La Serena May 15 2009

La Serena is on the Chilean coast.  We awoke to the worst weather we have seen on our entire trip, overcast and foggy.  We would come to find out that this is the normal weather for La Serena.   Getting a taxi from the bus station was easy and we headed to Hotel Costa Real.  This hotel was more expensive, but it was close to the Plaza de Armas where most of the tourist information bureaus were located.  From there we could make our arrangements to see the Mamalluca Observatory and the highly anticipated Humboldt Penguin Reserve!

The taxi stopped in front of the hotel and as the bellhops came out to help with our luggage.    Of course we had no reservation, and didn’t even know if they would anything available.  I told Dan I would go inside and see about a room.  My plan was to talk to them before our ragtag, just off an overnight bus group with our ragtagbackpacks descended upon the lobby.  This afterall was not a hostel, but a businessman´s hotel.  We needed to have a sense of decorum.

I gave a friendly smile to the woman behind the desk.  ¨I´d like to see about a room.¨

She looked over my uncombed hair, my several layers of clothing, including the Peru sweater I had been wearing for nearly a month now.  I could see her looking over my shoulder, a bit alarmed as she saw Dan and the kids enter the lobby.

“Do you have a reservation?” she asked haltingly in English.


Again the look of alarm on her face.  “Just a minute please.”  She called for backup.  The manager came to the counter, equally alarmed. Again I stated I needed a room.  Again she asked if we had a reservation.  Again I said no.  Again she looked distressed. 

“Do you have a room available?”  I mean really, reservation or not, you either had a room or you didn’t.  End of story.

Finally she came up with a room option.  A king size bed, they would bring in a rollaway bed, and there was a sofa in the room.  She gave me the room price, which included a breakfast buffet.  The price was very reasonable, considering the location and the fact this was listed as a five star hotel.  But I had to ask.

“Can you give me a discount?”

The manager looked at me as if I had asked if  could sleep in the lobby.  She said she could take $1o (US dollars)  off the price.  Sold! 

Our room was incredible.  First it was huge.  The biggest room we had yet.  Located on the second floor, it overlooked the small outdoor swimming pool.  The bathroom was large and beautifully tiled, we had a minibar.  But it was the sight of the stereo system and 48 inch flat screen TV that sent me scrambling for the phone to book another night. 

After showers, and dragging ourselves away from the TV, we walked toward the Plaza for lunch and to find a tourist office.  The guidebook suggested a cafeteria, near a really nice grocery store.  We feasted!  Roast beef, turkey, chicken, mashed potatoes, you name it.  It was like being in a US style cafeteria for about a quarter of the price.  We loved it.  Afterwards, we walked around the city, doing some window shopping. 

La Serena is Chile’s second oldest city.  Of course it has the usually beautiful tree lined, well enjoyed plaza, but we were also in a major shopping district.  Everyone was well dressed and I felt a bit out of plaza in our Peru attire.  The Chileans, for the most part, totally ignored us, as if we didn’t exist.  It was so surprising to us.  When you dealt with them one on one, they were mostly friendly and helpful, but out on the streets, the atmosphere was different.  We mostly wandered that first day, taking in the sights, enjoying the cool air, going to bed early.  The next day, we found El QuiValley tours, where our very friendly, English speaking tour guide, sold us the tour to the Humboldt Penguin Reserve and the Mamalluca Observatory. After another great meal at the cafeteria, we were in bed early as the van to the penguin reserve would arrive at 8 am the next morning.

San Pedro to La Serena

One of the things we enjoyed most about this trip was setting our own pace.  We were supposed to stay in San Pedro only two nights, but we so enjoyed the town, we exchanged our bus tickets to leave the next afternoon.  As luck would have it, there was no charge.  It was hard to leave San Pedro.  We loved the food, every place we ate seemed like a gourmet restaurant.  It was a bit expensive, in South American terms, not US.  The days were warm, the nights cool.  We met a couple from Bulgaria, who spoke great English, and who had 2 children back in Bulgaria the same age as our kids.  It was great to talk to them and compare life there with life in the United States.  They were encouraged to see how well our kids travelled.  Interestingly, we didn’t see any other families on our trip.  San Pedro definitely attracted a younger twenty something adventure crowd, or an older, pre-retiree crowd.  But the people we met, especially the twenty something group, were very happy to see our kids exploring the world.  They all wished their parents had done that for them.  I really think that says a lot. 

The next afternoon, we said a sad good bye to San Pedro and began our 17 hour bus trip, our longest yet, to La Serena.

