Avocado Republic Chile Travel — 12 November 2011

The tasting room at the Capel Pisco factory is overrun with tourists who have decamped from a cruise ship which is docked at Coquimbo just to the south and within viewing distance of La Serena, Chile.  The crowd is mainly retired Canadians and Americans who have made the trek around The Straights of Magellan from Brazil, a journey of three weeks, here to Chile.  Having arrived by tourists but they are all wearing little stickers that label them as one collective group like kids on a summer camp tour.  One American couple there has obviously never been to a wine tasting before because the husband, a tall fellow carrying a Nikon camera and wearing a floppy white hat, waves his arms clutching dollar bills trying to get the attention of the girl behind the bar.  Makes me cringe when I see fellow Americans behaving this way.  The days of Teddy Roosevelt are behind us.  The rest of the world is not populated with “little brown people” who need and seek our benevolence and admiration. Reminds me of the Victorian age expat Brits who thought they could be understood if they simply spoke English loudly and slowly to the great unwashed mass of natives.

The Elqui Valley runs from the coastal city of La Serena high up into the Andes Mountains which the Chileans call the “cordillera”. On the coast, La Serena is slight more humid and much cooler than the interior valley here which is hot and dry like dust.  In rains here perhaps 4 times per year which is less than Santiago but not quite the desert which lies further to the north.  The valley here is brilliantly lit by sunshine on some 300 cloudless days per year.   This is why the Mamulluca telescope observatory is located here high atop a ridge.  It has an unencumbered view of the stars and planets and is far from the bright lights of any city, but on this particular night the moon is almost full and we cannot see much.

This is observatory built for the tourist trade is not used by professional astronomers like the large and costly telescopes further north in Antofagasta and Pedro de Atacama. Our tour guide has the dry wit sort of symptomatic of the kind of people who work in astronomy although he lacks the beard and disheveled appearance. Pointing to the sky with a laser he says there is a much larger telescope further north called the “Very Large Telescope”.  The Europeans are building one even larger named, you guessed it, the “Extremely Large Telescope”.  This is sort of fascinating in a “look-at-that-nebula!” sort of way.

Tours are given here each night in Spanish, French, and English languages.  German is not offered although there are far more German people here than French ones.  Perhaps more Chilean kids study French in the schools here than they do German.  It does not matter as Germans usually speak English anyway, speaking it much better than, for example, Chilean people.  One supposes they Germans learn the English language because they assume no foreigner could master their own polysyllabic tounge with enormously long words like donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän.

Back at the pisco factory the tour guide explains that pisco is a drink which is not understood too well outside of Chile although it is popular in Peru. 95% percent of the pisco made in Chile is sold in Chile.  It is wine which is boiled and distilled–that product is called “aguardiente”–to which water is added so that it would not be too strong.  Here in Chile pisco is a popular way to start a meal at a restaurant or a night of drinking at a bar.  If you mix pisco with with Coca-Cola it is called “pisco-cola”. A “pisco sour” is pisco mixed with egg whites, lemon juice, sugar, and bitters.  It has strong acidity while the eggs give it some body so it makes a nice cocktail.

I have come north to the Elqui Valley myself looking to buy my own vineyard here having recently sold one in Virginia.  But the land here is too expensive in part because there is so little flat land and also because the real estate market here has become “a la mode”.  People say there is lots of “energy” here in the valley with yoga and artists and aging hippies trying to get close to to the mountains by proximity and closer to heaven by smoking pot.

As is the case with large portions of Chile this area is heavily planted with grapes.  The valley is so narrow that it is like the Nile is to Egypt.  Beyond the valley there is nothing but mountains, rocks, dust, no agriculture at all at scarcely any houses for hours in any direction and certainly no trees.  The land is so steep that like the joke goes even a billy goat would have a hard time standing up on the hillsides here.

The land down along the river banks is very expensive with 1/2 hectare lots going for $30 million chilean pesos ($60,000 USD). Regarding that billy goat he might be better suited to this 13 hectare plot I have come to see with its owner Don José and his pleasant wife.  José puts his SUV vehicle into 4 wheel drive which slips a little kicking up dust as we scale the steep road here.  His 13 hectare property is not fully planted yet.  The main planting here is 2 hectare vineyard of table grapes called “red flame”.  Unlike the moscato and other grapes varieties planted down on the valley floor “those will be made into pisco–these are headed to grocery stores in the USA. 

The grapes here are grown on an overhead type of trellis called a “parrón”.  This is unlike the upright type of trellis used to plant wine grapes called an “espaldera” or “VSP” (vertical shoot positioning) system in English.  The two men working here, a father and son team, spend the whole day underneath the grape vine canopy here in the shade or out in the sun keeping the irrigation system and the water running.  The vines which have recently bloom are not yet grown into something which one  would recognize as a grape.  This early in the November season they are pea sized, tough, and would be very sour to the taste.  

My trip ends the next day. I have decided to look closer to Santiago for farm land to buy.  For if one is to buy a farm one needs to visit it each weekend at least.  This area is 9 hours north of Santiago and I have come by plane.


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