Home to some of the clearest night skies on the planet, and home to the world's first dark sky sanctuary, the Elqui Valley in the north of Chile is still under the radar for most visitors to the country.
But this year, Elqui is finally having its moment to shine. The valley lies in the path of totality for the Great South American Eclipse, which took place on 2nd July 2019 and made it one of the best places in the world to admire this celestial event. Even every other time of year, there are plenty of reasons to explore the area.
Why should you visit the Elqui Valley?
With an almost completely rain-free microclimate – locals claim some 320 days of sunshine per year – the Elqui Valley is an appealing destination no matter the season.
The sunny days are ideal for growing the grapes used to make pisco – a white brandy made in Chile and Peru (both countries fiercely claim to have invented it). The Elqui Valley is home to Chile’s oldest pisco distilleries and visitors can tour the vineyards where muscatel grapes are used to distil the liquor. Boutique wineries have also sprung up, growing varietals typically found much further south.
The dramatic landscape of the Elqui Valley © Steph Dyson
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What’s more, the valley has an intriguing reputation for paranormal activity, clocking up numerous UFO sightings over the years. More believable for most is its legendary positive energy. This has long attracted new-age travellers and, more recently, those seeking holistic therapies, many of which feature locally mined quartz – a stone believed to have healing properties.
Villages are strung out in a row along the Elqui Valley with Pisco Elqui (the town renamed to reflect the region’s claim to fame) home to the lion’s share of lodgings. Easy to navigate aboard a rattling local minibus or with a rental bike, it makes for the perfect weekend getaway from Santiago.
The world's first Dark Sky Sanctuary
Cloudless, sunny days bring extraordinarily clear night skies. The Atacama Desert further north has long been billed as one of the globe’s finest destinations for star gazing, but it’s the Elqui Valley that will this year be taking the spotlight. Designated the world’s first International Dark Sky Sanctuary by the International Astronomical Union in 2015 (there are now currently 10 worldwide), if you're into astronomy there's no better place to go. The austral summer (December through February) is the best season for star gazing and incidentally also sees the valley carpeted in lush vines.
What's the best way to see the stars?
Plenty of observatories in and around the valley run expert-led astro tours and many hotels have their own telescopes for visitors to use. For the most rigorously scientific experience, take a tour to Observatorio El Pangue, home to both a professional team of international astronomers and one of the largest public telescopes in the world.
The Elqui Valley was the world's first dark sky sanctuary © Jess Kraft/Shutterstock
What can you do in the Elqui Valley during daylight hours?
Taste potent pisco sours
During the day, pisco is the star of the show. Rent a bike from Pisco Elqui and cycle to the boutique Fundo Los Nichos distillery. Established in 1868, it’s the oldest still-functioning pisco distillery in Chile. They use traditional, organic distillation methods to make their acclaimed Espiritu de Elqui black-label pisco; as it’s only available to purchase in a few places outside the valley, be sure to stock up.
Back in town, Destilería Pisco Mistral is one of the largest pisco brands in Chile. There's an on-site museum of antique machinery and a patio bar overlooking the vineyards. Tours of the distillery finish with a cocktail-making class showing you how to mix tangy – and potent – pisco sours.
Cavas del Valle, further north, is another local trailblazer. This boutique, family-run vineyard was the first to introduce grapes such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon to the region. Their wines now feature on the menu of exclusive and award-winning Santiago restaurant, Boragó.
A traditional clay pisco jug at the Los Nichos distillery © Steph Dyson
Explore the extra-terrestrial connection
While you probably won’t have a close encounter of the third kind in the Elqui Valley, you can absorb its positive energy. Book yourself a chakra realignment, reiki or yoga class at Punto de Luz spa, or check out the meditation pyramids at Luz de Luna. This picturesque, riverside campground has crystalline pools fed by waterfalls for a refreshing post-meditation dip.
An overnight stay at Refugio Cochiguaz will also revive your spirits. Check in for their quartz swimming pool and new-age spa treatments, which include herbal baths, reiki and quartz therapies.
Taste local Chilean cuisine
One of the most novel places to get lunch is Solar Elqui, a solar kitchen situated a short drive northwest of the valley. Here, goat and chicken stews bubble until tender in 33 purpose-built ovens powered entirely by the sun’s energy and are served up to diners on a shady terrace overlooking vineyards.
In the town of Diaguitas, northwest of Pisco Elqui, you'll find Cervecería Guayacan, which also harnesses solar energy to brew top-notch craft beer. Pure water from the Elqui river is mixed with local ingredients such as chañar, a syrup made from the sap of the chañar tree. Go for their shady beer garden and stay for their signature thin-crust pizzas.
Pisco Elqui town is a good place to base yourself during your stay © Jess Kraft/Shutterstock
Where to stay in the Elqui Valley
Base yourself in Pisco Elqui and bed down just outside town at the enchanting Cabañas Caballieri. Their sun-soaked pool and terrace is second to none and their individually-designed cabins each sport unique design quirks. Book Cuarzo, built entirely from rose quartz and with a domed glass ceiling for celestial observation, or Aire, with its splendid panoramas of the valley.
South of Pisco Elqui and best accessed with a rental car, the adobe brick Casona Distante was once the main house of a pisco estate and is still surrounded by vines. Now, charming bedrooms and a sense of rural isolation make this the ideal place for a digital detox, while its location in the barely populated south of the valley means the night sky here is even more sharply in focus.
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Top image: The night sky in South America © Sunti / Shutterstock