Falling in Love with the Elqui Valley

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This popular travel quote has never done it for me.  I completely get the sentiment of it – the love for travel, adventure, the unknown.  It has never spoken to me because I don’t have any particular feelings for cities that I haven’t been to (except desire to see them). What is actually true for me is that I’m in love with cities I HAVE BEEN to.

In my 8 years of traveling the word, there are certain cities or places that will always hold a special place in my heart.  It’s the feeling of being in love with a place; feeling giddy when you walk through its surroundings, feeling overwhelmed by its beauty, greatly enjoying the experience, feeling an immense sadness when it’s time to go, whatever it may be.  When thinking back on these places, I remember it so fondly that it is is difficult to think about it because I’d rather be there than where I currently am. It’s almost impossible to put into words.  I can’t always explain exactly why these places captivate me or the exact emotions that they evoke within me but I know it’s there.

I will never forget the first time I experienced the indescribable love of a place.  During my time studying abroad in Spain, I traveled to different cities every weekend to make my short time there worthwhile.  My friends and I decided to take a trip to San Sebastian in the Basque country for our final weekend.  The city was stunning and felt slightly different than the rest of Spain.  The small cobblestone streets lined with tapas bar after tapas bar, the ocean sitting right against the city, the weird ride at the top of Torreon del Monte Igueldo; it all really came together to give me “that feeling”.  I traveled to other cities during my time there and had great memories and experiences.  But for some reason Madrid, Barcelona, and Santander didn’t have that same effect.

San Sebastian, Spain 2008

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The Elqui Valley in Chile did have that effect.

Upon leaving La Serena after some trying days, I was really looking for a spiritual, emotional and mental cleansing.  A place I could really reconnect with and center myself again.  The Elqui Valley is know for its energy and magnetic poles. Some scientists claim that the Himalayas are on the direct other side of the world and therefore all of the energy goes in through the Elqui Valley and out through the Himalayas on the otherside.  Making both locations very sacred and spiritual.

As we began to drive into the Valley, I started to develop “that fall in love feeling”.  The landscape completely changed to a very dry but stunning valley with sprouting mountains as far as you can see.  And to top it off, there are charming Pisco vineyards tucked into the mountainside.  I’m not really sure how a place could get more picturesque.

Our view from the car.  I don’t know how Dan didn’t crash. 

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We found a bed and breakfast called ElquiTerra on Airbnb that had excellent reviews.   It is located just outside Vicuña and tucked into an incredible location off a dirt road.  We seriously had no idea what was waiting for us.  Entering the wooden gate was almost like being transferred into Narnia.  The property consists of a main house (where the owners live), two buildings for 4 bedrooms and bathrooms, and a kitchen/lounge area for the guests.  The entire landscape is adorned with flowers, fruit trees, 2 grazing sheep, 2 hilarious and lovable brown dalmatians, and the most humbling view of the mountains.  There is also a pool and many hammocks around the property for lounging.  The first thing Dan said to me was “I can feel the energy of this place” and he doesn’t say things like that often.

We started off everyday with a breakfast of coffee, fresh juice, homemade jams, free range eggs, fruit, bread, yogurt, and granola.

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The view of the mountains and the pool. 

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The house the owners live in.  Everything was designed by Alejandra!

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Night view towards the building we stayed in and the kitchen area. 

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I loved everything about our 3 days in Vicuña and at ElquiTerra.  Besides the views and our excellent stay at ElquiTerra we went to two Pisco distilleries, a beer garden, and went to Mamalluca Observatory to stargaze.   What could be better than views, alcohol and stargazing?

We took a taxi to Aba Pisquera on a Sunday (which probably wasn’t the best idea since we had to hitchhike home since many people take the day off on Sunday) but at least it was a free tour with a small tasting included at the end. We ended up purchasing a bottle of their Fuegos Pisco.  

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We also visited the Capel Pisco Distillery which was just down the road from where we were staying at ElquiTerra.  Capel is the largest Pisco producer in Chile so their tour is quite impressive with a tasting of two piscos and one mix (Mango Sour shown below) for 6,000 CLP.  

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The Guayacán Beer Garden is located in Diaguitas (which is a small town just a 10 minute drive or so from Vicuña) and was completely worth the visit.  There was almost no one else there and it was the coolest beer garden I’ve ever been to.  The beer was delicious and their pizzas weren’t too shabby either.  

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I’m generally not into the topic of space and I could usually care less about what’s going on in the solar system (to be honest it kind of freaks me out) but it is something that really interests Dan.  The Elqui Valley is highly known for being one of the best places to star gaze in the entire world.  There are observatories in the area that scientists from around the globe pay $12,000 USD a night to study there and are on waitlists for years.  So, of course we had to go check out one of these observatories and see what it is all about.  We decided to go to Mamalluca Observatory as it is the most accessible for tourists (there is an office in Vicuña where you can get your tickets the day before or morning of which is way cheaper than booking a tour).  

