December 3 – 12, 2017

Mid Coastal cities, Pisco tasting & Valparaiso (San Francisco’s twin)

On Sunday Dec. 3rd we took a taxi into the historic center of La Serena. The main plaza was empty of people because Chileans don’t get going until 8am and on Sunday closer to 10. The only area that had activity was the La Recova market.

So we walked back down to the Jardín Japonés – Japanese garden – located just north of the Plaza Nobel Gabriel Mistral. Nice size garden that Canon cameras is underwriting for the privilege of setting up booths in the park, renting out cameras and conducting photo workshops in the park. Several groups of ‘students’ were utilizing their services on this Sunday morning. The garden had a nice selection of bonsai on display.  Another walk along Coquimbo’s malecón along Avenida del Mar completed our day.

Grim accordian player in La Serena

Dec. 4 was a lazy day that included another walk along the malecón.

On Dec. 5, we left Coquimbo and headed inland to the Elqui Valley – prime Chilean growing region for the grapes that make Pisco (grape brandy).

Elqui (el-key) Valley vineyards
Elqui (el-key) Valley vineyards

After a brief stop at the Embalsa Puclaro Reservoir to check out the dam, we arrived in Vicuña.


We visited the Capel Pisco distillery and took a tour that was interesting and informative. Capel is a co-op of 1500 of the region’s growers, employs 5,000+ and turns out 10,000+ bottles a day. The grounds are gorgeous, the cellars are massive and the tasting room, restaurant/bar and sales room would rival anything in California’s Napa Valley.

Distillation tanks

After the tour, we set up a boondock site on Vicuna’s  main plaza, but had to move once because the plaza was extremely busy and our camper was too long for that parking space but we were able to find a parallel spot just around the corner on the west side of the plaza.


We wiled away the afternoon watching the local children present a Christmas pageant and musical show.

In the evening we took a tour up to the Observatorio Cerro Mamalluca for star-gazing. Tour groups had to actually hire a separate ‘business owner’ to provide transportation up the mountain. Our driver’s vehicle was not up to the task and the driver had to literally creep up the mountain and even had to stop and add more water to the radiator once the ‘Check Engine’ light came on.

After finally arriving, we took the English-speaking tour which was the smaller group and set off. The Astronomy guide spoke good English, was informative, interesting and obviously enthused about his career. This night the moon didn’t come up until later so we were able to see the stars well.

On the 6th, we drove further up the Elqui Valley on D-485 along the Rio Claro to the town of Pisco Elqui where the Mistral Pisco distillery is located. Along the way we stopped at Cavas del Valle – the only winery in Elqui Valley actually using their grapes to produce wines – not Pisco.

Pisco Elqui

After lunch, we retreated back down to La Serena’s outskirts and headed south on #43 to Ovalle and then turned west to Monumento Arqueológico Valle del Canto. We boondocked outside the Monumento’s gates on private land but received permission from the owner’s son who was out dirt bike riding.

Early on the 7th, we hiked around the dry and arid Monumento looking for petroglyphs and other signs of early Chilean cultures. Us and two busloads of teens who chatted throughout their hikes.


Then it was back to Ruta 5 and once again south along the Coast to Caleta Los Vilos where we boondocked on an oceanfront street across from the docks. For the first time we saw three southern sea otters frolicking in the surf.

Los Vilos fishing boats

We drove straight through on Friday Dec. 8th  to Rancho Casanova campground on the outskirts of Viña Del Mar and settled in after navigating their 400 meter driveway over and through road construction obstacles.

We left the truck/camper at Rancho Casanova on the 9th and took Uber into Valparaiso where we had booked rooms at the Hotel Da Vinci. We had decided to leave the truck/camper outside Valparaiso because this bustling and active port town has narrow streets set on numerous hills and is not known for its security and parking would have been impossible.

In many ways, Valparaiso reminded me so much of San Francisco. Numerous hills as mentioned above, active port, tourist town with cruise stops, old mansions and houses subject to restrictions on historic restoration, colorful murals everywhere, a 1906 earthquake that devastated the city and foggy, cool and damp weather.

But on our day of arrival, it was sunny and warm so we climbed one of the ‘hidden’ staircases to the Palacio Baburizza.

Palacio Baburizza

“Palacio Baburizza is the former residence of Croatian businessman Pascual Baburizza. It was built in 1916 by Italian architects, and eventually turned into a museum in 1971, and declared a historic monument in 1976.

In 1971, the palace was bought by the local government of Valparaiso to be used as a museum and a school of Fine Arts. Today, it gathers an important collection of works; many of these bequeathed by Pascual Baburizza. Mauricio Rugendas, Alfredo Valenzuela Puelma, Alfredo Helsby and Carlos Hermosilla Álvarez are among the most important painters.The building is an art nouveau chalet with remarkable details in its woodwork, wrought iron, and central turret.”


For our return trip down the hill we took advantage of one of the 11 still working funiculars out of the original 30 called Ascensor El Peral.

On the 10th we decided to take the Valparaiso free Walking Tour which turned out to be quite informative even if it did mean climbing hill and dale. And we did get to take two funiculars: El Peral and Reina Victoria. The guide pointed out the stories behind many of the murals as well as the staircases; many which are painted with their own story. Turned out to be foggy all day.

Dec. 11th found us in a cooking class with Gonzalo Lara. It didn’t start out well, he was late picking us up and then didn’t provide much information as we were going through the market. We just trotted around behind him.

After driving to his house, we met his wife, uncle and father. We spent the rest of the morning chopping, slicing and dicing preparing five dishes including a ceviche, a salsa, a typical Chilean tomato salad and two different, what he called casseroles, dishes. (More like risottos but with a cornmeal polenta base instead of rice.) Gonzalo was impressed with Dave’s knife work.

We had everything prepared around 1:30 and his family, who did speak some English, joined us for lunch. His father brought out a bottle of wine and we enjoyed the efforts produced by our morning of cooking.

Afterwards he drove us by Pablo Neruda’s Valparaiso house and we made stops at an empañada shop, a bakery with the oldest oven in Valparaiso, a meat carnicería and finally a sweets shop for various samplings.

During the 12th we just rested and only made one excursion on the Ascensor Artillería funicular up to the Paseo 21 de Mayo where we spent time watching the loading/unloading of the very busy container ship port and the approaching sunset.

How’d you like to climb this after a hard day’s work?
Any guesses?
Furnicular view

The 13th and later days’ activities in the next chapter.