As soon as we jumped off the bus in Vicuña, we began to relax. Looking around, we straight away knew that we’d made the right choice to head to the Elqui Valley. We’d had a rather stressful time in Chile so far, crossing the border from Bolivia and arriving in San Pedro de Atacama, just days after the largest political unrests since Pinochet had begun.
We’d had to cancel our stay in the centre of Santiago, to avoid the major protests in town that were turning violent and being quelled with tear gas. Instead, we spent four days in Las Condes, mostly inside our hotel watching the news, working on the blog and only venturing out to the nearest shopping mall for some retail therapy.
When our friends from Melbourne arrived, we drove two hours down to Concon, beside the beach. Unfortunately, our time there was not as relaxing as we’d hoped for either. Due to the ongoing protests, we couldn’t visit many of the places we’d planned to, such as Valparaiso and Viña del Mar. There was also a 6.0 magnitude earthquake during our time there and we only managed to avoid violent protests next door in Renaca by a few days.
So, we were very happy to hop on a flight away from all of that and at the time, the Elqui Valley seemed like the best place to be in Chile. As we walked around Vicuña’s small main square, there were only a handful of peaceful protesters, happily banging away on saucepans. We felt quite safe there and began to think we should have booked a longer stay.
However, we had two full days in Vicuña and we were ready to make the most of it.
One thing that we knew we had to do was to hire a bike and explore the valley. You can either hire a bike and plan your own route, or you can hire bikes through Elki Magic and follow their pre-planned 39 km downhill route from Pisco Elqui back to Vicuña. There is also the option to tour the entire valley (starting from Alcohuaz) but this is a 54 km ride that sounded a bit too much for us.
How does their self-guided tour work? Well, you pick up your bike at 9 am, and the lovely Adeline explains the whole route to you. She gives you maps of the area, shows you the best stops, which distilleries are the best to visit and so forth.
Once Adeline has prepped you, you hop in their car and her husband Lincoln drives you and your bikes along the route you’ll later be riding, all the way up to Pisco Elqui. Before you head off on your ride, Lincoln explains their new tubeless tire system and what to do in case of a puncture. Then, you are ready to set off and make your way back to Vicuña at your own pace.
Pisco tasting at Pisco Doña Josefa
The main thing to do in the Elqui Valley and Pisco Elqui is to visit Pisco distilleries. Of course, when you are travelling by bike you have to be a little careful about how many you visit and just how much tasting you do. Pisco is strong stuff! We started our ride with a slight detour to visit the Pisco Doña Josefa distillery, This was the one that Adeline had recommended and it offered free tasting and tours (in Spanish only).
We first took the tour, although we only understood about a quarter of what was said. Yes, we struggled, even after our Spanish lessons! After the tour, we did some tasting. Drinking Pisco at 10.30 in the morning is not normally our thing but hey, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do in the name of research!
The small town of Pisco Elqui
After our Pisco tasting, we made our way back to Pisco Elqui to explore this very small town. The quaint main square is lovely and we enjoyed some time watching the local dogs refresh themselves in the square’s fountain. There is another distillery right on the square called Pisco Mistral. It costs CLP 6,000 to do some tasting but with 39 km left to ride, we decided to move on instead!
Down to Montegrande
Four kilometres downhill we arrived in Montegrande, another cute little town in the valley. On our way there, we stopped many times to photograph the spectacular scenery. Bright green sloping vineyards set against the grey Andean mountains; breathtaking!
Montegrande is where you’ll find the resting place and small museum honouring the Nobel prize-winning poet, Gabriela Mistral.
There, I made friends with a St Bernard and we tried our first local beer at one of the small restaurants in town.
Wine tasting at Vino Caves del Valle
A few minutes outside of Montegrande, stop at the Caves del Valle winery on the right side of the road. Wine tasting there is free and we especially loved their red wine, buying a bottle to take back to our Airbnb!
On to Paihuano
Another 10 km downhill and we reached Paihuano. By that stage, we were so hot and sweaty that it was the perfect time to stop for ice-cream!
Just outside of Paihuano on the left side of the road, there are two viewpoints worth stopping for. The views are just incredible, especially at the second viewpoint.
A dip in the Rio Claro river
After the second viewpoint, you turn off the main road and head down a smaller road to the left. For a few kilometres, you follow the Rio Claro river where, on a hot day, you’ll find locals taking a dip in the cool water. We stopped and dipped our feet in. It was too cold for me but it was a nice spot to relax in the shade for a few minutes.
On to Diaguitas
Arriving back on the main road, the next four kilometres were pretty windy as we rode into a headwind. That made it a lot tougher and then, to cap things off, Simon got a puncture! Fortunately, thanks to the tubeless tire system, it was fixed in about 5 minutes and we headed off again.
Near the small village of Algarrobal, we ventured off the main road again. This time to the right, across a bridge and on to a rather bumpy dirt road for the next 6 kilometres. That part was a lot less fun and it’s where our bums really began to hurt! But once again, the scenery made it worthwhile as we followed an old train track, with lovely views of the valley off to our left.
Once in Diaguitas, it was time for more refreshments. So, we stopped at the Guayacan Brewery to taste some more local beers.
There you can pay CLP 500 for the tour and a tasting paddle is CLP 3000 if you present your Elki Magic’s map.
The beer was well-received after all our cycling in the heat.
Back to Vicuña
It was then on to the final leg of the trip, back on the dirt road for another 8 km before arriving again in Vicuña. Along the way, you have the option to stop at another distillery, the Aba distillery. But we ran out of time to do that and barely made it back to Elki Magic by 7 pm to return our bikes. Oops!
A fantastic day
It was a hot day, some parts were tough and it sure was a long ride. But we had a wonderful time exploring this stunning part of Chile. If you enjoy a good bike ride amongst beautiful scenery, we highly recommend both Elki Magic and this particular tour.
How much does the bike tour cost?
If you choose to do the same Pisco Elqui to Vicuña self-guided downhill bike tour that we did, you’ll pay CLP 15,000 per person including a route map, bike rental, drop off and any help during the day if you need it.
Elki Magic also rents bikes for CLP 1000 an hour or CLP 7,000 for a full day if you just want to do your own thing closer to Vicuña.
Their bikes are in excellent condition. They also come with everything you need if something goes wrong, together with helmets and gloves.
Where to book?
Elki Magic was the first company to start these bike tours. They are super friendly and speak fluent English. Adeline speaks French as well and she is so helpful, answering any questions you have for your stay in the Elqui Valley.
You can contact Adeline by Whatsapp on (+56) 9 68772015 or email [email protected]
How to get to the Elqui Valley?
The Elqui Valley is an hour east of the coastal town of La Serena. You can get there by bus from La Serena, Vicuña (1 hour) and Pisco Elqui (2 hours). Buses leave from the centre of La Serena and head past the airport several times a day. They cost around CLP 2,500.
If you arrive in La Serena by plane and want to go straight to the Elqui Valley, do not get a bus to the town centre. Instead, simply exit the airport and hail one of the passing buses on the opposite side of the road in front of the terminal. They will stop (unless full) and are clearly marked with Vicuña/Pisco Elqui on them.
Where to stay in the Elqui Valley?
We stayed in an Airbnb in the centre of Vicuña. However, there are many different types of accommodation available in the Elqui Valley.
Best on booking.com
Good location: Hostal Boutique Esquina Elquina
If none of those take your fancy, we recommend checking out HotelsCombined where you can search across all the major accommodation websites. We use it all the time. Vicuña makes a great base for exploring the valley.