Days Designed for Dawdling in Chile’s 4th Region

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We took to the beach over the holidays, hitting La Serena first. It’s about a 5 hour drive north of the capital passing through scrub-covered, dusty mountains as you near the coast. I knew little about the place before we arrived, and I was pleasantly surprised. It is quite serene, as its name suggests. But there are plenty of things to do, buildings and churches to look at in the city center and long stretches of beach. It was jellyfish time. Fried cheese-filled seafood empanadas abound. DSC_0037DSC_0024DSC_0003

This bookmobile serves as a bringer of literature as well as a place to stay for its owner. We found him reading outside on a Sunday so the shop was closed, but he let me snap photos inside anyhow. What a great life plan!

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I found this ad posted on a wall in the plaza for a Santa Claus in case anyone is running low in the jolly big guy department. I admire his business sense.

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The next town south of La Serena – 25 minutes drive – on the seashore is Coquimbo. The number of bars with live music is surprising, the drinks strong and the people friendly. Head to Tongoy during the day if you want to see multicolored beach houses sitting below the high hills with a host of restaurants to choose from lining the shore. A properly made pisco sour here will give your sunny afternoon an extra glow. The waters at this latitude are apt for dipping.

After several sleepy, sandy beachy days we moved inland to the Valle de Elqui, Elqui Valley, where Chilean pisco is made. It is a grape brandy only found in Perú and Chile. Everywhere you look the valleys are laden with sweet, pisco grapes. Their sugar content is increased by the powerful sun striking the hills.

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We stayed here at a place called El Refugio Alma Zen, a play on words. Almacen, or store, is what it sounds like. But written as it is means zen or peaceful soul. Technically it’s located in Cochiguaz. They have newly built small apartments on the top of the hill near the pool, as well as a few larger houses or domes down below by the river. Cop a squat by the river with a book or snag the hammock. The rest of the noisy world melts away here, cheesy as that may sound. Get yourself a good brain cleanse in these here hills. If you stop by, go to the pool at night and stare at the 3D star show. It’s one of those things I just don’t see enough of. “When you see the southern cross for the first time, you understand why you came this way.” Every time I see it I think of that Crosby, Stills and Nash song.

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While you’re in the pisco valley, there is an interesting tour at the Fundo los Nicho artisanal distillery, the oldest in Chile. You’ll learn about the pisco making process, the history of the distillery and the founding family. The patriarch used to host friends in the basement, men only. They built “niches” (hence los nichos) that looked like acrosolia to age the sweet wine in the cellar. The friends decided to “claim” a niche to house their remains after they died, so committed were they to their fraternity. Each one has a witty rhyme explaining the man’s alcohol-infused life and death. I can imagine the shenanigans that went on down there.

DSC_0222 DSC_0200DSC_0207 DSC_0211 DSC_0215As you can see, it’s a prize-winning pisco. I am not a big fan of pisco, well, I wasn’t before this. The craft that goes into this smooth and delicate liquor is notable. Pisco sour with freshly grated ginger is a distinctive pleasure. The prices are incredible as well. The price ranges from six to ten dollars. No joke. They also bottle a sweet, red wine if that’s your thing.

The Pueblo de Artesanos de Horcón is not to be confused with the coastal town of Horcón. This place is a peaceful craft oasis along the road side, just a ways down from Los Nichos. People rent out little spaces in the roomy woven huts to sell their wares; jewelry, food, home decorations, clothing, etcetera. It’s a great place to steal ideas about making recycled crafts.

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We had ten fantastic days here, a medium hop from Santiago. The Fourth Region is sleepy in places, a bit rowdier in others but there is never any hurry.

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