Wine in Mendoza and Pisco in the Valle del Elqui
04.26.2012 - 05.10.2012 20 °F
After Anne and Gil left us in Santiago, Delaney and I set off for another traveling adventure. I´m sure that Garrett and Pame appreciated some space away from family!
Our first trip we took out to visit our friends Tamara and Dan in Mendoza, Argentia. We know Tamara and Dan from our time in Yosemite. Interestingly, they had the same idea as us...to travel in Patagonia and settle somewhere to learn Spanish. We were never able to cross paths in Patagonia, so Delaney and I headed east over the Andes to Mendoza. We´d traveled there when we came to South America the last time about two and a half years ago. We enjoyed it so much that it was worth it to go again. We had a fabulous time catching up with Tamara and Dan, exchanging stories of our adventures and experiences, talking about our friends in Yosemite, and just hanging out with some Norte Americanos.
We went to some nearby hot springs one day...steamy.
Explored the foothills of the Andes in a town called Uspallata another day. The desert air was fresh and beautiful and the cottonwoods were golden. There we rented bikes (with incredibly uncomfortable seats) and visited two archaelogical sites near the town.
The first was a metal smelting site that was used both by native peoples and by European settlers. There were some really beautiful old adobe buildings there.
The other site had pre-columbian rock art. Really cool.
The next day we rented bikes again and went wine tasting in the Maipu region near Mendoza. It was a gorgeous day and we could enjoy views of the snowy peaks above the grape vines.
Interestingly, the first winery we ended up at, Delaney and I had visited on our previous trip. We took a picture in the same location as one we took before.
We got one of Tamara and Dan as well.
It was really fun to taste some realy amazing wines, including one of my favorite varieties, Malbec. The Malbec grapes are a french variety that trives in Argentina.
We spent almost a week in Mendoza before returning to Santiago for a night before catching another long bus up to La Serena, a coastal town about 400 km north of Santiago. La Serena is the second oldest city in Chile, founded by Pedro de Valdivia. It served as a stopping off point for the early European settlers between Santiago and Lima, Peru. There were many beautiful old adobe buildings in the city. Here is a photo of the Plaza del Armas.
In town we enjoyed shopping in the artisan markets and visiting the arcaheological museum. Before this excusion, we hadn´t bought any souveniers for ourselves. Luckily there were a lot of beautiful things to choose from in La Serena. The museum was really interesting and had a lot of beautiful artifacts. Including pottery and one of the Easter Island Maoi heads. Here is a picture of replica Diaguita pottery from the area that we saw at the museum.
One of my favorite days of the whole trip was our guided excursion out to Isla Damas off the coast north of La Serena. We had heard from some travellers back in January about the trip to visit the National Park to see the Humbolt penguins and other marine wildlife. It was so spectacular! Our guide was so knowledgeable and passionate about his work. We also had a great group of other travellers with us, including four women from The Netherlands, a woman from Morroco, and a French family. Our guide (and Sarah Grace later) told us about the unique and productive waters of Chile. The cold Humboldt current comes up from the south pole allowing for a lot of upwelling of nutrients to occur all along the Chilean coast. This enables for large populations of fish, marine mamals, and birds to thrive. The local fisheries are protected by a unique system that is controlled by the local fisherman rather than by national governments. Sarah told me that Chile´s fisheries management practices are seen by experts as an example for other countries to follow. Here are some pictures of the adventure.
Lobos del Mar (Sea Lions) chillin on the rocks.
Boobies and Cormornats galore!
Penguins! The penguins build their nexts at the top of the island, so that predators, like the Sea Otters can´t reach their eggs. We could see penguin trails leading up and down to the beach and little penguins waddling up and down. Its hard to tell from the photo, but there are a few penguins waddling on the trail. So amazing!
Sea Otters! The first ones I´ve seen in the wild. We got to see them pull a fish up out of the water, onto the rock and eat it. They two otters were playing with each other, wrestling in the water and cuddling. So cute!
