The Atacama Desert in Chile is renowned worldwide for its breathtaking night skies, but some 1,000 kilometres south lies a better-kept stargazing secret: the Elqui Valley. Named in Lonely Planet’s ‘Best in Travel’ list for 2019, the valley comes to life at night, with a blanket of stars piercing through one of the world’s clearest atmospheres. Pisco Elqui, a peaceful village at the heart of the valley, is the ideal place to discover this nocturnal beauty.
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Stargazing in the Elqui Valley
The pathway through the Elqui Valley is known, rather aptly, as ‘Ruta de las Estrellas’ (‘Route of the Stars’). The geographic conditions in the valley are perfectly aligned for starry skies.
The Andes mountain range immediately to the east creates a natural barrier to clouds. Combine this with a high elevation point, close proximity to the world’s driest desert, scant light pollution and over 320 days of sunshine a year, and you have a paradise for stargazers.
In 2015, the Elqui Valley was named as the world’s first International Dark Sky Sanctuary. (Three more have been named since: New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island and Utah’s Rainbow Bridge National Monument.)
Astronomers use the Elqui Valley as a base for research and observation. Many of the world’s most powerful telescopes are kept in the region, some of which are open to the public to visit.
One way that you can perceive the clarity of the atmosphere in the Elqui Valley is to focus your gaze on individual stars. At home, when you look at the night sky and stars appear to flicker, that’s because of pollution in the atmosphere getting in the way. In the Elqui Valley, the stars are sharp, bright and unwavering.
As ‘astrotourism’ continues its upward trend, the word is getting out. Pisco Elqui is attracting a growing number of visitors every year. Given that the dark sky is its main selling point, however, we’re sure that the local tourism industry will take great care to protect it as more and more people come.
Why you need to check the moon cycle before visiting
We might never have visited the Elqui Valley if it were not for an earlier planning error. When we visited San Pedro de Atacama, the hotspot for stargazing in the Atacama Desert, we hadn’t thought to check the moon cycle before planning our itinerary.
Unfortunately, our five days in the desert town coincided exactly with the full moon. Nightmare! With the night-time darkness compromised by the moon’s powerful glow, none of the stargazing tours were running.
Determined to see some of Chile’s famous starscapes, we recalibrated our travel plans and built in a trip to the Elqui Valley couple of weeks later. (We couldn’t just wait in San Pedro, as we had already booked a hire car for a road trip in north-west Argentina).
We had met some travellers in Peru who had visited the village of Pisco Elqui and told us about the incredible stargazing. Sometimes recommendations from other backpackers don’t work out. This one did, spectacularly.
The moral of our story is to make sure you check the moon cycle before planning a stargazing trip. The website Moon Giant is a great resource for this, covering pretty much everywhere in the world.
Things to do in Pisco Elqui
There actually plenty of things to do in Pisco Elqui besides stargazing, but before getting onto those we’ll begin with some ideas for your night sky experience.
Take a stargazing tour
In the centre of Pisco Elqui you will find many tour companies that offer stargazing experiences. The options vary from single late-night tours to multi-day astrotourism experience packages. The latter tend include include educational visits to observatories, such as the Tololo Inter-American Observatory in nearby Vicuña, as well as other activities, like horse riding and wine tasting.
We took a stargazing tour with Turismo Migrantes, one of the best-rated local companies. Pablo, our expert local guide, took us up to a vantage point on a hill just a couple of kilometres from the village. Away from the village lights, the Milky Way sparkled spectacularly from horizon to horizon. We set up a campfire and Pablo prepared us some pisco sours (more on those below).
He then gave us a fascinating, insightful education on the many constellations and celestial objects we could see shining brightly in the sky above. He also brought a telescope along so we could take a closer look at Jupiter and its moons, Saturn and its rings, craters on the moon, and much more.
We learnt awesome facts about things like why stars appear to have different colours, and how often stars die. The times that the death of stars has been captured on camera. The ‘celestial equator’, and how the night sky differs in the northern and southern hemispheres. Cool stuff like that.
All considered, it was a very special tour unlike anything else we’ve done on our travels. We paid 15,000 Chilean pesos each, which we thought was an absolute bargain.
Tip for booking: if visiting in the summer months between December and February, it’s a good idea to book your tour in advance. Outside the summer season it’s usually possible to book on the day (our trip was in August, and we secured our places with just a couple of hours’ notice).
Try your hand at astrophotography
If you’re a recreational travel photographer, it’s a fun challenge to try taking pictures of the stars. There’s no better place to give it a go than in the Elqui Valley.
On our first night in Pisco Elqui – the night before our stargazing tour – we did just that. Lisa had already dabbled with astrophotography as a hobby before our travels, so we had a bit of a head-start. We took a walk from our hostel in the village to find a suitable spot up a nearby hill.
To take decent photos of the stars as a beginner, there are a few bits of gear and basic technical information you’ll need. It’s not as difficult as you might think. The following quick tips will help you get started:
- You need a camera that enables you to use a long shutter speed
- You’ll also require a tripod; for shooting with a slow shutter speed, the camera needs to be kept perfectly still
- Take a hand-torch with you; you will need to use it to focus the lens on something bright
- Set the shutter speed at a minimum of 15 seconds
- With an 18–55mm lens, it usually works well enough to manually focus at 18–20mm with the lowest possible aperture setting
- To take the pictures, you need to use a remote or a timer; the action of your hand on the button is enough to blur the photo
- It gets cold out there – so wrap up warm!
