Planning on heading north from Santiago or Valparaiso to San Pedro de Atacama? A good way to break up the long 18 hour bus journey is to stop off by the sea-side town of La Serena. A 7 hour overnight bus from Valparaiso and 11 hours from San Pedro de Atacama, La Serena is a popular Chilean getaway beach town. We used this stop as a detour to spend some time by the beach and to try some of the national drink, Pisco, in the valley that it is made.
What’s to do in La Serena?
Not as busy as the more famous Chilean beach towns, La Serena is built for the summer months (January and February in South America). The old town where the locals live is just like any other town, it has a sort of hectic charm. However, take a walk along the coast and you’ll see high-rise apartments that lay empty for most of the year and restaurants serving all of your favourite beach treats. While we were there it lacked the crowds, and the high prices, of other beach side towns such as Viña del Mar.
So why stop in La Serena, what is there to do?
Walk along the malecón
Enjoy the best part of La Serena by walking the 2 hour, 10 km, walk along the beach. Start from the lighthouse which was built-in the 50s and follow the yellow sand and freezing cold waters. It doesn’t seem to matter if you are in the north or south of Chile, the water is always freezing! It is possible to surf and swim in designated areas but some areas aren’t suitable due to strong currents, so just make sure to check first. If you fancy breaking up the journey, there are plenty of restaurants and empañadas stands dotted along the way.
Something that impressed us about La Serena and most of Chile is that there are so many free outdoor “gyms”, skate parks and play areas in every town. You will see people all over the country work out and play for free.
Continue to the end of the beach and you will reach the small town of Coquimbo. Here you can climb up the hill to have a great view of the town, the ocean and the walk you just did from the base of a huge cross. Grab lunch and head back to La Serena.
If you don’t feel like walking the 10 km, hostels rent bikes or you can take a bus. Most people we met who walked the whole way took the bus back. The bus costs 450 CLP.
You may be surprised to hear, as we were, that there is a Japanese Garden in La Serena. In fact Kokoro No Niwa Japanese Garden is the largest in all of Chile! Opened in 1994 as part of the 450th anniversary of the founding of La Serena it is a great place to chill out. Grab a book and some lunch and join the locals. Entrance is only 1,000 CLP. Try to spot the cute turtles as they flirt with one another.
Take a trip to Elqui Valley
The main reason for stopping in this part of Chile was to visit the Elqui Valley. The valley is home to the town of Pisco Elqui, where the famous drink Pisco is made, and some of the clearest skies in the world. The valley has a dozen or so high quality observatories.
In the valley it is possible to stay in the towns of Vicuña or Pisco Elqui if you want to visit an observatory at night. We would recommend organising a tour with the observatories themselves and staying in one of the towns. Of course, it is possible to organise everything from your hostel in La Serena. However you should expect to pay a lot more just for transport and visit the crowded observatories who have done a better job marketing themselves to hostels.
Vicuña is probably the best town to stay in if organising your own trip as it is closer to the observatories. The small town is only 1 hour away from La Serena by local bus and costs 4,000 CLP.
Tip: before planning your trip, check out when is the full moon. The closer you are to the full moon the less you are likely to see as the sky will be too bright.
Take a Pisco tour in Pisco Elqui
After visiting Vicuña, continue for another 45 minute by bus into the valley to the town of Pisco Elqui. It is of two towns in the world that make the trademarked Pisco, which we enjoy so much in Pisco Sours. The other town is Pisco, in Peru. Currently there is an international trademark dispute between Chile and Peru regarding who first started making Pisco. Ask locals in either country and they will passionately confirm that pisco originates in their home nation.
The town was originally called La Greda, then Union and then finally renamed Pisco Elqui in 1936 as an attempt by Chile to prove the Pisco was in fact made here first.
Take the journey and visit a Pisco distillery to learn the origins and how to make the spirit. The main distillery is Mistral, located right off the main square, they do tours in English and Spanish. We decided not to visit Mistral as the price was high and the English tour wasn’t until late afternoon. Instead, we took a tour at the Fundo Los Nichos distillery for only 1,000 CLP. The tour was entirely in Spanish. With some rough translations it was enough to understand the history and process of making Pisco. It was interesting to visit their storage room which was made to look like a tomb full of dead bodies in order to deter thieves!
