Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Travels in the north: La Serena and Coquimbo

One part of Chile that I haven't been able to travel to very much is the north; unfortunately, the farthest north I've gone so far is La Serena, which is about a 5 hour bus ride from Santiago on the coast. I would love to go to the Atacama desert one day, but whenever vacation time comes around I always find myself heading south.

But we did make it as far as La Serena and it's neighboring city, Coquimbo, last year and it was a great trip. Near Santiago on the coast are two cities, one of which I've blogged about before: Valparaiso and Viña del Mar. While both are nice places to visit, people tend to prefer one or the other. Most tourists like Valparaiso better, because it's more interesting from a foreigner's perspective. It has colorful graffiti art everywhere, crooked staircases crawling up its numerous hills, and a lot of great food and nightlife. But many Chileans I've talked to seem to prefer Viña, mainly because it's cleaner and safer than Valpo (Valparaiso's nickname). And Viña also has good nightlife and food, plus it's got beaches as well.

The crooked, colorful streets of Valparaiso
In my opinion, the relationship between La Serena and Coquimbo in the north is similar to Valpo and Viña - with La Serena being the cleaner, safer city and Coquimbo the one with a more interesting character (again, from a foreigner's perspective).

Coquimbo feels a lot like a little Valparaiso in the north
We're Valparaiso people, so we decided to stay in Coquimbo when we went. It is true that Coquimbo is rougher than La Serena - it's a little dirtier, poorer and less safe. But on the other hand, it's a really interesting city and if you keep to the main downtown area or travel by taxi, it's a perfectly safe place to visit. We stayed in an amazing hostel there, which I really can't recommend enough - it's called Hostal Nomade. It's an old mansion that was converted into a hostel in recent years and is run by a really friendly older Chilean woman.

For a small city, Coquimbo has a lot of sights to offer. The most obvious of them is the giant cross that you will see when you arrive in town, located on one of the biggest hills overlooking the ocean. The strangest thing about the cross is that you can actually go inside it - for a small fee, an elevator will take you up to the arms of the cross, where a viewing platform was built. From there you get amazing panoramic views of Coquimbo, La Serena and the surrounding ocean. There's also a museum dedicated to Pope John Paul down below.

View from inside the arms of the giant cross
Interestingly, opposite the hill with the giant cross is another hill, with a large Moroccan mosque on top of it, which you can also visit. Tourists frequently drop by to see it, so if you talk to the security guard he will probably let you in to do a little tour. There are not many Muslims in Coquimbo, but apparently the mosque was built by a Moroccan king as a kind of gift, and it's definitely worth checking out- it's really beautiful and also has some great views.

Coquimbo has two big hills, one with a huge cross and the other a beautiful Morrocan mosque

Another interesting sight is the old fort. There's not much of it left, but it's a beautiful spot by the ocean with a lot of wildlife nearby, including sea lions, pelicans and cormorants. There's also a pirate ship that does tours of the harbor, which you might catch a glimpse of from the fort.

There's not much fort left, but the wildlife and the views are worth the visit
Coquimbo used to be a hide-out for pirates - now it's a hot spot for pirate-loving tourists
Finally, you should definitely check out the fish market downtown and get some local seafood. I had Shrimp Pil Pil, which was amazing - basically it's shrimp stewed in a savory, somewhat spicy broth with onions.

Shrimp Pil Pil - so delicious!
We did spend a little time in La Serena as well, which is a beautiful city with big plazas and old historical churches. It feels much cleaner and quieter than Coquimbo, and we had some great food there as well. It also has a little more nightlife, and a fairly nice Japanese garden. They did a good job with the design of the garden, but it feels a little strange to be in one that looks so "new", since the ones in Japan always look so old and a bit beautifully overgrown.

One of the central plazas in La Serena

The new Japanese garden in La Serena
Near La Serena is Elqui Valley where the Chilean/Peruvian liquor "Pisco" is produced and it's a popular tourist destination. You can do pisco tours, visit observatories, and see the home of one of Chile's most famous poets, Gabriela Mistral. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to visit during our last trip, but hopefully we'll make it there another time. But overall, I really recommend visiting the entire region - La Serena, Elqui Valley and Coquimbo are all worth the time to stop and explore and all three have a lot to offer.

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