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Coquimbo, Chile: Escaping to the Tranquil Cove of Guanaqueros

Growing up with all four seasons, I shouldn’t have been so surprised by how much winter in the Valle de Elqui would affect me. After all, I fled the brutal, snowy winters of New England for the desert climates of northern Chile.

In Boston, you are able to escape inside to central heating and (mostly) insulated walls and windows; not so much in the Valle de Elqui. When winter’s chill sets in, it creeps into your bones.

Just like a dog, I would sit out on a warm rock by the river to absorb the few warm rays of sunshine before the sun dipped behind the mountains of the valleys and the cold came back full force.

Unlike in the US, where you can sprint from heated building to heated building and keep a decent level of productivity, the cold of northern Chile made me want to hide under the covers all day. When I had to get work done, I parked myself next to the space heater, wrapped in a blanket, alpaca shawl, and wool handwarmers, drinking mate.

These dramatic day and nighttime temperatures jarred me into living by the seasons again, recognizing that each moment is temporary, noticing how my energy ebbed and flowed between seasons.

By midwinter in July, I was exhausted, mentally, physically, and spiritually. I was ready to escape to Guanaqueros.

Traveling to Guanaqueros

At this halfway point in my year living and working in the Valle de Elqui, the old was dying out in order to make room for the new. The eagerness and anticipation of a new job and new style of life had faded as things got real.

Like so many international teaching programs, there was lack of clarity between the two organizations I worked with. Like so many families, my host family faced a medical challenge that dominated our home life. Like so many city dwellers, I was shocked by the inconsistent internet connectivity in the mountains. Boy, did I learn to adjust expectations.

So when I planned our mid-year retreat to check-in, evaluate, and set goals for the second half of the year, I knew we had to head to the beach. The open ocean and gorgeous seaside scenery was going to serve us well.

En route to Guanaqueros from Coquimbo, we started appreciating the long coastline with its sharply descending cliffs and sparsely populated beach resort villages. The Pacific beckoned to us with blue waters and clear blue skies.

Tranquil Guanaqueros

Arriving in Guanaqueros, we were thrilled with how tranquil the village is. During high season in the South American summer (December to February), the beach would be packed. But midwinter we were nearly the only people strolling along the sand.

Leaving the desert mountains for a bit, we needed to just listen to the sound of the waves crashing on the beach and feel the sun starting to melt away our stress from so many recent changes. After living in San Diego and Lima, I know how important the ocean is to restoring my peace of mind and I seek it out whenever possible when I need to settle my thoughts (exhibits A, B, C, and D!).

Our visit happened to coincide with the 2015 Copa América championships, which meant that people were mostly glued to their TV, rooting for Chile’s selección to win.

(And win they did! These hills were resounding with cheering, honking, and loud celebrating a little later on that night! It was fun to see the glory of a win in such a small town.)

Because Guanaqueros is so small, the services for travelers are all situated along the main road. Restaurants, small convenience stores, and lodging are all within walking distance of the beach.

Because Guanaqueros is a town geared towards Chilean travelers, most of the lodging options are “apart hotels,” small apartments with kitchens and bunk beds. Most Chileans travel with their extended family or with their friends and their families and cook many of their own meals.

For the fish-lovers, Guanaqueros has a number of restaurants dedicated to serving up the freshest food, but as a vegetarian, I opted for this amazing fresh salad (with the ever-present papas con mayo) and a giant empanada.

Although we came to Guanaqueros to get work done, we decided to hold several of our sessions while walking and talking on the beach. You can’t miss the opportunity to see a beautiful sunset over the ocean when you get it!

The skyline turned pink as the sun disappeared behind the hills, creating a beautiful glow that reminded me of the amazing sunsets I experienced in Tortugas in northern Peru and on Easter Island.

What we needed most at this mid-winter moment was to connect – to connect with the country beyond our tiny towns in the Valle de Elqui, to connect with each other outside of our normal routines, to connect with the moment through our experience of nature’s beauty.

