The Elqui Valley was one of the greatest places we visited in all our South American trip.
With a combination of hitchhiking and local transport, we visited lots of different “Pisquere” (Pisco distillery) and got to know and taste the distillate so disputed between Chile and Peru 🍹🥃
Do you follow this page to get to know different, unusual realities hidden to most? To discover secret, non turistic gems to esplore…? Or to have a hint on alternative tourism destinations…?
Either way, just know that due to our particular sphere of interest, we often see drapes of reality that most tourists skip… And we can tell you about it, adding even a professional touch to it, due to the fact that YES, we do work in this industry 😚
Was Pisco born in Peru or in Chile? And the Pisco Sour? What distinguishes Pisco from Italian Grappa or from French Brandy, Cognac or Armagnac…?
Or do you simply want to know how to organize your visit independentely at the best? If you want to discover all the answers keep reading, this valleys looks gorgeous and we have plenty to discover together!! 🥰
What is Pisco?
First of all, let’s start with the basics.
Pisco comes from grapes currently produced in Peru and Chile, made primarily by distillation of the product of the vine, such as brandy and cognac, grappa or acquavite. So yes, it’s a SPIRIT and it comes from the fermentation and distillation of GRAPES.
You can find more about it in the RUTA DEL PISCO PERUVIANO article or down below.
Where is the Pisco Valley located?
The Pisco Valley is located in Chile, between the cities of Vicuñas and the Artisanal village of Horcòn. The route that connects the valley and its distilleries is PAVED, in good condition all year round and has a mitigated climate.
The closest big city from where to start your independent journey OR take a tour is La Serena, a 2 hours bus drive away. Santiago de Chile is quite far away, at 10 hours bus drive South… Still, it can be a good option if you are looking for a night bus and to save a night this way.
How to get to the Pisco Valley?
There are different options to get to Pisco Valley.
- If starting from Santiago: you can either take a bus to La Serena (7 hours, 550 km, 10.000 pesos semi-cama style seats with Turbus company), spend a night there and then take a bus to the Pisco Valley, or take a direct bus to Vicuña (10 hours, 17.000 pesos semi-cama style seats, Turbus company is the only one making this journey and there is only night option). Prices can vary in high season.
- If starting from La Serena: you can either take a bus to Vicuña (2.000 pesos), visit Vicuñas, and then take another bus to Pisco Elqui village (2.500 pesos), or take a direct bus to Pisco Elqui first (3.500 pesos) and then visit Vicuñas on the way back. You can ask the bus driver to stop in any location between this sites (we asked to stop in Aba Pisquera, for example).
There are also a few buses that goes all the way to Horcòn village, 7 km further than Pisco Elqui, which is where currently the paved road end.
Still, there are works in progress to get the asphalt further down to the next village, if one is interested.
You can also take a colectivo (shared taxi) in La Serena (Calle Domeyko) until Vicuña (abt. CLP 2.000).
What’s the best way to explore the Pisco Valley?
Once you reached Vicuña, you have different options:
- Hitchhike to the diffent distilleries and sites or to rent a bike. To reach Pisco Elqui village is 38 km, if you wish to go further to Distilleria los Nichos it’s 42 km. Mostly flat or decent degrees, with curves and amazing landscapes.
The maximum wait we ever had for a ride (hitchhiking) was 10 minutes.
Due to the sunny climate (300 days a year) bring sunblock, sunglasses and a hat. And PLENTY of water.
- Too much adventure? To go to Pisco Elqui by bus there are plenty of options. Bus is 2.000 pesos and leaves every 20 minutes. You can ask the bus driver to stop at any point of the ride, he knows all the distilleries and will be glad to leave you there.
You can pay for the ride in cash when you get off the bus.
- Still too much hassle for you? There are tours available from La Serena. Although we encourage you to do it on your own.
