Vern: The night bus dropped us in a beach town called La Serena and from there we caught a bus into the Elqui Valley and to a tiny town called Pisco Elqui. The Elqui Valley is supposed to be one on the most picturesque parts of Chile, with lush vineyards draped over the hills, fed by a rampant river, and it's the number one spot to observe the stars and planets: there is a famous domed observatory here and a few of the hotels on the valley slopes have installed sky-lights into the bedroom ceilings and have called themselves "astro lodges". The grapes grown in the region are harvested and distilled into pisco, the white grape brandy celebrated as the national drink in both Chile and Peru. The oldest distillery, Los Nichos is based here along with two other major brands, Mistral and Capel.
Unfortunately in winter the slopes are arid and the vineyards are just dusty rows of empty wooden trestles. Unluckily too, a weather system had moved over and along with it, dense cloud cover, so star-gazing was out too. Presumably as a result, Pisco Elqui was very quiet. There was no map in the guidebook (this made us feel like explorers!) and no Tourist Information office. The bus dropped us off at the plaza and we found a distillery employee on a smoke break and asked him where Prat steet was. No idea. We then tried the vendor in a deserted ice cream store. Not a clue. Jeez the hostel must be on a really obscure street! We decided to split up - I'd watch the bags and Andrea would run up to the corner and look for hostels. Andrea was back in five minutes. "That's Prat up there and the hostel has availability. This town only has four roads." And the residents sure are geography wizzes.
The hostel is L-shaped with the rooms all opening onto a scruffy garden. There is an outdoor kitchen, a swimming pool half full with green sludge. And so that they can call themselves an "Eco-hostel" there are solar-powered lights which change colours and light up the shrubbery at night. The sign on the bedroom door reads, "No smoking or burning of candles in the room but burning of incense is permitted." Great, hippies!
We went exploring - walked ALL four streets in fact - and found a grocer. He sawed a 500g chunk off of a giant squash which probably weighed 20kg. We stir-fried it later with broccoli, courgette (zucchini), garlic and onion, and ate one of our best hostel-cooked meals of the trip in the chilly garden.
The following day we hiked out of town along the road to the Los Nichos distillery (on this site since 1868) and checked in at the counter for the free tour. The kid running the desk was a little irritated that we'd disturbed him from watching Futurama on his laptop and explained that his colleague who runs the tour was in town and so the tour would start perhaps an hour late. He could suggest nothing to do in the area to kill time. So we both found a bench in the sunny courtyard amongst lemon trees and antique grape presses and barrel-trolleys, and took in some winter sun. An hour later there was no sign of the tour-guide, so we gave up and hiked back to town.
That night the kitchen was full of backpackers. Two Brazilians and two French people were having a tri-lingual conversation choosing Spanish as the common language (since they were in Chile) and when we joined we threw English into the mix. We had a lengthy conversations about travel, music and the student riots around the world and in some cases, every other sentence was in a different language and everyone still generally got the gist. This was traveling. The Brazilians were very generous with the bottle of Los Nichos pisco that they'd picked up at a supermarket out of town and we sampled it on the rocks and with sugar and lime. All we'd wanted out of the tour was a few free shots so this worked out splendidly.