I mean, what’s better about being in a town where all there is to do is walk along the beach and watch the sunset. That’s serious relaxation – when there is literally nothing else to do, you appreciate the views so much more.

I mean, really. Can you believe that no one else was there? I suppose it helps that the homes are built into the hills with these great views each and every day! 🙂

Although I’ve managed to capture many moments of my year in Chile, this one happened to slip by me. But I think it serves as a nice metaphor for what I’m feeling right now, waiting for spring to finally arrive after a long, snowy winter in New England.

It’s normal to get quiet, go within, disappear for a bit as the days get shorter and the cold gets deeper. But there comes a moment when you see the light at the end of the tunnel and you start feeling that stir within, setting new goals, moving forward.

It’s taken me several stints living abroad to understand that I need lots of time to process my experience, to appreciate everything I went through, and especially how much I learned from creating new routines, perspectives, and relationships while living in another culture.

Back when I used to shoot film, the process of developing the photos took some time and required patience. No instant gratification like today; instead, I found myself reliving my trip when I received my prints, organized them in my photo album, and finally shared them with friends.

Maybe that’s why I like revisiting my photos a year or two later, when I’ve had time to integrate the memories, and I can appreciate the emotion coming through.

For us, Guanaqueros marked the halfway point of a crazy year, and we left with renewed energy and optimism for what lay ahead. And what do you know? Things got significantly better as we moved into a new season, taking with us all the lessons we learned, and leaving behind anything that was weighing us down.

Maybe you’re not looking for a transformative beach experience (but let’s be honest – beach escapes are always about transformation!). You should still make an effort to get to Guanaqueros if you’re spending any time in La Serena during your trip around northern Chile – the seaside views and low-key vibes are worth it.

Recommendations for Guanaqueros, Coquimbo, Chile:

  • If you’re looking to truly experience the seaside vibe of this part of the Chilean coast, skip the urban beaches of La Serena and Coquimbo and head to Guanaqueros. To get to Guanaqueros, head to the bus station in Coquimbo and then look for the buses to Tongoy and Guanaqueros or get a colectivo (shared taxi) to Guanaqueros. The shared taxi should cost about CLP$2500 per person.
  • Guanaqueros is a fishing cove located down the cliffs to the beach, so en route you’ll experience amazing views of the ocean – have your camera ready!
  • Guanaqueros has several small stores where you can buy snacks, wine, and other supplies, but if you anticipate cooking a lot, you probably want to go shopping in La Serena or Coquimbo.
  • For food, there are several restaurants, but the best option is probably the market with several food stands, where food is fresh and inexpensive.
  • I recommend staying in Hostal Akitespero, which has a very friendly owner and comfortable mini apartments with kitchens.
[Guanaqueros, Coquimbo, Chile: July 3-5, 2015]

La Serena, Chile: Trying to Appreciate the Oceanside City with a Colonial Past

Una foto publicada por Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) el


Excited to Be at the Beach in La Serena, Chile

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my time living in the Valle de Elqui, it’s that I have most definitely become a city girl. While living in an idyllic mountain location can be restorative, I find myself inspired by each visit to Santiago, where even just wandering the streets sparks creative ideas.

Views from La Serena, ChileViews from the City Center of La Serena, Chile

When I signed up for a year here, I thought I would love visiting La Serena, a city touted as an ideal expat base due to its mild climate, proximity to the beach, and wide variety of services, such as a sizeable mall and two superstores. It is also only 5 or 6 hours from Santiago, which is convenient for any necessary visit to the capital.

Views from La Serena, Chile
Views from the City Center of La Serena, Chile

It’s funny how small decisions can have a greater impact later on in life. When I took the 32 hour bus ride from Santiago to Arica back in 2013, I considered stopping in La Serena to break the very long trip, lured by my guidebook’s enthusiastic description of its charms. But six hours just wasn’t enough of a dent into the day-plus journey, so I opted to power through and go straight to Arica. From my limited vantage point on the Panamerican highway, La Serena seemed like a pretty cool city. Imagine if I had spent a day or two exploring La Serena? I may not be where I am today.