Tours are more expensive (30.000 pesos per person, against the 15.000 pesos we spent to do it on our own), they will NOT bring you to the best places and will fill your time bringing you shopping for artisanal markets, a Papaya Jams producer, to a long lunch in a restaurant… And ONE distillery only (which is obviously the one with crowdy tours and cheap explanations, more focused on you having the good photo for your socials than to actually explain you the process).
If you are in a rush, it’s no excuse: you can still make it in one day on your own. Let’s see how.
Where do I take the bus from, to get to the Pisco Valley?
In La Serena, there are two bus companies AND three different places where to take the bus.
If you take the bus from the bus terminal, the company available is “Via Elqui”. Which is slightly cheaper but has way less rides a day. First one is 8.30am.
If you take the bus from “Pasarela Lider” (GPS coordinates -29.902569, -71.256327 ), “La Recova” (GPS coordinates -29.900721, -71.245872 ), the bus company is “Sol de Elqui” (prices above, runs every 30 minutes, first one to Pisco Elqui is at 8.30 am, first one to Vicuna is at 8.20am).
Still, from all those bus stops the bus will make other stops around the city for 20-30 minutes. To avoid this and to go to the most direct stop, from which the bus will finally exit the city and head to Pisco Elqui, you shall take the bus from the “plaza de Abasto” (Via Elqui AND Sol de Elqui company). The GPS coordinates are -29.907292, -71.243878 (in front of Feria Abasto, same side of the road).
This is also the ONLY LOCATION IN TOWN where the bus has a 6.20 am departure to Pisco Elqui, making it the EARLIEST you can start.
The buses pass Vicuña, Paihuano, Montegrande and finally reach Pisco Elqui. Only very few buses continue to Horcón (3 times a day).
INSIDER TIP: I strongly recommend you to start from the end (Pisco Elqui) and slowly head back to La Serena, and not the opposite. Why?
First of all, tours do the opposite, so you’ll have less people in your tours.
Second, it takes precious time to get to Pisco Elqui, and if you go to Los Nichos (further South), even more time. And they have less tours, so it’s best to do it as first or second tour.
How do I organize my independent one-day trip to Pisco Valley?
When one wants to go for an independent one-day trip, time is of the essential. And organization is key to success.
First thing you have to bear in mind are the opening times of the different distilleries you want to visit: most of them open at 10.00am, have a first tour around 11.00am, have a last tour at 5.30pm, and close at 6.00pm.
Tours usually lasts 40-45 minutes.
You have the chance to visit 4 places AT MOST in one day.
This is why we would recommend to spend a night in Pisco Elqui and allow a 2 days tour to enjoy and fully comprehend this complex reality.
Still, making it in one day is for sure possible, if you start from La Serena or Vicuña.
Take the first bus in the morning from La Serena: it’s NEVER too early. The 6.20 am bus (as described above) is your best option, as it leaves you in Pisco Elqui at 8.30 am. You have time for breakfast, to snap a few pictures (the sun hits perfectly the church in the mornings only) and the first distillery to have a tour would be Mistral (in the main plaza).
If you take the following bus (8.20 am from La Recova, 8.30am from Plaza de Abasto) you’ll be in Pisco Elqui at 10.45am. Missing a precious 45 minutes since distilleries opened. Still, that’s the option we took, as we are not morning people.
For the way back, remember there are no buses at night; the last bus leaves La Serena at 20.00 hrs and from Pisco Elqui the last bus also leaves at 20.00 hrs. The last bus from Vicuña to La Serena is at 9.30pm and will drop you off at La Recova or at the Bus Terminal.
INSIDER TIP: Bring your own bags and a backpack, as distilleries don’t give plastic bags and only few bottles have packagings (the higher quality ones). You will also be given free glasses as souvenirs in lots of tours so be sure to have something to pack them properly.
THE RIGHT SEASON: If you want to live the experience at fullest, have the greatest scenery and see the grapes juice run through the veins of the Pisquera’s machineries, February to May is the harvesting season.
Tours are still opened year-round.
Which distilleries are not to be missed during my Pisco Valley tour in Chile?
