Chile 3: La Serena / Valle de Elqui

We arrived at Buses Terminal de La Serena at 5:40 in the morning after I’d had a total of approximately 2 hours sleep. Katie and I sat apart so we could both have window seats and paid 27,500 pesos for semi cama as this is cheaper than salon cama. Not only was the space lacking but they kept the lights on until around midnight and didn’t take our tickets as we got on board but instead came around whilst I was dozing to wake me up and collect my ticket as well as take passport details. Then at around 2am we made a stop where a woman got on and sat beside me, jutting her elbow into my side and forcing me to bring my arms in front of my body. The women who then sat behind me began chatting to one another before one of them played games on their phone with the sound on, and being seated right by the toilet meant I was constantly jolted awake by the sound of the door shutting. Oh and I kept being worried they wouldn’t alert us of our arrival into La Serena, so I was hyper alert too. So, yep, fab night…

Anyway, sorry – 5:40am, La Serena bus station. After nipping to the toilet and slapping ourselves awake we began the 20 minute walk to our hostel in the dark, pretty quickly coming to a main road where we couldn’t figure out where we were and it suddenly felt like being on a desolate highway in the middle of nowhere, with the odd truck zooming past and this one man eerily circling us. We therefore decided to nip into the petrol station to find out where we were and where we needed to go and, after speaking to the lovely guy behind the counter and him responding with a half-and-half hand gesture when we asked if it would be safe to walk in the dark, we decided to grab a coffee and sit on the seats in the garage until the sun had risen. Delirious from lack of sleep the whole situation became absurd, but by 7am we were just exhausted (and I was starting to feel nauseous) so we trundled to our hostel – Aji Verde Hostel. 

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Fun in the petrol station…

The woman on reception was lovely and answered all our questions about Valle de Elqui and what was best for us to do, but being short on time and having a whole day ahead of us – yet having missed the pick up for the organised day tours – we decided to make our own way to Elqui Valley. It was 10am by the time we had got our things together and picked up some food from the supermarket (we had been warned everything was expensive in Elqui Valley) and then once we had found the Sol de Elqui bus in the carpark and boarded we didn’t actually leave until 10:40am, paying the 3,000 pesos (£4) each for the return journey. Again we sat apart and both had window seats in the hope we would be able to sleep, and I soon dived off for about 50 minutes. When I woke, however, I felt even more nauseous than before so decided to start eating the freshly cooked lasagne I had picked up from the supermarket for 2,000 pesos (which had the most convoluted and ridiculous process of taking a ticket to wait to place your order, to then queue to pay for your order, to then go back to the person you had ordered from to give them your payment receipt and collect your order). 

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The view as you drive into Elqui Valley is absolutely stunning but I felt so awful that I couldn’t keep my eyes open and by the time we arrived over 2 hours later, having made various drop offs and pick ups along the way, I was feeling horrendous and immediately made for the public loos where I had the privilege of paying 300 pesos (45p) to vomit. I assumed it was the lack of sleep followed by the sweet, milky, machine-made coffee from the petrol station so, after washing my face and sipping some water, decided to continue with our plans for the day. We had been interested in doing a walk but it turns out they were quite far and, with the Sun ridiculously hot in the cloudless sky and me feeling pretty weak, we decided to sit in the gardens and enjoy the view of the mountains before trying some Capao ice cream – capao is a local cactus plant fruit in Elqui valley and it set us back 1,300 pesos (£1.50) for one scoop, but I made sure I sampled a few first including the Pisco Sour ice cream. Both were really refreshing, the capao not having an overly strong flavour but with a sour, zesty taste. 

 

Elqui Valley is famous for its Mountains but also for being home to the Pisco distillery, with Pisco originating in Chile – they have had a debate with Peru for years, who also claimed to be the founding country of this liqueur, but an Argentina man recently put that to rest with a book he found dating 1973. So, being in Elqui Valley we wanted to do a tour of the distillery, which also houses a restaurant and a bar, but unfortunately they didn’t gave any English-speaking tours running that day. I thought it would be a grand idea to take the tour anyway in the assurance it would help us with our Spanish, so we paid 6,000 pesos each (£7.80) to take a one hour tour of the distillery, including two Pisco tastings, a free champagne glass and a free drink at the end. 

Prior to the tour commencing I finished my lasagne in the hope to settle my stomach but immediately knew it was a bad idea and about 10 minutes in I had to duck out and head for the bathrooms, only just making it in time. Being sick in another country is horrible, where they don’t speak your language is worse, and when you’re halfway through a tour it’s just embarrassing, but by this point I was realising it was probably a bug and that consuming dairy after a chunder probably hadn’t been my wisest of life choices. However I felt better once the acid was out my system and had a lovely female employee escort me back to the tour at the point it was now at, providing me with a summary in English on the way! 

 

I should say now that Diego – the man conducting the tour – was so lovely and kept checking if we had any questions as we made our way between each section, but other than picking out the odd word and guessing what was being said based on what was being pointed at (and the basic knowledge I have acquired over the years from various wine and ale tours) I didn’t understand a lot of the information and nor did it really help me with my Spanish. It was amusing nodding along and pretending I understood, and certainly a cultural shift from being in the majority in terms of language in a group to being in the minority. When it came round to the tastings we were lucky to be at a barrel with a couple (and their son) who spoke basic English, so we were able to gave a conversation and a joke with them as we sampled our Pisco – I know I had just vommed and all that but I had paid for this and I’m not one to say no to alcohol. But I only took the tiniest sips of each, I PROMISE.

