You could easily spend a week exploring this lush, hypnotic valley. It’s such a lovely, dreamy place and the pace is so languid that you slow down straightaway. The rich green of the vineyards where the Pisco and wine grapes are cultivated contrasts with the deep red of the mountains. You have arrived in one of Chile’s great beauty spots and all those hours on the bus finally seem worthwhile.
Where to Stay
You can reach the key stopovers of Vicuna, Montegrande and Pisco Elqui easily by using the local buses which go up and down from La Serena, which is your landing point after the big trip from Iquique.
If you want to keep it simple, just flit between these three main tourist centres. They’re not very big but they’re lovely places to relax and do very little. Even if you’re on a budget, there are some delightful hotels and guest houses to be used as a base or a sanctuary.
Vicuna is the largest settlement and is famous as the home of one of Chile’s most beloved poets, Gabriela Mistral. There’s an impressive museum here in her honour – an insight into the area as well as her life. Vicuna is also the pick up point for tours to the Mamalluca Observatory.
The night sky in Chile is a dazzling natural wonder and the Mamalluca Observatory is the place to go to learn more about the constellations and observe them through a gigantic telescope.
Even if you’re not an astronomy enthusiast, it would be foolish to miss this opportunity. The observatory is 9km from Vicuna and if you don’t have transport you can book a transfer from the town.
Seeing the stars from the viewing tower with the slide back roof is pretty amazing. The guides are excellent, passionate and enthusiastic as they point out and name each group. The highlight is observing the moon through the telescope. It’s incredible, as if you’re really close to the lunar surface. After the four hour tour you’re taken back to Vicuna by jeep. It costs £15 plus £3 for the transfer. Money very well spent and a night out that makes you glad you have travelled so far.
Montegrande has a few restaurants, a church, another Gabriella Mistral museum as well as her statue and a river where you can swim.This is a beguiling prospect in the height of summer when the heat is sweltering. There’s a fast moving current though, so be careful.
You might be better trying to find a hostal with a pool like Hotel Les Pleyades. This beautiful, if rather ramshackle colonial house has spacious rooms which open out onto a secluded pool. It’s a slightly forgotten spot, but if you can get it to yourself, as we did, it’s a blissful place to spend a few days. The price is £50 a night for two, with a basic breakfast.
Cross the road to Restaurant Yolanda and you can eat the set lunch every day. Beef stew, salad, rice and fruit costs £4. It’s delicious, but you might want to jazz up your diet with avocados and crackers from the minimart, next to Les Pleyades.
If you’re craving glamour, the Elqui Spa, down some steps from the main road, is new and shiny with a gorgeous pool, a swish café and a range of treatments to try. If your shoulders are aching from carrying a rucksace, or even if they’re not, then try a massage. Prices are reasonable and the spa staff are fun and charming.
You can easily get a bus from Montegrande to Pisco Elqui and spend a few hours in this idyllic spot with its flower laden, shady square. You will also find wifi in a few cafes, but really the point of coming here is to forget the outside world and revel in this glorious, peaceful valley. Pisco Elqui particularly has a healthy retreat feel with all its smoothies and fresh juices and smiling, happy people, but its natural beauty is what make the region so memorable.