When we arrived to Pisco Elqui, the first bus to Horcon was at 1.30pm… Too late for us! And there were no shared taxis either. So we opted to hitchhike to our first Pisquera, FUNDO LOS NICHOS, the oldest in all Chile and overall the best tour we had.
It’s not that far, it’s 4km walk from the village, but if you boarded our same bus at 8.20am you won’t make it for the first tour, which is vital in order to get to the next ones.
Fundo Los Nichos:
Tour hours: 11.30am – 1.00pm – 16.00 pm – 17.00pm
Tour price: 2.500 pesos
Tour language: Spanish only, if not agreed differently
Contact: +56 51 2451085, firstname.lastname@example.org
Location: 4 km South of Pisco Elqui, on the way to Horcon
Amount of people per tour: we had 8 pp in our tour
Tour knowledge and guide: our guide was passioned about the production process, precise in the explanations and answers, sharp in knowledge.
Highlights: the vault and its art and history are interesting and makes you live the meaning of the words “oldest pisquera in chile”.
Tasting: we tried the Pisco Especial 35° and the Pisco Reservado 40°. They were both DELICIOUS. We ended up buying a bottle of the Pisco Especial 35°, slightly sweeter than the other, for 5.500 pesos.
Overall: The best tour we had. A hint of the distillery history, very informative explanation on the process, competent and enthusiastic guide. They even made the tour 1 hour long as we had many questions.
A MUST, ALSO BECAUSE IT’S STILL ARTISANAL SO YOU CAN BREATH THE TRADITION.
After the tour in Los Nichos, we hitchhiked back to the village and arrived to MISTRAL DISTILLERY for their next tour (we lost one hour chatting with our drivers tho). We went to the 1.30pm one, but you may be able to make it for the 12.30pm one if you are lucky.
Tour hours: 10.30am – 18.00pm every hour (10.30am, 11.30am, 12.30pm, etc)
Jan-Feb only: 12.00pm – 18.30 pm (closed on Mondays)
Tour price: 6.000 pesos
Tour language: Every few tours in Spanish, there is one in English
Contact: +56 51 2451358 email@example.com
Location: Pisco Elqui main square
Amount of people per tour: we had 11 pp in our tour
Tour knowledge and guide: our guide was bored and borying, looked annoyed when we asked questions. He was annoyingly posing making the Victory sign with the hands every time we wanted to take a picture with him in it, which means no chances to make a decent, natural looking photo.
Highlights: it’s the only distillery where we got the chance to walk in the vineyards, which make it for a cool pic. They give you flute glasses you used for the tasting as a souvenir gift (too bad Pisco shall not be drunk from a champagne flute… but okay) plus a free mix of their Pisco and a kind of soda in a bottle, which is nice if you want to chill and chat in their bar while resting for a while. Also, the coolest cellar with barriques was Mistral.
Tasting: we tried the Cata de Pisco Mistral 40° and Pisco Mistral Nobel.
After we tasted the Los Nichos ones, there was no sense in those two.
They tasted bad in my opinion. If you are into tastings, it may be worth to take the Premium tour for 12.000pesos where they offer you the Pisco Mistral Gran Nobel, Pisco Mistral Nobel D.O 1931, Pisco Mistral Nobel.
Overall: The worst tour we had. A hint of the Pisco history, a small museum with the reproduction of objects, machineries and a room with a table and glasses. Our guide seemed to can not wait to get rid of us.
Still, he responded correctly to most of our questions, so he was knowledgable… Just not very interested in sharing.
If you have to skip one distillery, make it be this one. It is probably okay if you are absolutely into pictures and not very interested in the actual thing… But even this, when you get to the Alambiques or Barriques, you have to stay behind a yellow line on the floor. So.. I don’t know.
We opted for this one because we also wanted to see the difference between an Artisanal Pisquera and a Modern one with higher volume… We got the difference, totally. It just looks ridiculous you have to pay such a high price for a poorer explanation and tasting (even bottles are more expensive here). A place for guided tours from La Serena only.
