Now that the sun has set and the dogs have stopped barking, the night is silent. The stars shine overhead. The Milky Way stretches across the sky, with inky spots punctuating its light. Our nearest galactic neighbors, the Magellanic Clouds sit in the southern sky. This is the night sky above the Elqui Valley, one of the world’s top stargazing destinations.
The Elqui Valley jumped onto everyone’s must-go-stargazing list in the past few years as word got out about how dark the skies were – so dark that the area was certified as a Dark Sky Sanctuary in 2015. If you want to go stargazing in the Elqui Valley, it’ll take some planning but it can be done. Read on for tips on how to get to Chile’s Elqui Valley, the best hotels for stargazing, top astronomy tours and observatories, and even what to do during the day.
Headed to the Elqui Valley for the Solar Eclipse on July 2, 2019?
If you’re ready to plan a trip to see the pristine dark skies above the Elqui Valley with your own eyes, here’s everything you need to know!
How to Get to the Elqui Valley
Part of what makes Chile’s Elqui Valley a great stargazing destination is that it’s far from… almost everything!
There are two ways to get to the Elqui Valley from the capital city of Santiago. You can drive from Santiago to the Elqui Valley in five hours. Or, it’s a better option to take a one-hour flight from Santiago to the coastal town of La Serena, followed by a one-hour drive inland to the east. Airlines like Sky Airlines offer daily flights in each direction for a low cost – my flight was $24 round-trip!
In terms of renting a car to get from La Serena to Vicuña or elsewhere in the Elqui Valley, there are a number of car rental agencies in the La Serena airport. If you’re slightly more adventurous, you could opt to use the local buses. There are bus stops all along the highways in the Elqui Valley, destinations are listed on the front of each bus, and fares are usually CH$600 one-way.
Where to Go in the Elqui Valley
When planning a stargazing trip in the Elqui Valley, it’s important to consider where you will base yourself. While the Elqui Valley isn’t so large that you’ll spend a whole day traveling between places, choosing which town to stay in – or not – will impact the time you spend on the road versus out exploring.
Vicuña is the largest town in the Elqui Valley region. Here you’ll find everything you need: plenty of hotels, supermarkets, a wide selection of restaurants, and the tourism office for booking almost every tour in the region.
Pisco Elqui is a small town in the Elqui Valley that most people stay at least one night in or near. Here you’ll find a handful of restaurants and several tour operators that offer stargazing and after-dark tours.
Cochiguaz is located in a spur valley from the primary Elqui Valley; it’s known for its powerful energy, UFO sightings, and the healing powers of the Rio Cochiguas. It’s perfect if you loved your trip to Sedona.
Other towns include Paihuano, Rivadavia, and even remote Horcón or Alconguaz deep in the southern part of the valley. The more remote your base for exploration, the less light pollution you’ll experience – but the further you’ll have to drive to get there or to any other amenities you need.
Where to Stay in the Elqui Valley
Your accommodation is perhaps the most important decision you can make during your time in the Elqui Valley: if you choose a great hotel or hostel with stargazing right on the property, you’ll maximize your time stargazing!
In every guide to stargazing in the Elqui Valley, you’ll find a recommendation for Elqui Domos. Arguably the best property in the region for stargazing and luxury, Elqui Domos is deep in the Elqui Valley with pretty much pristine skies overhead. A combo of domes and modern buildings, Elqui Domos also has a massive dome common area and an Instagram-worthy pool. There’s also a small, private observatory on the property where you can book a night sky tour. From $143 per night; read reviews on TripAdvisor and book on Hotels.com or directly
Refugio Misterios del Elqui
Located on the edge of the town of Pisco Elqui, Refugio Misterios del Elqui will transport you to a private escape if you choose to stay in one of their thatched-roof cabañas. You’ll be close to town for easy access to amenities, restaurants, and stargazing tours, too. From $114 per night; read reviews on TripAdvisor and book on Hotels.com or directly
Hostel Cosmo Elqui Valley
If you’re looking for a budget-friendly option or just love the hostel vibe, there’s no better option than Hostel Cosmo Elqui Valley. Located at the intersection of Highway 41 and D-485 in Rivadavia, Hostel Cosmo Elqui Valley has a main building and series of mound-like buildings with stargazing windows and colorful exteriors. There’s a small pool, outdoor lounging area, and at night some of the staff occasionally lead stargazing or astrophotography tours. Shared rooms from $15, private rooms from $48; book on Hostelworld
There are a variety of local hotels throughout the Elqui Valley, especially in the town of Vicuña. Many of these have observatories and/or telescopes available on their property so you can continue to enjoy the night sky throughout your trip.
