City of churches, craft stalls and penguins!

Trip Start Jun 15, 2009
Trip End Jun 14, 2010

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Flag of Chile  , Coquimbo,
Sunday, January 31, 2010

There was very little evidence of the aponymous serenity in La Serena as we arrived on the overnight bus. It was about 6:00am, it was cold and the lighting inside the bus terminal was sepulchral; outside the drizzle was distinctly damp. Small huddles of travellers waited around the terminal, many wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags. We quickly felt the need to don our as yet rarely-used fleece jackets. We had already booked our hostel but we thought that it was probably too early to go there and decided to have some breakfast. The bored waitress greeted me 'Hola, caballero!' (Jen translated this as ‘hello cowboy’ at the time but we now think it might have been a bit more respectful). We ate some very unhealthy snacks and drank some very undistinguished coffee from paper cups; La Serena was not looking like paradise from here.

At about 7:00am, as we left the café, we were approached by odd folk each unenthusiastically suggesting that we might like to stay at their particular hostel. One of these, an older man, was holding a card with the name of our hostel and an interesting conversation, seemingly without communication, took place;
‘I have a hostel nearby’ said the man.
Ýes, we have already made a reservation at your hostel’ we said.
‘I have some English people coming today’ he replied.
‘Yes, that is us, we have made a reservation at your hostel’ we repeated.
‘Well, if you can’t get sorted out, perhaps you might like to stay at my hostel’ he said, giving us a business card.

We walked to the hostel and were admitted by a young man who appeared to have just woken up but he could do nothing until the owner arrived. We waited and the owner finally arrived, of course it was the man from the bus station showing not a flicker of recognition. He offered us a more expensive room than we had booked and offered to sell us some tours. When we declined both, he gestured to the door and told us that we would have to go away until 11:00am. When we tried to confirm that the hostel had WiFi he said ‘not untill 11:00am!’ so were securely put in our place and shown the door.

Wandering round La Serena at 8:00am in the drizzle was not an auspicious introduction to the town. Strangely, all around the streets were small craft stalls, now closed up for the night and a craft market in two marquees by the main square, also closed. There seemed to be very few early risers and we searched in vain for a café until we eventually found one just opening up. Since it was still miserable outside, we esconsed ourselves there feeling a bit miserable until it was time to go back to the hostel. Our man had not mellowed during the passing hours; he glumly showed us our room and gave us a roll of toilet paper.

In reality, when the sun had finally come out, La Serena seemed more attractive. It is one of Chile’s oldest towns with a strong colonial heritage. In the late 40’s a local politician was elected as the president and he clearly used this opportunity to channel funds for development towards his home town (and therefore came back after his presidency to become a strong local force). Part of this was known as the Plan Serena, which unsypathetically renovated a lot of the older buildings and led to a number of new neo-colonial buildings being constructed. The result is that now there is a strange mixture of buildings and often one is not entirely sure whether we’re seeing older buildings badly modernised or modern interpretations of older buildings. This half-and-half approach is also apparent in the recent decision to introduce semi-pedestrian streets in the centre of the town. This makes streets look as though they are traffic free but actually cars can go down the middle of the street. The end result is that pedestrians have no greater rights over the road than before and the new road treatments don’t make it clear where cars may be passing. Therefore you find yourself frequently stepping into the path of oncoming traffic, particularly as some ‘green man’ signs show while traffic is allowed to pass! The whole thing is further complicated by the waggon trains of craft stalls that seem to be on almost every street and any open plaza.

We went out to visit the beach but were surprised when we needed to take a 3km walk along a dual carriageway lined with industrial buildings. When we finally got there it looked much the same but with a rather strange edifice referred to as a lighthouse. The beach is dominated by a huge building site, which it claims will offer all manner of delightful living and playing opportunities when it is finished. At present it is simply adding to the dust and fumes. Nonetheless there were a good number of people on the beach and even some paddlers despite the scarily crashing waves. Surprisingly, for a beach resort, there was only one rather grubby cafe (although there were quite a few craft stalls). On our return walk we came across what appeared to be the house of the Nobel prize winning poet, Gabriela Mistral. However, closer reading showed that she had bought it in later life, after the local council had gaven her a pension from her younger years as a teacher here. There had been unrealised plans to turn it into a school and she never lived in it. There is also a small plaza in the town dedicated to her, right next door to the rather curious Japanese Gardens. Although there is more care paid to their upkeep than most public parks here, any seekers of zen-like serenity would be well advised to steer clear.

While we were at the beach there was a very big fire that completely gutted a whole block. The lines of little shops had been there for many years and even when ‘modernised’ there had obviously been little or no attention paid to fireproof materials or constructing fire breaks. Seemingly within moments all were reduced to smoking shells with roofs and ceilings collapsed. As far as we could make out there had been no casaulties but many of the small businesses must surely now be ruined. We all often find ourselves deriding H&S requirements at home but seeing how quickly such damage can be wreaked without such measures makes you think they may be a good thing after all.

La Serena is reknowned for its old churches and it is variously claimed that there are at least 29 in the oldest part of town, leading to the town’s nickname ‘The city of churches’ (or steeples depending which guide book you’re reading). We took it upon ourselves to investigate this claim but I’m afraid we got bored after about half a dozen, so you’ll just have to live without confirmation. Lots of the churches are quite old and attractive from the outside, making use of rough stone and wood rather than the somewhat fancy approaches in other parts of Chile. Inside, most seem rather austere with little of the baroque flair and extravagent saints that we have seen before.

While in La Serena, we took a tour to visit a group of three islands further up the coast by boat where we would find lots of wildlife. The journey was interesting to a degree as we passed through the desert, although here the action of the cold Humboldt current on the warm Pacific waters means that every morning there is sea mist which allows some scrubby vegetation to eke out an existence (so the drizzle when we arrived was actually mist!) A 1km wide dry riverbed gives an insight into how different it must have been many ages ago. Now the only water is underground and this seeps its way to the surface in rare places to form oases where the local people keep goats or grow olives. Wildlife is rare but some guanacos (small llama-like creatures; see our blog from San Antonio de los Cobres) get their food and water by eating the fruits of the quisco-coquimbo cactus. We had an opportunity to try this fruit, called copao, and found it looked a bit like kiwi but tasted extremely acidic. We were not tempted to include it in our next tutti frutti (as the Chilenos like to call fruit salad).

While we waited for our boat to come round our guide inevitably suggested that we might want to look at the craft stalls. We were actually very lucky because the water is always a bit rough here and the weather recently has been too bad to allow the boats out. Our boat, the guide informed us was ‘one of the best; not the best but one of the best’ – we felt slightly comforted. In reality the boat trip was really good. The water was not too choppy and we managed to get very close to the islands and see bottle-nosed dolphins, sealions, penguins, sea otters and lots of sea birds. Jen was particularly impressed by the  various types of cormorant, including some who build their nests from guano and some that don’t have oil on their feathers so they have to open their wings to dry after going in the water to fish  (seems a bit of weird adaptation here since it lives by diving into the water to catch fish but perhaps someone who knows more about birds than we do can elucidate!)
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grindrodkaz on

awwhh love penguins and did you not find all 29 churches, I am disappointed in you

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