La Serena is quite a small beachside town. The beach was really nice, much better than Vina del Mar. It was pretty quiet since I went on a weekday as well and it was a tad windy so not ideal sunbathing weather. For it's size the city has a ridiculous number of churches (almost 30!). There were some really beautiful ones though, with really intricate towers. I'm not sure there's enough people in town to fill them all on a Sunday though!!
Although La Serena is nice enough, there isn't a huge mount to do in town but close by is the Elqui Valley so I went for a day trip there
. The Elqui Valley is like an oasis in the middle of a desert - it's filled with fruit plantations and vineyards. The grapes aren't just turned into wine though, the Elqui valley is the main pisco distilling area in Chile. Pisco is a strong, distilled alcohol that is sometimes mixed with fruit to make a pisco sour. We stopped at a distillery in Mamalluca where they make "firewater" (68% alcohol pisco!) and got a free sample - I thought it was gonna burn all my tastebuds away!! We also tried the "weaker" stuff (only 40%) which had matured for 2 years. It was definitely less burny on the throat but not likely to become my drink of choice! Before my foray into pisco tasting we had stopped at the Puclaro dam on the Rio Elqui which had spectacular views and a really cool wind harp. We also had a pit stop for a taste of papaya juice at a family run plantation on the way.
The Elqui Valley is one of the leading astronomical areas of the world due to the abundance of days where the sky is completely clear. We saw numerous observatories on the hills as we went further up the valley. For lunch we stopped at a restaurant in Villa Seca where they cook using solar powered ovens and I had some delicious chicken and mash. Then we carried on up the valley to Pisco Elqui, a small town where there was a range of handmade stuff to buy - I was nearly tempted into buying a picture but restrained myself when I realised it probably wouldn't make it home in one piece
! Our next stop was at the house and school where Gabriela Mistral grew up and taught other children. She won a Nobel Prize for her contribution to the educational system throughout Central and South America and also for the work she did for children's rights. Interestingly, she also taught Chile's other Nobel Prize winner, Pablo Neruda when he was young. The final stop on the way back to La Serena was in Vicuna where we went to the old cabildo then got a very, nice ice cream from a local store (didn't beat the Argentinian ice-cream though!).
I really enjoyed the tour, the scenery was beautiful even if the pisco wasn't! Not really looking forward to a 24 hour bus journey up through the Atacama desert to Arica though, fingers crossed I'll be able to sleep for a decent portion of it.
The Chilean border control point isn't as scenic as the Argentinian one during the day so it certainly wasn't scenic at midnight when I had to traipse off the bus and go through their strict baggage checking procedures! The view of the stars was very clear at times though because we were up so high in the Andes. I enjoyed the journey more going the other way during the daytime though - all those windy roads are definitely not conducive to sleep!