Frantically hopping from desert to sea, due to Chile’s long and narrow coastline, it’s easy to get lost amongst the madness of its most appealing attractions, from the eccentric cities to its buzzing beaches. Trapped between the contrasting dry desert of San Pedro de Atacama and the golden seashores running from Arica to Valaparaíso; caught between such pleasures is the mystic Elqui Valley, the most beautiful of all.
Primarily a Pisco wine region, thanks to over 340 days of sunshine with warm sunny spells and strong valley winds, coupled with dramatic drops in temperature at night, the Elqui Valley is not only valued for its wines and pisco, the never-ending horizon of green, or the fact it has one of the most clearest skies in the entire world; it’s most fascinating factor is the energy and instant connection you feel as soon as your feet hit the dusty valley floor.
Sitting south of the San Pedro de Atacama desert, only 2 hours from La Serena city, the Elqui Valley is a magical space where the moon shines bright, the stars glow brighter and a simple breath will clear your mind and enrich your soul.
Leave La Serena city to begin one of the most scenic stretches of nature in Vicuña, the largest village with nearby neighbourhoods such as La Campana and Diaguita. Head further east and discover Pisco Elqui, the capital of stargazing, also surrounded by hidden hubs such as Cochiguaz, and Horcón.
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From La Serena to The Elqui Valley:
From La Serena, catch any of the ‘Sol de Elqui’ microbuses which run regularly throughout the day, every half hour or so.
Buses depart from the supermarket car park, opposite the Recova Market, costing no more than 2 hours and $2,500 to reach Vicuña, the first town in the Elqui Valley. The Vicuña bus terminal is only one block from the main plaza.
The same ‘Sol de Elqui’ bus travels onwards to Pisco Elqui with stops at local towns en route.
The entire journey from La Serena to Pisco Elqui takes 3.5 hours at the price of $4,000-$4,5000
It is simple to hitch through the Valley which is exactly what we did. We took the bus from La Serena to Vicuña and easily hitched a ride to La Campana, Cochiguaz, Pisco Elqui, and back.
One of the most popular towns, and well-equipped we should add, is the first town on the Elqui trail, Vicuña. It has a number of supermarkets, a large tourist information centre, a bus terminal (with services running throughout the Valley, back to La Serena, and onwards to Coquimbo etc.) and a bank!
Although there are far more beautiful towns, ones with a sense of isolation, should you choose to stay in Vicuña, there are plenty of tours and attractions so you can discover the Elqui Valley to the fullest.
The Plaza Gabriela Mistral itself is easy to find thanks to the tall red castle structured tourist office which peaks above the town’s horizon.
For bargain groceries (and we mean extremely cheap) pop into Super Bodega Cuenta on Calle Yungui. They even have cheap peanut butter, a rarity on this continent!
First is the Museo Solar de los Madariaga, an interesting museum in the form of a house that preserves its 19th-century look and feel. Full of costumes, antiques and doll-house-style furniture, it’s the perfect place for taking a jump back into the past. Located on Gabriela Mistral, the museum is open from 11.30 am-2.30 pm and again from 4.30 pm-6.30 pm. Entry is $1,500 (under 10s are free).
Also, there’s the National History Museum, unlike what you would usually expect, this museum is dedicated to the discovery and private collection of fossils, and insects including huge spiders, large fossilised bits and bugs and an 18cm scorpion! So go get your ‘squirm’ on, the kids will love it! Sitting across from the plaza, near the Banco Estado, it is open from early mornings until 2.30 pm and again from 4 pm until 6.30 pm. Adults can enter for only $600, over 14s must pay $300 and toddlers can visit at no charge.
But of course, if you could only pick one to visit, it would have to be the Gabriela Mistral Museum found on the appropriately named Gabriela Mistral Street. If you have yet to hear of Chile’s most loved and famous poet and teacher the even more popular Pablo Neruda, here is the place to do so. Over 3,000 personal items are on display, the best bit is that it’s free!
