72 hours in the Valle del Elqui (Elqui Valley)
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Pisco, wine, stars, small towns, and snow-capped mountains. What else do you need? As part of our ten-day road trip through Chile, we stopped and spent a few nights in Vicuña, a small town nestled into the Valle del Elqui.
So how do you spend 72 hours here? We have some suggestions.
We drove the roughly hour and a half from the oceanside town of La Serena to Vicuña, where we checked into the Antawara Hostel de Elqui. This was my first time staying in a dorm room in a hostel. Skylar told me they were fine, but I was super skeptical. Luckily, the hostel was lovely. The dorm had two bunk beds and two twin beds. The room was home to two other guests – a veterinarian traveling to San Pedro de Atacama and a professional bicycle racer who is part of the Chilean racing team.
The hostel itself was beautiful; it almost looked like a Swiss Chalet. Four different buildings with a pool in the middle, a common room that included a TV, a foosball table, and multiple tables to work and eat on. There was also some great outside seating – probably better to be used during the summer.
After checking in and doing some work, it was time to explore Vicuña.
We started walking and were quickly joined by a local pup who, I think, took it upon herself to show us around. With the dog’s careful guidance, we made our way to the town square. We saw people hanging out at the town square and even a puppet show!
Since we visited during the winter (in Southern Hemisphere, that is), there wasn’t a lot going on – everyone kept telling us how cold it was, but coming from Seattle, we didn’t think it was too bad.
We decided it was way past time for our first pisco sour of the road trip, so we stopped by Chivato Negro. Walking into this place, you could tell Vicuña was built for warm weather. The restaurant opens up to a beautiful courtyard with an eclectic mix of tables and chairs for guests to sit at. We have our pisco and enjoy the space before heading to dinner at Alóe Restorán.
Alóe Restorán might be one of the more expensive restaurants in town, but it was worth it (and I guess we were feeling ourselves a little bit?). The ceviche and tartare de filet were tasty, but my favorite dish was the Caldillo de Congrio Nerudiano, a delicious soup perfect on a slightly chilly night.
After the restaurant, we decided to turn in early, so we went back to the hostel! We did a little reading/work before bed.
Aside from the beautiful accommodations, the hostel also offered a complimentary breakfast of meats, cheese, bread, and guacamole. Just the right amount to get us started in the morning. Though we’ve noticed an abundance of Nestle instant coffee that I guess we’re expected to use, Skylar brought out his pride and joy, the AeroPress, so we could have some decent coffee before heading out to explore the area.
One great thing about Vicuña is its proximity to the rest of the Valle del Elqui – it’s a great jumping-off point to exploring the valley.
But first, we went to Artesanos y Productores – an open-air market home to roughly 25 local artists. Again, it’s winter, and we were here on a Tuesday, so not all the stalls were open, but we did get to see some fantastic painters, pottery makers, and jewelers. Why are we traveling with only a backpack?! The market is on the way out of Vicuña if you’re heading into the Valle del Elqui, so you can’t miss it!
After wandering through the market, we head towards Pisco Elqui, where we will go horseback riding! Our hostel mate told us the day before she went horseback riding and promptly shared the Whatsapp number for a man named Antonio. Through Google translate, I could secure us a spot the next day!
We weaved through the valley and down various dirt roads until we came across Antonio’s ranch. Standing under a tree were three beautiful horses and four dogs lazing about in the sun. Antonio greeted us, helped us up on the horses, and away we went! I don’t think my horse was thrilled with the arrangement.
I know horseback riding isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (it definitely isn’t Skylar’s), but I will say it’s a fun way to see parts of a country that you otherwise might not have. We rode for about two hours and headed on trails I don’t think the general public is allowed on. We road along a river – even forged it twice – and enjoyed the scenery of the mountains, desert, and even some vineyards.
Once we safely returned to the ranch, we decided it was time to imbibe on some Chilean specialties; after all, the Valle del Elqui is known for its pisco and wine. Driving through the mountain roads, you can see vineyards nestled into the valleys between the hills – it almost felt like Oregon’s wine region, that is, if it weren’t for the snow-capped mountains.
Since it’s a little late in the day, we only have one stop in mind: Cavas del Valle, a small boutique winery in the valley. The tasting itself is done in Spanish, which means I just smiled, nodded, and copied what other people did, but Skylar was able to follow along. We tasted two reds and two whites, with one of each being from their reserve section. To say I loved the whites is an understatement. I would have bought a case if we weren’t on the go. Alas, I ended up with a meager haul – one bottle of their red, white, and sparkling.
