Article Updated April 2016
For a couple of years I listened to tales about the Valle del Elqui, but never found the time to get there and see what all the buzz was about. Finally the stars aligned for me to go, and now I can’t seem to stay away. I found the hype to be well founded— Valle del Elqui’s mellow tones paint the perfect picture of the Chilean ideal of piola (laid-back). It possesses a subtle form of beauty that calls to mind Goldilocks’ sense of just right proportions.
Though the region developed as part of a concerted response to Peru’s ongoing claim as the true home of pisco (a distillate made from grapes), the Valle del Elqui nevertheless maintains a gentle approach to the tourist business. They offer a relaxed, family-oriented vibe, little to no crime, and over 300 days of sun annually to accompany its famously clear night skies.
Though there are some complaints the area has become commercialized in recent years, the landscape hasn’t changed; nor has it lost the buena onda (good vibes) for which it is known. “Oh, Valle del Elqui,” my friend Vladi used to tell me, “I always come back from there feeling so refreshed.” Whatever the reason may be, many people have that experience in Elqui—they sense some sort of positive energy.
Gateway to Valle del Elqui: Vicuña
I remember when I first started to feel it—a subtle shift into low gear, a merging with the slower rhythms of the valley and its inhabitants, a letting go of worries. I spent my first evenings in Vicuña watching the sun go down in peach-colored hues, peering up at the hills awash in evening light, while broad rays of sunshine stretched down the streets of this vintage Chilean town.
Vicuña is the gateway to your Valle del Elqui experience. Though many folks choose to rush through en route to more iconic locales such as Cochiguaz or Pisco Elqui, Vicuña has some perks that the savvy visitor might wish to take advantage of. The Gabriela Mistral Museum, access to various observatories, proximity to the Puclaro reservoir and the Capel pisco plant, are just a few worth mentioning. Even if none of that interests you, be advised: Vicuña is your last chance to get gas, use a cash machine, or go the supermarket until Argentina, if your travels take you East. Once you leave town you should be prepared to leave the ordinary world behind.
The Poetic Fruit
There are micros (small commuter buses) bound for Pisco Elqui that leave the Vicuña Bus Terminal every 20 minutes or so, passing through an array of picturesque, semi-arid landscapes covered with extensive agriculture. A half hour’s ride brings you to the sleepy village of Paihuano; worth a short sightseeing stroll if you have the time, but there’s really not much going on in town.
Most visitors to the valley would do best to continue on to the tiny village of Montegrande, where in addition to a couple of mediocre restaurants and an old church, one will find the tomb of the first South American Nobel Laureate, Gabriela Mistral. Located just up the hill across from the main plaza, the mausoleum/museum is open every day of the year for visitors to pay their respects (after paying the $1,000 CLP entrance fee).
From Montegrande travel on to Pisco Elqui and Los Nichos, both pueblos (small towns) offer pisco tours, though the old-style approach of Los Nichos is far more interesting, with results that rank it among the finest spirits in Chile. Furthermore, the tour of the distillery at Fundo Los Nichos is free, while the Mistral tour in Pisco Elqui will cost you between $6,000-10,000 CLP (about $9-15 USD). Both tours are open to the public with no reservations required, but get there early; by 5pm things are starting to wrap up (a bit later in January-February).
If you do find yourself in need of another aperitif on the way back to Vicuña, stop in for a free tour of the artisanal Pisquera Aba in the village of El Arenal. Like Los Nichos, this is an old-school, handcrafted pisco distillery. It’s located off the main highway, so call ahead for directions, to reserve a tour, or check on their summer hours. They’re your best bet for a pre-dinner degustacion (tasting).
For an in-depth exploration of pisco’s roots in the region, as well as it’s gastronomic potential, the Capel plant (located on the outskirts of Vicuña) offers a fabulous VIP tour. In addition to a run-through on the growing, fermenting, distilling process, the tour culminates in a gourmet tasting/food pairing, revealing some of the national liquor’s surprising nuances.
Though the valley is the cradle of pisco in Chile, Elqui also boasts a world-class winery in Falernia, which produces award-winning wines and a noteworthy Syrah–of which I sampled plenty before finally paying homage at their very plush estate just outside of town. The northernmost winery in Chile, Falernia is gaining worldwide recognition as a producer of top-quality, terroir driven wines. Stop in later in the day and mention my name to see if you can get Benedetto to show you around and explain a little about their process which, though innovative, is still anchored in the tradition of Italian wine-making.
If you’ve got your own wheels, you can grab a bottle of screw-top chardonnay to go and take a right (northward) out of the Falernia parking lot, to head down to the Puclaro reservoir for some late afternoon kite surfing, or just to watch the world go by in the quiet village of Gualliguaica. If you’re into adventure, but prefer not to get wet and/or windswept, contact Nacho at Turismo Pura Vida e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org . An enthusiastic guide who speaks decent English, he’s free most weekends to lead you along dusty back roads and up some stunning summits, such as Cerro Mamalluca. In addition to feeding you with local lore to help you deepen your connection to his home region, he’s sure to make you laugh out loud—the dude is funny!
