89 – Chile off-the-beaten-path (Chapter 1)

March 28 – 31

I arrived to Chile without any plan whatsoever. When I asked Maribel what was nice between Valparaiso and San Pedro de Atacama, pointing out that I had all the time in the world, she suggested a few places. Which is how I ended up in La Serena. I have a lovely airbnb on the beach, and spend three days doing absolutely nothing except for alternating long walks on the beach with working on my photographs.

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On the way to Punta de Choros

April 1 – 4

I am headed to Punta de Choros, some 3 hours north of La Serena. I am supposed to take the morning bus, but as I forgot to set THE alarm, I wake up more or less by the time that bus reaches its destination. So after an exchange of rather chaotic whatsapp messages with a friend of my host (not even with the host), I find myself on a bus that someone I’ve never seen arranged for me, unsure where it’s bound for or where to get off. But the scenery is amazing, so I just sit back and enjoy it. After three hours (of which the last one on dirt roads), the bus stops and the driver tells me that if I’m going to Fernando’s this is where I alight. Love Chile.

Punta de Choros is a fishing village that has a strong resemblance to an abandoned western movie set. No saloon though. Actually, no anything. There are several building that threaten a presence of a restaurant or a pub, but at sunset when I arrive, everything is closed. And continues to be on the following day. Most of the inhabitants are fishermen, however, no one fishes with a net or a line, only in apnea with a harpoon, therefore my guess would be they don’t fish commercially, only to eat. Over 4 hours in the freezing water everyday to bring a couple of fish to the table. That’s tough life.

Isla Gaviota:

I am guessing most tourists come to Punta de Choros for a day trip, go on a wildlife boat tour and leave. There are three little islands off the coast: Isla Gaviotas, Isla de Choros and Isla Damas, the last two wildlife sanctuary and national park. There are many species of seagulls and cormorants, pelicans, Humboldt’s penguins, seals and sea lions, dolphins and if you are lucky, whales. As I said, everyone in the village has a boat and will be more than happy to take you on a tour to the national park (for considerably less money than if you book a tour from La Serena). Fernando and Francesca (who I am staying with) have a little zodiac, that we use to wander between the islands in the following days.

Wildlife I.:

We go snorkeling twice (once to Isla Gaviota and once to Isla de Choros), and despite being fully dressed (5 mm wetsuit, a shortie over it, gloves, socks and hood), I am frozen to bone after 20 minutes in the water. Although seeing huge bright violet crabs and giant sea stars is probably worth the hypothermia. One afternoon we cross the strait to go on a little hike around Isla Gaviota, the only one of the three islands where a boat can anchor and where some people live, although not as permanent settlers. There is literally nothing on the island. Not that there is much to start with in the village on the mainland, but at least there is electricity and a shop that sells booze. People on Isla Gaviota harvest seaweed and sell it to Japan.

Obbligatory cheesy sunset:

On another day we go for a long trip to see wildlife, and the highlight of the day is when we meet a group of about 10 dolphins. Me and Francesca immediately jump into the water, the animals come check us out, but as they are on a hunt, they lose any interest as soon as they realize we’re not dinner. Still, dolphins. Back in the harbour we buy some fish from the fishermen and grill it for dinner. Best meal in a long time.

Wildlife II (Isla de Choros):

Dinner in stages:

Kacenka in Punta de Choros:

That first picture probably needs some explanation. It was Easter Monday when we went snorkeling and I was explaining our crazy (and to most foreigners non understandable) tradition, when boys go around the homes of girls and whip them with a hand-made whip braided from young willow twigs, which is supposed to keep the girls young and fit. In exchange the boys receive coloured eggs or shots of alcohol, if of acceptable, not necessarily adult, age. There are no willows in Chile, but there is seaweed.

April 5 – 9: Pisco Elqui

Back to La Serena and on to Valle Elqui (buses leave from the terminal every 30 minutes or so).

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sunset at Valle Elqui

Thanks to its geographical disposition, Chile covers a large variety of climates, which means they can probably find a spot that suits any grape. In fact, chilean wine is awesome. But there is not only wine in Chile. They also do pisco, a wine brandy. Now, you may live under impression that pisco a peruvian thing, because peruvian cuisine is the latest culinary fashion in hipster parts of Europe, but please, do not try to share this impression with the Chileans. Actually, do not try to share the opposite impression with the Peruvians, either. In fact, despite being sold worldwide under the same name, chilean and peruvian piscos are two completely different types of alcohol. The grape growing regions have a different climate, the grape varieties only just overlap, and the production method varies strongly. While you can get piscos from both countries pretty much anywhere around the world, chilean pisco is illegal to import to Peru and peruvian pisco must be sold as aguardiente in Chile. Also, Chile produces 3 times more pisco than Peru. But, let the Latinos conduct their sour war over who had the wine brandy first, lay back and enjoy the national treasure: pisco sour, a treacherous mix of pisco, lemon juice and sugar (sometimes egg white). Because come aperitif time, picking between a glass of wine and a pisco sour is one tough decision.

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Valle Elqui is the main winegrowing region for pisco production in Chile. The valley is beautiful. Vineyards as far as you can see surrounded by bare pointy mountains. You can go trekking (if you find the trekking agency open, which I did not in 4 days), but if you try to go without a guide, the paths are not very clear. Another great attraction of the region is the night sky. The climate is extremely dry which provides the clearest visibility of the stars. Many places in the village rent out telescopes, or go on a guided tour to Mamaluca observatory.

I am staying with Jaime, who one evening takes me as his date to a barbecue he’s been invited to. The best evening of the entire trip. The matriarch of the family that’s hosting the dinner is a 77 years old lady, a former journalist kidnapped (and probably worse) by Pinochet’s regime, mother of four by four different men, none of which she’s ever lived with, because “men occupy too much space”. Come 11 pm, the little lady reaches for her tiny Gucci handbag, produces a glass pipe and some mary jane, and nonchalantly turns to one of her teenage grandsons: “Hand me your lighter or I won’t let you have a puff!” I think I’m in love. She refers to me as to a “Wonder Woman”, because I travel the world alone, but really, Ma’am, you are one, not me.


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