About Brian Horstman
Brian Horstman is a teacher of English as well as a traveler, writer, photographer and cyclist. His interest in traveling around Latin America began while he was living in New Mexico, where he began to experience the Latino culture that lives on there. From there he spent time in Oaxaca, Mexico and has since been living in Cuenca, Ecuador and will be living in Chile starting in 2011. Cal's Travels chronicles some of his more memorable experiences from Mexico and Ecuador, as well as some side trips to other parts.
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In addition to the time we spent in Colonia, we made a point to visit Uruguay’s capital city of Montevideo. We found accommodations in the beachfront neighborhood of Punta Carretas, a quiet, residential area at the city’s southernmost tip. In fact, if you look at the photo below, the thin vertical line next to the palm trees on the horizon is a lighthouse.
It lies at the end of a narrow peninsula where the city ends and the Atlantic begins.
Turning to face the city, you see that mid-rise apartment buildings have come to dominate the oceanfront property. Head a block inland and this ambitious construction quickly gives way to one- and two-story homes, but walk in either direction along the city’s long, winding rambla and you’ll find these ten-floor buildings to be a constant feature.
Despite the number of these buildings along the coast, and the fact that many of them must be given over to vacation rental, Montevideo was the one destination on this trip where we ended up staying in a private room in a hostel rather than a rented apartment.
For most of the time I’ve traveled in South America, whenever I’ve visited a new place – whether alone or more recently, with family – staying in a hostel had always been my favorite way to spend the night. Being able to cook up a few meals in the shared kitchen is a great way to save money on the road, and inevitably, you’ll end up meeting some interesting characters as well.
But as time has gone on, we’ve learned that for about the same price per night in a private room in a hostel, you can rent an apartment in most cities. This was an accidental discovery made during our trip to Bariloche the year before, but once we saw the benefit of the space and privacy of a temporary apartment rental, it’s quickly become our preferred accommodation away from home.
For whatever reason, however, as I was contacting people while we were still in Buenos Aires, in anticipation of our stay in Montevideo, I had a hard time pinning anyone down on the phone. The only person I managed to get in touch with and make a reservation was the owner of a hostel. What we got was a room in an old house two blocks from the beach, not so bad!
With the exception of a young man from Córdoba, Argentina and an older woman from Buenos Aires, all our fellow guests were from Chile, despite the fact that Chile is much further away. Evidence perhaps of the direction the fleeting winds of economic prosperity have been blowing in recent years. Interestingly, none of the Chileans batted an eye at the higher prices to be found in Uruguay, while both of the Argentines were incredulous. Indeed, a visit to a restaurant or supermarket revealed most food to be about double the price of what we’d seen in Argentina.
Our second day in the city was spent in the urban center. What we found was a peaceful downtown, with quiet streets, orderly commerce, and – with some notable exceptions – modest architecture compared to what we’ve seen in Buenos Aires or even Santiago. Montevideo has always lived in the shadow of Buenos Aires across the Río de la Plata. Maybe as a result, the people of Montevideo are a laid-back bunch. While sharing a virtually identical accent with their Argentine neighbors, and steeped in a history deeply connected with that of Argentina, the pace of life here is decidedly slower.
In a place where even the top politicians intermingle with the public in the street with little fanfare, the Uruguayan people generally seem to ignore pretense and just get on with their daily business. That said, Uruguay has been in the news of late, with President José Mujica making headlines for his unassuming lifestyle, living on a flower farm with his wife rather than the Presidential Palace and driving his old VW Beetle. And more recently, Uruguay seems set to become the first country in South America to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
Uruguay had long caught my attention as being the home of one of my favorite writers in Spanish, Eduardo Galeano. As we roamed the streets of Montevideo during our short visit, I did a double take in the direction of every bald-headed man I saw, hoping I might have the luck to cross paths with the author of the first books in Spanish I managed to decipher.
While I never saw Mr. Galeano, I did plenty of double takes. Uruguay has a small population with a low rate of growth, meaning an aging populace, and lots of bald heads. That notwithstanding, here we see the next generation of Uruguayans casually soaking up some fine literary tradition during their summer break.
Of course, no visit to Montevideo would be complete without a visit to the Plaza Independencia and the Palacio Salvo. Far and away the city’s most iconic landmark, the Palacio Salvo is one of South America’s original skyscrapers. At 100 meters in height and with its distinctive architectural flourish, it stood as the continent’s tallest building for many years. Today, some lucky citizens even call it home.
