My friends Forrest and Sarah came to visit all the way from Madison, so Jesse, Forrest, Sarah and I decided to take a trip north to La Serena and Valle del Elqui. La Serena is a town of 150,000 about 4.5 hours north of Santiago. Along with it’s sister city of Coquimbo, it’s located on miles of wide, white sand beaches. It reminded me of Panama City Beach, but not during spring break. Apparently La Serena has eclipsed Viña del Mar as the top beach destination close to Santiago, but since we were there midweek, right after school started again, it was really empty and peaceful.
We stayed at an apartment on the beach that we found on AirBnB. Yanette, the owner, was incredibly nice. She’s been living in La Serena for about 25 years and also owns a wine producing property northeast of the coast. She brought us amazing grapes and raisins as a thank you for renting that were truely the best I’ve ever had. They were sweet, plump and way better than you can get in the US. The grapes we get less sweet, because they have to harvest them earlier to ship them to the US.
The drive up is on a four lane highway, mostly along the coast. It reminds me a bit of highway 1 in California, with lots of hills, twists and turns. The small towns all have goat cheese sandwiches and fruit stands along the highways, while we only have McDonalds and Taco Bell in the US. So much better here. I wish I had rented a little bit better car because it would have been great to go up the hills and around the bends in a real car.
Our first day, we walked down the beach and got lunch at a small restaurant. For $7, we got a seafood empanada FULL of every kind of seafood you could think of. Next, a seafood soup filled with oysters in a spicy cilantro broth. The main course was fried reinata with sweet tomatoes and then dessert was super ripe honeydew melon. Great value and great food.
Next, we went over to the Coquinbo fist market and bought mussels, scallops and a full dorada. The fisherman cut it up into huge filets so we could cook them on the stove top. We also got an assortment of fruit and veggies from a little stand and came back to the beach apartment to cook.
We created an amazing meal. We started with a seafood soup with dorada, assorted seafood, aji, potato, carrots and other veggies. Next, pineapple and pepper ceviche with mussels, scallops and dorada. It was great. The main course was dorada a la plancha with a salt/curry rub, curried veggies and a pineapple salsa. Dessert was vanilla ice cream with a sweet grape and white wine sauce. It was a great way to end the day.
The next day we tried to go to Punta de Chorros to sea an island full of penguins. After a beautiful 2 hour drive through the mountains and across a few dirt roads, our little car finally stopped at a restaurant where we had some fresh fish. The highlight was their home made olive oil, infused with garlic and hot peppers. We each ended up buying a half litre bottle for about $7 to take home. Amazing. Unfortunately, when we got to the fishing dock, the fishermen told us that they couldn’t take us because the sea was too choppy. I think he was just being lazy and didn’t only want to take a group of 4, but it was still a great day. We watched the waves crash on the rugged Pacific coast and then made the drive back to La Serena.
The next morning, we left early and headed into Valle del Elqui. It started out cloudy, but it soon burned off to reveal a narrow valley filled with fruit trees, pisco distilleries and vineyards. Every Chilean I had talked to had told me that I had to go to Valle del Elqui if I was going near La Serena and they were 100% right. It was beautiful.
We stopped in Vicuña, the birthplace of Gabriela Mistral and strolled around their town square. We ate lunch while listening to music in the town square and then had some fresh pecans and homemade icecream from a little shop on the square. We continued onward and finally stopped in Pisco Elqui, the hear of Chile’s pisco growing region. We toured the Mistral pisco distillery and got to see the whole process. The tasting was interesting. The really aged pisco tasted almost like a whiskey and was supposed to be served over ice or alone. I’m used to piscola, so it was quite different. After, we continued down the curvy road to Alcohuaz, doing the last 15k on a tiny dirt road. It was a beautiful drive, ending at an eco lodge called Casona Distante.
This place is amazing. It’s in the middle of nowhere, no cell reception and is beautiful. It’s on 40 acres of land in the middle of the valley and is a functioning grape growing operation. They sell their grapes to Capel to make pisco and still raise animals and other fruit. The lodge is built mostly of wood and the rooms are beautiful. They have an open kitchen where you can watch or help prepare dinner and our chef Alejandro was awesome. We got lessons on Chilean cooking and drink making and talked about food, politics and Chile. His palta (avocado) sour was amazing, especially after adding some aji.
Casona Distante also has a nice observatory and the owner helped us look at nebulae and Saturn. You really can see it’s rings! Looking up into the sky and seeing millions of stars is amazing. The night sky there was only bested by my trip to Bolivia, as we were about 2500 meters higher, so the sky was clearer. The next day, we hung around the lodge and checked out the river that runs through the valley. It was relaxing and beautiful, but unfortunately, we had to go back to Santiago at the end of the day. I would have loved to stay longer, but it wasn’t possible. I highly recommend going to Valle del Elqui for a long weekend, it was one of my favorite places I’ve been so far.
La Serena is a great place for holidays. There is lot to do for everyone.