Chile’s second-oldest city, La Serena, is an interesting collection of colonial architecture, busy markets and sandy beaches that serve as a gateway to the sprawling vineyards, orchards and Picso distilleries of the magical Elqui Valley.
After sailing from Valparaiso aboard the Crystal Symphony along the serpentine coast of Chile, we arrived the next morning in the sea-side town of La Serena some 450 km north of Santiago.
Founded in 1544 by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, Chile’s second-oldest city is an interesting collection of colonial architecture, busy markets, sandy beaches and an old iconic lighthouse. It’s also the main gateway to the nearby Elqui Valley, the region’s main agricultural area that features small villages, pretty orchards, sprawling vineyards and the Puclaro Dam.
We began our tour in the historic heart of La Serena near the Plaza de Armas, where we discovered some fine examples of Spanish Colonial architecture including the 16th-century Iglesia San Francisco with its metre-thick walls and Italian Renaissance design. We also explored the Templo San Agustin, which is the only church in Chile constructed entirely of stone.
After a short walk through the two-storey Mercado La Recova where we shopped for local handicrafts, we made our way up the street to the Archeological Museum to see its exhibits from indigenous cultures including the Tarapaca, Atacama and Coquimbo. The exhibits feature pottery, petroglyphs, mummified bodies, and a Moai statue from Easter Island as well as a timeline describing the history of South American native peoples.
Following the museum, we boarded our bus for a 90-minute trip through the fertile Elqui Valley to the town of Vicuna, birthplace of the celebrated Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Poetry in 1945. Her remarkable life has been commemorated with a relief in the town square and in a small museum found among the town’s old wooden buildings and brightly painted houses.
While it’s dry and cloudy near La Serena during the summer, the sunny and semi-arid Elqui Valley makes it the perfect location for growing fruit and grapes, the latter of which is the primary ingredient used in distilling the country’s national drink, Pisco. As a result, the region is the country’s Number One producer of Pisco, and several local distilleries graciously provide samples of the magic elixir.
Luckily, our trip included a visit to the nearby Capel Distillery, where we were given a tour of the facility and a presentation about the various types of Pisco and how to enjoy them. We were told that it comes clear or golden coloured, ranges from 30 to 45 proof, and is best when mixed with cola (a Piscola) or blended with ice, lime juice and sugar (a Pisco Sour). After sampling several types of Pisco, we decided to purchase a bottle and bring it back for our friends who had recently moved from Santiago to Toronto and were suffering from severe Pisco withdrawal.
Another popular pastime in this region is stargazing. Since the Elqui Valley is free of light pollution and offers clear skies at night, several international observatories have been set up in the region that some believe is the magnetic center of the Earth. In fact, in 1982 scientists measured the Earth’s magnetic force for the first time by satellite, and discovered the planet’s greatest point of energy was in South America around Chile’s Elqui Valley.
Magnetic centre or not, the region remains one of the most magical places in the country. But in order to schedule a visit at one of the observatories, you must register at the Observatory office in Vicuna near the main plaza at Calle Gabriela Mistral 260.
It was now late afternoon and time to return to our ship for its departure to Lima, Peru. Our day in the north of Chile, or El Norte Chico (The Little North) as the locals call it, had gone by far too fast. But at least we had a great bottle of Pisco that would help us remember it for a long time to come.