So, I’m pretty much in love with the desert.

¡Buenos días!

Man, I hope your last 60 hours have been as fun as mine were! I just got back from my trip to La Serena and my orientation for La Chile. Talk about a jam-packed, non-stop three days!

Before I start this post, I just wanted to let y’all know I added a new page to my blog, one that focuses on Chilean culture. It can be found at the top of the site (it’s the first tab), or you can click on this link (

Anyway, back to the adventure! The bus returned to Santiago this morning at 6 AM. I came home from the station, dropped off my things, had breakfast, and then headed back to el centro for the orientation. Luckily it ended earlier than it was supposed to so now I can finally relax and recap my adventures in La Serena!  

Speaking of which, the following things will make an appearance in this post:

  • My (two!) overnight bus rides
  • Spending time in La Serena, Vicuña and Pisco Elqui
  • The end of the Intensive Language Program

On Saturday night, around midnight, my friend and I took an overnight bus that left Santiago for La Serena. La Serena is a beach city 6 hours northwest of Santiago. It’s the second oldest city in the country (Santiago is the oldest) and the capital of the Coquimbo region of Chile. We chose this city for a few reasons: first, because of the temperature–it’s much warmer up north than it is in Santiago; second, we wanted a change of scene–La Serena is part of Norte Chico, or “Small North”, which goes from Santiago until the southern border of the Atacama Desert (my 9-day trip that I leave for on Friday will take me to Norte Grande); and third, we wanted to travel a reasonable distance away from Santiago since we only had a few days off.

Busing from city to city is usually how most people get anywhere in South America. Flights can be cheap if booked in advance, but it’s usually much more efficient to drive than to fly (depending on where and when you go). Because this is a frequent mode of transportation for many, buses–especially those that travel more than 10 hours–are comfortable, often providing meals and entertainment (music and movies). Since the drive to La Serena from Santiago is about 6 hours, we took an overnight bus that left Santiago at midnight and reached La Serena at 6 the next morning. I knew busing was popular, but I was still surprised to see how busy the bus terminal was both at midnight and 6 AM: the place was packed, with almost nowhere to sit! There were tons of backpackers and quite a few families with small children. The ride itself was fine, though I did feel pretty groggy by the time we reached La Serena. A taxi took us to the hostel where we had a quick nap and freshened up before we…

…walked around most of the city looking for food. Yup, this is pretty much how we spent our first two waking hours in La Serena…we were so hungry! But it was a Sunday so almost everything was closed and the streets were deserted :( Despite my rumbling tummy, I was glad we got to see the downtown when it was empty. Roads were small and compact, most were one-way, and looked more like fancy sidewalk pavements than anything else. If you’ve been to outdoor malls, Santana Row for example, it was sort of like that.

After scouring the streets (where we probably appeared homeless) we went to La Recova, a semi-outdoor market that houses artisanal shops as well as restaurants, and managed to find a place that had just opened for breakfast. Woo! I had scrambled eggs with ham and avocado and fresh papaya juice. So delicious! No photos cause I was too hungry haha :)

After breakfast my friend and decided to head to Valle de Elqui (Elqui Valley). We had heard a lot about this place from locals and visitors alike as it’s famous for a lot of different things:

  1. Observatories–this region of Chile is perhaps the best place on earth for astronomers and amateurs alike to check out the cosmos. The area has around 250 days of clear skies throughout the year, there is little moisture from the ocean (the Atacama Desert is the driest desert on the planet…some places have never recorded rainfall for over 200 years), the Andes prevent precipitous clouds from breaking over the desert, and the Humboldt Current creates predictable wind patterns. All these factors coalesce to provide this 600-mile strip with the perfect environment for stargazing .
  2. The Valley’s natural beauty–mountains, springs, hills, desert, and greenery, El Valle de Elqui has it all.
  3. Pisco vineyards–remember the pisco sour I smentioned a few posts ago? Although there’s an ongoing controversy about who has the right to produce it–Peru or Chile–this region is the only place in Chile that produces the brandy.
  4. Spiritual energies–nope, not kidding! Many brochures consider the region as a true “zen experience”. There are many communes in the desert that host a myriad of meditation and spiritual practices.

Our first stop was Vicuña, a small cozy town at the edge of the valley about an hour west of La Serena. It was the birthplace of poet Gabriela Mistral, the first (and so far the only) woman from Latin America to win the Nobel Prize in literature. We walked from the bus terminal to the main square (Plaza de Armas) where we found artisanal stalls selling everything from traditional indigenous herbs and medicines to coin purses and Mistral poetry bookmarks (of which, I confess, I bought two!). Being a Sunday afternoon, there were a lot of families enjoying the sun and the cool shade of the plaza, and it was fun to “people watch”.

