Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons (2009)

Part III. DISCOVERY

Chapter 14. PISCO ELQUI

Demon Cactuses

The foreground is singular from the number of parallel & extensive terraces; & the included strip of green valley abounding with its willow bushes is contrasted on each hand by the naked hills.

—BEAGLE DIARY, JUNE 7, 1835

A FEW WEEKS LATER, JOSH AND I drove east through the Chilean desert in a rented Fiat. We stuck to a narrow cultivated valley along a shallow, gravel-lined river, following Darwin’s trail of geological exploration from Coquimbo. The landscape looked just like the kind of place you’d find a wide-eyed mineralogist racing around, yipping with delight, trying to grab one of everything. It also looked like the kind of place you’d find some fool mineralogist’s bleached bones. Amongst all the rockiness, a few hardy cactuses stuck it out and added a splash of olive to a palette of earthy rusts, yellows, and grays.

Josh, sitting in the passenger seat, hadn’t said anything in about twenty minutes. I glanced away from the road to see what he was doing and saw him fumbling furiously with some radio cables from his backpack. He muttered about short splices and receivers and bent over his cables again with a roll of electrical tape. He twisted a few things together, gently laid the tape over them, and suddenly Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash were singing a duet through our car radio—he had spliced three cables together and turned his iPod into a small broadcasting device.

Then he looked out the window.

“Demon cactuses!” he yelped immediately. “Oh my God!”

A grove of long-armed cactuses leaned along the road, bristling with lengthy, scary spines. “Unbeknownst to most horticulturalists,” Josh trembled, “there are actually three kinds of saguaro. Those with short spines, those with long spines, and the holy shit! variety.”

Cactuses are not my kind of plant. I fell into a cactus once, face first, on a family trip to Arizona. Enough for me; I’ll stick to ferns and wildflowers. But Josh had more to say about the spines and rather extended himself on the subject. They reminded him of convergent evolution, where different species in different-but-similar places respond by evolving the same adaptations. They reminded him of cactuses in the American southwest. Could they be related? They looked related. He wondered how cactuses would have made it here. Or did they start out here? How would a cactus walk from South America to North America? Were these really related to saguaro cactuses? Had they been introduced? Was there a Johnny Cactusseed who traveled the world, distributing columnar plants with, as Josh called it, “spines that would make an iron maiden look like a deck chair”? It was an inspired, entertaining monologue. Josh is now on his way to becoming a professor, and to all his prospective students, let me just say that you are lucky. Ask him about cactuses.

Meanwhile we piddled along past tranquil little villages so cute they ought to have starred in Disney movies. The sun beamed down through clear desert air and pure blue sky. A gentle breeze kept the temperature warm, not hot. The glare reflected on glowing crimson-and-gold vineyards along the river and lit up the pink rocks. Tiny adobe houses with driftwood posts grew out of the hillsides, their boundaries marked by explosions of fragrant purple flowers and blooming jasmine. “We passed through several small villages; the valley was beautifully cultivated & the whole scenery very grand,” Darwin wrote.

Josh and I wanted to find the spot where Darwin turned around and recorded that observation, in the Coquimbo valley “where the R. Claro joins the Elque.” We understood this would be the meeting of the Claro and Elqui Rivers, but depending on the map, that meeting place changed. On some maps the Elqui stopped halfway down a narrow branching valley, on others the Rio Claro was formed by the junction of the Elqui and the Rio Turbio flowing out of the Andes, and on still other maps the Rio Claro itself trickled clear back to the cordillera. We asked three different strangers on the street and got three different answers, and decided to just drive along and see for ourselves. Maybe, like Darwin, we could inspect the haciendas and mines along the way.

We passed river junction candidate one—the odds-on favorite—where the Coquimbo valley split off into the Elqui valley and turned south to follow a narrow road up the Elqui valley. Two more possibilities followed, but neither seemed impressive enough to be the meeting of two rivers. By this point, the valley was only a quarter-mile wide and the streams flowing through it were small and lined with rushes. The canyon walls closed in on the road, which wound side to side, seeking out level spots wherever possible. A few houses clung to the slopes. “It’s cool how all the things here look baked,” Josh said. “Houses, land, trees . . .”

“People,” I interjected, as we passed a shirtless, tanned man hugging a shady spot along the road.

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After half an hour we arrived in Pisco Elqui at the far tip of the valley, almost certainly beyond where Darwin traveled. We stumbled out of the car and went to inspect the town. It was adorable. The odd-sounding Pisco Elqui was not its original name, we discovered. Originally, the town was called La Unión. Then politics got in the way, and not just any kind of politics: Alcohol politics. We knew that Chile and its neighbor to the north, Peru, both claimed to have invented a kind of grape brandy known as pisco. Peru, Chile noted enviously, even had a town named Pisco. In 1939, the Chilean government decided that this situation would not do. The legislature passed a law, and La Unión, where vintners grew Chile’s finest pisco grapes, assumed the mantle of Pisco Elqui.

