Worth a Trip: Exploring the Elqui Valley
The first point of interest on the drive from Vicuña, at Km14.5 just before Montegrande and at an altitude of 1080m, is the Cavas del Valle winery. Opened in 2004, this little boutique bucks the trend by serving actual wine, rather than pisco. The cosecha otoñal dessert wine, made of pink muscatel grapes, alone is worth the stop. A quick tour of the facilities with a tasting of three wines is free although you are encouraged to purchase a bottle.
An artisanal pisquera (pisco distillery) established in 1868, 3km south of Pisco Elqui, Fundo Los Nichos still produces pisco the old-fashioned way. Its four guided tours (CH$1000, in Spanish only, 11:30am, 1pm, 4pm and 5pm daily in summer) include a visit to the facilities and a tasting of three piscos. Or just stop by between 11am and 6pm for a free tasting; bottles start at CH$5000.
Drive on from here and you'll reach the Horcón artisanal market in the valley of its namesake village, worth a browse for its wealth of gorgeous handmade arts and crafts, local all-natural food and cosmetic products, all sold out of bamboo stalls. It's a feast of colors, dream catchers, wind chimes, knit dresses and jewelry.
From here, the paved road turns into a dusty dirt track leading to the adorable village of Alcoguaz, 14km beyond Pisco Elqui. Note its yellow and red wooden church and, if you wish to stay, move on to Casona Distante, a big wooden 1930s farmhouse beautifully restored into a rustic eight-room ecolodge with a swimming pool, riverside trails, a small observatory and a split-level restaurant.