- Alfa Aldea – Alfa Aldea is probably the most popular observatory hotel in Vicuña, which means it is often fully booked. Luckily, they allow members of the public to book an astronomical observatory experience even if you’re not staying there. From $102 per night; read reviews on TripAdvisor and book directly
- Hotel Tukun Mapu – Hotel Tuxun Mapu is a hacienda-style hotel with both private rooms and stargazing domes available. They also have several telescopes on the property – you can either book a guided astronomical tour with your host, or rent a telescope for yourself and explore the night sky on your own. From $92 per night; read reviews on TripAdvisor and book on Hotels.com
- Terral Hotel & Spa – Terral Hotel & Spa is located near the main plaza in Vicuña, which means you’ll face more light pollution than other properties listed. However, their rooms are luxurious, and the interior courtyard and pool area offer good night sky views. You’ll also be in good walking distance of the top sights and restaurants in town. From $154 per night; read reviews on TripAdvisor and book on Hotels.com
Where to Go Stargazing in the Elqui Valley
Here’s the meat of it: the best stargazing spots in the Elqui Valley. While it’s possible to go stargazing from almost anywhere in the region (look up!), the best places are a bit further from the towns and most offer structured tours or experiences to help you make the most of your night.
One of the best parts of visiting the Elqui Valley is access to what local call “touristic observatories.” In the Elqui Valley, touristic observatories operate purely for tourism purposes, rather than scientific observatories which operate to do research. Touristic observatories are typically open more often and offer tours and education to the public. Some even have English-only tours for non-Spanish speakers. Here are some of the top ones – many more are privately owned and operated, and you’ll spot them dotting the mountain slopes of the Valley.
Mamalluca is the first and most popular touristic observatory in the Elqui Valley. It’s located outside the town of Vicuña and tour operators bring tours from around the region – even as far as Pisco Elqui, an hour drive away. Tours are offered nightly with clear skies in both Spanish and English. tour prices vary based on the operator; website
Cancana is an observatory located in the Cochiguaz valley, a 30-minute drive from Monte Grande. Tours are offered 2-3 times nightly depending on the season. $15,000CLP for adults, $7,500CLP for children; website
Alfa Aldea, as mentioned above, has an observatory onsite at their hotel property near Vicuña. If you’re not a guest at the hotel, you can book an astronomy tour in the evening after the sun goes down. website
El Pangue is an observatory located 30 minutes south of Vicuña in the direction of several scientific observatories including Tololo, Soar, and Gemini. El Pangue is home to one of the largest public telescopes in Chile, a 25″ Dobsonian, as well as several other smaller telescopes. Tours are offered in Spanish, English, and French. Tours start from $26,000 CLP, and reservations are required and can be booked online; website
Chile’s Elqui Valley drew astronomers to the region long before tourists realized it was a stargazing hot spot. As such, there are several world-class observatories in the region. Most do not offer public tours at night (when the astronomers are working), but some offer daytime tours or other options. Here are the main ones:
- SOAR (Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope)
- Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory
- Gemini South
In addition to visiting observatories, you can book stargazing tours that give you other ways to experience the night sky. The website Astronomic Tourism is a good hub to see lots of different tours from different tour operators.
If you’re staying in the Pisco Elqui area, Tourismo Migrantes offers a variety of night sky tours too, including an astroexperience, a tour to Mamalluca or Tololo observatory, and even a horseback ride under the stars. This is who I did several astronomy tours with during my time in the Elqui Valley
What to Do During the Day in the Elqui Valley
In between long nights of stargazing, you may want to fill your days with some of the cultural and outdoor experiences the Elqui Valley has to offer. Here’s a few ideas to help you plan your itinerary.
If you’re curious about our nearest star, consider trying to find a solar observatory while you’re in the Elqui Valley. Supposedly, there are two, Gran Observatorio Solar de Chile and Observatorio Inti Runa, but I was unable to verify either of them during this trip. If you do find a solar observatory to visit, expect to attend a midday tour where a special solar telescope will be set up for observation. Be sure to bring water and a hat to avoid getting too hot under the sun’s rays!
In addition to starry skies, the Elqui Valley has one other claim to fame: pisco. Pisco is a brandy, made from distilled grape wine, and it’s grown and produced in large quantities in the Elqui Valley. Unlike its Peruvian counterpart, Chilean pisco is often barrel-aged, giving it a different flavor and amber hue.
There are a number of pisco distilleries throughout the Elqui Valley. The largest by far is Destileria Pisco Mistral; others include Fundo Los Nichos, Doña Josepha, and ABA Pisco. Some offer free pisco tastings; others offer tours and tastings for a small fee.
Gabriela Mistral History
Nobel Laureate poet Gabriela Mistral grew up in the Elqui Valley. In fact, the International Dark-Sky Association certified Dark Sky Sanctuary is named in her honor. Mistral’s poems speak at times of the stars above:
Ojitos de las estrellas
abiertos en un oscuro
terciopelo: de lo alto,
¿me veis puro?
– Promesa a las Estrellas
(Little eyes of stars
open in a dark
velvet: from above,
do you see me pure?)
– Promise to the Stars
While in the Elqui Valley, you can visit the Gabriela Mistral Museum in Vicuña or her tomb near the town of Monte Grande. You’ll learn about the impact the region and night sky above had on her poetry, including the poems that reference the Elqui Valley and the stars as she saw them.
Now you have the tools to put together your own trip to go stargazing in the Elqui Valley. If you have other questions, please let me know in the comments.
Tanto fervor tiene el cielo, tanto ama, tanto regala, que a veces yo quiero más la noche que las mañanas.
(So much fervor has the sky, so much love, so many gifts, that sometimes I want more the night than the mornings.)
– Gabriela Mistral, Noche Andina (Andean Nights)