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.





Or rather Peru and Chile have pisco.




You see, both Peru and Chile consider pisco their national drink. It’s hard for outsiders to comprehend the strength of sentiment from both sides.




I found out in La Serena.




La Serena is the last stop northwards from Santiago before the long Atacama desert with a questionable international flavour. Every Christian denomination, cult and religious order has a large presence there – thirty at the last count – even though its population is only around 200,000. Maybe they want to catch you unawares as you emerge from the Atacama thirsty, worn out and sunstruck, in order to convert you.




Its long stretch of sandy beach has turned La Serena into the most upmarket Pacific resort between Lima and Cape Horn. It advertises proudly its perfect weather – with no exaggeration. To attest to this, three astronomical observatories have been built in its hinterland to take advantage of the dry climate and cloudless skies: El Tololo a US/Chilean collaboration, the European La Silla and the smaller, Las Campanas, belonging to the Carnegie Institute.




The town is also the centre of pisco production in Chile. The very first vines were planted as early as 1550 in the Elqui valley nearby, which today is the location of the Capel distillation plant – Capel being the pisco brand you’ll find everywhere in Chile. So forget the telescopes, it is the Elqui valley tour, every backpacker’s on. A bit of warning though: the wily Chileans combine the tour with a visit to the village of Vicuña and the museum of Gabriela Mistral, the country’s first recipient of the Nobel prize for literature in 1945. Sneaky.




So let me forward to the alcoholic part of the excursion.




There has been a long fight between Peru and Chile – and their historians – about the origins of the pisco name and therefore the important AOC protection of origin. Winner takes all in these cases: think of Champagne (highly regarded) and Prosecco (bleurgh).




The Peruvians had pointed out to me that they actually have a town called Pisco, so I played devil’s advocate.




‘Isn’t there a Pisco town in Peru? ‘ I asked.




Our Capel guide was a young woman: petite, brunette and very knowledgeable on all things pisco.




‘Yes ‘, she countered,  ‘but the town of Pisco was founded as a customs port in 1640,and we started fermenting the drink in Santiago and La Serena in 1552 ‘.




What about the name? In Peru, I told her, they insist that the word pisco is of Quechua origin and it means “bird”. As there are no Quechua Indians in Chile, this clinches it for me.




She was prepared even for that argument. Apparently there is a Mapuche word “Pishku” meaning “something cooked in a pot” – could that also mean “fermented”? I guessed that there are no Mapuche speakers in Peru. As it happens, I was right.




A final question was burning my tongue. I’d been told that Peru and Chile went to the court in the US regarding the ownership of the name and that Peru had won. Was that true ?




I knew from her obvious embarrassment that Peru had, indeed, won the battle of the pisco wars. No, she admitted, the Chileans cannot sell pisco in the US as pisco. Peru’s town of Pisco had won the argument; it’s only the Peruvians who can sell their product as “Pisco”.




So what did the Chileans do? They retaliated by renaming one village in the valley to Pisco Elqui, and now sell their pisco in the US – and the world – as Pisco Elqui.




I sampled more than my share of free pisco cocktails (I had to try the 35º proof and the 40º proof and the 45º proof ) on an empty stomach which kind of killed the rest of the day. So let me take sides. I find that the Chilean pisco is superior to the Peruvian. There I said it. I reckon it’s because of the more advanced technology employed and the better quality control, elements adopted from their very successful Chilean wine industry.




On the way back we stopped to pay our respects to the grave of Gabriella Mistral on a small hill in the village of Monte Grande, with a wonderful inscription, translated freely as 'As the soul is to the body, so are poets to their people' .




Or so I was told. Pisco-pickled, I slept through it on the bus.


You can get Peru included as a stopover in the 4 Continent Explorer RTW or there are cheaper options via Latin America here

roundtheworldflights.com have some great options in South America here