Many people choose to hire a car in Santiago or La Serena to explore the Elqui Valley, most well-known for its Pisco, a liquor made from grapes that’s been the source of rivalry between the Chileans and Peruvians for more than a century. (I was informed during a Pisco distillery tour at Capel that after much debate the Peruvian government has officially handed of the rights to the Pisco name to the Chileans..mmm). That brings me to a good reason NOT to hire a car to explore the Elqui Valley. Pisco tasting is a prime tourism activity and Chile has a Zero tolerance on drink-driving, ie. 0.0 so you’re going to have to hold off on ANY pisco tasting if you’re the driver. Our reason was more related to budget than pisco-drinking opportunities (I promise!), car rental in La Serena is around 30,000 pesos ($60AUD) per day.
The main villages of Vicuna and Pisco Elqui are easily reached by public bus. Buses run regularly from La Serena (every 2 hours) and between the two towns (hourly). We based ourselves in Vicuna, where accommodation is generally cheaper and there is more access to amenities (although we had to use Mastercard for cash; our VISA card didn’t work there). In addition to buses, there are ‘collectivos’ which run a loop between Vicuña, Diaguitas and Apa. They are bright yellow and charge per person with prices varying between 900 and 1400 pesos depending on distance (there are also regular taxi’s which are black and yellow). You simply flag them down at any point on the route in either direction.
Walking and cycling are other options. The terrain around the loop is mostly flat easy to cycle in a day. We decided to combine walking with collectivos, as it was cheaper than hiring bikes and we figured we could just jump in a collectivo if we were too hot and tired, or if the pisco went too much to our heads (maybe I learned my lesson in Mendoza). Our day started out with a collectivo from our accommodation to Diaguitas, about 7km, 900 pesos. From there we explored the pleasant little village of Diaguitas, with the backdrop of desert mountains and flat-roofed colourful houses it felt a bit like a western film in rural Mexico.
We stopped in at Guayacan Brewery, sadly no tours were on that day but we tasted a couple of the brews on “Chopp” (tap) and sat in the pretty beer garden. We walked the shorter distance of about 3 Km onwards to Apa, a boutique pisco vineyard and distillery to enjoy a free tour and tasting. There we met a lovely English couple who had travelled up in a hire car from Santiago, they offered us a lift to Capel as we were all planning on heading there next. Capel is a large ‘cooperative’ where more than 1 thousand local farmers have a share in the distillery. It is the largest pisco distillery and it distributes to all the major retailers so you’ll find it on sale everywhere in Chile. A tour and tasting here costs $2,500 pesos.The couple offered us a lift back to our accommodation, it was only 2km, but the Elqui Valley is HOT! We grateful and not going to object.
Hitchhiking is safe around the Elqui Valley and is a good way to get around the local villages and hard-to-reach places. In fact, it’s impossible to avoid. You need only walk in the hot sun for a few hundred metres before a friendly local offers you a lift. It was only about 1 kilometre from our accommodation toward the solar kitchens. We hadn’t made it very far, when a smiling man in a white delivery van stopped and offered us a ride. Yes, I’m aware it’s a kidnapping cliche and he proceeded to pull up in his own backyard! Made sense, the solar kitchen we wanted to visit is his next door neighbour! He tipped his hat and wished us a “buen dia”. We enjoyed a beautiful lunch slow-cooked by the sun at Solares Delicious.
Pisco Elqui, once named La union, changed its name for the Pisco liquor that put it on the map! This picturesque little mountain town is an hour by public bus from Vicuna (2,000 each way) and is an easy day trip. We started out by walking to Los Nichos, but again didn’t get far before we were picked up by the local gas delivery man, who seems to be the unofficial collectivo, picking and dropping off others along the way (though he didn’t charge for his services).
A tour and tasting a Los Nichos costs 1,000 for a in-depth 40 minute tour in Spanish only. After Los Nichos a friendly Bolivian now residing in Pisco Elqui offered us a lift back to the main square. Just off the main square is the Mistral Pisco distillery . Where we stopped for a pisco tasting and a pisco sour in their lovely outdoor restaurant.
The road through the Elqui Valley is called ruta de las estrellas (route of the stars). It is one of the best places in the world for astronomy due to the year round clear desert skies. There are many observatories around the Elqui Valley. Mamalluca is the main observatory that has reasonably priced tours but tends to get overcrowded. We decided to visit Alfa Aldea, a smaller observatory that runs small tours in English and Spanish. They also give you wine, blankets and hot soup to keep warm while you sit in the outdoor amphitheatre waiting for your turn to view the various constellations. The best time to visit the observatories is during or close to the new moon, when more stars are visible.