Stargazing San Pedro de Atacama

When you look at the stars,  you are seeing your past.

This was what we really came for, to see the stars at San Pedro.  The Lonely Planet guide told about a French astronomer who led star gazing tours, using his own high power telescopes.  We signed up at the SPACE agency in San Pedro, and that night, we were driven by bus to the Atacama Lodge.  Alain Maury and his wife Alejandra established the lodge in 2003, and lead observations every night, except during full moon periods.  We were thankful that when we were there, we were hitting the the tail end of a full moon.  We had been warned to dress warmly, which for us meant wearing just about everything we had. 

We were so excited we could hardly stand it.  Our sailing trip has given us several opportunities to see magnificent night skies, andwe had  joined several stargazing tours in the US Virgin Islands.  This was different.  This was the Southern Hemisphere, and we would be seeing stars we had never seen before.  Imagine that for a moment.  Think of how old you are, how many times you’ve seen the same stars in the sky, and then think that there’s a totally different night sky with stars you may never see in your lifetime.

After a short ten minute  ride, the bus stopped at a very dimly lit house.  Stepping off the bus, was like stepping into another universe.  The sky!  The stars were so close, so bright.  There was pitch blackness all around us, then you look up and see thousands of stars, and you can’t move.  You are awestruck, amazed, rooted to the spot, even a bit dizzy.  The Milky Way,( at best seen to most Americans as a small band of stars) blazes across the sky, a thick band of white,  from one end of the horizon to the other.  You can’t take your eyes off it.  Fortunately, Alejandra is there to greet you and help you move along into a candlelit room in the  lodge.   While our eyes adjusted to the light, preparing ourselves for the outside star gazing, Alain gave us a history of the lodge and a brief introduction on what we would be seeing outside.  Alain is French and came to Chile because as he says, “There are more stars in the southern sky.”  He married Alejandra and from their passion came the Atacama Lodge, where they give the sky tours.  

After a brief explanation of what we would be seeing our group headed outside.  Alain used a laser pointer and a good bit of humor to point out the different stars, planets and constellations.  He encouraged us to get a closer look through the several large telescopes scattered around the yard.  Each telescope was aimed at a different part of the night sky.  These aren’t your average telescopes.  Alain has teh largest group of telescopes in any public observatory in South America. and they are big, between 20 an d60 centimeters in diameter.  The telescopes are so powerful, making the stars so clear, you almost can’t believe what you are seeing.  One telescope, pointed at Saturn, clearly showed the rings and all the vibrant colors.   In fact it was so clear, it seemed fake!  Tessa and Tristan were blown away by what they saw.  They (we) were so excited, going from telescope to telescope, asking each other, “Did you see that?”, “Did you see that?”  You ask yourself,  how have these stars been here all this time and I’ve never seen them.  Amazing.   We saw distant galaxies, star clusters, blue, red, yellow, turquoise, green stars.  I never knew stars came in so many colors.  Alain’s enthusiasm never let up, as he and Alejandra patiently answered questions and aligned the telescopes to show us different parts of the sky.

 Without a doubt, the Milky Way was my favorite.  Nearly every ancient civilization has some history with the Milky Way.  The Incas and Mayans in particular, viewed it as a link from the upper world to the lower world, with some civilizations believing we were born or created through the Milky Way.  Looking at the Milky Way, it’s not just the stars you can see that are important, the lack of stars, or blackness, is equally revered.  The Incas saw animals, such as the Llama, snake, toad swimming in this celestial river.  We had seen pictures of what it looked like but never saw it ourselves, until in the middle of the Alain’s presentation Tristan whispers to me “I can see the Llama in the Milky Way.”  And you easily could. 

 milky way 1a  This picture, taken at a museum in Cusco shows the animals the Incas saw in the Milky Way.


milky way 2

It was cold out, and even with all our layers we were starting to feel it.  When he felt everyone had gotten a good view through the telescopes, we went back inside the lodge.  While Alejandra served the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had, Alain told us more about the night sky and answered questions.  Some things he told us were obvious, but  made you think. 

 For example, there are no shooting “stars”.   They are dust particles or debris burning up in our atmosphere.  

The night sky shows the past, stars that have been there for a long time and may not be there now. 

And a big surprise to me, all stars are suns, with the possibiltiy of having their own planets, something that Alain is interested in finding. 

We could have listened to him talk for hours, but it was time for our tour to end, and the next one to start.  Back at our hotel, we again ended our day reliving our experience around a blazing fire.  Life couldn’t get any better.

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