The man on horseback is José Artigas, a native to Montevideo turned gaucho (read: South American cowboy). He became something akin to the George Washington of Uruguay. He helped battle both the Spanish and the British as South America began to assert its political independence, and later was instrumental in carving out the Uruguayan identity as separate and independent from what would become Argentina.
As I reflect on our days in Montevideo, I can’t help but think that we peeled back very little of the surface of this understated city. While it may never equal the excitement and energy of Buenos Aires or the tropical beauty of Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo is quietly waiting to be discovered. The patient traveler who spends the time to fully explore this well-organized and comfortable capital city of 1.8 million is bound to be rewarded for his effort. With some luck, another trip to this part of South America will be in our future.
Top photo credit only: patrickjouest.com.
There was more to our time in Buenos Aires than I’ve reported recently. The time we spent roaming Palermo and other residential neighborhoods. The various parks and green spaces, the pizza, grilled meats, and traditional Argentine dishes. The trip by train to the nearby river town of Tigre.
But we’d better keep the story moving forward. After a week in Buenos Aires, we boarded a large ferry boat and headed across the estuary separating Argentina from Uruguay. It’s famously called the Río de la Plata, or as it is sometimes translated into English, the River Plate. But let’s be realistic, it’s really more estuary than river. As we headed out onto the water, we were granted a nice view of the city we were leaving behind.
There are two kinds of ferries you can take across the border. There’s a smaller, faster boat that takes an hour and has seats much more like an airplane’s to relax in during your short voyage. The other option is a slower vessel designed more like a cruise ship, with an open air deck on the top, a bar and café, and even live music on the lower deck. That’s the one we chose to take. We weren’t in any hurry, and it was still morning, so why not enjoy a laid back trip across the water?
Crossing the Río de la Plata by boat is one of those essential moments for any traveler trying to have a full South American experience. While the River Plate is not quite a river, it’s also not quite the sea. Calm water, brown from the sediment pouring off the continent, all silent proof of the sheltered waterway you’re sailing across. And just as you lose sight of land and the metropolis of Buenos Aires behind you, you see another coast coming into view ahead. As your ship presses onward, the shroud of summer humidity gives way and you catch your first glimpse of the historic city of Colonia, your port of entry to Uruguay.
There’s nothing like being in a seaport town in the summer. Looking out onto the expanse of water from the vantage point of a quiet beach, blue skies, hot sun, cool breeze, boats sailing in and out of the harbor. Tropical music provides the right ambiance to complement the sound of the gentle waves lapping up onto the shore. What a fantastic way to spend your days. At times like this, you start to wonder why you live so far from the seaside.
But Colonia is famous not for its beaches or its port. Its port does receive quite a few cruise ships and ferries, like the one we arrived on, and a beach like the one in the photo above. But Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital city, is the main port city for the country. And if you’re in Uruguay for its beaches, cities like Punta del Este are much trendier destinations. Instead, the main attraction in Colonia is its historic center.
Founded in 1680 by the Portuguese, the settlement changed hands between Portugal and Spain several times throughout its history. This constant push and pull has left an indelible architectural mark on the city, as the Portuguese and Spanish both imparted their own legacy on the varied street plan and buildings to be found there today.
Uruguay itself, a tiny country sandwiched between the two huge countries of Brazil and Argentina, was forged as an independent nation mainly in order to create a buffer zone between the ambitions of those two larger countries, which had fought to a stalemate in a war in the region. And while this small territory has a border with Brazil as long or longer than the one it shares with Argentina (depending on how you want to define the border along the Plata River), culturally speaking, Uruguay is much closer to Argentina.
Uruguayans speak Spanish in an accent (for me) indistinguishable from the famously characteristic dialect of Argentina. The Uruguayan people also share Argentinian’s appreciation for the drink yerba mate. It could even be argued that Uruguayans surpass Argentines in their fanaticism for the beverage. While we saw plenty of people drinking mate in the streets and parks of Buenos Aires and other cities we’ve explored in Argentina, we typically saw them drinking it in the afternoon, presumably as an excuse to spend some time relaxing outdoors, after lunch.