Views from La Serena, Chile
Views of La Serena, Chile

Why is that? Try as I might, I cannot connect to this Chilean city. When I read this recent post from This Battered Suitcase naming La Serena as one of the cities she just didn’t like, I wanted to stand up and shout, “Me neither!”

Views from La Serena, Chile
Checking Out the Ocean from La Serena, Chile

There are few cities I don’t like (Huanuco, Peru is at the top of the list), but unfortunately, La Serena is one of them. Even still, I have tried to get to know La Serena as more than a transit hub, the place I have to go every so often to process my visa paperwork, and home to high speed internet and massive supermarkets. In May, I spent a Chilean holiday weekend staying in the city, walking and biking along the beach, and even trying to take in some nightlife. I ended up shattering my cell phone screen, getting the seat stolen off my rented bike, and offending a local with my controversial opinions about living in Chile. Needless to say, La Serena and I have a challenging relationship.

Una foto publicada por Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) el


Churrasca in the Plaza de Armas, La Serena, Chile

That said, La Serena does have some redeeming factors. When the sun is shining brightly (more rare than you would expect due to the proximity of the mountains), the colonial buildings provide an attractive landscape for relaxed wanderings around the city center. The Plaza de Armas often hosts fairs where you can get regional food like churrascas or fresh juice, along with artisan crafts. There are hidden corners like the Patio Colonial filled with neat stores selling looseleaf tea, roasted nuts, essential oils, etc.

Ayawasi, La Serena, Chile
Vegetarian Lunch at Ayawasi, La Serena, Chile

There are at least two vegetarian restaurants where you can get a healthy meal, Pachamama Comida Sana and Ayawasi (see my recommendations, below). There are a number of cafes with outdoor seating catering to the locals along with a cute Western-style cafe, the Lighthouse Cafe. There are also a couple of interesting museums which give you an insight into local culture, which are a good place to head on a cloudy or chilly day.

Views from La Serena, Chile
El Faro, La Serena, Chile

Since La Serena’s city center is about a 20 minute walk from the beach, a visit to the Avenida del Mar can give you a sense that you are in another city and can be quite relaxing as it is located a good distance away from the heavy traffic of the Panamerican highway. On a sunny day, this is a pleasant stroll with a handful of small restaurants catering to tourists. The major destination is El Faro, or the lighthouse, located at the end of Francisco de Aguirre.

La Serena, Chile
Walking Along the Beach in La Serena, Chile

In the city center, La Recova is a popular destination for tourists. At ground level, it is lined with stalls offering mass-produced artisan wares akin to what you can find in nearby Peru and Bolivia at a fraction of the price. If you look closer, they also sell La Serena’s regional speciality, papaya. You can find preserved papaya, candied papaya, papaya with nuts, you name it. Chile’s papaya variety is different from any I have had before, so even if you’re not usually a fan of the fruit (like me), it’s worth a taste or two.

Views from La Serena, Chile

On the top floor of La Recova’s market, there are a number of restaurants dedicated to serving a wide variety of seafood. If, like me, that’s not your thing, La Recova also hosts fast food stands with empanadas and other quick meals. For budget travelers, nearby Calle Vicuña, has a number of low budget hostels, which cannot be particularly recommended but which are a decent option for a night.

Views from Coquimbo, Chile
Views from Avenida del Mar, between La Serena and Coquimbo, Chile

You also have the option of biking from La Serena to Coquimbo, as much of the route is on protected bike paths or sidewalks. We rented our bikes from a small family business near La Recova, but if you just want a short ride, there are bikes for rent by the hour along the bike path.

