Wintering in La Serena

August 22, 2012

The couple to the right of me had passed out mid-empanada. Since the sun had begun to set, many of the passengers around me had gradually succumbed to the rhythms of the coach. We were travelling to La Serena – a small coastal city almost 400km north of Santiago – and I had stayed awake waiting for that first peek at the Pacific.  Most tourists visit in summer for the beach and the sun and yet here I was in winter, sunglasses in one hand, and scarf in the other. I wasn’t here to improve the tan.

It was 6pm. By this point, the pre-cordillera Andes (foothills) had begun to flatten out, and I could feel that we were getting close. And then, just before sunset, the teeth of the rocks opened up and the ocean flooded out.  First, a cove – a small white sandy beach painted turquoise by the water and then, there it was. An expanse of water stretching far into the pastel blue of the horizon – My eyes drank it all in.

Arriving in La Serena, one of the first things I wanted to do was to see it. I had met many Chileans in Santiago who holidayed and even owned second homes here so I had high expectations. Although visiting in low-season, the weather was good – My first morning, I headed into town to look around and to get supplies in preparation for a late lunch on the beach.

The city itself feels more like a town – the calm Plaza de Armas (main square) glimmers with cleanliness beneath palm trees while market traders sell the famous Chilean papaya based goods and artisanal souvenirs on the side of the street. But as you walk further into town, you’re suddenly surrounded by people – heaps of them, filling the streets with their awkward shopping bags, prams and suitcases. A shopping marathon seemed to be taking place, and I’d accidently walked in on it.

I passed shoe shop after shoe shop, eventually coming to La Recova – a spacious artisanal mall with restaurants on the top floor and below, a selection of craft and souvenir shops. It might be authentic but it doesn’t feel it. Every shop sells the same woollen jumpers and mini bottles of pisco, none of them for a reasonable price. It reminded me of a much smaller Camden Lock in London – started as a place for artisans and now a place almost solely for tourists. I still bought myself a poncho – I couldn’t help myself.

Afterward, I wandered into the Archaeological Museum, which houses lots of impressive artefacts – mainly from the Antofagasta and Tarapaca indigenous people (a map shows how many there were before the Spanish arrived). There are two mummies perfectly preserved and also a Maoi – Easter Island statue – which, if you haven’t been to Easter Island, is a sight to behold. You can get round the museum in about half an hour and your ticket (CLP600) gets you in to the other museum by the Plaza too. But I had other plans.

Heading finally to the beach, hunger in my stomach and expectation in my mind; I began to gallop along Avda. Francisco de Aguirre – the long stretch of road before the water. The basic tourist map ends at the Japanese Gardens which sit about 20-25 minutes away from the ocean, so I had to ask. I was told to just keep heading straight. The road became a mish-mash of pre-construction wasteland, mud-hut mini-markets, mechanic outlets and brand new hotels. The construction of other hotels along the road had already begun and there were many white balconied edifices at different points of creation. Advertising billboards declared ‘The best views in La Serena’.

However, from the street, blue fencing hid the mountains from view in front of plush villas and private university buildings. In clouds of dust and rolls of orange mesh, builders ran around in navy overalls, shouting, drilling and digging. Although palm trees lined the middle of the road, much of that area was still being paved and there were diggers sitting dormant in the path. A lighthouse eventually came into view and the pavement on my side ended so I began to trample over dust, plastic peligroso signs flapping from lampposts to my side.

Finally, I crossed to the ‘lighthouse’. It’s not really a lighthouse, but more, a pillar to signify your arrival at the La Serena beach. The weather had changed since I’d been walking and now grey clouds skirted around the horizon, the hills on the edge of the panorama purple under various layers of mist. The water was wild, large waves thudding against the land. But I couldn’t hear it. I could smell it, I could see it, but all I could hear was the drilling.

Around the walls at the lighthouse, teenagers on a coach trip were playing out various roles – a couple kissed, an overweight boy posed for a photo – and that serenity that I imagined from the coach returned to my dreams. The reality was this noisy, litter-strewn beach which in the summer may be worth sunbathing at, but in the winter screams of the destruction of human intervention.

To my left at this point, I heard a big screech and one boy, almost silhouetted at this time in the evening, held aloft a dead gull by its beak. Other boys gathered around him to throw sand at it, giggling, falling over themselves. The black shadow of the bird seemed to drip toward the sand. And all I could hear was drilling.

You can see an edited version of this piece at I Love Chile.

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