Vineyard near the town of Vicuna
This is part 7 of my trip report series about our cruise to South America in December, 2012. Today’s port of call is La Serena, Chile, a small city in the heart of Chile’s wine country. Today was also the first day of Southern Hemisphere summer. When you’ve spent your life in the Northern Hemisphere, experiencing the first day of summer in December feels just a little weird…
For a general overview of the cruise and a trip report index, click here.
Date of Visit: Friday, December 21, 2012
We were originally scheduled to get off the ship at 9 A.M. to begin our shore excursion, arranged again through a couple of folks we met through a Cruise Critic message board. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way, thanks to the cruise line. Our ship was originally scheduled to dock, but for a reason Celebrity decided not to announce, they told us at the last minute that our ship would be “tendered” instead, which meant we would be anchored a couple of miles offshore, and would have to take a small boat ashore instead. Our group joked that Celebrity must have been too cheap to pay the dock fees, and so the city gave away our spot to a Princess Cruises ship and stuck us with the Bob Uecker spot way in the back instead. Since only one boat can be used at a time, each with a capacity of around 100 people, this meant a long wait for anyone who wanted to get off (the ship’s capacity is around 2,100 people). And oh by the way, Celebrity decided to let everyone who had Celebrity-booked shore excursions off first, and everyone else had to wait. That cut our scheduled 6 1/2 hour tour time down to only about 3 1/2. Grrr…..
Anyway, La Serena, like Arica and Manta before it, is home to about 200,000 people, when combined with its “twin city” of Coquimbo (the cruise ships dock in Coquimbo, which is a few miles south of La Serena). Also like Arica, La Serena is located in Chile’s vast, bone-dry Atacama Desert, but thanks to the marvels of modern irrigation, and glacial run-off from the Andes, the area is one of Chile’s most important wine-making regions, along with the area around Valparaiso (the subject of my next and final trip report on the cruise). Founded in 1544, it is actually Chile’s second oldest city behind Santiago. Today, it is one of Chile’s fastest growing cities, and is a popular beach town, in addition to being a center of the wine industry and higher education, as the home of La Universidad de La Serena.
We started off our tour by heading east to the town of Vicuna, about 40 miles from La Serena. The road winds along a riverbed, and provides good views of the Atacama Desert and surrounding foothills of the Andes. As you approach Vicuna, several vineyards can be seen on the river (north) side of the highway.
The river valley near Vicuna
An example of a vineyard in the Vicuna area
A small reservoir outside of town
The river, which constantly flows due to glacial run-off from the Andes
We were originally supposed to visit a couple of wineries in the area, but due to our late departure from the ship, that had to be canceled, and all we had was about 45 minutes to walk around the town. That was a bummer, as I really wanted to take home some bottles of Chilean wine, but we ended up getting our fix in Santiago on our way back from a tour to the Andes, so no harm done in the end. Vicuna does have a beautiful, historic town plaza, where numerous street vendors sell lapis lazuli jewelry, a torquoise-like stone that is found in Chile. We passed on the jewelry – we already had plans to get some in Santiago later – but did walk over to an ice cream store for some homemade ice cream. It hit the spot on a warm day, but set us back 1,000 pesos (about $2) per scoop – ouch!
I got one last shot of the river valley and surrounding mountains as we headed back over the bridge to the main highway.
After returning to La Serena, we had about an hour to walk around the historic town square, and check out the various street vendors in the area. It was almost 2:30 by this point and I was starving, so I bought a gigantic tortilla for about a dollar before walking around.
Fountain in the town square/market
This historic, colonial section of downtown La Serena
La Serena city hall
Old train station
La Serena Cathedral, built in the 19th century
La Serena city park
On the way back to Coquimbo, we took the beach road, instead of the main road. I got this shot of both our ship and the Princess ship in the harbor. The Princess ship is the large one to the left docked in port, and ours, the Celebrity Infinity, is the smaller ship in the Rodney Dangerfield spot offshore to the right. I guess our ship really doesn’t get no respect…
After standing in line more than an hour to catch a tender boat back to the ship (at least it was a nice day), we were at least treated to a nice view of the harbor as we headed to the ship. In the background in the center of the photo, you can see Coquimbo’s version of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue on the hill overlooking the city. You can also see what the tender boats looked like. It was actually one of the ship’s life boats pressed into shuttle duty. At least we know they work…
As we settled back onto the ship, it dawned on us that our cruise would be coming to an end in the morning, as we would be disembarking in the port of Valparaiso. It also dawned on us that the Mayans predicted that the world would end tomorrow, December 22, 2012. I joked with my parents that although the cruise would be ending one way or another in the morning, but would the apocalypse be grounds for a refund of our airfare? Alas, the world didn’t end, we flew home on the 24th, and I started this travel blog a few months later.
View of La Serena harbor from the aft of the ship
Other Miscellaneous Information
NOTE: The “currency”, “food”, and “other” sections would just be repeats of the same information I posted in my trip report about Arica, so I won’t repost any of that here. You can click here if you’d like to see it again.
– Climate – like Arica, La Serena is located in a very dry desert, averaging only about 4 inches of rain a year. Temperatures, however, are moderate, similar to Northern California. Highs range from the upper-50s in the winter to the low-70s in the summer.
– Transportation – taxis are your best bet when traveling around La Serena and Coquimbo, assuming you aren’t traveling as part of a group. They are very cheap, with the 3-mile ride to the airport running about $4. As is the case elsewhere in South America, confirm/negotiate the fare before getting in. If you would like to tour the surrounding areas on your own and don’t want to do a guided tour, you can take private buses to Vicuna for about $2, and to Pisco, home of the famous Chilean liquor of the same name, for about $3. You can also rent a car from the airport. Similar to Arica, driving conditions didn’t seem too bad in the area, though you will have to negotiate winding mountain roads if you head too far east, and the area is pretty isolated, as you’re in the middle of a desert. Carry a working cell phone if you plan to drive around yourself, and driving at night is not advised.