Two Days in La Serena and Coquimbo, Chile (March 2014)


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March 13th 2014
Published: March 13th 2014
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11 March 2014 – Tuesday – La Serena, Chile

Cold, steel-gray skies greeted us this morning – not the welcoming clear blue that we have become used to. The hostel offers breakfast inclusive with the price of the room: the breakfast is a plastic Tupperware-like container with two slices of bread and thin piece of cheese, a package of crackers, a small tetra-pak juice, a tea bag and a measure of instant coffee in a sachet, two packs of sugar. The Chileans just don’t do breakfasts! I went out to a nearby shop and bought six eggs and Joan whipped up an omelette. We caught up with our correspondence and the national news online – strange about the missing Malaysian airliner.

When we began our walkabout of La Serena it was still grey skies and cool weather, but the sun soon arrived and began heating up. We visited the tourist office for a better map than that provided by the hostel owner and advice on what to see and do – museums and churches. We walked around a bit, visited the La Recova market where there was a Paraguayan musician playing the harp. There was also a young Chilean man playing a stand-up piano in another part of the market; the public piano had ‘I’m Yours – Play Me’ painted on it. (We later saw another one at the base of the lighthouse being played by a young man carrying a large back pack.) This is a great idea, the placing of pianos around the town, which we first encountered in Canada in August.

Chile’s new president, Michelle Bachelet, is inaugurated today. She previously served as President from 2006–2010, becoming the first woman in her country to do so. The many television sets in the market stalls, from hairdressers to restaurants, were all tuned to her inauguration.
We had purchased a dense and delicious pastry coated with coconut earlier during our walkabout and as we passed by the bakery again they had freshly made empanadas on display so we bought a couple of these, and a chocolate covered pastry, and ate them in a nearby square. We watched a nut brown homeless woman with two dogs and a grocery trolley attending to the fleas on the stomach of one of the dogs. He was stretched out on his back on top of the stuff in the trolley with his head lolling over the side.

There was a fountain in the middle of the small square and some still water in the fountain which a man with a large bucket returned to a couple of times. He was washing cars parked on the street.

Miscellaneous observations: Chileans are better off financially than the people of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. They smoke a lot more; cigarette butts litter the streets. The supermarkets are more modern and stock more western brands and are therefore less interesting to shop in. The local markets do not have the wonderful range of colourful fruits and vegetables as Chile is mostly desert and everything has to be imported. There are more personal cars on the road and therefore more traffic; there are less taxis and they are more expensive; there is less blowing of car horns. (We were very amused by the fact that the driving behaviour of our Peruvian taxi driver changed at the border crossing.) Joan says the department stores offer mostly poor quality clothing; they have no style and are dated. All shabby, no chic! She also feels that the Chileans are not as clean or hygienic as their northern neighbours. While there is money, there is no sense of abundance. We read about a local folk legend that says that after God made the world he had some sand left over which he put in his pocket. While he was walking the earth inspecting his creation, there was a hole in his pocket and the sand fell out and created Chile! We like this image and see its accuracy during our travels here.

We stopped briefly at the hostel to gather up our swimming suits and beach towels and headed to the beach. A tree-lined boulevard, Avienda Francisco de Aguire, at the centre of which is an Italian Sculpture Garden, runs the entire route from La Serena to the lighthouse at the water’s edge. This walkway is called an ‘open air museum’ and contains about 30 replica Italian statues. The sculptures in the park, carved in Carrara marble, are replicas of famous sculptures and come from workshops and art galleries of Pisa, Florence, Rome and Naples. The main access to this beautiful open air museum is a marble entrance which was donated to the city by the British colony in 1910.

The boulevard concludes at the El Faro lighthouse, the symbol of La Serena. The beach is wide and sandy and stretches for about 5 kilometres in both directions. There are high-rise apartment buildings overlooking the ocean but very little other amenities. Joan topped up her tan on the beach while I drank coffee and typed in the only cafe.

12 March 2014 – Wednesday – La Serena, Chile

We began our day by visiting the small but perfectly formed Japanese Garden in La Serena. It is a compact scenic park with carefully manicured lawns, winding paths and trees, ponds and bridges, teahouse and miniature islands, pagodas and rock lanterns. The ponds are filled with giant koi and a few small turtles. There are various ducks and other water fowl in abundance. The garden is called ‘Kokoro No Niwa’, meaning ‘Garden of the Heart’ and occupies 6 acres of land near the Route 5/Pan American Highway. It was designed by Japanese landscape architect Akira Ohira, at the time director of the Garden Society of Japan. The garden opened in 1996 for the celebration of the 450 years of the city and also honours the sisterhood agreement signed in 1966 by the city of La Serena with the city of Tenri, Nara Prefecture, Japan. It is a strolling garden and we strolled slowly around it for about an hour.

We caught a local bus to the neighbouring town of Coquimbo, about 10 kilometres and twenty minutes on the stop-and-start bus. Coquimbo is an industrial port city and shipping centre. It has a church designed by Gustav Eiffel and a surprisingly British flavour with an ‘English Barrio’ and a ‘London Square’. This dates back 150 years or so when the British mining companies were extracting sulphate and copper from the nearby Andes. We wandered up and down the main street, visited a few shops, discovered that the church was closed to visitors, stopped in the local cultural centre and viewed an exhibition of very colourful and vibrant painting from a local artist called Mariangel Olivares. We found our lunch at Jeckson’s, a small cafe serving large empanadas and playing streamed jazz from jazzradio.com. We used the wifi and listened to the music and the continued on our journey toward the waterfront.

On the waterfront we found what Joan labelled as the ‘ugliest spot in South America’: it was a small concrete platform that jutted out into the water and was surrounded by enormous barking bull sealions being fed fish heads by a man as ugly as the sealions. The man called the sealions by name and tossed a fish head to them and they caught it in mid flight. The largest and ugliest sea lion was just the other side of a fence and barricade but his massive head loomed over it and as the man fed him a fish head and also kissed him on the cheek. We had to leave as it was quite revolting.

The other interesting thing about Coquimbo is the mosque sitting on one hilltop. We had only seen two Muslims during our travels in South America, or at least two men dressed in traditional Muslim dress (and no women). We saw one in Antofagasta and a second yesterday in La Serena. We were, therefore, very surprised to see a mosque on one of the two hilltops overlooking Coquimbo. (The other hilltop has a modern Christian cross.) The 37m-long minaret of the mosque in Coquimbo was inspired from the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech. (Regular readers of this blog will remember that we spent some time in Marrakech last year and were particularly impressed by the Koutoubia (‘booksellers’) mosque.) A little research revealed that the Muslim population of Chile totals less than 4000 persons in the whole country.

Walking back along the seafront we noticed large areas of drying seaweed and then looking out into the water we could see men in wetsuits gathering up the seaweed in stacks and other men carrying them further away from the shore. Although seaweed represented only slightly above 1% of the $3.3 billion of seafood products exported in 2013, companies in this industry believe there is scope for enormous growth. Producers in Chile submitted some 300 applications for new farming sites in 2014 in a move to increase exports particularly to Japan, where seaweed reportedly makes up for at least 20% of households’ daily diet. Sales destined to human consumption mostly go to Asian markets, but Japan has become the main buyer since 2011, after suffering an earthquake and tsunami that wiped out a substantial part of its own industry.

(We learned about the La Serena Japanese Garden, the Muslims in Chile and the Seaweed Industry by doing a bit of internet research stimulated by our observations during our walkabout.)


Early to bed; morning bus to Santiago!

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