The Elqui Valley, Southern Atacama, Northern Chile
The Elqui Valley, known locally as “el Valle del Elqui”, is located east of La Serena in northern Chile, referred to as the “small north” because La Serena is only 470km north from Santiago along the Ruta 5, Panamerican Highway.
For most people coming to the Elqui Valley they discover a real “little nugget” of Chile. This is not a place that has been developed for tourists and therefore it retains its authenticity, which makes it endearing. What makes the valley special is that it is geographically “attractive” to the eye and possess interesting smaller villages to visit, as well as options to see the stars. The drive from La Serena also passes a large dam holding back a reservoir of water, which is an impressive sight and where there is a look out viewpoint. Then there is the main town called Vicuña, and this is also interesting due to the number of original, adobe-built houses that still exist and the overall calmness that envelopes the area.
Indeed, this is a place to relax, enjoy the sunshine and “escape” from the madness of the world.
In addition, Vicuña is the birthplace of 1945, Nobel Prize-winning poet, Gabriel Mistral. She is something of a cultural icon in Chile and in Vicuña there is a museum dedicated to her history and works, which is another reason to visit this town.
The valley starts almost immediately behind La Serena and leads all the way east to the Andes Mountains. It is a sought-after destination because the valley floor it is lush green with crops that get irrigation from the natural Elqui River, which is maintained by the Puclaro Reservoir (built at the end of the 1990’s). Due to its altitude, this part of Chile also receives plentiful sunshine with very few cloudy days.
Visually, the lush green of the fertile valley floor contrasts vividly with the barren, orange, red and sand colours of the steep hill sides, and this creates a unique sight between “life” and “non-life”.
The valley has also become a centre for the production of fruit, especially grapes that go to make the famous Pisco liquor, but more recently are now being used to produce good wines such as Syrah and Carmenere.
The valley is also known for its dryness, plentiful cloudless days, and clear night skies, ideal for observing the stars, which is why there are a few professional observatories on strategically-located summits in, or close to, the valley. For example, the Tololo, Gemini and Cerro Mayo observatories are all on hill summits within, or just off, the main Elqui Valley. With prearranged reservations it is possible to visit El Tololo, but its administration office where such arrangements have to be made, is in La Serena. It should be noted, however, that these professional observatories monitor the stars through high-end technical equipment and not with the naked eye looking through a telescope. Also, the tours are during the day when the equipment is not operational, but it is still interesting to look around as well as see the fantastic view from high up where the observatory is located.
However, there is a great, more modest observatory at Vicuña, where visitors can look through a telescope and visually see planets, stars and galaxies with the naked eye and this is called Mamalluca.
Fray Jorge National Park
Not located in the Elqui Valley, but worth a mention is the Fray Jorge National Park. This is a park located by the Pacific about 75km south from La Serena, west of where the town of Ovalle is located, and off the main Ruta 5, Panamerican Highway, heading towards the coast.
Known as a natural phenomenon this Park contains a small forest that would normally be found over 1,250 from this point. The vegetation survives here courtesy of a microclimate and shows what this part of Chile was like over 30,000 years ago.
The road west from the Panamericana Ruta 5 will lead to observation points from which it is possible to see various types of bird life including hawks, Humboldt penguins, partridges and even the Culpeo fox. There are over 440 different species of tree and native plants in this “bubble” where the air is humid, enabling them to thrive.
A visit to Fray Jorge is only logical if you are driving up from Santiago.