types of pisco including papaya, a coffee pisco and a ready mixed sour. They are all really delicious and very smooth tasting, not at all harsh. Capel is apparently the biggest producer of pisco in Chile.
In Vicuña is the office of one of the local observatories, from where I book my ticket and catch a minibus to the observatory itself, “Observatorio Mamalluca” which is about 6 km away. As I am the only person requiring an English-speaking guide, I get the observatory all to myself (J) as the Spanish-speaking group and I use the different telescopes in rotation.
Firstly, I use the smaller outside telescopes to view the moon, the Milky way, some nebula, some star clusters and Jupiter! The informative guide bombards me with facts about galaxies, the universe and so much other stuff it’s impossible to remember it all! Then we head into the observatory proper where he rotates the dome several times so I can view from the main 30cm telescope more of the same, but this time really close up! Firstly I see the moon, which looks fantastic close up! We also see again Jupiter and more excitingly Saturn complete with rings! I am like a small child – so excited, it’s great!
Then we go downstairs into the auditorium for a further talk on how stars are formed amongst many other things. There is also a 3D moving animation of where earth is in relation to the universe and other galaxies and then a Hubble photo taken with a 10 day exposure (the longest ever) showing the universe with its galaxies. Maybe it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but this kind of thing fascinates me! I loved it!
This little known area of Chile is not far from the capital Santiago and is easy to get to by bus or via your own steam. If you want to just relax in a beautiful part of this country, and get away from it all but still have interesting stuff to do, then look no further than the Elqui Valley.
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