Stars, Pisco, and a Rare Bird

View from the Mirador Cerro de la Virgen  View of Vicuña from the Cerro de la Virgen. 

I skipped Saturday night earlier, so I’ll start with that.   We signed up for an astronomy tour, since after all we’re at the Centro Astronómico Alfa Aldea, and it was very good.   Maybe 25 people showed up, including some kids, but we were the only Norteamericanos.   We started in the larger white geodesic dome/tent, where we saw a short film about the origin of the earth, and they told us about the radio telescope they’ve built at the Centro.  Then we adjourned to a little open-air amphitheater where we got to look at several objects in the southern skies with a 16 inch Dobsonian telescope.  The tour leader was a young guy who retold everything in English for our benefit, and was an excellent presenter.  Turns out he is completely self-taught, and a better teacher than many I’ve worked with. Peggy, of course, was excited, but we all enjoyed it.  We got to see Eta Carinae, the largest known star, and had nice views of Jupiter and Saturn.  I think really the best thing for me was something Peggy pointed out to us; with the naked eye we could see the Magellanic Clouds, nearest sister galaxies to our own.

Sunday we went to Puclaro, which I’ve already talked about.

Monday I got up at first light and bundled up for a walk.  It wasn’t that cold, admittedly; only 40s or 50s for lows, but it had become overcast overnight, which made it chillier, and in any case the sudden jump from summer to winter has caught me off guard.   Binoculars and camera on as always, I wandered around a bit in the vineyards.  The other day I’d seen a bird I couldn’t identify in one thorn bush, so I had a look at the bush again.  A Chilean Mockingbird was perched in the top – one of a half-dozen or so on the property.  But down in the middle, a smaller mockingbird-shaped critter was flitting about.  I could see the long tail, and when he moved around, it flared to show bold white sides with a dark center.  He had a big white wing bar with a black edge below.  When I dug into the book, I was sure I was looking at a White-banded Mockingbird, which I’d suspected the first time I saw it.  This time he stuck around long enough for a couple of decent low-light photos that were good enough to put in ebird, since the species is listed as rare.   It’s daunting to claim to see a rare bird in an unfamiliar country, but I’m pretty confident on that one.  

White-banded Mockingbird
White-Banded Mockingbird

The weather forecast predicted rain in the late afternoon or evening, and we’d figured it would be a good day for some indoor touristing.  We couldn’t go see the Mamalluca observatory because their tour was full, so we decided to go to a Pisco distillery.  Pisco is a brandy made from Muscatel grapes grown in the high Andean country of Peru and Chile, and the Elqui river valley is known for it.  We started driving out of town while still trying to find an appropriate distillery in Google Earth.  I finally hit on one called Fundo Los Nichos, and Peggy had seen something mentioning it in a list of smaller distilleries, so we figured we’d go.  It was only 15 miles away.

Elqui valley near Los Nichos pisquera

Fifteen miles, of which half was super winding narrow mountain roads, it turns out.  Nevertheless, we found the place, and were about 15 minutes early for the next tour.  We were the whole tour group, as it turns out.  The guide didn’t speak English, so Robin translated.  Or, as it turned out, Robin translated, then Peggy and I negotiated with her to come up with English words for the various sorts of equipment used in the process.  

Fermentation tanks at Los Nichos

We really hit the jackpot with our more or less random choice of pisqueras, as Los Nichos is the oldest one in Chile, founded in the 1860s.  It’s an artisanal operation with only two stills, heated with steam from a wood-fired boiler.  It uses local wood for the heating and composts the spent skins, seeds, and stems for fertilizer in the vineyards.

Still at Fundo los Nichos

The founder, Rigoberto Rodriquez Rodriquez (RRR), had a weird macabre sense of humor. The Pisquera is named for the niches in the wall where RRR put bottles of wine to commemorate his friends; each niche has an epitaph over it for the friend, in advance of his demise.  I think these got written while they were all getting drunk in the wine cellars.  The bottles are still there, over 100 years old and undoubtedly turned to vinegar and sediment.

Niches at Fundo Los Nichos

Here’s a sample epitaph:


Translated, it says “Here lies Don Manuel Vinto, a most obsequious dentist. He practiced his profession solely in bars.”

The tour, of course, ended with a tasting session.  We tried two styles; the 10-month aged Los Nichos, and the 3-year aged Espiritu del Elqui.  The first is marvelously smooth, with all kinds of fruit notes – I said banana and peach, at least.  The second is much drier, with a hint of black pepper in the subdued fruit.  Both were really good, though Hamner had to give most of his to Robin, since he really didn’t want to consume too much brandy before the drive back down.

We ended the day at the Guayacan brew-pub in Vicuña, where we had too much pizza and beer.   I recommend their IPA, but I think the big hit was the Chañar, which Hamner, Peggy, and Robin all said was the best coffee stout they’d ever had.  And then when we asked the waitress, it turns out that it had no coffee in it at all, but was made with this fruit? nut? called chaña.   She, by the way, looked amazingly like Professor Barbara Lamont in the music department at Southeast.

Anyway, back we went to the Centro to pack and finish the half-bottle of wine we had left over from the night before.  Tuesday is a travel day.  A bit hectic because we got lost trying to make the connection from our La Serena – Santiago flight to our Santiago – Antofagasta flight.   Wound up outside security and were escorted unsearched by an official to the appropriate gate area, where we took a later flight.  I write this on the plane, and there will be more about Antofagasta next time.



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