La Serena, the dry hills are lined by the continuous strip of green vineyards whose produce is destined for the pisco bottle. So significant to the local economy is pisco that the town we were bound for goes by the name Pisco Elqui, changed from the less descriptive name of La Unión in the 1930's.
At night the temperatures drop quickly, and an impressive panoply of stars emerge in the clear, black sky. Due to its low humidity, low population and therefore low level of light pollution, the area is also well-regarded for its potential for astronomical observation. Several high-powered telescopes are located near La Serena, and some observatories even open their doors for tourism. We didn't manage to see any of them for ourselves, what with the late night tour schedules and our 3 year old companion's early bedtime, but we did enjoy the starry nights, all the same.
The town square is graced with restaurants bustling with clients, and street vendors selling everything from crystals to coffee mugs. In the square itself, young South American travelers play guitar and wonder where they'll spend the night.
Sure, I can grasp on an intellectual level the dynamics involved in separating alcohol from water. That is one thing. It is another to be part of the process, to catch a whiff or glance of some rich concentration of the essence of the grape. In the few cases when I've had the opportunity to visit a distillery, I've yet to be lucky enough to observe the distillation process itself, in action. To see what goes on inside that fat-bellied vat through a glass porthole and try to understand on a more visceral level what it is. These, like all the others I've seen, were empty.
The picture here reveals another quality I've come to appreciate in tours of distilleries, which is the fanciful atmosphere each one unfailingly manages to craft, from ancient alembics on display, consistently impressive facilities and location, and as seen here, creative ways to dispose of old barrels.
All in all, our time in the Valle de Elqui was a fine experience. We greatly enjoyed the town of Pisco Elqui, and in the three days and two nights we spent there, we were able to do, see, and experience much of what it is as a community. My only wish, as is always the case at the end of a trip to a new place, is that we could have seen more. The valley is home to many towns, each with its own character. As you go even further upstream the roads narrow and the towns at the end of them, or so I've heard, are even more peaceful, authentic, and uniquely characteristic of the region.
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