When the tour finished, we jumped straight to the bus to Vicuña.
It was 3.00pm and we asked to be dropped off in front of ABA PISQUERA, our next destination. The bus charged us 2.000pesos (same price as to Vicuña, as it’s only 5 km away) and we had a 1,5km walk (first 1 km gentle uphill through vineyards).
Tour hours: whenever you arrive, in 10 minutes
Tour price: free
Tour language: Spanish, not sure for English
Contact: +56 51 2411039 / Cel.: 87822774 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Location: 4 km East of Vicuña, in the village of Arenal
Amount of people per tour: private
Tour knowledge and guide: our guide was chatty, passioned and proud about Pisco and its company, precise in the explanations and answers, sharp in knowledge.
Highlights: the Pisquera is surrounded in a beautiful landscape, with a blue lake, vineyards and flowers as nourishment for the bees, vital for the grapes. The ovens and machineries are still old and the techniques are still the first ones, using the recipes of the ancestors. Good spot for pictures as well and interesting, alternative tasting.
Tasting: we had two shots of pre-bottled cocktails: one with mango flavor, the other with blueberry flavor. We usually don’t like sweet and fruity cocktails, but they were so good we ended up buying the mango one for 7.000pesos. Plus we tried “Cola del Mono”, a Chilean creamy cocktail similar to the Pisco Cream we had tried in Peru, and another shot of pure Pisco.
Overall: Considering the tour is free, private and on a show basis – plus they give you 4 shots as tasting – the customer service is outstanding.
They value their company and brand, and they want the customers to get to KNOW and UNDERSTAND what they do, how they do it, and with how much love. This is the best advertisement and philosophy a company can have.
It really makes you want to buy something to support them.
Also, the most technical tour we had about the production process.
After this tour we walked back to the main road, and checked who was arriving first: the bus or a free ride by hitchhiking? The free ride won and drove us directly to our next destination: CENTRO TURISTICO CAPEL.
Centro Turistico Capel:
Tour hours: From 10.00am to 17.00pm
Tour price: 4.000 pesos
Tour language: Spanish and English
Contact: + 56-51-2554337 | 56 -51-2554351
Location: 1 km South of Vicuña
Amount of people per tour: max 15 people
Tour: we arrived too late for the last tour so we didn’t make it. But as I said earlier, we lost one hour chatting with some drivers, so if you avoid this you will probably make it on time. Just know that all tours come to this place so it may be crowded.
Highlights: this is the perfect place for souvenirs, as they have t-shirts, hats, glasses, bottles for sale, plus they have a small 5-shops village built inside giant barriques, which is actually cute, and they sell handcrafts. Even tho we were late, we could still visit it and do the tasting.
Tasting: they offered us both Pisco puro (which wasn’t the best), “Cola del Mono” cocktail in a shot, another creamy Pisco one, and a shot of their pre-bottled Pisco Sour (too weak in proof, too lemonish).
Despite it not being excellent, we appreciated the effort to come to us first and offer us their tasting experience despite it was 15 minutes before closing… Lots of people would rather prefer to do the closing instead, but they opted for the customer service anyway… Which we did appreciate.
Overall: the overall idea of the place was it’s a touristic trap. Unfortunately even the Pisco Museum was closed for renovations, which wasn’t written in their website so we were not informed about it.
Still, we always appreciate a good customer service, especially when people are not pushy in convincing you to buy something.
This place is also conveniently located so you can walk from Vicuña, and makes it a good option if you’re still up to something.
It would not be my first choice, but it’s a good filler if you have some spare time.
OTHER WINERIES/DISTILLERIES WORTH A VISIT:
We didn’t have time to visit them, and we regret it.
That’s why I would suggest a two-days tour… Or skip Mistral and Capel in order to focus on the Artisinal Pisqueras.