Unfortunately we didn’t get any demonstrative photos of Uruguayans and their prodigious consumption of mate. But we were impressed to see people there drinking it in the morning with breakfast, as well as at lunch, and after dinner. And it was not uncommon to find people walking around with a leather pouch across their shoulders, custom designed to hold mate, gourd, and hot water thermos, for easy consumption whenever you want. I can’t blame people for enjoying it so much, it’s a great way to spend a leisurely afternoon in the park. If you’re not sure what mate is, you can easily investigate online. But, I digress…
During our stroll through Colonia’s historic district, we happened upon this group of men in old-timey hats and suspenders. For obvious reasons, film crews regularly descend on the town, to take advantage of its ready-made colonial backdrop. By the time we came upon the group, the filming for the scene was coming to its conclusion, and for the rest of the afternoon the actors went loitering about town in their own various directions, still in costume. They lent an extra air of history to our afternoon, the sight of people casually walking by in their old-fashioned vests and trousers, roaming the streets around us.
South America has no shortage of historic neighborhoods and cities. There are Unesco World Heritage sites to be found in just about every country in Latin America, and many more whose colonial buildings and other storied locations deserve international recognition. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to explore and even live in or near several of these beautiful places over the past few years. Colonia, though, for its superb summer climate, lush foliage mixed with lovely cobbled streets and well-maintained old buildings, all facing a quiet inlet on the Atlantic coast, made for one of the most peaceful historic locations I’ve had the chance to visit. Sit in the shade of an old tree, taking in the fresh sea breeze amongst its silently aging walls, and its history begins to descend serenely upon you, leaving an impression of timelessness. Timeless, in the sense that your short stay starts to extend into one of those eternally lasting, long, sunny afternoons we’ve all enjoyed in the midsummer. And timeless, because at that moment you feel at one with history, at one with the place you’re in, a place you already know you’ll never forget.
Another of our days in Buenos Aires was dedicated to exploring the neighborhood known as La Boca. No trip to Argentina’s capital would be complete without visiting this place, with its colorful buildings and equally colorful history, characterized largely by its Italian (mainly Genovese) influence. Today its streets are given over to the overwhelming amount of tourism the neighborhood receives.
Drawn to the neighborhood mainly for its picture-perfect, brightly colored walls and art situated on cobbled streets, tourists have many places to rest and take in their surroundings. The varied colors of the houses apparently date back to the original days of the neighborhood, when the immigrant families moved into conventillos as they did in San Telmo.
Here in La Boca they painted their homes with the leftover paint they used to paint the boats they used to make their livelihoods. As this paint consisted of whatever colors and quantities remained after their boats were painted, the houses ended up with a mix of colors.
In more recent times the painter Benito Quinquela Martín, who was a resident in the neighborhood and found inspiration for his art in the port working-class character of the area, encouraged his neighbors to revive the tradition of assorted colors on their houses and buildings. So it is him we can probably thank, not only for the colorful and artistic character of the neighborhood, but also for the amount of tourists who flock there to see it.
The conventillos are still there, but their original purpose, as blue collar tenement houses, has given way to antique and souvenir shops.
And the huddled masses yearning to be free have been replaced by bustling tourists yearning to have lunch.
Dark, narrow alleyways have become well-appointed, well-lit thoroughfares. It may have lost its authentic flavor, but La Boca has been transformed into something of a cultural playground. Buenos Aires, for export.
More than a colorful mural, this wall painting illustrates a moment in history when La Boca asserted a very temporary secession from the rest of Argentina at the end of the 19th century. The Genovese flag, whose influence can be seen in the shield of La Boca pictured here, was raised in rebellion against outside authority. It was almost immediately taken down personally by the Argentine President, who took it upon himself to address the demands of the inhabitants of the neighborhood.
The neighborhood of La Boca, at least the part given over to tourism, consists of only about six narrow blocks, each heaving with visitors at peak hours. Some efforts have been made to expand the tourist zone beyond its current borders. As we were seeking our own place to have lunch, a couple of promoters pointed us in the direction of a restaurant only a block away from the dense pack of outdoor patios.
A palpable change in atmosphere overcomes you when you walk out of the tourist playland. La Boca, like many of the neighborhoods south of Buenos Aires, is a low-income area. With the blocks around El Caminito being a notable exception, tour guides will advise you not to wander far from those colorful streets. Perhaps for that reason, we felt wary enough to heed that advice and have lunch in the more populous zone.