They provided an English speaking tour for us and about 6 other people.  It was incredible.  Our guide explained all of the different constellations that are visible from the southern hemisphere and we were able to look through that huge telescope to see every one of them.  We also learned that 50% of all observatories are located in Chile so we were in the best possible location to learn about this topic.  I have to say, I have a whole new appreciation for star gazing. 

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After our three days were up in Vicuña, Dan and I were both really sad to leave.  We weren’t ready to leave ElquiTerra and venture off to Pisco Elqui (which is about an hour from Vicuña).  I knew our time there would be one I’d look back on in the future when I’m sitting at a desk in the USA dreaming of what my life used to be like. I said to Dan multiple times that this was the perfect location – quiet, in the mountains, but only an hour drive to the city and the beach.  I want to live somewhere like this! However, I had high hopes for Pisco Elqui as it is also located in the Elqui Valley so I thought we would receive the same vibes there.

On our way, we stopped at an organic winery called Cavas del Valle.  The tour was kind of uninformative but we liked the wine and bought a bottle to bring with us.

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Pisco Elqui ended up being nice (I know how pretentious that sounds).  The mountains are a lot closer together here so the views are stunning of the narrow valleys but the town is touristy.  The excursions were pretty expensive (and some that we had already done and as we’d driven in by car) so we spent our 3 days there just laying by the pool at El Tesoro and eating out (we went to Rustika twice because the food was some of the best we’ve eaten in Latin America!)  It was no Vicuña but I was able to appreciate the down time there and work on my tan.   If I had to do it over again, I would have stayed 4 or 5 days in Vicuña and 1 or 2 in Pisco Elqui.

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Plaza de Armas in Pisco Elqui

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Looking back on our experience in the Elqui Valley now makes me realize how lucky I was to spend time in such a special, unique place.  The mountains, the vineyards, the amazing people at ElquiTerra, the breakfasts each day, the spiritual energy.  No wonder I fell in love with it.  I can easily say this was my favorite place in Chile.

I know this post is getting really long (so feel free to stop reading now if you’ve even made it this far).  But this topic of falling in love with a city or a place really got me thinking about my past travels and other locations that I’ve fallen in love with and why.  I see now that the love of each location was for very different reasons but no matter what it was, it ignited something within me that made me fall in love.

A few other places I have fallen in love with before leaving on our South American adventure:

Bandipur, Nepal (2009): A small mountain town that doesn’t even allow cars to drive through its streets.  At the time (I’m not sure how it is now) there were barely any other tourists here.  And these views of the Himalayas.

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San Blas, Panama (2011): An archipelago of 365 islands that are owned by the indigenous Kuna Yala tribe.  The most beautiful, untouched beaches and water I’ve ever seen.

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New Orleans, Louisiana (2012): Besides the fact that I spent my time here celebrating my last days as a single girl with my best friends, I truly loved this place.  From the architecture to the delicious food, I was fascinated by the culture and liveliness of this city.

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Lake Titicaca, Peru (2012): The first stop on our honeymoon, the islands of Lake Titicaca on the Peru side are like taking a step back in time.  With beautiful landscapes and no police force, Isla Amantani and Isla Taquile are very special to me.

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San Francisco, California (2013): This was the first year my mom and I started our annual mother-daughter trip.  We had beautiful weather in February and loved walking around this city.

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Annecy, France (2013): After an incredible week celebrating our best friend’s Matt and Rebecca’s wedding, Dan and I took a road trip to the south of France.  Stopping in Annecy on our way, I was blown away by the slow pace and serenity of this place.  I felt like I was living a day in Beauty and the Beast.

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Kaaawa, Hawaii (2014): My parents, Dan and myself took this trip for my cousin Sean’s wedding.  It was my first time diving after receiving my certification and I have never been so sad to return to Chicago after a vacation.

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St. John’s, USVI (2015):  Similar to New Orleans, not only was this place memorable because I was here with my best friends celebrating Megan’s bachelorette party but just look at it. We took a day trip here from St. Thomas and it was the most perfect beach imaginable (minus the little jellyfish that kept stinging us).  I have such fond memories from this entire day.

Photo cred: Rebecca Liu Chabanon

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Falling in love with places can be detrimental because you can’t be everywhere. For me, it’s almost impossible to think about even returning to visit them because there are so many other destinations I need to see before my time is up.  However, it always makes me feel better to know that I leave part of myself in these places and in return, I always take part of them with me.

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