Views from Coquimbo, Chile
Bike Path Between La Serena and Coquimbo, Chile

Nearby Coquimbo has a busy, bustling fish market atmosphere which is a nice break from the cool, distant demeanor of many residents of La Serena. Due to the aforementioned bike seat robberies, I did not get to spend much time exploring Coquimbo, but I did enjoy watching the pelicans and seabirds.

Views from Coquimbo, Chile
Pelicans at the Port of Coquimbo, Chile

In Coquimbo, the big tourist destination is the Cruz del Tercer Milenio, a huge cement church complex located at one of the highest points in the city.

Views from Coquimbo, Chile

From the top, you can look out at the brightly painted houses coating the hillside of Coquimbo, which are remiscient of the views you get in Valparaíso.

Views from Coquimbo, Chile

Jardín Japonés, La Serena: Parque Jardín del Corazón
Parque Japonés, La Serena, Chile

Finally, La Serena has a lovely Japanese garden, Parque Jardín del Corazón, located close to the bus terminal and malls, which is a welcome escape from the hectic activity along the Panamerican highway (even if you can still hear the traffic during your stroll around the carefully curated landscape).

Jardín Japonés, La Serena: Parque Jardín del Corazón
Parque Japonés, La Serena, Chile

I know it is hard to believe that someone who loves the sprawling urban chaos of Lima could feel so ambivalent about the compact, organized, similarly colonial city of La Serena, but así es. As I’ve said before, this has indirectly benefited me because I spend less time and money heading to La Serena than I originally expected to, so I have learned to take advantage of my current home in a way I might not have otherwise.

Recommendations for La Serena, Chile:

• If you are spending a few nights in La Serena, I highly recommend Hostal El Arbol, located in a quiet neighborhood next to the Japanese garden. It is within walking distance of the bus terminal, close to the beach, and also near the city center.
• If El Arbol is booked up or a little too pricey, you can try the street of hostels located near La Recova.
• For vegetarians, La Serena has at least two vegetarian restaurants. Pachamama Comida Sana, located at Cordovez 490 in the commercial center, offers fixed price lunches at $2500, as well as juice and other cafe treats. The meals are on the smaller side but healthy. Ayawasi, located at Pedro Pablo Muñoz 566, near the Plaza de Armas and Japanese garden, has more plentiful meals for $3500.
• The Museo Arqueológico in La Serena is worth a visit to get a sense of the pre-Colombian cultures in the area, particularly the Diaguitas, who inhabited the Valle de Elqui. There you can also find a much-abused moai from Easter Island and other Rapa Nui artifacts. Admission is free as of writing.
• La Serena has plentiful shopping options with stores lining its two main streets, Prat and Cordovez. There are two malls located nearby on the Panamerican highway, as well as two superstores, Jumbo and Líder. For more niche shopping, try the Patio Colonial, which has a number of intriguing stores selling loose leaf tea, nuts and grains in bulk, aromatherapy, and other interesting wares.
• La Serena has a strong cafe culture, and you can’t wander around the city center without tripping over an outdoor cafe. For foreigners looking for a western-style coffee or bagel, head to Lighthouse Cafe at Matta 570.
• La Serena’s bus terminal is centrally located on the Panamerican highway, making it a great transit hub for just about any destination north to Arica or south to Santiago. From here, you can also catch buses to nearby Ovalle or Tongoy, a popular beach resort.
• To reach the Valle de Elqui, you can take a Via Elqui bus from the bus terminal, but their schedule is variable and irregular. For more regular bus service, catch a Sol de Elqui bus. The route begins at the bus stop across the street from Lider, near the Japanese garden, and continues along Avenida Brasil until the Unimarc parking lot next to La Recova, where it waits to pick up more passengers. It then continues its route and stops outside the other major market in La Serena.
• To reach Coquimbo, you can take local buses along the Panamerican highway. Some buses from the Valle de Elqui end in Coquimbo. If you have time and energy, you can rent a bike and follow the bike path from El Faro in La Serena to the market in Coquimbo, but be aware that there is nowhere particularly safe to lock up your bike in Coquimbo.