If we had gone to that other restaurant, maybe some ill fate would have befallen us. Or maybe we would have gotten a cheaper lunch. As it was, we found a tasty, but very expensive meal at a restaurant that charged us even for the cubierto. I understand that word to refer normally to the silverware, but in this case was a general fee just to partake in the restaurant, beyond the cost of the food and the tip expected from the waiter.
With such a high demand from the clientele in such a small neighborhood, any business in the area is in a good position to ask for more money than you would usually expect to pay. Closer to the old docks while we waited for the bus to take us downtown, we saw cheaper fare for sale: panchos (hot dogs) and other fast food sold from pushcarts. But with bellies full of Argentine asado, even at an inflated price, we were content.
In February we planned a bus trip, across the Andes and then across the rest of the South America, with the goal of reaching Buenos Aires, the Pacific Ocean, and Uruguay. On the way we had looked forward to seeing the vineyards of Mendoza, the Jesuit architecture and countless universities of Córdoba, and sweltering city of Rosario and the mighty river that flows past it.
After competing with the thousands of other travelers the summer before in the South of Chile for transport and accommodations, this time we micromanaged our agenda, estimating how many days we ought to spend at each place. We called ahead to rent apartments for specific dates at each destination, only to discover that the pickings were already pretty slim in each city. Adding to the complication, the majority of the people and agencies we spoke with wanted deposits made in advance, requiring Western Union-style cash transfers since we were moving money internationally from Chile to Argentina.
Fortunately we ended up making only one such deposit after all. On the night of our departure, we boarded a sleeper bus with wide, well-cushioned, 1st class seats that recline horizontally. We were hoping to sleep through the ride, waking only to present our passports at the border high in the Cordillera between Santiago and Mendoza. We traveled at night because the mountain pass was under construction and was down to one lane, with traffic heading from Argentina to Chile by day, and from Chile to Argentina only at night. But rather than wake up to the anticipated bustle of everyone getting off the bus to wait blearily in line at customs, we heard the ticket-taker walking down the aisle, informing us that we were heading back to Santiago.
It turned out that some summer rain had washed out the road on the Argentine side of the mountains, stopping all movement across the border for a week. All our carefully arranged plans suddenly fizzled as the bus turned around and slowly wended its way back down the twists and turns between us and Santiago. I tried to sleep, but found myself endlessly going over new ideas in my mind, how we might be able to do something with our precious weeks off work.
If the mountains could not be traversed by land, the only way left to us was to go by air. A quick perusal of flights revealed prices at well over US$1000 per person for anything at such short notice. But since we already had one-way tickets back from Buenos Aires to Santiago at the end of our planned trip, I was able to speak with someone at LAN Airlines who turned our one-way tickets into a round trip, departing from Santiago the next morning, for only an extra $100 per person. In the end, a modest price to pay to salvage our trip. We’d miss Mendoza, Córdoba and Rosario, but we’d extend our time in Argentina’s famed capital city, by some accounts South America’s premier metropolis.
In the hours between booking our last-minute flight and boarding the plane, we managed to find an apartment for a week in Palermo, one of Buenos Aires’ trendier neighborhoods. From there we’d have several parks to explore – as well as access to the Subte, the subway system – and from there, the rest of the city’s diverse sections.
We also had a nice balcony from which to contemplate our warm, humid, urban surroundings. Buenos Aires in February can be very hot, not unlike Florida in the Summer.
Our first stop was to buy some tickets on the ferry over to Colonia in Uruguay for the next week. The ferry was located, naturally, at Buenos Aires’ port, the historic and renovated Puerto Madero. Now largely a port dedicated to tourism and yachting aficionados, its canal is bordered on one side by the red brick storehouses of the area’s original days as a commercial hub. Those buildings have now been transformed into one high-end, high-priced restaurant after another.
Those restaurants surely benefit as much from tourist traffic as much as from the new commercial district on the other side of the canal, where you can see new glass skyscrapers springing up and providing lots of new office space in what is already an expansive downtown area.
Taking advantage of the port’s proximity to downtown Buenos Aires, we walked over to the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s presidential palace, here seen in the distance across the Plaza de Mayo. The plaza, being public space so close to where many of the decisions affecting the country are made, has naturally been the staging ground for many historic protests. Perhaps due to this, a permanent-looking fence was in place during our visit, itself covered in dozens of signs rendering many of the common complaints of the Argentine public in vitriolic slogans.