Los Nichos and Aba Pisquera are a must… Plus I would add a visit to:
Destilleria Doña Josefa de Elqui
GPS coordinates: -30.132284, -70.499181
Located: 1,5 km South of Pisco Elqui, between the village and Los Nichos
Note: it got recommended to us, it’s another artisanal one and it’s FREE
Cavas del Valle
GPS coordinates: -30.075258, -70.496778
Located: between Pisco Elqui and Paihuano
Note: for wine lovers, this place is not a Pisquera, but a winery
What else to visit in Valle del Pisco? Are there other attractions?
Yes there are.
In Montegrande, a small town located in the Claro River Valley, the House School Museum is where Gabriela Mistral, famous Chilean poetress, lived and took her first steps in her life as an educator. It’s now opened and it’s a museum with a a small entrance fee.
You can also watch the stars and the Elqui Valley is one of the best skies of the world for it and there are therefore 5 observatories to choose from. It has the grace of being located in an area where there is no public lighting in several kilometers around, which guarantees perfectly clean skies.
Programs, times and prices are all very similar:
Every day, from 9.30 PM, astronomical tours are organized, which cost between $8,500 – $15,000 for adults and $ 4,000 – 7,500 for children.
They last two hours and leave with a direct observation of the sky with a naked eye from its pleasant terrace.
Then, they continue with an interactive chat in the multimedia room and with the observation through two 14-inch telescopes.
Guided by certified experts, from there you can observe from planets to nebulas, which are clouds of star dust and gas.
Still curious about Pisco…?
Want to know more? Here is a few things you’ll want to know before taking a tour to the Elqui Valley…
What are the differences between Peruvian Pisco and Chilean Pisco?
Despite them carrying the same name and belonging to the category of Brandy, they have two different standards for their production – for the Peruvian pisco and for the Chilean pisco – so they are technically considered different products, but within the same group of spirits.
Differencies are so many that to enlist them will be impossible… They also vary from Pisqueras (Pisco’s distilleries) to Pisqueras.
If you want to know more about the Peruvian Pisco, I wrote a separate article about it that you can find here: RUTA DEL PISCO IN PERU.
Yes, I visited the Peruvian Pisco Road as well, and as it’s such a complex topic I decided to make two separate articles. The one you are reading focuses on the CHILEAN PISCO and on the PISCO VALLEY IN CHILE.
About the differences, you can compare and notice differences almost at each step of the production. To start with, the Peruvian Pisco allows to use up to 7 different species of grapes, and even to mix them together, while the Chilean one uses only a few of them (Muscatel, Italia, Torontel, Pedro Jiménez). With the result that the Peruvian Pisco has a wilder spectrum of flavours available, some drier, some sweeter. While the Chilean Pisco comes from sweet grapes only, giving it a smoother flavour easier to drink.
The dispute: was Pisco born in Chile or Peru? Who can use the name Pisco? And Pisco Sour Cocktail?
There is a controversy about the legitimacy of the use of the name “pisco”, in reference to the brandy of grapes produced in Peru and Chile. In this regard, there is a historical difference between the two countries. Peru claims that the name is an exclusive denomination of origin and Chile maintains that both have the right to use it.
Peru considers that the name applied to the spirit drink has a close relationship with the geographical space where it is produced in that country, in the city of Pisco and its surroundings, so that it should have exclusivity in its use, in addition to the fact that such a brandy was produced in the lands of Peru since the end of the 16th century.
It was declared as a Peruvian denomination by administrative resolution in 1990, officially establishing its production territory the following year.
For its part, Chile argues that the term is equally applicable to distilled beverage produced from grapes in its territory, where there is a town that uses that name —Pisco Elqui, adopted in 1936; previously known as La Unión and before La Greda, and of pisco tradition since the beginning of the 18th century -, legally establishing itself as a denomination of Chilean origin and defining a geographical area for its production in 1931.
