Pisco, papaya and the playa: A trip to La Serena and the Elqui Valley

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Did you know that U.S. citizens pay out the nose to travel in South America?

Thanks to reciprocity fees (the US charges citizens of these countries out the nose so they charge us back) tourist visas add up – Chile is $160, Bolivia $135, Argentina is $160, Brazil is $160 and Paraguay is also $160.

Did you also know that, when you are traveling with Dani – which I happen to do full-time for just under four years now – you quickly learn that one travel goal is to get the most of our hard-earned money at all times.

elqui valley jessSo when we flew back in to Santiago on the return leg of our round-trip ticket this past November, there was no way we were just using this as a means to get back to South America so we could pick up at the border of Chile and Bolivia where we left off. Nope, for the new $160 tourist visa I’d have to pay for, you could be damn sure we were going to spend more time in Chile to get the most out of that visa.

Our first stop to La Serena and the surrounding Elqui Valley made the entire visa worth it.

Elqui Valley and La SerenaChile’s second oldest city after Santiago, La Serena is just seven hours north of the capital by bus and the perfect size for exploration. With roughly 300,000 inhabitants, the city never feels congested or confusing.

la serena street with churchThe architecture here is gorgeous, and along with its wide pedestrian avenues that seemed to have been transported directly from Spain, La Serena is also known as the City of Churches – there is one on almost every corner, it seems.

la serena churchThere also are good restaurants – even a couple of vegetarian ones, plus quirky cafes with good coffee – and you know how we usually feel about Chilean food! The city has a breezy, refreshing character to it, owing to the fact that it is a popular beach town with the longest stretch of beautiful golden beaches in the entire country, which is essentially a 4,000km stretch of coastline, itself. You could walk uninterrupted for an entire day along the coast.

la serena beach and ducks chileThis means that in January and February the beaches of La Serena are packed with tourists, but our stop there in November (the start of spring in South America) was fairly empty. Even in the height of tourist season, I’d much prefer La Serena to Viña del Mar, Chile’s most popular beach resort that we ended up seriously disliking. Even though it is right next to Valparaiso, a stylish but gritty harbor town we loved Viña is a generic, soulless resort, whereas La Serena offers a much more laid-back, authentic beach escape. Sure, it takes five and a half hours longer to get there, but buses leave more than once an hour from Santiago and there are 4-5 flights daily into the La Florida airport from the capital, so it couldn’t be easier to get here, either.

la serena ocean bird chileLa Serena is also the jumping off point to explore the Elqui Valley, which made our list of the top five places to visit in all of Chile. We only did a full day tour of the valley, but if we were to visit Chile again, we might even rent a car in La Serena and spend a few days to a week slowly exploring this 137 mile stretch of incredible, lush landscape surrounded by arid mountains and topped off by bright blue skies. The picturesque villages that dot the valley are separated by miles and miles of vineyards, wine grapes on one side and grapes to make the local Chilean Pisco on the other, plus avocados, alfalfa and other crops as well.

elqui valley panoramaOur first stop was a papaya plantation, thought at first we didn’t realize they were papayas at all. The papayas are not like the huge ones we saw in Central America; these are These are yellow, sour and tiny, almost like a starfruit.

elqui valley papayaFrom there we stopped at the hydroelectric dam on the Elqui river. This was a beautiful outlook over the valley, filled with cacti like in Arizona.

elqui valley cacti chileelqui riverThe tour continued on to the town of Vicuña, the birthplace of Chile’s Nobel Prize winning poet Gabriela Mistral, where we had time to explore the city center for a while.

Vicuna Elqui Valley ChileThe sun here is incredibly strong and we had lunch at a solar restaurant before heading to the Pisco Peralta distillery for a tour and pisco tasting just outside the appropriately-named town of Pisco Elqui. As soon as we pulled in along narrow, cobblestone streets, we knew we could easily have spent a night or two here. We know now that one advantage of spending the night in the Elqui Valley is that this region is home to some of the best conditions for star gazing in the world. Astronomers from around the globe sign up to a two-year waiting list to work for just one week at the area’s top-notch observatories, and there are also astronomy and observatory tours for curious novices as well.

elqui valley solar restaurantPisco Distillery Elqui ValleyOur stop in Pisco Elqui was super short, but even so you could feel the older, hippy dippy crystal vibe going on. During the 1960s, the hippie folk declared there to be an energy here, and new age tourism became a major focus fifty years ago.

