Cocktails, Chilean style

A few weeks ago, I was sitting at the bar of the very lovely Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, outside of San Pedro de Atacama in Northern Chile. I’d just returned from an afternoon at 12,600 feet, exploring the Andean Altiplano Lakes of Miscanti and Miñiques, and I was feeling parched.

Small wonder I was thirsty; Atacama is the driest desert on earth. Visually and geographically, it’s like the Southwest on steroids. If the love child of Sedona, Arizona and Abiquiu, New Mexico inherited a chain of conical, snow-dusted volcanoes, the largest salt flat in Chile, and shimmering lagoons full of flamingos, Atacama is what you’d get. Kraig recently wrote a great series on exploring Atacama, which you can find here.

San Pedro itself is a surprisingly sweet little village of adobe walls and buildings, with a whitewashed church and dusty streets. It’s the world’s least offensive tourist-mecca. Alto Atacama is located about a mile-and-a-half outside of town, in the middle of a river valley sided by craggy, brick-red rock.

Native plant gardens dot the property, there are resident llamas, the small restaurant serves many locally grown foods. But these are mere details. My biggest concern that evening was soothing my dust-coated throat with a cocktail.

I most definitely approved of the pisco sour made by Sebastián, the bartender. Pisco sours are a tricky thing; too often they’re made with old lemon juice or concentrate or too much sugar, and the result is a cloying, flat-tasting mess. But Sebastián squeezed fresh lemon juice (limón de pica, or Peruvian lime, which may or may not be the same species as key lime, depending upon who you ask). The final addition of good pisco made for a smooth, tangy, refreshing libation.

Sebastián raised his eyebrows at my swiftly drained glass. “Was good?” he enquired.

“Delicioso,” I assured him. “Uno mas, por favor.” As we spoke I watched him expertly muddling a mess of quartered limóns with something brown and sticky looking.

He followed my gaze. “It’s a Mojito Atacameño. Invented here at the hotel. You like to try?”

[Photo credit: Frank Budweg]Never one to turn down a cocktail, I nodded. “What’s in it?” I asked.

“It’s made with chañar, a fruit found only in Atacama (I later found out that chañar-the fruit of Geoffroea decorticans-is also indigenous to parts of Argentina).”

“It’s very important. We use the arrope (preserved fruit in syrup) to flavor ice cream and other desserts. But it’s also a medicine,” Sebastián explained. The Atacameño’s– the local indigenous people, who have lived in the area for thousands of years–use chañar as a traditional cure for bronchitis and sore throat.

To further underscore the allure of this little round fruit, I bring you the following passage from author Edward R. Emerson (Beverages, Past and Present, 1908):

Its flavour is beyond description, and the way the Indians eat this fruit best shows in what estimation it is held. Early in the morning all hands repair to the chanareschanar orchard (for, though wild, the trees grow in immense tracts) and proceed to eat of the fruit until locomotion, except in a crawling way, becomes almost impossible, and as soon as they have arrived at this state they crawl to the river, drink as much water as they can possibly hold, and then crawl back to the trees, where they stretch themselves out at full length and sleep until night, when they repeat the operation.

Sounds like the producers of “Intervention” could have had a field day.

Sebastián passed me a bottle of arrope de chañar to try. After a small taste, I realized that it reminded me, in appearance, consistency, and flavor, of tamarind paste. Tangy, a little sour, with an almost molasses-like sweetness. It was interesting, but not something I’d think of using in a cocktail. Nevertheless, I watched, dubiously, as Sebastián meticulously put together my Mojito Atacameño.

After muddling two quartered limóns, he added two tablespoons of powdered sugar (I assume because it’s traditionally used in a pisco sour, rather than simple syrup).

To this he added a dash of creme de menthe because fresh mint was out of season; the base was Absolut Mandarin Vodka (“You can use pisco, but I think vodka is better flavor.”).

When the finished drink was set before me, I contemplated it. It closely resembled the last fecal sample I’d had to submit after I accidentally drank unfiltered river water. The mojito had floaty bits of lime pulp and was cloudy from the thick arrope de chañar; It looked repulsive. I sniffed it, and took a cautious sip.

Fantastic. A beautiful balance of tart and sweet, with a clean, citrusy finish. Ass-kickingly strong. Sebastián was looking at me expectantly.

“Uno mas, por favor.”

My trip was sponsored by Wines of Chile, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

Next stop: Cuba’s Vinales Valley

Cuba’s Viñales Valley is home to the Parque Nacional Viñales, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. The area is one of Cuba’s top-level tourist attractions. It can be reached by bus from Havana for CUC$12 ($13), a journey that takes between three and three-and-a-half hours.

Located in the far western province of Pinar del Rio, Viñales is comprised of a beautiful and otherworldly karst landscape of enormous outcrops of limestone, called mogotes, which are surrounded by green fields. The contrast between the red, even orange, soil and the super verdant foliage is dramatic and very picturesque. A media-primed visitor might wonder why this landscape hasn’t featured in any Hollywood films, at least before remembering about that pesky embargo.

Pinar del Rio is tobacco country, and in fact much of the agricultural production here is devoted to tobacco. Other crops include sugar cane, corn and various tubers. Farms in the valley sell their products to wandering tourists. There are fruits and vegetables on offer, as well as cane juice and cords of cigars. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to visit a tobacco farm during your hike and witness the various stages of tobacco production.

It is possible to tour the fields, mogotes, and caves independently, though most tourists plump for a local guide. Ours was extremely reasonable, at just CUC$3 ($3) per person per hour. Guides can be organized through casas particulares or hotels. Most walks are not particularly challenging, though shoes with a good grip are more or less obligatory.

For greater adventure, check out Viñales’ burgeoning climbing scene via Cuba Climbing. More adventurous travelers might also be interested in taking a day trip to the Santo Tomás cave system some distance beyond the town of Vinales. Santo Tomás is Cuba’s largest cave system.

Accommodation Tip:

Check out the simple, two-room Villa El Mojito, a casa particular run by an affable couple named Tita and Juanito. Tita serves up outstanding home-cooked dinners, and Juanito, formerly a bartender, goes by the nickname “El Mojito.” He mixes delicious mojitos with muddled yerba buena grown in the casa‘s back garden. A twin bedroom at Villa El Mojito goes for CUC$20 ($21). Breakfast is CUC$3 ($3) per person; dinner begins at CUC$8 ($8). The freshwater shrimp and pork are dinner standouts.