We also got to explore on foot one of the islands. As soon as our boat landed the sun came out and the ocean turned a fabulous aqua color.
After La Serena we headed east into the Valle del Elqui. The Rio Elqui flows from the Andes and down through the valle all the way out to La Serena on the coast. The valley is a rich agricultural oasis in the middle of the desert. People have been growing food their for thousands of years. First begining with corn, beans, and squash and now a rich array of fruits (figs, papayas, avocados, grapes) and citrus (lemons and organges). It is mostly known for its pisco grapes which are used to produce the famous Chilean licour, Pisco. The grapes were turning a beautiful yellow. This is the Rio Elqui and surrounding countryside near Vicuña, where we stayed for two nights.
We visited two different Pisco distilleries, one is in Vicuña and the other is in the town of Pisco Elqui. The one in Vicuña is one of the largest distilleries called Capel. It is a cooperative of over 1000 farmer-owners that was formed back in 1938. We learned that the process of making Pisco is very similar to wine. Actually it is identical, except that once the wine is created, it is then distilled to form the liquor. The Liquor is then either bottled (to make the sweet pisco used in fruity cocktails), or stored in oak barrels to make a stronger flavored drink similar tasting to whiskey. Here is a picture of the distillery equipment and the first Capel bottles from the 30s.
The other distillery we went to was one of the first in Chile, and is called Los Niches. It created the first brand of pisco, Tres R´s, which has since been purchased by another distillery. It is almost 150 years old and still uses much of the old ways of making pisco. Including a wood fired distiller. We were lucky that they still had some late-harvest grapes going through their system that we could taste. For all pisco, a grape with a very high sugar content is used. It must be at least 14% sugar in order to qualify. So, the grapes we tasted were super sweet!
Another fun excursion we took near Vicuña was a visit to a restuarnat with a solar kitchen. The food was fantastic and simple. This would be an amazing addition to any desert community in the US!
The weather for our trip to the valley was perfect! Cool breezes, sunny and warm. Plus, we found beautiful hostels with gorgeous gardens full of fruit trees, shade, and views of the mountains and the sky. It was a perfect place for us to relax and read. It made me feel like I was on a proper honeymoon, but rather than looking out onto a tropical ocean, I was gazing at the mountains. Here are some pictures of the garden and view from our hostel in Pisco Elqui.
Pisco Elqui was one of my favorite places that we visited on the whole trip. It was so relaxing, beautiful and had a vibrant artist community. I was inspired by the natural beauty and the beauty of the art and adobe architecture in the town. The history of the town´s name is also interesting. Since Peru and Chile have been fighting over which country is the mother of Pisco, Chile decided to rename the town from La Union, to Pisco Elqui back in the 1930s. We took a hike up the hills to get a good view of the town and valley from above.
Creative reuse of Pisco barrels for bus stops and a gorgeous mural.
The area is also known for its clear skies and astronomical powers. Back in the 1960s a group of hippies from Chile and around the world founded a town in the Valle Cochiguaz (a valley that feads into the Elqui valley) becasue they believed that the center of magnetic power of the earth had moved from the Himalas to a mountian in the valley, Cerro Cancana. In fact, that mountain does have the highest concentration of electro-magnetism on earth. The valley boasts at least 10 different observatories hosting many international astronomers. Delaney and I were able to go to one up in Valle Cochiguaz. It was so amazing to see many constalations, including the southern cross and our own zodiac constalatons Virgo and Gemini. The Milky Way was was glowing and we were able to even see a galaxy with our naked eye. It looked like a fuzz of white in the night sky. We were also lucky to see Saturn and Mars. We were able to look through a fairly powerful telescope to get a glimpse of Saturn´s rings and moons, a nebula, and a galaxy. It was an experience of a lifetime! Here is a photo (not mine) of the southern sky and the observatory we visited.