After perusing some more, we walked to el Museo Gabriela MistralThe museum is small, comprised of 3-4 buildings with a pleasant garden in the back. The first building you enter, on the right side of the property, is a partial reconstruction of her home. Another building houses (no pun intended) her personal property and effects, including fragments of poetry, writing tools, and photographs. I loved looking at the photographs the most. Back home home we have a wall filled with black-and-white photos of my parents’ families with few that date back to the early 1900s (1901-1911 I think). It never ceases to fascinate me that those are real pictures of real people–my ancestors! It’s such a “simple” concept, photography, a snapshot in time, but so powerful. I could obviously go on for days about this, so I’ll spare ya ;)

After checking out the museum we headed back to the bus terminal. I wish we could have  stayed longer in Vicuña, but we had to get going if we wanted to make it into the valley. The 30-minute ride to Pisco Elqui, a city in the valley, was absolutely stunning! It definitely made my top 5 favorite drives list (yes, I have a list). I had expected the valley to be vast: a huge chunk of land surrounded by soft hills. What I saw was pretty much the opposite. Elqui Valley is extremely narrow–if you don’t believe me, believe etymology: Elqui means “narrow” in Quechua–surrounded by rocky mountains.

Pisco vineyard!

We reached Pisco Elqui around 3 and made inquires about horseback riding tours (a few people from our program who had been to the area the week before had told us that the Elqui Valley is a good place to try it out). After walking around we found a ranch that offered them! As the next tour wasn’t leaving until 5, we decided to have lunch and explore the town over the next two hours. Pisco Elqui is really really really tiny, but that’s what makes it so charming. Seriously, it’s probably one of my favorite cities (yes, I have a list for that too). Despite being in the desert it’s completely green, and it’s popular with tourists and backpackers. We lunched at an outdoor restaurant; the food was delicious! I had a humita (steamed corn dough, think: tamales) and an empanada, a savory stuffed  pastry. For dessert we had apples and honey, which we had bought in the market in La Serena.

We made our way back to the ranch only to find to our dismay that the tour was cancelled. According to one of the employees their only guide for the day was going to return later in the evening, and by then it would be too dark and too cold to go riding. As we left the ranch looking :'( we passed by a small sand arena where a man was walking his horse. Out of curiosity we asked whether he worked as a guide for the ranch and whether he’d be willing to give us a tour if he had the time. He agreed and we headed back over the saddle the horses! This was my first time riding a horse (there’s a picture of me when I was two years old sitting on one, but I don’t think that counts) and it was both scary and exciting at the same time! The path we took was on the side of a somewhat steep cliff, and the horses were a little too eager to go downhill…The tour, which lasted about an hour, let us see the sun set over the valley. Again, spectacular.

All day today I felt as if I had been living my entire life in two dimensions, seeing objects without depth, but now…now the mountains were literally popping out of the background (have you ever looked at those View-Master slides? It was like that, except real), and I felt like I could feel the earth and the sky. It was a powerful sensation, and it’s what’s making me want to go back and stay there a bit longer.

My ride ;)

Blurry because my horse “Rutina” got a little excited…
Our tour guide, Camilo.

We decided to spend the next day exploring La Serena. After eating breakfast at the hostel we started with a walk to the beach. Because it’s winter, there weren’t a lot of people in the water, but there were a few either jogging or biking along the “boardwalk”.

Afterwards we headed back to el centro where we visited a local museum, el Museo Histórico: Gabriel González Videla. Videla was born in La Serena and after attending law school became a politician. He later went on to become Chile’s president from 1946-52 and was involved in drafting the current constitution. The exhibit had a lot of his personal effects, including his diplomatic passport and lots of family pictures. There was also an art display, featuring paintings by Audé Gutiérrez, of whom I actually don’t know anything about…woohoo for Google!

The rest of the afternoon was spent hanging out in the plaza, making another trip to the market, and relaxing in the hostel before heading back to the bus terminal for our ride back to Santiago. I had a great time in the area and it was such a wonderful break from the havoc of the city that I’m looking forward to another free weekend to head back to the valley, maybe stay in Pisco Elqui this time around.

I’m not going to lie though…coming back to Santiago felt good. It was nice to see familiar (it’s been 4 weeks!) landmarks again and know exactly where I had to go and how to get there. On Friday I’ll be heading on a 9-day trip, this time to Norte grande, which means more desert time! :) Posts will probably be infrequent because of sketch internet access, but I promise to have lots of pictures to share by the end!

¡Ciao till then!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Elqui looks gorgeous! I wish I’d made it there when we were in La Serena. The beach too. I had such little time there.

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