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After the tour we went and sat in the bar area outside that overlooks the mountains and collected our free drinks. I was tempted to make sensible decisions from now on and pick the fruit shake (melon) but I couldn’t visit the home of Pisco and not have a Pisco Sour, so both Katie and I had this as our complimentary drink. I don’t believe they use egg whites for their sours in South America, which is something I particularly like, and I only managed about a third of it before handing the rest to Katie, but it was really refreshing and went perfectly with the mountain views.

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Plus the couple came to sit with us, and we ended up spending almost two hours chatting with them and respectively learning the other language, talking about alcohol and marijuana (and our jobs and stuff, but mainly the former!)

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Just after 6pm we headed back to where the bus stop was but decided to go for a short walk, missing 2 buses back to La Serena whilst doing so! But we finally managed to get in one around 6:50pm to discover that what we thought was 3,000 pesos for both ways was actually just for a single trip so we had to pay the same again. Both with window seats once again, I could actually enjoy the views on the way back before sleeping just shy of an hour before spending the last hour of the journey desperate for the loo, but fortunately the bus stop is 5 minutes from our hostel so once we were back in La Serena at around 9:10pm I didn’t have to wait for long.

 

Back at the hostel we tried to book our Turbus to San Pedro de Atacama for the following day to discover we were unable to do so online as we are not Chilean, and there were only 2 seats left on the bus we needed to get (oi oi oi). So we went to bed around 11pm and woke ourselves up at 7am, despite being exhausted from our bus journey the night before, and hopped on a local bus (400 pesos each) to take us to the Turbus office at the bus terminal. We arrived just before 8am to be told they didn’t open until 8, begged them to open early as we were worried the 2 remaining seats would go, and finally booked our seats to the Atacama desert at 45,000 pesos each (£55) as they only had salon cama left. We decided we should also book our bus out of Atacama while we were there as we didn’t want to get caught like that again. I think the lady behind the counter was thrilled that we ended up making not just one booking but 2, asked to pay separately for both bookings, and had caused other people to queue as it was assumed they were open so she would now need to continue serving despite not being due to start for another 10 minutes. We just pass on joy everywhere we go.

We were zombies walking back to our hostel but we managed to to stay with it long enough to help ourselves to the complimentary breakfast when we arrived, which included custard Apple, bread rolls, jam and dulce leche, all for a cost of 8,000 pesos (£10) for a 6 bed dorm room. We took our time and chatted over breakfast, then I showered and dressed before heading out to explore La Serena at around 10:30am. I first made my way to the market just round the corner and browsed the various souvenir and craft stalls before settling on my magnet for Chile at 1,000 pesos (£1.25). I then meandered around the streets before reaching the Plaza de Armas, which was adorned with food, juice, craft and electronic stalls.

My earphones have become completely destroyed since travelling, getting filled with sand, knocked and squashed in my bag and exposed to water for 9 months, that I needed a new pair and I came across a stall selling Samsung ones for 3,000 pesos each (£4). After attempting to speak and ask questions in Spanish, the guy at the stall started making noises and using gesture to explain the features of the earphones, even to the point of describing the volume control by making a wailing sound that got progressively louder and then quieter. He also, god bless him, took them out of the packet and connected them to his phone so I could listen to the sound quality myself with his music. After I paid he told me I looked Latin American, and then told me to zip up my bumbag; another person telling me to be careful, where I felt both wary and cautious yet humbled and touched by how kind and considerate so many Chileans have been.

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I left the Plaza and walked past the Japanese Gardens and out past the centre towards El Faro Monumental. After walking down a wide, empty street for a good 15-20 minutes I finely reached the landmark to find it under construction; typical really. I wandered further to look at the beach but it was a cloudy day and I had to get back to our hostel to collect my bags and make our bus, so I walked back towards town and picked up my lunch; a Humita, a giant mashed corn dumpling for 1,400 pesos that I asked to be caliante (hot), but was lukewarm by the time I made it to the hostel and got round to actually eating it!

 

Still, it was a good snack but I would need more for the 16 hour journey do on our way to the bus terminal I picked up a vegetable salad from a market stall and relied on the giant bag of vegetable crisps Katie had previously purchased. Once on our 3:40pm bus we were giddy with delight at the space and comfort of our not-on-a-travelling-budget seats and, after a few stop offs and devouring pretty much all of our food (with my vegetable salad being unsurprisingly plain and unsatisfying) and having entertaining conversations about wanting chocolate with the guy on the bus who checks tickets and looks after you, we tried to settle in for the night.

 

To finish off this post, I will keep the passage written in my iPad by Katie while we were on the bus and I had nipped to the toilet;

One thing I have come to admire the most this week is Katie’s talent for languages. She has so modestly perfected this language and I’m unsure how I would have managed this week without her skills. I aspire to be as good as her.

LS.

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