It turns out that they were actually right on, man.

In 1982, scientists measured the Earth’s magnetic forces for the first time and found that the most energetically charged place on Earth had indeed flipped from 30 degrees north in Tibet to 30 degrees south, right around Chile’s Elqui Valley. Was this energy what attracted us to La Serena? No, probably not.

elqui valley pisco elqui church chileWe’re not that ‘in tune’ with things like that. It was more likely the sun, the sand and the fresh air of the small city vibe that we ended up loving so much here in this truly serene little town.

elqui valley chilePractical information

We stayed at Hostal El Punto, a German-run hostel in walking distance to the main square and the bus station (CLP17000 / $34 for a double room, CLP8000 / $16 for a dorm bed). We also arranged our Elqui Valley Tour through the hostel (CLP20,000 / $40 per person).

Our favorite lunchspot was Polen, a hole-in-the-wall vegetarian restaurant that offered set lunches for CLP1800/$3.60.

Café Colonial has a Happy Hour 2×1 coffee special in the afternoons, but skip the food there. Another good café (with free wifi) is Coffee Express.

Most travel agencies in La Serena offer tours to the Elqui Valley, but there are also frequent buses to La Vicuña and Pisco Elqui. Cars can be rented in La Serena for about CLP25,000/$50 a day (or a jeep for CLP38,000) including pick-up at your hotel.

La Serena ChileSuggested Itinerary

If you have the time: Spend 3-4 days soaking up the sun and atmosphere in La Serena then rent a car and spend 2 nights in Pisco Elqui as your base for three days driving through the villages that dot the Elqui Valley.

If you’re in a rush: Spend three days in La Serena – one day in the city, one on the beach and one on a tour of the Elqui Valley.

Elqui Valley in ChileMore photos of La Serena and the Elqui Valley:

[flickrslideshow acct_name=”globetrottergirls” id=”72157639492683476″]

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  1. This looks like exactly the kind of thing I wish we’d got to see of Chile, but completely missed only visiting the far south: I think it could’ve gone a long way to improve my impression of this country. “La Serena is just seven hours north of the capital by bus” – it’s funny how when you’re in South America, this seems like nothing: now being back in Europe, seven hours seems like an eternity!

    1. You’re right – your perception of ‘far’ totally changes in SA!! Sometimes I looked on the map after a 24-hour bus ride and couldn’t believe how small the distance was that we had covered. I hope you’ll make it back to Chile one day to see Santiago, Valparaiso and the Atacama Desert 🙂

    1. Oh, I hope you’ll be able to return one day! The country is just so big – it’s impossible to see everything. More time in Santiago and Valparaiso definitely make up for not seeing the Elqui Valley though 😉

  2. Lovely photos! Although we loved staying in La Serena, we weren’t particularly enamoured with the Elqui Valley. We hired a car to visit and were underwhelmed. We thought the bus ride through the Arequipa Valley was more beautiful. However, we are glad we did it as it made for an interesting day out. The highlight of the day were the Pisco Sours in Pisco Elqui!

    1. Thanks, Arlene! The Pisco Sours in Chile were so much better than the ones I had in Peru so far – I am on a quest to find a decent Pisco in this country 😀

      1. We finally found a great Pisco Sour in Cusco, right around the corner from our hostel! The restaurant is called Siete&Siete in the San Blas area and is owned by a German/Peruvian family. 🙂

        1. Arlene – We actually checked out the hotel that belongs to Siete&Siete and thought that it would make a great Hotel Tip Of The Week!! We never made it to their restaurant, but I’ll keep it in mind for our next trip to Peru – maybe we’ll end up in Cuzco again, then I’ll make sure we go there!

  3. Interesting post! But I actually think the Pisco is much better in Peru, there is the original Pisco and Pisco Sour.
    You have to visit Peru more!

  4. Your blog is amazing! I love that you have fun descriptions of your trips as well as practical information on costs and getting around. I am studing abroad in Santiago this semester and your blog is helping me fill my weekends with amazing trips 🙂 keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks so much, Alexis, it makes me so happy to hear this! I hope you are able to visit as much of Chile as possible. The Atacama Desert was my favorite. Enjoy your semester in Santiago 🙂

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