Finally, don’t be disappointed if your photos don’t look as spectacular as the ones you’ve seen online or in magazines. It takes a lot of post-production to attain that quality. If you get just one crisp, clear shot of the starry sky, that’s an awesome achievement.
See the 2019 total solar eclipse
On 2 July 2019, a total solar eclipse will be visible for two full minutes from parts of Chile and Argentina. The Elqui Valley, with its clear atmosphere, is the best place to view the eclipse, which will occur shortly before sunset.
Some tour agencies are offering special packages for the eclipse. Accommodation will be in high demand with prices inflating higher as the date approaches. If you want to witness the phenomenon in such a special location for sky observation, it’s best to make your arrangements early.
This article by the Space Tourism Guide has more information about the 2019 eclipse and how you can see it.
Taste pisco, Chile’s national drink (or is it Peru’s?)
Besides the premium stargazing, the Elqui Valley is also renowned for its production of alcoholic drinks. Not only is it one of Chile’s most celebrated wine regions, it is also the country’s prime location for producing pisco brandy.
Pisco Elqui is at the centre of this tradition. The sloping valley hills surrounding the village are interwoven with lush vineyards, and the lanes below are host to a number of pisco distilleries. These establishments are open for tastings all year round, but to see the vineyards in full blossom, you’ll need to visit between December and February.
Both Chile and Peru claim pisco as the country’s national drink, and there is much debate over the true source of its origin. In fact, Pisco Elqui – previously called La Unión – changed its name by law decree in 1936 to reinforce Chile’s claim to the drink’s ownership rights.
The classic way to drink it is in the form of a pisco sour, a cocktail that fuses the liquor brandy with lime juice, syrup, egg white, bitters and ice.
At Destileria Pisco Mistral in Pisco Elqui, you can take a guided tour with an insightful narration of the drink’s colourful history (well, the Chilean version of it at least).
See live music around a firepit at Rustika
While Pisco Elqui isn’t exactly a bastion of thriving nightlife, there are some great little places in the village to enjoy a drink and some live music.
After our stargazing tour, we tried out Rustika Restobar, a warm and welcoming bar in the village centre. In its outdoor patio area, we huddled around one of the burning firepits while a local band played through the night.
We loved the ambiance at Rustika, and the pizza wasn’t bad either.
Go hiking in the valley
While the Elqui Valley’s main attraction is the view at night, it’s actually a very picturesque place to explore by daylight as well. Pisco Elqui is within easy reach of elevated viewing points to see the rolling valley landscape.
We took a half-day hike to a mirador (viewpoint) located to the west of the village. While the trail was not clearly marked all the way, we found it straightforward to find our way up to the lookout point using common sense.
From the village centre you can head west on either Calle Baquedano or the parallel road to the north. Follow a series of dirt tracks up the hill and you will reach a spot where you can see the village in the valley below and the surrounding vista of hills, sloping vineyards and colourful flowers.
As a return hike this trail is around 6 kilometres and easily manageable in a couple of hours. We decided to take an alternative route back and ended up getting slightly lost, emerging back down onto the main road a few kilometres south of Pisco Elqui. Oops.
There are plenty more hiking trails around the Elqui Valley, and some tour companies offer guided hikes.
Where to stay in Pisco Elqui
One of the best ways to get immersed in the laid-back, community atmosphere of Pisco Elqui is to camp. When in the valley of the stars, what better way to sleep than outside in a tent?
Camping Refugio Del Angel is a tranquil family spot by the river that runs along the east side of the village in the valley basin. To the west of the village centre, Camping Rancho Rodrigez is more renowned for late nights of music and outdoor drinking.
If camping is an adventurous step too far – or, like us, your visit is during winter – Pisco Elqui has several hostels and hotels for a range of budgets.
We stayed at Hostal Doña Ema, a homely place run by a lovely man called Luis and his family. We had a spacious room with comfortable beds, and we made use of the well-equipped communal kitchen area. Luis was also very happy to help with information about stargazing and hiking.
For more accommodation options, see the Pisco Elqui section on booking.com.
How to get to Pisco Elqui
The Elqui Valley is located around 500 kilometres north of Santiago, Chile’s capital, and 100 kilometres east of La Serena, the main city in Chile’s Coquimbo coastal region.
To reach Pisco Elqui from Santiago, you first need to travel by bus to La Serena, which is a journey of around 7 hours. Buses from La Serena to Pisco Elqui leave every hour and take around 2.5 hours.
If travelling from northern Chile, the bus journey from Calama to La Serena takes about 17 hours. This is an overnight journey, and many people also choose to stop for a night in La Serena or elsewhere en route.
Further reading on Chile
If you’re planning to visit the Atacama Desert – a great alternative location for stargazing – check out our article on things to do in San Pedro de Atacama.
Have you been to an amazing location for stargazing? Let us know about it in the comments below.
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