Last known location: London, England

Serena by the Seaside

We arrived in La Serena following an uneventful, but pleasant enough bus journey, passing through amazing scenery. A lot of the road was right on the coast so we were treated to some gorgeous views of the Pacific. I was particularly impressed with the provision of a blanket and pillow, and make the most of it for an hour or two!  We went straight to our hostel in La Serena, El Punto, which is the 2nd German run place we’ve stayed in in Chile. There’s a lot of German influence in the country; loads of German cars, quite a few words, i.e. kuchen, which means cake and, happily for Dan, lots of German beer!

We had a short snooze before going out to take in La Serena. It’s the second oldest town in Chile and the inner area of the city has strict regulations preventing people from building anything that doesn’t fit well with the original layout. This means there’s a lovely feel to the place, and we were forever looking up at the quite beautiful old building facades. Having not eaten properly all day we stopped at a little cafe to grab a bite. The very kind waiter informed us he was the only English speaker in the WHOLE of La Serena (apparently the hosts of our hostel didn’t count) and threw in the old favourite saying as often as possible: Lovely Jublee. He was very sweet but in all honesty we could only understand a tiny bit of what he said so we nodded politely and laughed when we thought it might be appropriate but then left. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing in our room, enjoying the luxury of having a TV and watching trashy American shows!

Woke up on Saturday feeling very refreshed. It’s so nice to be able to sleep without being woken every hour or two by howling dogs! Despite the weather not being the warmest (no mean comments about the current glorious British weather please!) we decided to brave it and head to the beach. The 40 minute walk led us to the lighthouse which is one of the most famous symbols of La Serena. It’s perched right on the beach, looking out to the frisky Pacific. The beach itself was almost deserted, perhaps due to the cloudy conditions, and we strolled along looking out to sea. There were a few surfers taking on the not inconsiderable waves but we were definitely NOT tempted to take the plunge. Far too cold! The North side of the bay that La Serena sits on is relatively underdeveloped with just a handful of hotels and guesthouses. Nearby Coquimbo is more of a beach resort, although both towns swell with visitors in the summer months. After getting our fill (for now!) of sea air we tried some very tasty empanadas – scallop, prawn and a goats cheese (not together!) – and walked back into town to see more of the city. Of course, as soon as we left the beach the sun came out and the clouds disappeared. But what can you do?!

Our first stop, surprisingly, was the Japanese garden just south of the centre. The area was funded by lots of Japanese companies who do business in Chile, and it was quite authentic. We felt like we were back in Kyoto! Next up we visited a few of the many churches. According to the guidebook La Serena has 29 churches (those that survived marauding pirates), but I stopped counting at 8! The first two we looked at were very pretty, though. Making the most of the late sunshine, we enjoyed a cold drink at a little cafe. The experience was spoiled somewhat by a raving tramp on one side of us and a dog with diarrhoea on the other. We left after one! After a quick freshen up at the hostel we went out for dinner. Our good intentions to go to a traditional Chilean restaurant were ruined by a very heavy downpour and our chosen restaurant closing early. So we ended up at the Chinese down the road. Bit naughty, I know, but it was different to the fare we enjoy at home so a new experience, nonetheless!

On Sunday we’d booked a tour to the Elqui Valley with our hostel. We were picked up by a minibus and an hour later remembered why we’re not so fond of group tours – it takes an hour to collect everyone from their different lodgings before the journey even starts properly! Still, it was worth it once we got going. The first stop was the Puclaro Dam. Built in 1999 it can provide enough water for the whole region for up to 5 years. Unfortunately the community displaced by the building of the dam now have to watch as Chile’s wealthy come to play on what was once their home – the water reserve is now used for windsurfing and paragliding.

We travelled on through some amazing scenery, with vast mountains on either side, with a thin strip of green vineyards, fruit trees and market gardens down the middle. A 10 minute drive further delivered us to our next stop, the Olivier winery. One of Chile’s most distinguished, it sells its wine to Windsor Castle, no less! The type of grape they use, Carmenere, was originally French but no longer exists in Europe so we got to taste a very special wine! Back into the minibus and onto Elqui’s capital city, Vicuna. We had half an hour to explore and managed to squeeze in the cathedral, mid-service (how do we keep doing that?!), the Bauer tower and an artisan ice-cream shop! We stopped for lunch at a solar powered restaurant and were given a quick demo of how the power is generated. A bit over my head to be honest but the reflective dish was pretty! The restaurants speciality was goat so we both tried it. I lucked out and got a relatively bone free lump but poor Dan got a load of ribs which were difficult to negotiate!

After lunch we visited the primary school of the Nobel prize winning poet Gabriella Mistral. She, understandably, is a revered figure in Chile because she was the first Latin-American prize winner and went onto teach and mentor another Nobel Prize winner, Pablo Neruda, whose home we visited in Valpairiso. We had time for a quick wander around the village of Montegrande, where the school is located, and were impressed with the pretty church and square which proudly displayed a statue of Mistral. Our final stop of the day was a Pisco distillery, the oldest in Chile. We were talked through the Pisco making process and then got to try. It tastes like a cross between grappa and tequila which, as you can imagine, isn’t the nicest! A local drink made with Pisco, the Pisco Sour, is much nicer and tastes a bit like a Margarita. So it’s not all bad! After having a quick walk around Pisco Village we jumped back on the bus and arrived back at the hostel at 8ish. A long day but definitely worth it, the scenery in the Elqui Valley is something else. Spectacular!

From La Serena we continue North, with still one or two more stops before we make it to Bolivia!

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