“Where are you from?” That has been the hardest question to answer since I was a little girl. I’ve never felt like I was “from” anywhere. My parents were Californians that moved to Tennessee for just long enough to make it my birthplace and we picked up our nomadic lifestyles again shortly after. I hated that question when I was a kid as there was no quick response and I didn’t like the attention. When I was 12 years old, I moved to Chile. I stayed in Santiago with my mother and siblings for 6 months while my father branched out to find the perfect home for us up north.
By the time I was 13, we moved to the coolest house I’d ever lived, which was a block from the beach, directly between the twin cities of La Serena and Coquimbo. This was the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere. Maybe it was that adolescent time when you’re finding yourself or it was what I learned from the people I met that made me feel like this was my true “home.” I always say that my passport is from the United States but my heart beats for Chile.
I’ve never met a person traveling through that didn’t fall in love with the 4th region. We have everything you could need. We are safely nestled between the glorious Andes mountains and the sea that Pablo Neruda so often referenced. It’s just directly on the bottom of the Atacama Desert, known as the driest desert in the world, but not dry enough that you don’t have interesting wildlife and nature. It’s kind of a secret oasis on its own. Being between two smaller cities instead of one big city is a plus because it keeps the feeling more quaint.
The fourth region is home to so many famous wineries, pisquerias, the Valle de Elqui, the home of Nobel peace price winner Gabriela Mistral and at even at one point in history a landing spot for the infamous pirate Blackbeard. There are a few reasons you should either hop on the 45 min flight to La Serena (LSC) or book your 8 hour lay flat bus seat:
1. First things first— food! Order la reineta frita for lunch at El Mar Adentro in Peñuelas. Peñuelas is a quaint little fisherman village located between the main cities. You can watch the fishermen make their nets with their hands and feet. Take a minute to watch the colorful boats also being handcrafted. It’s incredible and humbling.
2. After lunch, head down town La Serena for shopping in the main square. Here you can find beautiful silver jewelry and lapislázuli stones, alpaca sweaters and even out of the ordinary gifts for the person who has it all. Make sure to grab some homemade manjar sweets and catch some live Andean folk music on the streets.
3. At night stroll the Avenida Del Mar and hop in the various restaurants and pubs serving traditional pisco sours, a South American classic cocktail that Chile specializes in making with pica lime juice. Eat as many french fries as you can. This is my favorite country for French fries, especially a lo pobre which comes with a fried egg on top!
4. If you work your way from the lighthouse all the way down the Avenida Del Mar and you still have space for dinner, I highly recommend Gladys’. She’s a dear friend of my family and makes incredible empanadas and just about anything you can think of.
5. Take a whole day in Coquimbo and start at the Fisherman’s Warf. There, not only can you buy fun trinkets, coca tea and jewelry but it’s also a fully functioning and very active fresh seafood market. There you’ll find the freshest ceviche and incredibly huge empanadas stuffed with literally every meat of your choice.
6. Take a boat tour from the fisherman market in Coquimbo out to Isla de Lobos and yell at seals and penguins sunning on the rocks. It’s a short 2 hour tour but absolutely worth the price. When we did it, the Captain loved us so much he invited us into the wheelhouse to steer the boat!
7. You can walk to Coquimbo’s main square from here to see some interesting art sculptures, and more trinkets and jewelry stores around Plaza Prat. There is a pretty cool interactive museum called the Centro Cultural Palace Coquimbo where you can learn about the history and culture of the region, and where they showcase some of the best local photography and art. You can also see where the US Navy docks for fleet week once or twice a year.
8. Take some time to check out Blackbeard’s Point. There are some fun history facts on placards, a giant old canon, a cute cafe and lots of places to go hiking out on the huge rocks. (My sister got engaged here!)
9. There are so many day trips you can do from La Serena, for instance, if you want a nice beach day, grab a boogie board and head down to our white sand beach named Totoralillo! It’s absolutely beautiful! If that’s too crowded, head to Tongoy. Either way you choose, the water will be freezing, so suit up or just enjoy a day of tanning and eating more empanadas!
10. For a good hiking day trip, head north past all the wineries, and stop at El Puntoclaro for a photo opportunity and take in the expansive scenery. When I first moved to Chile this dam didn’t even exist! It’s incredible to see the change. Make sure to stop and get a scoop of Lucuma or chirimoya ice cream or get both, you’re going to burn it all off anyways!
11. Head east inland on route CH-41 to the famous Valle de Elqui to explore the beautiful valleys and mountain sides covered in vineyards, and along the way, stop in the little town of Vicuña where Gabriela Mistral was born. There is so much history and so many sites to see. Look closely because you can see houses built of mud that look like they are held up by nothing but sticks. You can see locked doorways leading into the mountain. Take as many fresh juice stops as you can, because nothing beats fresh watermelon juice on a hot day. Across the street you can see one of my favorite colorful cemeteries with the most priceless view of the mountains and fruit and vegetable filled lush hills.
12. You can do the Valle de Elqui as a day trip, but what I really recommend is camping over night. This valley is famous for being clear 360 days out of the year, which is why there are quite a few international observatories tucked away into the mountains. Surrounded by the peaks of the Andes, at night in the pitch black with no light pollution you can spot satellites and planets with crystal clear clarity and the shooting stars just never seem to end. My friends and I just laid flat on the ground all bundled up in a circle and took it all in with complete silence.
13. If you’re fortunate enough to have locals for friends, see if you can get together an authentic Chilean asado (barbecue). Chileans are very easygoing and hospitable; it’s quite easy to make fast friends with whole families. Grill an assortment of chorizo and steak over an open flame while drinking maté and watching a beautiful sunset. And get ready to bundle up, because once the sun sets… its freezing! It warms up pretty quick in the morning and make sure to try and take a dip in the glacier melted river. There is no way water could possibly be cleaner.
Chile is as long as the United States is wide, making it so diverse, there is literally something for everyone! Every time I go back it feels like home, buildings change, streets get bigger but the vibe never changes. The bread is always hot and fresh, the fruit is always grown to perfection, the people are always welcoming. Two years ago I was able to bring my close friends and they all fell in love with the fourth region just like I did so many years ago. Two of my best friends even fell in love with each other on that trip, which makes my home town even more special.
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