It does not deny that such a product could have been manufactured first in Peru, but argues that such denomination has been used to designate the brandy of grapes produced in both countries, since colonial times, so it can be used by both Chile and Peru; in that sense, it has been argued that it would be a generic term, defending that the denomination of origin of its variety is «Chilean pisco», or that it would be a binational denomination.
About the Pisco Sour cocktail and recipe, the name was first registered in Chile, as soon as it conquered the area from Peru while in war. So it legally belongs to Chile.
What are the differences between Pisco and the Italian Grappa, or the French Brandy, Cognac and Armagnac?
Grappa is a distillate that comes from the fermentation of the skins of the berries (grapes, vinaccia), so the juice is NOT the raw material for distillation (it is used instead to produce wine). The grapes must necessarily come from vines grown in Italy (DOC).
If the distillate is made from Italian wine and aged in wood, then it is called “Brandy”. If made with French wine, it takes the name of “Cognac” (if produced in one of the 7 regions) or “Armagnac” (if the Armagnac still is used).
«Brandy» and «Cognac» therefore use the pulp and juice from the pressing of the bunches, while the grappa is obtained from the distillation of mixtures of fermented pomace or pomace from individual vines (in our case only Italian ones).
How is Pisco produced in Chile?
Its production consists of four major phases: the cultivation and harvest of pisco grapes, winemaking for pisco purposes, the distillation of wine to obtain pisco and, finally, packaging in consumption units. Such activities can only be carried out in the so-defined Zonas Pisqueras: Valle del Elqui, Valle del Huasco, Valle del Limari and all the province of Copiapò and Atacama.
The harvest of pisco grapes begins in the middle of the month of February of each year, usually with the earliest variety — the Muscat of Austria — and concludes with those of the longest cycle — the Muscat of Alexandria and Pedro Jiménez — , and is ultimately defined by the degree of potential alcohol that the grape grains have in the cluster, which must be equal to or greater than 10.50º.
First the grapes go through a machinery with clusters, of high speeds of rotation, that cause excessive ruptures of unwanted elements in the musts, such as brooms (maceration and pressing). Skin and seeds will remain in the fermentation process instead, activated by the action of natural yeasts.
The wine distillation process for the production of alcohol for pisco should be done in discontinuous cycle stills. The distillation of the wines of each season, begins immediately after these are in conditions for such purpose, and cannot exceed the date of January 31 of the following year, to avoid that it coincides with the fruit of the incoming harvest. The alcohols, after being distilled for the preparation of pisco, must have a minimum rest of 60 days, which can be done in steel tanks or in raulí fudres (a Chilean roble).
In Chilean pisco producers can add demineralized water to adjust the resulting alcohol content after they cut off head and tail, that will be sold to other companies for their methanol content and, therefore, energy of combustion.
Pisco can be sold as it is or be aged. Sometimes a year of aging is done in giant barrels of 1500 liters.
Then it is moved to smaller barrels (150-250 lt).
Here they use American oak, French oak or a Chilean oak (rabli), depending on the Pisquera (three different pisquere in the video below, 3 different woods).
Everyone uses new barrels, which last about 20 years, and never age it for more than 3 years. 🙂
In Chile, aging is therefore more apt to give it color than flavor, as they do not have great climatic changes or a particular culture of treatment of these barrels, which they buy already made. So they have no clue about the treatment of those (how long they get burned for, for example).
Angel’s share – the amount of alcohol lost per year of aging due to evaporation – is also low, at a declared 3% a year (but I suspect it’s more like 6%).
We enjoyed our trip in the Elqui Valley and, to be fair, we enjoyed Chilean Pisco more than the Peruvian one (sorry Peru. we still love you!).
The Elqui Valley offred us not only an opportunity to learn something new, but incredible views of certain beauty, united with taste and the kindness of the locals. Therefore, I would recommend this experience both to the mixologist and conoisseur AND to the regular tourist.
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A Video in Italian language about our experience in the Elqui Valley can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/closetoeternity/videos/vl.823776391413562/993359701035983/?type=1