Any idea what tipple bears the title of the Chilean national drink? It’s pisco sour, of course, the concentrated cocktail made from two-thirds pisco liquor and one-third lemon juice (plus a bit of sugar). Delicious. But don’t just take our word for it — why not familiarize yourself properly with pisco by spending a weekend in Chile’s Elqui Valley?
About 300 miles north of Santiago, the Elqui Valley is a bright green strip that runs from the coastal city of La Serena toward the Andes Mountains and Argentine border. Covered in vineyards, surrounded by mountains and reigned over by some of the clearest star-laden skies in the southern hemisphere, it’s an idyllic and intriguing spot to spend a couple of days.
On the far side of Pisco Elqui, the main tourist village in the valley, you’ll find one of the best places to stay: Hotel Elqui Domos. With dome or observatory rooms to choose between (the latter are more comfortable and spacious, the former more like “glamping” in a super-sized tent or yurt), there’s a swimming pool, restaurant with full-length windows and two observatories where you can stargaze with the help of electronic Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes.
On your first morning, wander around the village of Pisco Elqui. Check out the town’s church on the main square, browse the artisan market stalls (perhaps sample some pisco ice cream) and stop for the best coffee in town at El Gitano, a quirky café that looks like a gypsy cart.
That afternoon, book a tour and tasting at Distileria Pisco Mistral (tours in English start at 3 p.m.). Founded in 1995, the distillery is named after Chile’s famous Nobel Prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral who was born in the Elqui Valley (for an extra activity, Museo Gabriela Mistral is in the nearby town of Vicuña). Here at the distillery you will learn how pisco originated from boiling wine over fire, as well as peculiarities between wine and pisco production, such as drying grapes on the vine rather than picking them. As the sun sets, head back to the hotel for an astronomy tour. Guide Claudio Leon will set up the telescope in one of the space-like white hubs at the conservatory and show you an array of mind-blowing sights, from open clusters and planetary nebulas to red giants, Saturn with its ring and moons visible, and the grand finale, the moon.
High on the buzz of your galactic sights, head about two miles for supper at Los Jugos, a restaurant on the plaza with a log fire, open windows letting in the evening air and adobe-style booths. Start with a plate of caserones to share — warm and tender, this local dish consists of roasted pepper, eggplant and garlic cooked in a clay pot and accompanied by goat cheese. For a main course, the beef tenderloin is always a sure bet, as it is seasoned with garlic and pepper sauce. There are also great salads, including one with rocket, potatoes, Gruyère, and goat cheese. To drink, you’d be remiss not to order a pisco sour, and there are plenty of flavors to choose from such as ginger, merkén (a typical Chilean spice) and even green pepper. For dessert, local specialties abound, including stuffed figs with walnuts in syrup, as well as pancakes filled with manjar (caramelized condensed milk) and walnuts.
Start day two with a 30-minute drive up the valley toward the Argentine border. The winding road passes through small rural villages ending up in front of a padlocked gate where you’ll spot just a few houses. This is quite literally the end of the road. Retracing your steps, stop off for lunch at El Cielo Restaurant (you’ll see it signposted during your drive down), a hilltop spot with great views and generous portions of chicken and chips, best washed down with cactus fruit juice.
That afternoon, head back down the valley to La Serena, Chile’s second oldest city founded in 1544. After refueling with coffee and muffins at Ayawasi, an organic café run by an adorable young couple, take in some sights including the Cathedral of La Serena and Gabriel Gonzalez Videla Museum, the former house of the only Chilean president (1946-52) who was born and bred in La Serena.
Finish off the day with seafood at Tololo Restaurant, down on the beach. The seafood platters boast everything from locos (Chilean abalone) to prawns and crab, and main dishes include fresh grilled seafood with crunchy salads. Plus, the view across the white sand is second to none. Celebrate the end of a great two days with a La Serena Pisco Sour, made with papaya from the valley.
Photos Courtesy of James Florio and Turismo La Serena