25 Jun 2013

The Elqui Valley - a little-known Chilean Gem

When I decided to visit Chile for the umpteenth time with my new husband, I thought that it would be good to go to at least one place that I'd never been to before. I'd travelled up and down Chile a number of times, although I'd mainly concentrated on Patagonia and the Lake District (and Santiago), but hadn't ever stopped between Santiago and San Pedro de Atacamo in the north before.

While researching a new destination for our honeymoon I stumbled upon details of Pisco Elqui, a village nestled in the Elqui Valley, one of the many valleys that lead up from the coast of the ridiculously narrow country towards the Andean foothills.

The town is about 40 miles inland from the city of La Serena, which itself is about 250 miles north of Santiago. We had started our honeymoon in Bolivia, before travelling across the Altiplano, before heading over the Chilean border to San Pedro. We were then heading down to Santiago (from where we were flying across to Easter Island), so a stop on the way down seemed to work perfectly. Internal flights are plentiful, and not too expensive if you can fool lanchile.com that you're buying the ticket in Chile and not from the UK...

We had ordered a taxi to pick us up from La Serena airport to drive us up the valley, as there is little public transport. Our driver was late - got the plane time wrong - and then drove at a crazy speed up the long straight road inland, making a small kiss at the numerous white crosses along the road that mark the scene of fatal accidents (we discussed afterwards that given the way he was driving perhaps he had been responsible for them...). Eventually we took a turn off the main road and headed uphill towards the Elqui Valley and arrived at our destination in one piece. The region is not only the home of the Chilean Pisco industry, but is also the northernmost wine-growing region in Chile. The hillsides are lined with grapevines, protected from the harsh winds that race up the valley by nets. The lush picturesque valleys are surrounded by dry, rocky hills and ever-blue skies.

We stayed in a lovely hotel, Hotel El Galpón, owned by a Chilean man who'd lived in the US for many years; it had a pool, was beautifully decorated, served delicious local food and wine, and we were welcomed with a celebratory bottle of sparkling wine on arrival. It was situated a little walk out of the village centre, but the walk up the hill was pleasant, alongside endless grapevines. The town centre had a plaza and a church and one of the main Pisco distilleries was right in the heart. In the streets nearby were a few shops and restaurants, but it had yet to be over-run with backpacker hostels (surprising, given how lovely it was!).

During our stay we did a couple of day- and night-trips with a local tour company, Turismo Migrantes, as well as taking a fascinating tour of the Mistral Pisco distillery. The best trip was a full-day tour up to the Andean foothills, where we hiked down into a river valley where there were hot (and orange) springs (Termas Las Hediondas) surrounded by multicoloured rocks. There was some beautiful salt and mineral deposits on the river floor and walls of the canyon surrounding the springs.

We bathed in the springs and my back burned under the incredibly intense Andean sun in a matter of minutes. We then hiked back out and our guide, Pablo, drove us up to a plateau where he prepared the most delicious of picnics. He told us to wander around for ten minutes and when we came back he'd set up a table (with tablecloth!) and laid out a banquet of boiled eggs, potatoes, beans and meat stew, accompanied by a bottle of the wonderful local wine (a Falernia Syrah). We were sheltered from the sun by an over-hanging rock. He told us that he also brought up tour parties to stay overnight there - next time I'd definitely do that, as the food and wine were sumptutous, the surrounding scenery spectacular, and the skies unbelievably clear (the stars would be magnificent, I'm sure).

In fact the next day we signed up to go on a tour to a local tourist observatory that had been opened not far from Pisco Elqui, given that the skies were so clear up there. Earlier in the day we went for a ride on horseback through another valley - not quite as spectacular as the previous day, but still lovely scenery, setting off from the hippy town of Cochiguaz (apparently it has great "energy" there and is home to artists, as is Pisco Elqui) and riding leisurely along a river valley.

In the evening we were picked up again and driven via the town of Vicuña (the largest in the valley) up to Mamalluca observatory, where we viewed the nearly-full moon (bad timing for optimal star-gazing) and Jupiter plus four of her moons through high-powered telescopes. I put my point-and-shoot up to the telescope and managed to get a few shots, as well as a long exposure of the surrounding area. Would love to go back with more time and the camera equipment I have now, during a new moon phase!

After a fantastic few days there the mad taxi driver rushed us back down the valley to La Serena, from where we flew on to Santiago and then on to Easter Island the following morning. I would love to go back there, spend a bit longer out in the hills (at least overnight), soak up the relaxed atmosphere, spend more time looking at the night skies, watch the nets blowing in the wind during the sunny days, and drink a lot more of the amazing Falernia wine (which I've since managed to source back in the UK!), Chilean bubbly and - of course - some aged Pisco!

More photos of my trip to the area can be found here.

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