Chileans are a fairly laid back bunch, and are well-known for taking a lot of holidays. Often a long weekend will turn into a whole week off for many Chilenos as they leave Santiago to visit quieter parts of the country. This relaxed South American attitude to work/play is actually part of the country’s charm, and one of the reasons I love Chile so much.
This Thursday and Friday fell on the 31st of October and 1st of November respectively. This turned out to be a perfect opportunity for my friend Warren and me to visit a little-known but exceedingly beautiful part of Chile – the Elqui Valley (El Valle de Elqui).
Chile is still fairly well off the beaten path for most travellers, and the few that do make it here tend to head south to Patagonia and Los Lagos. There really is very little information available online or offline about parts to the north of Santiago that might be worth a visit.
The Elqui Valley is Chile’s hidden emerald. Picture a serene river of eye-popping green grapevines, winding like a snake through stark, desolate mountains that loom imposingly on either side. This is truly an oasis in the desert. It’s also the site of production for most of the pisco in Chile, so bring your drinking hat with you (for those that don’t already know, pisco is a spirit distilled from fermented grapes – very popular in Chile).
On the one hand it’s a shame that information about this staggeringly beautiful location is so hard to find – on the other hand, the scarcity of information does mean that the place has not yet been overrun by tourists. It’s blissfully quiet, peaceful, and the perfect spot for hiking, trekking, camping, cycling, horseback riding or just exploring the small villages dotted along the valley. For those looking to connect with nature and escape the noise of the city for a few days, the Elqui Valley is the perfect location.
A Three Day Trip (or How To Save Money by Camping Off The Beaten Path)
I left Santiago with my friend Warren early Thursday morning from Estación Central in Santiago. There are regular buses to La Serena, but if you are travelling during a long weekend, be warned – buses will be packed and you should try to book in advance. The bus took about six hours to arrive at La Serena, and from there it was a short two-hour hop east on a micro (small bus) to Pisco Elqui (see map of Coquimbo for reference).
There are plenty of paid accommodation options in the small village of Pisco Elqui, but we had already decided to try the challenge of going for the whole three days without spending a penny on either food or accommodation.
This forced us to be a little creative, and sure enough after half an hour of scouting outside the village, we found the perfect camping site. We had the place to ourselves, and it didn’t cost a dime. While setting up the tent, I heard a strange rumbling – suddenly the earth started to shake and clods of dirt came careening down the hill, pelting us and the tent. We flung ourselves to the ground, but almost as soon as it started, it was over, luckily with no major harm done. We later found out the earthquake measured 6.5 on the Richter scale, and the epicentre was in Ovalle – just over the hill from us! Just a part of everyday life in Chile…
The next day after awakening to a welcome bowl of hot oatmeal, we hiked over the hill and along the road through a couple of small villages, including Fundo Los Nichos, the site of the Los Nichos pisco distillery.
It was about 10km, or an easy day’s hike to Horcon. Again, with some creativity, it’s easy to find a secluded place to stay if you are willing to go a little off the beaten trail. After a little searching, we stumbled across a magical little glade by the river – nestled underneath the hanging leaves of a willow tree was a perfect flat spot to put up our tent. About an hour after making camp, a local Chilean passed by and beckoned us over.
We thought he was going to give us an earful about not camping in the recommended camping grounds, but instead he simply warned us to be careful if we made a fire because the season had been extremely dry, and sold us a loaf of home-made artesanal bread.
A campfire, a dip in the river and a bottle of pisco later and then night-time. Lying on my back staring at the stars through one of the clearest skies on the planet was a truly special moment.
I woke up in time to see the sun rise, and went off for a little walk by myself. An hour later, I was back with breakfast! Avocado, fig and orange trees all grow wild here and fruit can be eaten right off the branches. The Elqui Valley is truly bursting with life.
Sadly this was our third day and after a quick dip in the icy river Elqui, and a quick exploratory mission around the town, it was time to hike back to Pisco Elqui to catch the micro back to La Serena.
All in all, an incredible and fulfilling two days of trekking.