Spy in Elqui

La Serena: There are no hire cars available because of the Navy Day holiday weekend, I’m told. Most people reserved weeks ago, they say, with amazement that anyone should be so last-minute (Chileans are quite German in their planning habits).

Valley of plenty

La Serena is a perfectly pleasant town on the southern edge of the Atacama desert. But we’ve walked to the dirty, butt-strewn beach, visited the main plaza, appreciated the comparative lack of dogshit (presumably a result of the comparatively few dogs), and now I want to venture a little further.

La Serena lighthouse

I book us on a tour of the area’s famous pisco vineyards. We climb aboard the bus, the only tall, youngish foreigners among an outing of half a dozen short, elderly Chilean women who cease chattering to briefly gawp and then shuffle up, allowing us to inch along next to their combined bulk.

Hydrodam, notice the treetops peeking out (drought has left the reservoir with only half of its 200 million cubic metres of water)

We drive into the dry Andean valleys, through rocky, desert slopes bearing cacti, including the ephedrine plant, and strange trees with prickly bark. Every inch of the valley below is crowded with agriculture from vineyards to avocado trees and plantations of indigenous papaya.


The rocks are multicoloured with stripes of mineral deposits in every hue. There’s no fool’s gold here – if it glitters like gold, it probably is. People have mined gold here for thousands of years. The Incan creations at Cuzco in Peru were made from gold mined here. And lovely lapis lazuli is also found here, the only place in the world outside of Afghanistan (where rocket strikes have left the mines almost inaccessible).

There's a rally going on in not-so-serene La Serena

We stop at a hydrodam, which, like most such projects, was highly controversial when it was built in 2001. Hundreds of villagers had to be relocated (the tops of trees and lamp-posts still peak out of the reservoir where they were drowned), and the dam threatened an endangered, endemic large freshwater shrimp found only in this and one other river in Chile (which is now also threatened with a dam). The 8 megawatts produced by the hydrodam is sent back down to Santiago to join the central grid system.

Nick next to a 1000 litre pisco barrel

The hydrodam is on the site of a former gold mine owned by the notorious US company, Barrick Gold. It was only after the mine closed that Chile learned that gold was not the only metal being mined here – uranium was also being dug up, with the radioactive cargo being transported down river through the public ports to the US for processing.

We stand a while, watching a condor soar overhead. In the winter, these birds come down the mountains following the goatherds.

Distillation equipment for pisco production - actually, this produces the fire water

It is about now that I notice a consternation break out among my fellow passengers, who are grouped in a circle around our guide, whispering urgently and stabbing their fingers in my general direction. After a while, the guide comes over to me and apologetically explains: “They say you are a foreign spy.” It seems that my habit of scribbling in a notepad, asking lots of questions and requesting unscheduled stops to look at cacti and dull dams has aroused suspicions. I find this rather flattering, after all, everyone knows that spies are generally glamourous Russian women with crimson lipstick, cigarette lighters and capable of seducing even the coldest gravestone of a man. The Chilean women have clearly seen beyond my zip-off action slacks and practical grey fleece to the fabulous international woman of intrigue beneath. A sadly too rare insight…

Where two rivers meet: the Rio Claro ('Clear') from a spring source, and the turquoise Rio Elqui from a glacier and full of the turbidity of glacial flour

They do not accept my explanations – one woman mutters darkly about mysterious spies and other unexplained events, closing her speech with general pointers about UFOs and that it is no coincidence that earthquakes in Chile happen at the end of the month. The others nod in agreement, but are impatient to be back on the bus and back on schedule.

Fire water is fermented in barrels and then diluted with water to produce pisco.

We drive on, Nick growing increasingly embarrassed at my continual questions; me oblivious.

The Elqui Valley is happily positioned where the damp fog of the Humboldt current meets the warm dry South Pacific anticyclone travelling southwards, causing a thermal inversion that sweeps the moist clouds up and away. It rains on average once a year here, for around 45 minutes (although it has lasted a whole 2 hours, I’m told) and the rest of the time, the sky is clear clear clear. The place has the highest concentration of astronomical observation equipment in the world and we pass Gemini (its twin is in Hawaii) and Tololo (‘tololo means the edge of the cliff’) telescopes high on the hill.

Castor or Pollux? Gemini observatory 2200 metres up the hill

The ladies have had enough of my stopping nonsense – there is pisco to drink, after all – so I can only *spy* the telescopes though the bus window. The Chilean government recognises the astronomical importance of the region, even if the bus women don’t, and six years ago passed a light pollution law that involved changing all of the region’s bulbs to yellow low-light ones at great expense. It’s surely worth it though – California has lost 50% of its observational capabilities at a cost of $20 million because of light pollution, according to some estimates.

Lunch is cooked in solar ovens.

Eventually we reach the pisco distillery, but our unscheduled stops – accusing glances my way – mean that we’re late and we should go straight to the tasting cellar. Nick and I hurry to keep up with our group, who despite dodgy hips and crippled legs are trotting along at quite a pace to the cellar. Here we are given ‘fire water’ (60% proof) to try, followed by pisco (45% proof). Next, it’s on to the next cellar to try mango sour, but it’s a pleasure I have yet to experience. A group is before us at the cellar, and our group (Nick and I excluded, again) forms an anxious huddle of whispering around the guide. He emerges to explain that the ladies don’t want to wait in a queue for their pisco, and for what when there is a much better pisco place up the hill.” We bundle back in the bus and head up the hill.

Solar ovens outside the restaurant

As we drive, one of the women – in a violet coat with a red scarf around her neck – starts feeling funny “from the altitude”. But we’re barely 1000 metres up, I say. Yes, but she ha high blood pressure so it effects her more, our kindly guide explains. Nick and I exchange glances: this lady was a VERY enthusiastic quaffer of fire water, a few minutes ago…

Old pisco bottles

We reach the village of Pisco Elqui, formerly Union – its name was changed by the government as part of the war with Peru over which country owns pisco (Peru, in fact) – and visit another, quite charming, distillery. Here we learn how pisco is made – from grape skins, like Italian grappa – tour the cellars and then join the ladies from our bus in the tasting room.

By the time we make it to lunch, which is cooked in solar ovens and accompanied by more pisco, wine and beer, we are all quite piscoed, with some of our group audibly snoring on the bus back to La Serena.

Bettica was taught by Gabriela Mistral, Chile's Nobel Prize-winning poet who campaigned tirelessly for the children's rights.

We make another stop, at my insistence, to visit the small house where Chile’s first Nobel Prize winning poet, Gabriela Mistral, lived. She was an incredible woman – a schoolteacher (despite only having a primary education) who left her village as a teenager and toured first her country and then the world. She wrote the Rights of a Child manifesto for UNICEFF, including the right of a child for love, and campaigned globally for human rights. Her simple, two-room house shows from what humble beginnings she emerged.

In the village, I find Bettica, a tiny smiley woman who was taught by Mistral. “She was very strict, but kind inside,” Bettica tells me. “She liked chicken soup very much. And the countryside,” she adds.

RRR was the most famous pisco before the family sold the brand

One of her other pupils went on to win Chile’s second Nobel Prize in 1971, but Mistral died in 1957, so she never knew of Pablo Neruda’s fame.

Avocado trees: with irrigation anything is possible

The ladies on the bus are getting impatient now, and Nick is sent to find me. We return to La Serena under a glowing sunset. At our hostel, as Nick and I disembark, one of the women tells the guide something. He leans out of the window after us and says: “They say you are a spy, but a nice spy.”

One of the 27 churches in La Serena - notice the cool spire

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