Valle de Elqui is a perfect very long weekend getaway from the hustle of Santiago and soak up the sun, stars and pisco sours — get on Highway 5 and head north along the coast to La Serena and then head due East through valleys and mountains and soon you will find small towns and villages scattered in the valley.
Valle de Elqui is famous in Chile as being the birthplace of the country’s famous Pisco liqueur. A perfect opportunity to enjoy the vineyards and tour distilleries and learn more about how Pisco is produced, try a sample of pisco straight or enjoy the refreshing pisco sour. The valley is also known for being a centre for cosmic healing and there are many places to try reiki or massages or aqua therapies. But we love Valley de Elqui because it combines warm sun, nice restaurants, a few child-friendly activities and wonderful cabins to recharge and relax.
Valle de Elqui is almost 400km from Santiago and will take a good five to six hours without traffic. Because of this I really recommend more than just a long weekend. I think four to five days is perfect for Valley de Elqui.
We drove from Santiago and the first scheduled stop (other than toll booths and copecs ) was for a cheese empanada at the famous Huentelauquen cheese and empanada restaurant. They also sell local papaya juice. I have to say I am not at all a fan of papaya — to me it tastes like stinky feet. My mother-in-law keeps getting me to try it — in a smoothie! On yogurt! With lime juice! — I just can’t. So we didn’t try the juice but we did buy the jam and no one cared for it. Maybe my family is with me on the stinky feet flavour!? The empanadas are massive and it is a quick wait to be served a steaming, puffy empanada filled with their cheese. They are made in the traditional deep fried way.
After that we drove quickly through La Serena (if you needed groceries there is a big unimarc on the right after you go through town, up the hill and through the roundabout, it will be easier to access and with less traffic). We headed into the valley and made our way to the next stop which was the town of Diaguitas to the Guayacan Brewery.
The service is slow, but the French fries — which you order by the kilo — are some of the best I’ve had in Chile. Skinny and with some skin on them and lightly salted. The pizzas are great, the burgers are huge and the salads are massive. Families might consider sharing portions. The juices are also fresh and really big as well, we shared between our children. My husband likes the IPA (or “ee- pah”as it’s pronounced here).
Perhaps the best part of Valle de Elqui is the drive there and the dramatic views. Tall red canyons against the backdrop of an endless bright blue sky and the vineyards below along a rushing river. At night the stars are the main attraction with many telescopes, observatories and tours of the sky and southern stars.
We stayed at Cabanas el Albaricoque in Cochiguaz which is between Montegarde and Pisco. The cabins are in the most tranquil area, they aren’t in town so you can’t walk to the shops, but you can go to sleep in adobe cabins with wood-fired stoves listening to the rushing river at the bottom of the garden. There is a small creek that runs through the property and the children loved floating pooh sticks and also hollowing out gourds off the tree into little boats. There is a yoga room, meditation room, hammocks and a spring-fed swimming pool down by the river. Bed and breakfast is also available in the main house with spacious 3 bedrooms (sleeps five) and a living room with television. The cabins sleep 2-4 people and have fully equipped kitchen. There is also an outside quincho under a vine twined roof with a full kitchen and a wood-fired adobe oven which cooks the most delicious meat and potatoes — crispy and juicy! We brought ribs, chicken and steak and feasted like kings and queens! You can also rent the wood-fired wood hot tub and watch the stars come out and the sun go down on the canyon walls. Susan speaks English and Spanish and can help organise star gazing and horse rides with Tono. There is also a hike across the road from the cabins where you can see petroglyphs. We have loved staying here so much it is the only place (so far!) where we have returned!
As a family with young children we pre-booked an early night sky tour (it was during late fall/early winter in June so it started at 7 p.m.). It was cold so pack long underwear, warm coats and hats and mitts. Our tour was with Cancana in Cochiguaz located 10 minutes outside of Pisco Elqui town itself. Our guide, Diego, was well informed and did part of the talk in English as well. It included an outside view of the stars — looking for the llama hidden in the Milky Way and spotting Jupiter and other constellations. Inside the observatory he showed us the stars on an interactive map, so we could even request to see which stars were above our hometowns and also how the eclipse (which was coming in a few weeks) would look like. Upstairs we used the telescope to see Jupiter, Saturn and the craters on the Moon. The tour was about 2.5 hours long and cost about $50,000 for a family of five.
For the adults, we booked a tour at Mistral in Elqui to see how pisco is made. It was an informative tour and the children (we were three families with six children under 13) were entertained with old machinery and a bodega where they played ‘jail’ with the iron gates. There is a playground and a restaurant on site. For $6,000 adults had a tour, a glass to keep and a tasting. Previously we had tried to tour Los Nichos Winery and found it was not as organised nor as large as Mistral and there wasn’t a restaurant on site.
For the children the highlight of the trip was the morning we went horseback riding. Tono is based almost at the end of the road out of Cochiguaz. The day we rode horses we were four families and had 10 children ranging in age from 13 to 3. Tono was so patient and had enough horses to accommodate every level of rider. The ride was an easy wander along the canyon and up to the river. The horses had a drink and the children threw stones in the water, we then crossed the river and went back down the other side. It was $12,000/horse regardless of if you had a child on your lap or not. Only Spanish spoken. We booked him through Susan at our cabins, but he is also on whatsapp +569 7721 8773
Pisco itself has cute cafes, a town square and restaurants. It also has accommodation of all levels from hostels to hotels to cabins. Montegarde is smaller than Pisco and has a cute town square, ice cream and you can tour Chile’s famous poet, Gabriela Mistral’s home which is now a museum.
The nearby village of Horcon has a local craft market. Our friends enjoyed lunch by the river outside of Horcon at El Bosque. We bought some copper rings at Horcon and the children ran around and played with sticks. There are bathrooms on site.
On the way back to Santiago don’t forget to stop by the side of the road and buy local olive oil, olives, papayas, avocados and bags of fresh oranges.
Ensure you have about $30,000 in cash for the toll roads from Santiago to La Serena
When to leave:
If you leave Santiago before 7 a.m. you will make it to the town of Diaguitas by about 1 p.m. in time for lunch at the Guayacan Brewery. (calle principal 33, Diaguitas, Vicuna). From there it’s an hour to Pisco.
It will take about 6.5 hours in total to drive from Santiago to Cochiguaz.
There are not many service stations on the way, however the Copec stations do have signs that state “Copec in 7 km and the next one is in 117 km” so plan your gas and bathroom breaks accordingly!
When to go:
We enjoyed Valle de Elqui in September over the Fiestas Patrias week (Sept 18/19), it was very quiet on the roads and we had minimal traffic even leading up to 18 de Sept. We also went in June with three other families for a goodbye week away for friends who were moving. In June we went when our children have an unusual week off (not a typical school holiday) and it was quiet and much warmer than Santiago. Temperatures can reach 45C in January and February. March is when the grape harvest is on and the vines turn colour.
You could combine Valle de Elqui with a stop on the coast in La Serena or Isla las Damas before heading inland to Valle de Elqui. Our friends enjoyed a week-long loop of Valparaiso-Valle de Elqui-San Pedro de Atacama. To achieve this they drove as far as Valle de Elqui and then flew from La Serena to Antofagasta and then to overnight bus to San Pedro.