Of course, Nacho would also likely drag you to his favorite little pueblo of Diaguitas, which is full of Incan-inspired pottery, painted murals, swimming pools, as well as an excellent artisanal brewery, Guayacán. Business hours there vary, but if you happen to be in town you should try and stop in for a cold one. We took a bike ride along the old railroad grade to work up our thirst, but you could hop into a colectivo (a shared taxi) at the terminal for a couple of dollars and get there no sweat. Their pale ale is a favorite of mine, but you should inquire about any specialty brews in stock. Last time there I sampled a nut-brown brewed from chañar, a date-like fruit that grows in the region.
If you, like myself, find yourself in need of some deep relaxation after one of the various mountain rambles that the area affords, then venture out to the “Alma Zen” a.k.a. Refugio Cochiguaz. 20 years in the making, this expensive hippie retreat center is located 10 km down a dirt road, provides you with excellent isolation, stunning scenery, a swimming pool filled with quartz crystals, a full-service spa (including aura-cleansing, if that’s your trip), a restaurant/bar, small grocery, and a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. Also on the grounds one will find the Observatory Cancana (cost: $10,000 CLP). Diego, the refugio’s architect and owner, is also a trained astronomer and delights in discussing the mysteries of the universe. Accommodation at the refugio starts at $25,000 CLP/night for a dome (if you stay 2 nights the 3rd is free in the low season!), which is intimate, but roomy enough for two.
The good new for those on a budget is that camping is available right next door at Rio Magico. Also when I was there in November 2014, Diego was just putting the finishing touches on a backpacker’s hostel, price TBD. Be advised: Cochiguaz (and Valle del Elqui in general) is a hotbed of reported UFO activity, and hundreds of UFOlogists from all over the world arrive annually in hopes of having a close encounter.
Public transportation in and out of Cochiguaz is limited, but if you don’t have a car, hitch-hiking works pretty well. The dirt road into Cochiguaz is a left turn off of Route 41 as you head out of Montegrande towards Pisco Elqui. Supposedly there is a micro on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays that leaves Vicuña at 5pm, but I wouldn’t count on it.
At Home in Vicuña
The big brother of the much hippier Valle Cochiguaz, Vicuña is down to earth and authentic, offering a classic glimpse of traditional Chilean culture. Protected by the mythic peaks of Cerro Mamalluca and Cerro Negro, and within sight of the imposing Cerro Torro (3,400 meters), Vicuña has yet to be overrun by the mega-mall sprawl that has enveloped many other once quiet burgs throughout the country.
Fortunately for the reader, a simple stroll down Avenida Gabriela Mistral will show you most of what Vicuña has to offer. In addition to the omnipresent Mercado de Artesenía (facing the north side of the plaza), one can find other souvenir shops and several affordable places to eat. I recommend Donde Nando, where the economically priced menu will exceed your expectations (lunch specials go for about 3,000 pesos). The owner is a trained chef, who I hear makes a mean cocktail as well. Don’t miss a chance to cool off on one of Elqui’s typically warm days with a tasty artisanal ice cream. There are several options on this street, but El Cobre is a local favorite.
Continue your stroll east and you’ll find a quaint museum of local history at El Solar de Los Madariaga, where my buddy Nacho Díaz Navarro (owner and guide of Turismo Pura Vida) was born and raised, that is before his ancestral home was made into a museum. The free, guided tour provides a peak vis-à-vis one family’s history into what life was like in el Valle del Elqui a hundred years ago. It’s full of pictures, artifacts, and stories. Stepping into the courtyard of El Solar is like stepping back in time.
Right next door you’ll find Café Frida‘s comfortable, low-key atmosphere perfect for conversation over a coffee, beer or pisco drink. If you’re hungry try the homemade pie de limón or one of their exquisite quesadillas — which are more than passable Mexican food — Tatiana, who owns Café Frida, was raised in Mexico during the Pinochet era.
Towards the end the street you’ll arrive at Gabriela Mistral’s namesake museum (usually open 10am-6pm, closed Mondays, admission currently free). There you can explore the fascinating life of this noteworthy Chilena, the first Latin American and only Latina to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
For accommodations, one can’t do much better than Hostal Valle Hermosa, which is across the street from the Mistral museum and is more like a B&B than a hostel. It’s run by a friendly local lady who will take good care of you, including booking observatory tours, and helping you however she can. For backpackers, Hostal Michel offers camping, and for those looking for something more exquisite, Hotel Die Oma (San Martin 387) offers a typical boutique experience. For a more unique setting and a slightly better price than Die Oma, arrange a stay at El Solar de Los Madariaga (reservations required).
Many visitors to the Valley make a point to check out one of the famous “star tours” at either the municipally-run Observatorio Mamalluca or the private Pangue Observatory, where you can spy the rings of Saturn or view an incredibly far off nebula. Before heading out to explore the final frontier, be sure to grab a bite at Chaski Gastronomía (located on O’Higgins 159). Chaski blends haute cuisine with Chilean earthiness in a relaxed setting, for a price. For a truly local experience, grab some pastel de choclo at Yo y Soledad (Carrera 320), especially if you’re single or a solo traveler. You might just make a local friend!
If you are looking to pasarlo piola (have a good time) and make the perfect get away, then the Valle del Elqui could be your place. Just watch out for the flying saucers! I’m not kidding…
For other options in La Serena and nearby check out our article: 10 “Don’t Miss” Things to do in La Serena and Valle del Elqui.
Note: This article was accurate when published. Please be sure to confirm all details directly with the sites in question before planning your trip.
To learn more about Matteo, read his bio!