Sunday, May 23, 2010

La Serena

After such a long period of not traveling, I finally got out of Santiago again!

My bus was supposed to leave at 11:40 at night, but it was running late.  I chatted with an older couple and a few guys in military uniforms while we waited.  The bus arrived at 12:20, and we eagerly boarded.  But then we found out that they sold 46 seats and there were only 42 seats on the bus.  Some people were throwing a fit and yelling at the driver, but most people just sat and waited.  At 1:00 another bus arrived, and it was going to La Serena also.  We all reboarded and finally headed out.

Luckily I made it in around 7:30 in the morning, as I had a tour of the Elqui Valley set up for 8:30.  I dropped off my things and grabbed some breakfast before the tour company arrived.  In the van I got acquainted with other travelers from Germany, Ireland, Australia, and England, and we chatted about our travels and exchanged travel tips.

It actually ended up being a long tour with lots of things to visit.  First we were off to the Puclaro Dam, which is very windy and well known for its windsurfing and kitesurfing opportunities.  I was glad that I brought my coat with me, as the wind was really strong.

After that we went to the small village of Vicuña.  Up here it was warm and sunny.  We explored the Plaza de Armas (town square) as well as an ancient church.

Then we were off to a pisco factory.  Pisco is the national drink of Chile, and there is actually a pretty long and complex process to create it.  It gets heated and distilled in one of these chamber things first, and after that it is stored in a huge barrel for a few years.  After that it is placed into a smaller barrel for 6 months, which gives it its flavor.  They have different varieties of pisco.  One was called Fuego 40, which is not as wll distilled and very strong and burns your throat as it goes down.  The one that is more refined is Fuego 28 and is much smoother. 

Around 2 or so we went to a solar restaurant.  They have metal plates set up with mirrors surrounding them and use the sun´s rays in order to cook the food, like this:

There was goat on the menu, but I decided to stay on the safe side and got chicken with mashed potatos.  It also came with a salad and dessert, which was pretty good considering lunch was included in the tour price. 

I opted for flan for dessert, as the hueso de molo (I don´t recall the exact name) did not sound very appetizing.  It was peaches floating in a watery sauce with pieces of wheat at the bottom.  I tried a bit of it but am glad I went with the flan.

Afterwards we stopped at a mirador (kind of like a picture spot or viewpoint) and got some great pictures.  In the valley it was now about 75 degrees and sunny, which was a nice change from the morning.

Our last stop was the town called Pisco Elqui.  It is a quiet town with a museum dedicated to Gabriela Mistral, the only Latin American woman to have ever won a Nobel Peace Prize.  She was a poet who began teaching at the age of 15 by opening her own school.  It was also next to a post office, and both were only reopened to the public less than a year ago.

After exploring it we wandered around the town and found a cool mural, some killer views of the mountains, and a fountain with statues of children that were disturbingly missing their heads:

In the evening it was nice hanging out with people at the hostel and sharing travel stories and views on politics and traveling.  We set up a fire on the terrace which helped keep us warm.

The next morning I was off with another tour, but this time to Las Islas Damas.  The area there is known for its sea wildlife, namely penguins, sea lions, and bottlenose dolphins.  On the way there we traveled through the desert and encountered some llamas in the distance:

Once we arrived at the port, I was a bit surprised.  I knew we would be traveling in a boat, but for some reason I pictured an enclosed boat and sipping coffee or tea on our way there.  Well, here I am getting ready to board the boat:

Our ¨ship¨ was a 25 foot long motorboat.  I get a bit nervous around water, but once I got into the boat I was fine.  As we raced towards the Los Chorros Island, the waves lapped against the boat and the boat vibrated to the sound of the motor running.  It took about 45 minutes to get to the island, and we rode around it as we kept an eye out for wildlife.  We got to see sea lions, a lot of sea gulls, and even a few penguins!

Unfortunately a lot of the penguins were hiding in their nests, as the weather wasn´t the best for them that day according to the guide.

After that, we headed to the Isla Las Damas.  There we got to disembark and explore the island.  This one didn´t have any marine wildlife, but it had plenty of flora and fauna.  One of the German guys on the trip decided he was going to go swimming despite the 55 degree weather.

I walked around the island and snapped some pictures:

Then around 2:30 we headed back to the mainland and got some lunch before making our way back to La Serena.

My last day here was great too.  I went to a place called Cafe Colonia that is supposed to be famous for its American breakfasts, and I ordered a ham and cheese omlette and pancakes.  This is what I got:

The omlette is cooked til it was golden brown (which is not the way I usually eat mine), and the pancakes were super thick.  It was almost as if they were pancakes on steroids.  It wasn´t the breakfast I was expecting, but it was still cool to see how they prepared it.

After that I headed out to explore with a couple that I met the day before.  Rodrigo is from Argentina and Yuri is from Japan.  We first stopped by the fish market that was next door to our hostel.  In addition to seeing (and smelling) all types of fish, a guy let me hold a piece of a shark they caught:

Then we went to the Japanese Garden, and it was really beautiful.  It reminded me of the Japanese Garden in Huntington Gardens in Pasadena:

We walked down to the lighthouse and took some pictures along the beach there:

After getting some lunch we walked back and explored a market in the street.  Then our last stop was to the Museo Arqueológico.  It was pretty cool to see all of the pottery and artifacts from the natives of Chile, and they even had an original Moai statue from Easter Island:

I got back around 7 PM, and in all we probably walked a total of two and a half hours by the time we got back to the hostel.  The nice part is that I don´t really feel tired from all of the walking.  We snapped a picture together an exchanged information to stay in contact before I headed off to the bus station:

After catching a colectivo, I walked around the mall across the street from the bus station and got some yogurt:

The bus ride back was uneventful, and I actually found out that I can take 2 busses to get back to my place and avoid paying for a taxi.

It was a fun trip, and it felt so good to get away for a weekend.  Life is good.

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