Here at Imagine, we love real off-the-beaten-track destinations and are always eager to discover new places that haven’t yet made it onto the tourist trail. We’re always asking our specialists to rack their brains and recommend new places that are yet to be discovered by the masses. Read on as our newest Latin America Specialist Eli explains why she believes the Elqui Valley is Chile‘s best kept secret…
During the planning process of my Chilean adventure, I was keen to include some truly off-the-beaten-track destinations in my itinerary, which is what initially drew my attention to the Elqui Valley. A destination that is not located on the standard tourist trail, the valley sits in central Chile, a couple of hours from the coastal city of La Serena (around 6 – 7 hours north of Santiago). It is known for its amazingly clear skies (ideal for star-gazing!), the Mistral Pisco Distillery and its incredible tranquillity.
I arrived into Vicuna very early in the morning, just as the small town was waking up for the day; straight away it was clear that the pace of life here is poles apart from the madness of the capital city – I felt immediately relaxed! I spent my first day here exploring the sleepy town and acclimatising to the slower and more peaceful daily life than frantic Santiago. Vicuna’s main claim to fame, as the birthplace of Nobel Prize winner and poet Gabriela Mistral, is clear from the statue of her face in the centre of the Plaza de Armas. The main square has a lovely, quaint market selling everything from classic South American woollens to bracelets made from old silver forks (much to my delight).
From Vicuna, a popular excursion is a trip out to the Mamalluca Observatory, located 9km north west of the town. The Elqui Valley is renowned for offering excellent star-gazing due to the minimal light pollution and amazingly clear skies, so I had high expectations. We set off one evening once darkness had fallen and many winding roads later we arrived at the (pitch black!) observatory. Our guide took us up to the main observatory where the many telescopes are located, and explained what stars we should be able to see according to the lunar calendar – looking through the telescope was absolutely incredible, the detail was so high that even the ring around Saturn was clearly visible. Following this, we headed outside to use further telescopes to view the moon. It was also possible to take photos of the moon through the telescope – though they may look similar to what you can find on Google, nothing quite compares to being able to say you took them yourself! For photography fanatics this is a wonderful opportunity to play around with the exposure on your camera to capture fantastic arty pictures of the stars.
The following day, we headed further into the valley to visit the villages of Monte Grande and Pisco Elqui, passing through a number of hamlets en route, all with their own little charm. The journey took us through rugged countryside, vineyards and winding roads; the whole area with its backdrop of rolling hills was beautifully enchanting and almost mystical. Monte Grande is where Gabriela Mistral grew up, so we enjoyed a tour around her museum. In Pisco Elqui we visited the Mistral Pisco Distillery to give us a taste of the local drink. Pisco is a grape brandy and is Chile’s national drink (although the debate continues between Chile and Peru with regards to who it really belongs to). The tour of the distillery gave us a deeper understanding of the interesting pisco production process, including a walk around the vineyards and the distillery, and ending with a glass of (straight!) pisco for us to taste. The town is also scattered with artisan markets selling local copper jewellery, amongst other gifts (copper is a huge natural resource of Chile). The day here was thoroughly enjoyable – a relaxing lunch in the plaza, time spent sat by the river, and an afternoon strolling down the middle of the dusty street. Horse-riding is also available from Monte Grande and Pisco Elqui, and for something a little different you can embark on a night ride.
I would highly recommend anyone thinking of travelling to the Elqui Valley to consider a self-drive option – it is an extremely easy self-drive destination and a car would come in very handy. With your own vehicle you would have a lot of flexibility to navigate the many small villages that lie further into the valley. I absolutely loved my time in the Elqui Valley and I hope to return – it was truly a taste of real Chile. Unlike other Chilean sites of interest such as San Pedro de Atacama, the Elqui Valley is only really inhabited by locals and retains a really authentic feel to it. I felt like I had stumbled across a secret that the Chileans were trying their best to keep to themselves! There may not be absolutely loads to do here, but in my view that is the beauty of this thoroughly tranquil place.
When to go?
- High season: January and February = hot days and cool nights (but more crowds).
- Low season: May to August = cheaper, more tranquillity (but some activities do not run).
- Shoulder seasons: March/April and September to December.