The Plaza is also surrounded by a number of other stately buildings, from the Central Bank to this, the Municipal Cathedral. With its Greek columns and other pre-Christian design elements, I had it pegged as the Supreme Court or some other legal institution. But no center square in Latin America is complete without a Catholic church, and I later learned that the twelve columns represent the twelve apostles.
Our walking tour took us next along the Avenida de Mayo, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. It happened to be Sunday in Summer on the day of our visit, and so we enjoyed a very laid-back stroll along what must be a heavily trafficked corridor on a normal working day. We also took the opportunity to have a late lunch, sampling for the first time the famed pizza of Buenos Aires.
Seeing as how this particular street is known for its many cafés and restaurants, and given the general prestige of the neighborhood, I expected such notoriety to equal overblown prices. But not at all, and the pizza was damn good, especially paired with a cold beer,. In keeping with the spirit of the experience and the avenue we were on, we couldn’t resist a cup of coffee as a bajativo.
While we were sitting at that restaurant, we casually watched the news and saw the announcement that the Pope would resign his position. I found it very fitting that we saw such news in a Buenos Aires restaurant, being as it was that the Pope’s successor would turn out to be from that very city.
We also had the opportunity to witness firsthand what we had heard was so fundamental to porteño culture. At a table by the window, we noticed a gentleman reading a newspaper with an espresso on the table. He was there when we arrived, and he was still there when we left. He hadn’t ordered anything else during all that time, as far as we knew, and there was no pressure for him to. And why should there be, especially since it was a quiet Sunday afternoon?
But even if the restaurant had been full, I imagine such a scene would still be common. Perhaps taken from the city’s Italian heritage or Parisian pretensions, the custom of spending time outside the home, in public, in the park, in a café, is something embedded in the culture.
By the time we had finished eating and made it to the other end of the Avenida de Mayo where it opens up into the Plaza del Congreso, it was starting to get late. There was just enough light to get a good look at the striking architecture of the Congress building and the large monument in front of it.
The monument itself was fenced off, but the gate was open and a few people were gathered at the top of the stairs leading up to it. So we walked in and climbed the stairs. And were promptly told by a guard that we needed to get out.
Apparently the other people were there to do some filming and had special permission to be there. Being another public space in front of another building where important political decisions are made, the Plaza del Congreso is as much a gravitational point for protests as the Plaza de Mayo, and this monument has been hit with a lot of spray paint over the years. The best way to keep it clean, apparently, is to keep people away from it altogether. But we were clearly not out to cause any trouble, and so the security guard kindly let me snap a picture from up there before letting us out and closing the gate behind us.
With the sun going down, we got back on the metro and back to our home away from home in Palermo. It was a fine first day in Buenos Aires. With a week to spend getting to know the city, downtown was an excellent place to start.
During the recent visit of my sister-in-law, we had the chance to get out of the city for a couple of days, and being late Fall at the time, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to visit one of the countless vineyards near Santiago, before all the grapes were gone from the vines. We took a train to the Cachapoal Valley, about 45 minutes south of the city. Our destination was the viña Anakena. Their wine is one of the more common ones you can find in Santiago, and over the years I’ve found myself buying it again and again for a consistently drinkable and flavorful bottle. At 3000 pesos ($6) their standard reserva is a great go-to wine for dinner or a party.
One of the almost universal qualities of visiting any vineyard is the chance to spend time in a rural setting, surrounded by wide open spaces. And since grapes thrive in a Mediterranean climate, that usually means blue skies and warm sun as well, even on a late Autumn day.
Many vineyards take advantage of this fact by setting aside some area on their property in order to enjoy the sublime setting. Anakena, for example, features a small pond with an open field next to it, in addition to an indoor space designed for events like weddings or business conferences.
Any tour of a vineyard naturally begins with a walk among the rows of grapevines. We went in May, quite late in the autumn harvest season, but we were lucky to find quite a few grapes left on the vines, which we were invited to sample. I can’t say that I’ve tried many fresh grapes of the wine-making varieties, nor that I have anything close to an expert’s palate when it comes to appreciating the finest subtleties of grape and wine flavors. With that caveat, I’ll tell you that I was very surprised to discover that the several fresh wine grapes that we tried were, while delicious and varied, not particularly exceptional in their flavor for me, compared to other high quality table grapes I’ve sampled in the past. I don’t know what I was expecting from a wine grape compared to a table grape, but whatever I was hoping to taste, I didn’t quite get it.
