Stargazing and Pisco Tasting: Four Days in La Serena

“I know what you´re doing in Chile. You´re learning Spanish and you´re partying” –

So said my seemingly simple brother when I accused him of not properly following my overseas adventures. Out of the mouth of babes. The fact that my last three weeks in Santiago had been one constant stream of events leading to exposure to alcohol, coupled with almost a month of solid partying in Austin before arriving in Chile meant that the prospect of going away for a couple days to La Serena to grandma style it up was attractive. So off I went, walking boot and all, to the Terminal San Borja in the pitch black morning, to get myself to La Serena, seven hours north of Santiago.

On my way to the ticketing stands, I saw two separate digital clocks saying it was 7.55am, which 1) surprised me because I knew I had left later than I wanted but not quite to that extent and 2) annoyed me because it meant I was too late to catch my intended 8am bus, and I would have to wait for another one. Assuming I could place my trust in these 2 separate clocks, I went straight to the ticket office for TurBus, which was running a 9am service.

I purchased my ticket, resigned to an hour or so of waiting in a very cold and dark bus station and cross with myself for taking so long to get there, sat down and pulled out my phone to check how much battery was left and discovered the clocks had LIED to me and that it was in fact 7.20am meaning I could have caught the earlier bus with ease. Having already bought my 9am ticket, I spent the next hour and a half playing a sadistic version of Musical Chairs, moving from seat to seat every ten minutes or so because the seats were so cold my bum would go numb.

Travel Tip #1 – Always triple check your time.

Eventually, it came to 20 minutes before my departure, and eager not to spend any more time in the bus terminal, hurried over to the platform area where I had been told my bus would leave from. In Chile, they don´t assign a specific platform, but just a general range of numbers where it might be parked, so I was looking at anywhere from 31-40. Spotting a TurBus in one of the appropriate spots, I decided to chill out and wait until the last possible second to get on the bus. This worked well until 5 minutes before 9am, when the bus driver got into the bus at the speed of light and started backing out. Panicking, I chased after the bus (just picture it – a gringa with a North Face backpack, a massive grey walking boot awkwardly hop running after the bus snapping her fingers and hollering to get the driver´s attention)…only to discover it wasn´t my bus, and I had just made a giant fool out of myself in front of everyone in the general vicinity.

Travel Tip #2 – Always look at the destination of bus before running after it, snapping your fingers and looking like a massive tool.

Finally got on the bus, wounded dignity and all, and was elated to discover that no one was sitting in the window seat next to my assigned aisle seat. After going out on Sunday night and not getting back until 2pm the next day, sans sleep, all I wanted to do was coma out. My aisle seat status, combined with my no doubt attractive sleeping figure meant as the bus progressed further and further out of Santiago, no one sat next to me despite more and more people getting on. After the first few bleary wake ups, I realised feigning sleep at each bus stop was my ticket to double seat glory. This slightly unethical behaviour helped me avoid a seat mate until 3/5 into the journey, by which point I´d gotten several hours of blissful sleep and was capable of sharing an intimate space with a stranger.

Anyway, now that I’ve discussed my bus journey in far more detail than anyone has ever paid attention to a bus journey before, let me not forget that the point of this blog was my four night stay in La Serena. I stayed in a really cute hostel called Casa de Maria’s. It’s a local woman’s house that is compound-y stye with nine rooms and a grassy courtyard, with the family all living in the main bit up front. I paid an excessive one dollar extra to get a room to myself, and after six or so weeks of sharing people’s beds/crashing on random sofas/sharing a very, very small single room that was never meant to hold two people with Katie, the luxury of having a whole room to myself was AMAZING.

My delightfully cute and colourful SOLO room

I´m going to out myself as a massive nana here – I spent the entire stay climbing into bed early to read books and plan/budget my continuing adventures and just generally enjoyed a few days that didn’t involve shots, constant socialisation and hungover hell. Not that I didn’t enjoy my party interlude in Santiago, but everyone needs a little break now and then (and considering the day I got back from La Serena I was out until 5.30am at a black light party, I think it was a wise little break)

My La Serena home

La Serena is well known for its many churches and its proximity to the Valley of Elqui, which is the home of pisco making in Chile (pisco is the national drink of Chile, although the Peruvians who originally invented it might have some issues with that statement) and also one of the best sites in the world for astronomy. As it takes over an hour to get to the Valley of Elqui one way, I opted to go with a tour company that took me out to Mamalluca Observatory the first night, and then all around the Valley the next day…because really, who wants to drive 9km up a gravel hilltop road at 11pm at night? My tour companions were three young Finnish men, and I´ll say it now: having had a Swedish BFF for two years or so and having regularly made horribly cruel slurs about all aspects of Swedish culture to wind her up, I take it all back. Trying to get these Finnish boys to talk was like trying to get blood out of a rock. Also, I have a sneaking suspicion they were members of Lordi, the heavy metal Finnish band that won Eurovision in 2007.

This really isn’t far off what my Finnish friends looked and dressed like.

The Mamalluca Observatory was amazing, and oh so worth it – definitely the highlight of my stay in La Serena. The tour guide, Luis, was informative, enthusiastic and charming. Even someone like me, who has never really understood the whole constellations malarkey was en rapt. In the two and a half hours we spent on the hilltop, we got to look at constellations, Saturn and clusters up close and saw a bunch of shooting stars. The night sky was absolutely amazing – I’ve never seen so many stars in my life. It was pretty amazing, and on the ride home I was so happy that all I could think about was how lucky I was to be in La Serena and in Chile and to be doing all the things that I was doing.

The next day, I got up bright and early for a full day’s experience in the Valley de Elqui. The Valley is right next to the Chile-Argentinian border and so everywhere you look there are sweeping views of mountains, vineyards and gorgeous colourful houses with floral features. I got so snap happy taking photos of every cute house I passed, I now have enough for a coffee table book dedicated to ´Houses of the Valley of Elqui´ (sadly my coffee book would fail miserably, because all the photos were taken in a moving van and as a result, are blurry and pretty rubbish). We ate at a restaurant whose unique selling point was that they use all the sun that the valley gets to cook their food via solar power. Very cute and colourful, and the food was pretty decent.

My lunch cooking itself away

Amongst other things, I visited several towns in the Valley, went to a pisco distillery and basically had a great day driving around a beautiful place, even if the members of Lordi weren’t that interested in engaging in banter. La Serena and the Valley of Elqui are gorgeous, and I highly recommend it as a great place to get out of Santiago for a few days. It was so nice to finally be back in travel mode and do something other than sit around waiting for my foot to get better, and because the majority of my travel time in Chile was spent down south in Patagonia, I’m really glad I got see a bit of Northern Chile as well.