In what may turn out to be our only camping adventure in Chile this time around, we headed north from Santiago into the Elqui Valley. If you’ve not heard of the Elqui Valley, then listen up. It. Is. Incredible. Imagine yourself in a valley, surrounded by the Andes mountain range. Dry rock hills and cactus obscure the horizon whilst at your feet lies rivers of fresh water from the snow and soil so fertile it sustains orchids and vineyards. Every night you can see the sun set and the moon rise simultaneously on opposite sides of the valley, and you find yourself a comfortable position to view the stars from this Andean vantage-point. You are so close to the sky and with no light pollution at all it feels like you could reach out and run your fingers through the Milky Way.
Interested? We certainly were, so we set of with two friends and a car full of tents, food, blankets and thermal layers to spend five days in the Elqui Valley. There are two roads in the Valley, one that is paved and will lead you to the popular and more touristic township of Pisco (which is interestingly named after the drink, not the other way around), the other road is unsealed and will lead you to Cochiguaz. It was here that we found ‘Camping Cochiguaz’, a pristine, well-equipped and luckily for us, empty campsite. We looked at two other campsites before we decided on Cochiguaz; Rio Magico and Camping Ganimedes that is right next to Camping Cochiguaz. Rio Magico was lovely and we understand is the more popular choice for many campers. It is closer to the town (walking distance) and to the Cochiguaz Observatory. Camping Ganimedes also looked incredible however all four of us fell in love with the clean facilities, fire-pits, views and accessibility to the river that Camping Cochiguaz offers. The caretaker, Pedro, showed us around and offered us a discount (from the already cheap 7000 pesos per person per night) as it was off-season and we set up camp for five days.
As is was late May and we are, after-all, in Chile, immediately after setting up the tents we started up the open-fire BBQ to cook some of the delicious meats that we had brought in from neighbouring La Serena, as well as to keep us warm as the sun started to set. Having grown up in warm, seaside, bushfire-susceptible area in Australia, I have never really had the pleasure of sitting in front of a campfire. Neither have I had the threat of bone numbing cold in the nights. This maybe no news at all to the majority of people out there but camping is a whole different game when you need to build a fire to keep you warm in the night. We used a mixture of a small brazero which we had brought with us and the built-in camp kitchen/fireplaces at Camping Cochiguaz to cook very night and to keep warm after the sun had set and the mountain air nipped at our skin… and bones. It was cold. Really cold.
From the drive in, the views from the roadside cliffs and the feeling of solitude that swept over us as we got deeper into the Elqui Valley, we all knew we were in a pretty special place. However it was not until the sun started to set on that first night that we realised how special. The tips of the mountains changed colours us as the sun set and the moon took its place. It was magical. This was my favourite part of the day in Cochiguaz, the sunset and watching the mountains be set ablaze with light. My travelling companions however, much preferred what came next. The clearest night skies you have ever seen. The mountains surrounding the Elqui Valley block out any external light source and there is no artificial night light in the valley save for a few houses doted along the hills. There is no need for artificial light for most of the night, as the light from the moon in enough to see clearly enough to hike a small hill, cook dinner with or go about your general business. It’s only for the time after the moon slips behind the mountains and before the sun comes up that you need artificial light to see.
Life in the Elqui Valley is exactly what you’re seeking when you’re camping and in our case, escaping a big city; slow. You take your time with the simple things, like cooking, collecting firewood, walking up and down the river and making sure you have enough supplies to not have to head back into town anytime soon. Everyday we would eat breakfast, find a new place to walk to, sit and enjoy it, head back to camp and make lunch, prepare for nightfall, head out on a night walk, make a warm snack for dinner, drink tea and stare at the sky, go to bed. Bliss. To make things even better, Camping Cochiguaz has no phone or internet reception. No disruptions, just the simple life. To shake things up one night we booked a 5-hour horse ride into the Andres at sunset. As it was off-season and we were not staying in a high tourist area, we simply walked around the town and knocked on gates asking who might be able to help us out with a horse-rise into the mountains. Chile seems to work this way a lot. No signage, no websites, no information or set prices, just word of mouth and the more courageous you are in speaking with the locals, the more opportunities that will arise for you.
I recommend that every camper in the Elqui Valley gets themselves onto a horse and up into the Andes. The views you can see on horseback are unobtainable any other way. We left Cochiguaz just before sunset and rode up to where Rio Cochiguaz starts. The river comes out from the mountain from an in-mountain river tat is created by the melting snow at the summit. Did I mention this place was incredible? We had a friendly young horse-breaker guide us on the horse-ride. He was 24 years old and worked breaking in wild horses ready to use on the farm and for tourist rides. He explains to us that it takes him about 3 months to break in a horse and that once they are broken in, he releases them to a certain pat of the mountain so they can live freely in-between use. When he needs them, he simply rides one his horses out to the mountains, rounds up as many other horses as he needs and brings them home. We ate an asado BBQ dinner in the mountains, cooked on the open fire, drunk wine and listened to stories from our young guide about his time in the mountains and about the battle the locals have to preserve the Elqui Valley from the mining companies and luxury tourism industry. I’ll let you hear these stories first hand when you visit the Valley, but let me just insist again that you take the time to chat to the locals and book in a horse-ride. The are inexpensive and the experience is like no other.
I could not have asked for anything more from our time in the Elqui Valley, maybe besides a few degrees warmer in the evenings (the night we went horse-riding I was wearing 6 layers of clothes, like the Michelin man on horseback). Pack your thermals. Then when you think you have packed enough jumpers and jackets, pack one more of each. Also pack your shorts and t-shirts, the days a clear and warm, even in late May. We rounded out our trip with five nights on the coast in Tongoy. If you’re making the trip up north, I would suggest also hitting your choice of coastal towns.
For more information about Camping Cochiguaz, see campingcochiguaz.blogspot.com. The closest township is Cochiguaz and it is approximately 15 minutes drive away. The road in and out of Cochiguaz is unsealed and a little hairy in parts. The entire road is unsealed from the turnoff from the main road to Pisco at Monte Grande to Camping Cochiguaz. I would recommend a 4×4 vehicle, especially getting in and out of the camping grounds, most of which have steep sandy trails as driveways something the don’t tell you on the website). Be sure to take in everything you need as you can really only pick up small bits and pieces in the Cochiguaz, like eggs, bread, honey and chocolate. There are more shops in Monte Grande however that is about a 45-minute bumpy drive from the campsite and not a drive that you want to do too often.
If camping isn’t your pace, there are plenty of other accommodations on offer, such as
Cabañas Elquimista (image left) offers self-catering bungalows with free Wi-Fi and private balconies in Pisco Elqui.
Around the same price-point is the luxurious Hotel El Milagro, offering panoramic views and breakfast in Pisco Elqui.
Cabañas Elquimista and Hotel El Milagro both run at about $140 AUD per night, which is out of our budget but maybe it’s within yours. A little cheaper is Balcones de Pisco Elqui which will set you back just over $100 AUD per night, however there are some REAL budget options available on Hostelworld. Just search “Elqui Valley, Chile” and you will see the Balcones de Pisco Elqui which has dorm beds in a 4 bed dorm for approx $30 AUD per night.
Enjoy the Elqui Valley, and please feel free to tell us your thoughts on Camping Cochiguaz as well as your stories.