Our tour guide for the day didn’t go into great detail explaining what characteristics contribute to the selection and cultivation of the many wine grapes we enjoy today. But I imagine in addition to flavor are other qualities such as color, as well as various chemical compositions that contribute to good fermentation, and what have you.
We were taken along several rows of grapevines, each helpfully labeled to identify that particular grape we would be trying.
While I don’t specifically recall the contrasts in taste, texture, color or juiciness of each grape that I tasted that day, I can say that I was impressed by the great range in flavors from one variety to the next. While some were exceptionally sweet, others were very acidic and even bitter. We were told that classic French reds such as the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot,as well as the now distinctively Chilean Carmenere, did particularly well in the climate of the Cachapoal valley.
Endless rows of grapevines framed by woods and graced with the water runoff from the mountains of the Cordillera de los Andes on the horizon. A truly beautiful place to learn a thing or two about winemaking.
The second part of the tour took us to the commercial facilities of the vineyard. Here we saw a modern operation including the mechanized mashing of grapes.
We also had the chance to see these huge vats used for the fermentation of the grape juice, as well as an automated bottling facility, which was not in operation at the time. Our guide told us that the vineyard even leases their bottling operation to other vineyards lacking their own such machinery.
The last leg of the tour of the facilities took us to the barrel room, where you can see the wine reposing in oaken casks, full up to their purple-stained bungholes (that’s what they’re called).
Here is where the wine mellows with age, and also begins to take on some of those deeper flavors imparted from contact with the oak itself.
The climax of the tour came with the tasting of some of the wine we’d been tantalized with throughout the afternoon. While far from a connoisseur of wine, I benefited greatly from a quick lesson on getting the most out of a glass of wine. From analyzing the color to noting the aroma in a gradual way before taking the first sip, we were shown a short list of simple techniques to aid in the appreciation of any wine that fills your glass.
We sampled three wines before being let loose in the obligatory gift shop where the tasting took place. We were also offered some very low prices on a few of Anakena’s premium bottles, which we couldn’t pass up.
All in all, a fine foray into the world of winemaking.
Cordillera de los Andes, taken from the terrace of the Santiago Library, Barrio Brasil
We rented a cabin about a kilometer outside of the town itself, with views over the irrigated vineyards spreading out across the valley floor. Being early Spring, many of them had not yet put out their leaves; I imagine by December the valley is quite a bit greener. The hillsides, by contrast, are perpetually brown and barren, belying the arid climate of the region. Sights such as this one demonstrate how essential the river is for life in this part of Chile.
Our cabin was one of several on a small property outfitted with some grills for barbecue, a pool (albeit with water a little too cold for swimming at that time of year), a bar, and some nice common areas to enjoy the sublime climate of the area. With its crisp, clean desert air, Pisco Elqui is a fine place to sit in the cool shade and contemplate the eternal hillsides. In fact, the Elqui Valley is at least as famous for its mystical qualities as it is for its pisco. Several communes are to be found in the area, and the various towns dotting the valley all have an undercurrent at times hippy, at others new age.
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.
As time has gone on we’ve developed a preference for staying in apartments and private cabins during our travels. Both options give us access to our own kitchen during our stay, which is what has always attracted me to staying in hostels in the past. Going out to eat is one of the pleasures of vacation, but it’s also nice (and much cheaper) to be able to cook in the comfort of your own accommodations when you choose to. But if you compare the cost of a private apartment or cabin to that of a private room in a hostel, at least in South America, the prices end up being about the same. All things considered, we’ve ended up appreciating the privacy we get from having a space to call our own while we travel.
The town of Pisco Elqui is made up of just a few winding, dusty roads lined by old, single story brick houses. A quiet town animated by tourism, especially the during the fiestas patrias of September. While we were there, the streets were decked out with Chilean flags and red, white and blue banners and ribbons everywhere you looked.
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.