From the shade of a bench-lined plaza and whimsical church, we could see RRR—the distillery for Chile’s oldest pisco. I remembered one of Darwin’s more agricultural observations: “The figs & grapes of Elqui are famous for their superiority & cultivated to great extent.” Darwin didn’t linger; agriculture didn’t much interest him and geology and mineral mines did.

We lingered. “We went looking for mines to inspect and couldn’t find any, so we inspected the pisco factory instead,” I said to Josh. “Come on.”

We crossed into a big adobe building and found the tasting room.

“RRR is the oldest pisco in Chile,” explained the man behind the counter. “Here.”

He set two wine glasses filled with a translucent yellowish liquid down in front of us.

I took a cautious sip and felt the cilia rising in alarm in my throat.

“Whaaa,” Josh sputtered, “that burns!” (“Liver solvent,” he later labeled it.)

The man explained that when Spanish settlers arrived in Pisco Elqui, they started growing grapes for wine. But because of Pisco Elqui’s wonderful climate of 320 sunny days a year, the grapes had a very high sugar content. (More sun means grapes produce more sugar.) When they made wine from the grapes, then further distilled the wine into almost pure alcohol, it retained some of its flavor. Some of its flavor. To the uninitiated, pisco tastes like Drano.

He took us on a tour of the pisco distillery, through the grape presses and stills and down to the wine cellar, where pisco aged in California oak barrels. In the cool darkness, he turned on a projector and showed us a movie, with English subtitles and set to inspirational music, about the history of RRR brand pisco. “The indigenous people had developed a culture perfectly suited to receive the Spanish settlers,” one subtitle read.

Josh and I snorted in chorus, disturbing a few Spanish tourists. “The primitive Indians were perfectly suited to receive the settlers,” Josh repeated under his breath. “It’s like an anthropologist’s nightmare.”

I liked the next phrase, too: “RRR, the pisco that conquered everybody else.”

The lights in the cellar came back on, and we wandered out into the bright sunlight. While Josh continued mumbling about primitive Indians, I caught up to the guide. “Did you know that when Darwin visited here, he wrote about the grapes?” I asked.

“He did?”

“Yes.”

“Interesting,” the guide said. “So did the French naturalist, Claudio Gay. He traveled here just after Darwin and wrote that these were the best grapes in Chile. It’s a very famous valley.”

“I’m not sure he made it all the way here, though,” I said. “Darwin wrote that he turned around at the meeting of the Rio Claro and Rio Elqui. Do you know where that is?”

“Sure,” he said. “The Rio Elqui flows out of this valley, and meets the Rio Turbio. Together, they form the Rio Claro.”

We had heard this answer earlier, but suddenly it made perfect sense. To Darwin, following the Rio Claro up the valley from the coast, the turnaround point would be the junction of the Rio Claro and Rio Elqui—and he probably never knew that the Rio Claro didn’t continue beyond that spot.

Josh and I left the distillery and got back in the car and drove north into the sinking sun, with the valley half shadow and half blinding light. The grape vines appeared to be on fire, speckled with flaming reds, oranges, and yellows and glowing in the saturated light. We reached the meeting of the Rio Turbio and the Rio Elqui in a small town called Rivadavia. Amidst small convenience stores and farmhouses, a handwritten sign tacked to one adobe building offered yoga and massage. “The primitive natives were perfectly suited to receive the American tourists,” Josh cracked.

Pulling off the highway, we hopped out and stumbled across a thick gravel bed toward the river. The green, turbid Rio Turbio flowed in from the east, splitting around a gravel bar but not mixing with the dark, clear water of the Rio Elqui. For a few hundred meters, the two continued to flow side by side, white water and dark water, a river of chocolate syrup running down through a pool of milk.

“It’s beautiful,” Josh said. “I wonder about the origins of these, that they’d have such different sediment levels.”

“I wonder that Darwin didn’t mention it,” I said.

“Unless it wasn’t this way in his time,” Josh replied. “It would have to be something at the source, unless it’s so polluted now that it’s changed color.”

We picked up a few rocks and skimmed them across the surface. Our tiny splashes carried up in the air and hung like whale spouts while the current raced on by. The sun sank lower and disappeared behind the mountains. With their heavy bases, glowing sandy coloring, and sharp peaks, the mountains looked a bit like Egyptian pyramids, if only someone had seen fit to come along and plant grapes in the desert of Giza.

Once again, I found myself walking in Darwin’s footsteps, watching another sunset from a place largely unchanged since his time (except for the yoga). As Josh and I laughed and compared skipping rocks and delighted in the last remnants of the day’s sun, I realized that finding Darwin sites had taken on another level of meaning for me. There’s a danger in labeling someone a genius; it makes them inaccessible. Darwin the Genius is beyond the reach of sympathy. But Darwin the person—the one who stood and watched the sunset over this same river, the one who would happily join in with Josh and I in skipping rocks—well, he was a lot like us. He was us. His career-crowning idea of evolution by natural selection is a triumph of human achievement that sprang from the perfectly achievable endeavors of careful observation, meticulous note-taking, and joyous, boundless curiosity.

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