La Serena and Pisco Elqui, Chile: A pointless visit and another AWESOME one

Jun 12, 2015

La Serena is about a 5 or 6 hour drive (about 7-8 hours on the bus) from Valparaiso and Santiago. Our primary reason for stopping in the region was for the Pisco, the stargazing, and to break up the long journey from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama. La Serena was a little disappointing but Pisco Elqui and the small towns further down the dust road that takes you there were fantastic.

First, I’ll talk about La Serena. It’s an old town settled by the Spanish in the middle/late 16th Century so it has some colonial charm working for it but most of that charm is found in the main square, Plaza de las Armas. The plaza is really quite nice and a few of the streets around there are also nice as they are lined with trees and small shops. The rest of the town is just OK in my opinion. We stumbled upon a small street market on a service road near the tiny mall and on a nice fruit/veggie market up the hill from the town center but other than that we weren’t too happy with spending two nights in La Serena. The beach is just “meh” and it’s kind of dirty and unless you’ve got your own wheels, then you’re sort of stuck just wandering around.

Now, Pisco Elqui is something completely different. It’s one of many towns in the Elqui Valle both Jen and I really enjoyed it. Its old, its beautiful and there’s enough to do to keep you busy for a few days. Tourism is catching on in Pisco Elqui but it certainly isn’t the main economic powerhouse in town so, while you might find a few places set up for tourists (a pisco tasting place, one or two tour agencies and a couple small hostels/hotels), the towns economy is still centered around the vineyards. So what’s driving the tourism? Well, it’s both Pisco and stargazing, sometimes combined. Being in the desert, the valley is very dry and, it sits at about three thousand feet of elevation, when these factors are coupled with the very low light pollution, you get some really fantastic star gazing opportunities.

The Pisco Valley in the background where AMAZING pisco is made.

There are many ways to enjoy the stars in the area. You can take a tour of one of the large observatories set-up for tourists or you can even go on a stargazing tour where you use a telescope as part of the tour. These typically run between ten-thousand and twenty-thousand Chilean Pesos or $15-$30 US dollars. We ended up going with a third option where we went with a guide who rents telescopes and/or his services. This is really a cool way to do it because you get very personal attention with the guide and use of the telescope for at least two hours. The telescopes are very strong in terms of magnification and very well maintained. The guide basically helps you adjust the telescope and assists you in finding and observing objects using star charts and years of experience. For those with lots of telescope experience who feel confident with the scope and finding objects to observe, you can rent the whole scope for as long as you like. This is a great option if there are a few of you or for a family who has a car available to move the large telescopes out to the best locations. If you’re like me, however, and you just want to look at some really cool stuff with a really nice telescope in near perfect conditions, then renting the scope with a guide is the way to go. Instead of going on a tour where you might watch a short video, be shown constellations and other objects with a laser pointer, and then look at one or two things for 30 minutes through the big lens of the observatory telescope along with everyone else on the tour, you get a professional grade telescope with a guide for two hours who will show you whatever you want to see. Oh, it’s also the cheapest option at around $10 per person. If you rent the scope and then just ask the guide for assistance and guidance using it, then the price depends on the number of people but with 3 or 4 you it drops below $10 USD per person pretty fast.

The valley is green and flat, the mountains are desert sand and jagged rocks.

Pisco Elqui isn’t just pisco and stargazing though. You can also do some pretty good hiking into the mountains for free and you can go horseback riding. Unfortunately the owners of the horseback operation were on holiday when we were there so we didn’t get to go but we would have. The hiking was pretty good and again, free. A map of the area will show you some access points but you can also just ask around. We ended up walking to the end of a street where a dusty track continued up and into the mountains and were rewarded with some pretty amazing views. Just keep in mind that you need to setout early in the day to avoid exposure to intense hours of direct sunlight and bring lots of water (more than you think) to avoid dehydration, one of the biggest dangers of hiking in the desert at altitude.

Hiking in the desert at altitude is no joke, there is no shade or water and the further your go the harder it gets.

Further into the valley from Pisco Elqui there are a few other small and very charming towns. None are as well suited for visitors as Pisco Elqui but that is sure to change as tourism here continues to grow. A good way to check then out is to take a small bus from Pisco Elqui, ride a bike which you can easily rent in town, walk (hot and dusty) or if you’re so fortunate, drive. Driving assumes you already have a car though as there are no rental agencies this far out from La Serena. Maybe you’ll find one in Vicuna at the entrance to the valley but I don’t know for sure.

As for accommodation in Pisco Elqui, has a few hostels but they aren’t so cheap. Some of the hotels offer double rooms for the same price of two hostel beds and some places, like the place we stay, even rent full cabins complete with pool, full bathroom, fully equipped kitchen with refrigerator, TV and a great little barbeque where they even supply the wood. This cost us twenty-five thousand pesos per night (not per person, for the cabin) which isn’t cheap by backpacker standards but, it was a thousand pesos less than two dorm beds and, considering the prices for everything else in town and the fact that you can do some things for free, we managed to stay under budget. We grilled every night using the wood provided, made Pisco Sours with some of the best pisco we’ve ever had from a small distillery outside of town that was recommended to us by a local named “Los Nichos,” and we ended every night with stargazing and popcorn. Oh by the way, we stayed at a place called Las Gredas and I HIGHLY recommend it especially if there is more than two of you.

I could do this whole portion of the trip again, I would make a few changes. First, I wouldn’t stop in La Serena for more than a few hours, if at all. Second, I would spend more time in Pisco Elqui and if possible, get a few people to go in on renting the nicest telescope you can get your hands on. One night with a massive scope costs fifteen thousand pesos (appox. $25 USD) and if you rent for more nights the price goes down. It comes with star charts and some instruction about how to use it and, if you have the money after renting it, you can even get the guide to hang out for a few hours and show you a few things. It’s a perfect option for a family or group of friends. I would also like to have been able to drive here but we didn’t have that in the budget. Mainly I just wanted to have my own wheels so I could go anywhere on my own time and stop at some of the prime lookout points for photos. Lastly, I wouldn’t change a thing about where we stayed. Sure it was a higher cost than we would of liked but for the two of us but, again, it was actually one thousand pesos less per night than staying at on of the hostels. If I had camping gear with me, well then my recommendation would probably change but we didn’t. If you don’t either, or just want to stay somewhere REALLY nice for a little money, go to Las Gredas.

OK, so that’s enough on Pisco Elqui and La Serena. If you read this post and take away anything it should be this; go to Pisco Elqui for at least two nights and skip La Serena. Now, onto San Pedro de Atacam where the stargazing gets better, the desert becomes even more “deserty” and the landscape more closely resembles the moon than someplace here on earth.

Category: Places

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