Besides the simple act of relaxing and enjoying the peace and quiet of the valley, the main tourist attraction of Pisco Elqui is the Mistral Distillery. It’s named after Chile’s 1st Nobel laureate – and the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature – Gabriela Mistral. While not born in Pisco Elqui, she was born just down the road, in Vicuña. Vicuña already has the Capel distillery, which cranks out a cheaper and more commercial pisco, so the Mistral name was up for grabs. Here we see big fermentation tanks, where yeast has its way with grape juice under a controlled environment, producing alcohol, carbon dioxide, and warm air. And in the foreground is, for dramatic effect, an old barrel.
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.
While our little group was unable to observe the process directly, we were privy to the finished product at the end of the tour. Commemorative stemware in hand, surrounded by barrels of pisco in repose, we tasted sip after sip of Destilería Mistral’s various offerings, from the youngest to the most premium bottle they produce. I will admit, I’m not a fan of pisco. I’ve tried, but it’s simply not a liquor I can appreciate. While I can accept it as a respectable ingredient in a cocktail, I have never been able to find a pisco that has been palatable straight up, either to shoot or to sip.
Over time I’ve lined up liquor mentally into two columns, with tequila, mezcal, rum, vodka, and to a lesser extent, whiskey and even raw aguardiente as tasty, attainable drinks with stand up flavors of their own, if you can find the right bottle, on one side. On the other unapproachable one lie gin and pisco, among others, which I can’t seem to get my palate around. Maybe I just haven’t found the right bottle yet. I’m willing to keep an open mind.
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.
Close to La Serena in the “short North,” (el Norte chico) of Chile, situated on the south end of a calm bay, is the port city of Coquimbo. It’s so close to La Serena, in fact, that it has always vied with its nearby neighbor for prominence in the region, much as Valparaíso does with Viña del Mar along the coast nearer to Santiago. La Serena is much older than Coquimbo, and today is much more recognized as a tourist destination. Coquimbo, for its part, is an important center of shipping for the 4th region of Chile, and has even lent its name to the area, also known as the region of Coquimbo.
Because of its history as a port, it received a lot of European immigration in the 1800′s much as Valparaíso did. It’s not as recognized for this fact as Valpo, but today you can still find sections of the city with the same kind of architecture you’ll find in Valparaíso’s hilly historic districts. Granted, there aren’t as many old buildings as Chile’s more famous port to the south, and Coquimbo doesn’t receive nearly as much tourism, but if you pay a visit to La Serena it’s well worth the time to spend an afternoon in el barrio inglés, and then take a walk down to nicely renovated costanera on the seafront.
From there you get a nice view of the sea, the many ships waiting in harbor, the city of La Serena across the bay, and the green hills pictured above. But if you turn your back to the seafront, you are also treated to a nice view of the city of Coquimbo itself. Then you realize that the comparison of Valparaíso and Coquimbo doesn’t stop with their shared history as ports. Coquimbo’s geography is much like Valpo’s, with the city spilling onto and over the hills surrounding the bay. In many ways – geographically, as a port, for its historic center – Coquimbo can be considered something of a Valparaíso in miniature.
But if there’s one thing that sets Coquimbo apart from any other city in Chile, it is the pampilla. A huge outdoor festival taking place during the fiestas patrias of Chile for several days around September 18th, people flock to Coquimbo to camp, buy, sell, eat, and drink. Across the open field you can see countless tents set up to form a temporary city, with an estimated 100,000 people or more, coming for the day or for several days in a row.
The city of Coquimbo itself, in fact, was very quiet that day, and many stores and restaurants were closed. That’s because, during the fiestas patrias, so many people relocate from the city to the pampilla. Individuals, but also businesses. Restaurants and clothing stores set up outdoor stands. But also hardware stores, real estate agencies, electronics sellers. The pampilla concentrates the entire spectrum of humanity into a glorious spectacle of sun-drenched revelry. Have a beer, have another. Eat some barbecued meat, and why not? Buy a power saw, or your next apartment!
We stayed at the pampilla long enough to share a pitcher of beer and lunch fresh off the grill, and left before the sun went down. As fun as it was, we got the idea after a few laps around the main rows of restaurants and shops. We never saw the crowning of the pampilla’s beauty queen, or any of the live music going on at the main stage. But I did pick up a bottle of chicha, a sweet, fizzy, boozy, fermented grape juice on the way out. That way we could keep the party going in our own quiet way back in La Serena, and let things go as they would, with or without us, back in Coquimbo.