As the sun starts to set, take a brisk walk to the outskirts of town and climb high for the perfect Vicuña. We love nothing more than when a town offers a birds eye view of itself, It is one thing to get lost among the streets but from up high is always the picture that remains embedded in your memory. Only a 1 km hike from the Plaza de Armas, best to use an offline Google Map here and search ‘Cerro de la Virgen’, There are also noticeable signs stuck on the street and traffic lights, or you could also practise your Spanish and ask a local. It’s an extremely easy climb to the top, so those who feel rather unfit need not fear.
For those looking to take on a possible challenge, hiking around one of the quieter valley beds, in search of that perfect place to sit, meditate, absorb some of the powerful energy and feel a sense of being lost, we have to suggest a visit to La Campana.
Only 10 km away, start your day early by taking a bus from the Vicuña bus terminal in the direction of Montegrande or Pisco Elqui. In as little as 15 minutes you will pass a stop called La Campana (or feel free to mention the stop to the driver). There is a wonderful whisper on the winds of La Campana, that only 5 km in the valley is a large misplaced stone, covered in Diaguita petroglyph carvings (an indigenous group specific to the north of Chile) that La Campana locals believe attracts a cleansing light and energy for your third eye chakra. It is quite interesting, especially since a nearby Jasmine tree (the only one in the vicinity) has grown to form step-like branches so locals can climb to the top.
A nice destination goal for your La Campana hike, if the above is of no interest to you, merely hiking along the tyre-formed dirt track, or up along the worn-off paths for stellar views, and a refreshing breeze of wind might be just the ticket. A highly recommended town that no one seems to visit but we predict one day there will be another huge Elqui Valley ‘must see’.
Visit A Distillery:
The majority of the Pisco distilleries are found closer to Pisco Elqui, however, there is one worth mentioning in Vicuña, the Cooperativa Capel Vicuña on Camino a Peralillo Street. Depending on what you want from your Pisco experience, they have simple 40-minute tours for $4,000 right up to their premium tours which last 1.5 hours and cost $15,000. It is open all week from 10 am-7.30 pm. Check out their website for further details here.
Another huge favourite of ours is the less built-up yet just as busy town of Pisco Elqui, hidden a little deeper within the valley at over 30 km from Vicuña and 100 km from La Serena.
Sunken into the depths of the Elqui Valley, Pisco Elqui and overshadowed by the nearby mountains and blanketed by the sparkling clear skies, both during the night and day.
This is where you want to be in order to witness that famous Chilean sky. Where the universe appears tangible, the moon is edible and the world becomes smaller.
The Pisco Elqui streets swirl from junction to junction, all aligned with large cacti and colourful murals on both residential and business properties. Although a popular tourist spot, you can count on two hands how many shops, restaurants and bars are found dotted around the town, however nearly every street does have a small shop.
Restaurants, to suit every pay grade, are easy to find. From menu deals to fast food and a small quirky food court with food stalls, BBQ specialities, and both organic and vegetarian food options all available. However, do expect to pay a little more than in Vicuña.
There is no bank but the town does have a Banco de Chile ATM, the only one in town. So bringing cash is advised. The ATM sits on the left-hand side of the plaza (facing the church) opposite the El Pisqueña restaurant.
The very peaceful and perfectly square plaza is so beautiful due to the old, restored and now preserved church, an impressive and brightly coloured wooden structure and certainly one of the most eye-grabbing monuments in the entire town. For the kids, the Plaza also has a playground, and public bathrooms at $300 a visit.
For stargazing, follow any trails leading from the town, away from the street lights, and there you will find a whole new world. It’s simple to enjoy an otherworldly view from any darkened corner. There is no need to hike far or high to reach for the sky. You could also visit a nearby observatory, such as the Observatorio Chakana, and rent a telescope from $3,000 to $20,000 per night or visit here for more details
If you would prefer to visit a nearby observatory, without booking a tour, this is also simple to do. The Observatorio Chakana is just 30 metres after Carabineros in Pisco Elqui on Calle Centenario, so for only $7,500 per person it is easy to walk up, knock in and enjoy a tour.
