A slick 7 hour bus journey from Valparaíso was passed in the greatest luxury (USB port? Reclining seats? A coffee machine?!) and I arrived in the coastal city of La Serena with relative ease. As in Valpo, you find a city that is both beautiful (old buildings, many churches, street art) and incredibly busy, polluted, and loud. This (again) made me feel quite hesitant at first, wondering if I had come to the right place. A couple of hours of orientation and a coffee helped me to settle, and I started to enjoy the city. It is much much smaller than Santiago, and more easily navigated than Valparaíso, and as the second oldest city in Chile has many interesting streets to wander.
As I had arrived relatively late in the day (around 7pm), I set off to find somewhere to eat – turns out one bread roll is not the most sustaining of meals over the course of one whole day. This proved tricky: the first three places I looked for were all shut, and I was directing myself one-handed, as I was also talking on the phone. On the brink of giving up, it was a great pleasure to find La Casa del Guatón still open, where I dined alone, cheaply, and well on eel, white wine, and corn bread. A quick night time stroll around the centre and straight to bed. Got sexually harassed staying in a room with two men in their 30s due to lack of single sex dorms… not recommended for the bucket list.
(Hostal El Punto politely upgraded me to a private room when I explained, and here I write now in the solace of my own DOUBLE BED!)
Day 2: The old town and Vicuña
Tried and failed to book myself on a tour to see the nearby Parque Nacional Fray Jorge (lack of interest among other hostellers here meant the tour operators were not keen to take just me…sad). Instead, I went to explore La Serena itself. People wander softly around the shady La Plaza de Armas, and shout and honk horns on every other street. Went into a few churches, and then took the long, heavily polluted Main Street down to the Avenida del Mar, which opens onto the beach.
Turning away from the grey chill of the grey sand, I returned to town. The Museo Archeologico was my next stop, just off the Plaza de Armas. Several interesting artefacts were there: pottery, a fossilised wooden canoe, hunting tools. Unfortunately, their origins and provenance will forever remain a mystery to me, as there seemed to be almost no information on the displays. The main reason for my trip had been to see the Moai statue on display here – but this was not available to view. Following the forest disappointment, the unpleasant beach, and the groping, I was feeling distinctly un-chipper as I practically dragged myself down to Café Bocetto on Balmaceda. Alas! here too I was met with closed doors and shuttered windows.
The Elqui Valley beckoned, and I hopped on a bus to the nearest village, Vicuña, hoping for more excitement further afield. An hour-long journey of speeding and swerving around narrow mountain passes and across deep lakes soon restored my spirits as I headed into the land of Pisco. Vicuña is a pretty little village, nestled amongst dusty mountains, and is the birthplace of poet-diplomat Gabriela Mistral. Here I visited the creepy crawlies in the Museo Entomológico, and the central Plaza de Armas.
It was a lovely place to visit for a few hours, and I might book a hostel here for one night, to visit the observatory more easily. The air was so clean and the landscape so beautiful.
A long day spent wandering around La Serena, before booking a stargazing tour at the Mamalluca observatory, 15 minutes from Vicuña. In the total blackness the stars appeared high in the clear sky, and a great white domed observatory loomed into the total blackness of the sky. We saw Saturn and two moons, tiny dots of light, and a perfect tiny Jupiter with its ring, clear and bright like a stencil in the darkness. After the planets, we observed two star clusters : the treadure box, and Antares A.
Outside we used a periscope to capture a perfect reflection of the moon. By naked eye we could see individual crates and seas.
Quick bus back in the Chilean night.
The next day – last day – I ran to the station and got the last ticket to Calama. Then looked around the market in La Serena and did a few boring things like booking the next hostel. Was able to meet up with Eileen, a fellow Cambridge MMLer in the afternoon for lunch at Lighthouse Coffee Company on the beach, a hipster micro-chain which serves good coffee and bagels.
My mood dipped on the 15 hour bus to Calama, which was just me and 80 Chilean men; I did not enjoy this journey AT ALL. It was the longest so far and I had a guy half asleep on me who was obviously a stranger to deodorant. Further confusion while having to change bus station at 6 am (va a Antofagasta, they all said, unhelpfully, without bothering to tell me this was a street rather than the town).
On to the desert !