After our wine tasting, it was time for some food! There’s a local brewery with a couple of different locations that Skylar has had his eye on. We decided to venture to Guayacán Brewery at their Diaguitas site (they have three locations throughout the Valle del Elqui). Now I’ve been skeptical of beer in Chile. I’ve found you can find some tasty wine, but beer is harder to come by (I just spent two years in Seattle, can you blame me?). But with an open mind, I tried Guayacán’s stout, and to be honest, it wasn’t half bad. After grabbing some food, we decided it was time to return to the hostel for bed.
Our last day in Vicuna! We start the morning with breakfast at the hostel; it’s the same as yesterday but still filling, so we can’t complain. Today, we aim to venture to Pisco Elqui and explore this cute town. We also have our eye on some Pisco tastings at local distilleries, so you know it’s going to be a busy day.
We head out and drive roughly 45-minutes from the hostel to Pisco Elqui. Again, we find ourselves weaving through mountains admiring the changing scenery as vineyards start popping up.
Pisco Elqui is a small village nestled into the valley. It’s a picturesque town with a beautiful church and town center, surrounded by small streets, stunning mountain views, pisco distilleries, breweries, and wineries.
Before exploring the town, we headed to a nearby pisco distillery named Doña Josefa. This was our first distillery of the day. Before our trip, I never really knew what pisco was or where it came from – I knew I liked pisco sours, and that was it. So a tour seemed like a great way to learn about this local liquor (the exact localness of the liquor is under some debate. Peru, like Chile, claims ownership of pisco, but anyway).
So we head to the distillery only to learn that all the tours are in Spanish, which isn’t surprising given the lack of English we’ve encountered the farther north we’ve gone, but still. Skylar’s determined, though, so we go on the tour. We walk through beautiful rooms with barrels and barrels of pisco, distilling equipment, and… well, that’s all I got from the tour. It was then time for a tasting. This I could do regardless of how little I understood Spanish – I copied those around me! Slowly swirling the pisco, giving it a good sniff, and then tasting. I think I prefer pisco when in actual drinks. Skylar enjoyed it, however!
We then decided to explore Pisco Elqui itself before heading to another distillery. We came across an open-aired artisan market that showcased several different products one could buy – including some llama sweaters that Skylar had his eye on (sadly, one-bag travel limits our purchases)!
Our next pisco stop was at Pisco Mistral. This is a more prominent pisco distillery, so we were hopeful that a tour in English would be offered, but alas, there was not. And we couldn’t do a tasting without a tour, so we headed to the distilleries restaurant to make our own pisco tasting.
Skylar expertly ordered three different options, much to the amusement and confusion of the staff. Little did we know that he was ordering three-finger pours of each one. I wouldn’t recommend this as a way to do pisco tasting, as Skylar got a little tipsy. We then watched as a neighboring table was brought small little snifter glasses filled with a taste of the different piscos made by the distillery. Not sure how they finagled that one, but needless to say, we had a bit to drink.
We wandered around some more before I drove back to Vicuna for the last dinner!
But no trip to the Valle del Elqui would be complete without some star gazing – after all, the road from Vicuna to Pisco Elqui (and beyond) is called the Road of Stars. Since it was our last night, we drove out into the valley, found a small area off the main road, and marveled at the sky above us. We could clearly see the milky way and more stars than I have ever seen. The perfect end to an excellent three days.
Budget option: Antawara Hostel de Elqui
This is a grea option if you’re looking to save a little money. We stayed in a dorm that had eight beds but at most only six people. The space itself is beautiful and would be fun at the height of summer. It’s a great jumping off point for exploring the city and the valley.
Step up: Solar Madariaga Hotel
Where to eat
Alóe Restorán – for when you’re sort of feeling yourself
Cervacería Guayacan – a popular brewery with three spots throughout the Elqui Valley. They offer pizza and other bar bites, wasn’t my favorite for food but the beer is good.
Where to drink
Doña Josefa Pisco Artesanal Disillery – Their tour comes with a tasting, but if you’d rather skip the tour they have a space where you can order drinks made with pisco to taste.
Destileria Pisco Mistral – one of the main Pisco Distillery in the area. They offer a tour/tasting or have a restaurant where you can get some great food and even better drinks!
Cervecería Brothers – another great brewery that is smaller than Guayacan! They had three beers, which were all tasty, though the stout was my favorite.
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