During the tour you will learn that Pisco actually comes from a wine grape. Rather than be left to ferment like wine, it is distilled like vodka to be made into a spirit. At the end of the tour you will be given a shot of each of their different bottles to sample. It’s strong stuff and we wouldn’t recommend doing this first thing in the morning with stomach problems…
It is a 30 minute walk from the centre plaza to Fundo Los Nichos. During that time you can enjoy the beautiful views of the valley, the vineyards and try spot hummingbirds as they whiz past.
Other things to do in La Serena
If you feel like taking to the open water and spotting some wildlife, the National Humboldt Penguin Reserve is located just off the coast. Here in season, you will get a chance to see penguins, dolphins, seals and birds. By this stage of our trip we were all “penguined” out after seeing 1,000,000 penguins in Punta Tombo and King Penguins in Tierra del Fuego.
You may have noticed that we don’t have pictures for some of the recommendations. You may also notice the conditions in some of the photos. Simply put, the weather was awful! A storm came in to Chile as we were leaving Valparaiso and fully hit while in La Serena. In fact it was so bad that almost every room in our hostel had water leaks and the wifi broke because it got wet. Nothing in this dry city is built for the rain and when it comes in as bad as it did, everything is f*cked. The weather was so bad that it caused landslides on the roads into the Elqui Valley, closing the route and observatories for days. We heard stories of buses coming from San Pedro de Atacama that had to stop for hours because the roads were flooded.
This is highly unusual. The Elqui Valley is considered one of the best places on earth to go stargazing as it has almost no clouds year round. In fact, most of the worlds high power telescopes are located in Chile, and most of them are in the Elqui Valley. However, while we were there we only saw clouds!
Where to stay
There are not too many hostels in town. We stayed in Cosmo Elqui and despite the leaky roof (which wouldn’t happen often as it rarely rains) it was one of our favourite hostels in Chile. They have a great rooftop terrace, netflix, rent bikes and offer a basic breakfast. We liked it so much we almost decided to stay and volunteer.
In Pisco Elqui we stayed in the only hostel we found open, which was also recommended to us by the staff in Cosmo Elqui. After a quick walk around town and following a local into what can only be described as a disused tool shed with a mattress and a sink, we ended up in Hostal Triskel. Filled with cats and a nice garden, the private room was exactly what we needed for the night. Not exactly a bargain at 26,000 CLP (€36) each but breakfast was included.
Unless you want to take it easy, it’s very possible to leave in the morning from La Serena, visit Pisco Elqui and take a tour and return back via Vicuña to do an observatory tour and to sleep. A little more travel but it would save money on accommodation and you will have more options to eat. There is not much to do in Pisco Elqui other than the Pisco tour.
Where to next?
As we said the purpose of this stop was to break up the journey to San Pedro de Atacama. To continue north you can take a direct bus for 45,000 CLP for 16 hours or try to work around the system. The cheaper option is to bus to the city of Calama for 30,000 CLP and then a local bus to San Pedro de Atacama for 3,000 CLP.
We did the later thinking we were smart. However, the bus was late and it wasn’t the type we were told we would get. We chose to go to Calama as it had fully reclining seats rather than semi reclining ones on the San Pedro bus. Not happy with this when we arrived in Calama we demanded a refund for the price difference is seat type. We had to walk between two different terminals as the one we arrived in had no cash. We then had to walk into town to get the local bus to San Pedro. A lot of extra hassle! This option was much cheaper but ended up being longer and we had to take the seats we tried to avoid.
Note: bus ticket prices vary between high and low seasons so they may be different from when we visited in mid May. For a quicker and more expensive option it is possible to fly to Calama and the bus to San Pedro de Atacama.
Cost and Useful information
Exchange rate (as of May 2017): €1 = 714.20 CLP
Valparaiso – La Serena (bus): 6,200 CLP (€8.68)
La Serena – Pisco Elqui (bus): 3,000 CLP (€4.20)
Pisco Elqui – Vicuña (bus): 2,000 CLP (€2.80)
Viscuña – La Serena (bus): 2,000 CLP (€2.80)
La Serena – Calama (bus): 30,000 CLP (€42.00)
Calama – San Pedro de Atacama (bus): 3,000 CLP (€4.20)
Hostel Cosmo Elqui La Serena – Dorm w/ breakfast: 8,500 CLP (€11.90)
Hostal Triskel Pisco Elqui – Private room, double bed w/ breakfast: 26,000 CLP (€36.40)
Pisco Tour: 1,000 CLP (€1.40)
Japanese Gardens: 1,000 CLP (€1.40)
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