There are no two ways about it: the first beverage you try when you arrive in Peru or Chile is pisco. It’s a grape-based brandy made by using the bits discarded during the wine-making process mixing them with sugar and letting them. Every winemaking country has its own cheapo hooch. Italy has grappa, France has merc, Turkey has raki – and Chile has pisco.
The road from the Peruvian border to Iquique and Antofagasta through the Atacama desert is unsurprisingly imposing, if monotonous. It’s quite relaxing to sit on the bus and gaze out of the window at the dead, stony landscape which, although bare, is certainly not uncolourful. There are delicate hues of red, yellow, olive green and black with many subtle variations on brown: from light cocoa beige on the distant dunes during dawn to dark chestnut on the boulders by the highway. Nor is the Atacama featureless. The bus occasionally traverses a bridge over a canyon that becomes suddenly visible – with the Chaca Canyon the first and most impressive – or the odd national park such as the strange National Reserve of Tamarugal full of Tamarugo trees that thrive in dry saline environments.
I am ashamed to admit that part of the fun of travelling for me is consuming exotic local species. But what happens if the new life form is as cute as a cupcake and more?