There are plenty of hiking trails in the vicinity, however, not all are clearly indicated. For an easy climb, finished with a beautiful birds eye view, hike 30 minutes up towards one of the smaller mountains. Just as you enter the town, there is a mountain to your right-hand side. Follow the road and trail and ascend until you reach a smaller worn out path on your left. Follow this trail to the top. Feel free to ask around for any other available hikes, but the one above is the easiest and ensures you do not tread onto private property.
Another big recommendation of ours is to rent bikes for the day and take a spin around the valley or visit nearby towns such as Horcón. There is a big cycling culture and cars are extremely vigilant so no need to worry that there is no official cycle lane. Ask your hostel for recommended bike rentals or visit Tour de Pesca on Calle Manuel Rodriguez where prices start at $1,500 per hour or $7,000 per day and include a helmet and map with suggested routes. An excellent little town to visit is Cochiguaz, here you will find flat roads and some of the best valley views. Bring plenty of water!
Visit a Distillery:
Pisco Elqui is full of, can you guess? Yes, pisco distilleries! There are many to choose from, one of which is free and others that are priced from $1,000 to $6,000 per visit. The closest and easiest to access without any need for transport or a tour is the Pisco Mistral Distillery. Right next to the ATM opposite the Pisco Elqui Plaza, #746 O’Higgins Street, open all day from 12 pm to 5 pm there is a tour on the hour, every hour for $6,000 per person. One of the cheaper distilleries is Fundo Los Nichos, around 4 km from the centre of Pisco Elqui. Expect to walk an hour to reach it. Head out of town towards Baquedano and enjoy a simple straightforward and very scenic walk through the valley. Better yet, if you have rented a bike, you will arrive within 15 minutes so there is a nice double whammy right there. Beside Fundo Los Nichos is the Doña Josefa Pisco Artesanal distillery, no need to ring ahead or book in advance, simply pop by and you will be given a 40-minute tour. Tours are only available in Spanish.
There are tour operators in La Serena, Vicuña and Pisco Elqui offering similar tours and itineraries at varied prices. It is always worth your time to shop around, price as many as you can and there will always be more available on the street, than online. So, hit the pavement and hit it hard!
So, whether you choose to take a horse ride up an Elqui Valley mountain followed by an hour of gazing and glimpsing through a telescope while learning about the Milky Way, enjoy a thrilling 17 km downhill bike tour starting in Alcohuaz and finishing in Pisco Elqui, or a walk in the dark to an abandoned observatory to hear a story about the stars – there is an available tour for them all, and more.
In Pisco Elqui, the main (and highly rated) tour agency is Turismo Migrantes on O’Higgins Street (the main road that leads into the village). Others easily found are the El Pisco Nació en Chile, the small tourist booth in the Plaza and Tour de Pesca on Manuel Rodriguez Street.
Turismo Migrantes has astronomical tours running every night from 8 p.m., prices start at $18,000. Explore the Elqui Valley, whether it is on two wheels, two legs or a horse, jump onto their website to book any of the many tours available with prices starting from $16,000.
Tours from La Serena:
Soy Chalán Tours, found on the corner of La Serena’s Plaza de Armas a few doors up on the right-hand side from the tourist office, has Elqui Valley tours starting from $26,000 to include transport in and around the entire valley with lunch included. To visit an Observatory, tour prices start at $27,000, this price includes transport and the entry ticket.
While visiting Recova Market, pop into Turismo Luna Mágicato and find similar tours at slightly cheaper prices. With the same itineraries, the observatory tours start at $25,000 and include a light snack on arrival. Their Elqui Valley tours start at $25,000 and include a number of attractions such as the papaya factory, a pisquera, museums and the Embalse Puclaro Lake.
While a structured and civilised visit to the Elqui Valley is entirely possible, we recommend taking a tent roughing it a little and soaking in some of the tangible energy that hangs heavy in the air. There’s an indescribable tingling in the air in this wonderful place. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that locals believe the magnetic centre of the earth has shifted from Tibet to here. Or maybe it’s just the beautiful sunshine and crystal clear air. One thing for certain, A few days exploring the valley is just what you need to recharge the batteries and have you feeling smashing.
As always my friends feel free to get in touch if you need any further info, have any questions, corrections or comments or just fancy a chat.