La Serena, Valle de Elqui, Coquimbo

We were going to skip La Serena entirely but Claudio´s friend insisted that we go.  I´m glad we did.  La Serena was the 2nd pueblo founded in Chile, though none of it remains.  What stands are neoclassical and bellas artes style buildings, built in the 1800s (a few churches date from the 1700s when British pirates sacked the city).  Funny how one man´s criminal is another´s hero, as the pirate in question was named Drake.  In the 1950s, the previous president of Chile (who was born in La Serena) poured 10 or so years of his life creating and executing Plan Serena, a plan for urban renewal similar to that of Santiago in the early 1900s.  As a result, La Serena attracts millions of Chileans and foreigners every year with its beauty, cleanliness, and well laid out design.  I was told to venture to Valle de Elqui, a valley that extends from La Serena east about 40 miles.  Here Gabriella Mistral, the famous Chilean poet and first Nobel laureate, was born and raised.  I visited her homestead and the one room school house where she was educated and later became a teacher.  In the town of Vicuna, next to her birthplace (a humble adobe which still stands), there is an outstanding museum which features fragments of her poetry, her reading collection, private articles, and a thorough timeline of her life.  I was unaware of the breadth of her involvement in international affairs, including ambassador, expert assistant to Mexico in revamping their educational system, and various other impressive posts.  She lived abroad for much of her life in Italy, Mexico, and the US (Rhode Island) at the end of her life.  But her heart never left the pueblo where she was born, nor the children whom she taught and believed in so strongly.  She donated all the proceeds of her nobel prize money, as well as her belongings, to the children of Montenegro, where she first received her education.  The strength and beauty of her words struck me deeply, and I felt a kinship with her love of nature and the influence her homeland and local surroundings had on her writing and her life.  She was a deeply spiritual person who grew up with the bible, especially the psalms of Soloman, but later branched out into theosophy and buddhism.  Pablo Neruda met her when he was a youth in Punta Arena, where she was teaching and assisting with educational development.  He gave her books, especially by Russian authors like Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky.  She was enthralled with the tales of the Russian steppe and the mentality of the people described therein.

Coquimbo is a quaint fishing village and port 4 miles from La Serena.  Much more authentic and gritty, it has 2 touristic streets which end at Barrio Ingles, where a British ferry company built its headquarters in the 1800s.  I grabbed a very tasty lunch of casuela (soup consisting of corn, meat, rice, broth, spices) and fried fish.   All in all, a very lovely time and topped it off with a free concert of classical music by the University of La Serena orchestra and a guest violinist from Germany, Michaela ??, a young woman of 25 or so.  Very impressive performance, memorized pieces for violin by Beethoven.  From La Serena, we headed to Copiapo, an inland mining center  that was recommended to me.  Very expensive and not that interesting, so we jumped on the next bus to Candela (next to Baia Inglesa, which was recommended to me).  Found a room for 15 mil pesos (around 32 usd), Claudio had a nice conversation with the man working the desk, and Sunday I walked to Baia Inglesa while he played flute at the fish market.  Very beautiful, I wanted to sleep on the beach, but we had a 2pm bus to Antofagasta, so grudgingly I pulled myself up and found my way back to Caldera.  Didn´t arrive in Antofagasta until 9:45pm, a long trip.

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