La Chilena in La Serena

So after promising myself that after my trip San Pedro I wouldn’t go away again until the Cool Stars conference in Barcelona at the end of June, I decided to… well… go away to La Serena (*whistles nonchalantly*) to pay my first visit to everybody’s favourite telescope operator (TO), Andrew. For those who don’t know already, I met Andrew whilst I was working on La Palma at the INT and he was the TO at the neighbouring William Herschel telescope (WHT) – my main reason behind my love of staying up ’til dawn drinking Arehucas rum, the reason I could avoid eating observatory food for a whole year by making my dinner for me instead, and generally the reason I still retain a few of my mental marbles. Yes, I’m a horrible sentimentalist.

La Serena, located 300 miles North of Santiago, is one of the main tourist beach destinations and is home to the headquarters of two important Chile-based observatories – Las Campanas and Gemini South. Andrew was recently awarded a position as a TO for Gemini, and so swapped one telescope for another in March. And I’m so happy because this now gives me a fantastic excuse to get my fix of beach life and have somewhere free to crash! (Err, I mean, great for Andrew, so happy for him and his new job, what a great opportunity, very fulfilling, blahblahblah).

The main square in the town centre

Churchy thing

So I arrived on the Friday lunch time and was whisked away by my chauffeur (Andrew, in his hired Toyota Yaris) back to the new bachelor pad – a 3 bed house complete with garden on top of a hill, backing onto the Las Campanas grounds, and for which he pays almost the same I do for my one bed apartment. Bah. So after dumping my stuff, we disappeared for a long and lazy lunch in the sunshine and a decent catch-up. Almost immediately I could feel the difference in pace of life between La Serena and Santiago (as well as the improved air quality!). To be on a side street and it be genuinely quiet – no constant droan of traffic in the background – was refreshing, and I could feel my shoulders relax a decent amount. I was then taken on a short visit to the Gemini grounds, located on a ‘campus’ on a hill-top overlooking the town towards the ocean (tsunami safe – winner!). As well as the offices, the grounds contain housing for some of the staff and a swimming pool (yes, actually on site! Not in the middle of the bloody Atacama desert, 2 hours from civilisation, like ESO’s pool!), so it is almost like a little community. Hoping I can swing a visit to the actual telescope on one of my future visits 😉

Putting my new designation into action: Amy Astro Tourist.

For dinner, we met up with some of Andrew’s office mates (2 Brits and 3 Americans) for dinner in a local “parilla” restaurant, ‘Martin Fierro’ (basically a place that serves amazingly huge slabs of meat on hot grills – La Palma had an awesome one!) and ate our body weight in chicken, steak and pork, all washed down with a couple of bottles of great red wine. And naturally, we went out for a few drinkies afterwards – minus the British couple, as the wife is currently pregnant, and pretty hilarious about the situation (“Being pregnant sucks! You’re not allowed to do anything!” “What’s the point in seeing what it looks like before you name it? All babies look the same, and it’ll just go “WEH!”). However, they did very kindly offer us all a ride in their pick-up truck. Yes, all 7 of us in one car. And to achieve this, Andrew was shoved in the open back like a true Chilean, along with one of the Americans, Dave. So we were deposited off at a little bar right on the beach called Tsunami (reassuring), which turned out to be owned and run by two gay twins called Felipe and Antonio, who seemed very accommodating for our general rowdiness and allowed us to stay so long that they ended up physically walking us out of their bar so that they could lock up and go home! Good times. 😀

After taking the party back to someone’s apartment (via the beach for a late-night paddle in the Pacific – well, that’s what I did, anyway!), we managed to get to bed at… ooo, around 7am? So needless to say, the next day was super-productive with both of us waking up around 3:30pm! We did manage to crawl out of the house to find a café for some coffee and lunch though, and ended up at yet another beach-side place that doubled as a surf school. So we sat for a while, waking ourselves up whilst looking out over the beach (albeit a little gloomy that day), watching a group of people learning to surf in the waves – all rather pleasant! And definitely something on my to-do list, learning how to surf on a proper board.

Hardy – it was pretty chilly!

Sunbeams and surfers

After getting up at a more humane hour on Sunday, we decided just to go for a little explore going south down the coast in the car into neighbouring Coquimbo. Mainly because we wanted to check out the giant cross that we could see from La Serena. Translated into English as “the cross of the third millenium”, it was opened for the turn of the century in 2000. At 93 metres tall and on a hill 173 metres above sea level, it was no surprise we could see it from miles away. Made almost purely of reinforced concrete, the cross is supported by three structures at its base forming an equilateral triangle to represent the Holy Trinity, and possess twelve pillars to represent the apostles as well as a further ten erected in the main square in the centre to represent the ten commandments.

Cruz del Tercer Milenio. Biiiiiiiig…

One for each commandment

Various statues dotted around, showing Jesus doing his stuff.

But the cross was not just a cross – oh no! It also housed a church inside, a viewing gallery offering panoramic-ish views in the arms (although indoors, which isn’t quite the same experience), and a museum that appeared to be dedicated to all things Pope-y (including things like paintings of past popes, most of whom look like the stuff nightmares are made of).

Inside the church, with the Pope museum in a room at the back

View towards La Serena from the cross arms

Sadly, we couldn’t giggle at Popes all day, so we continued down the coast and stopped off at a random beach we could see from the viewing platform:

You can still see the cross!

, …And a little fishing village, called Tongoy, further on from that again:

Man, I miss living by the sea….

H.M.S Pikachu


How delightful

We ended our mini coastal adventure by having a sea food dinner on a beachside restaurant with this view:

Dinner on the beach

The following day was mostly spent just bumbling around the town centre of La Serena, watching Andrew beg people to give him internet in his house. But I was rewarded with a steak dinner with more Gemini bods that evening before being dropped off at the airport for my flight home at 11pm.

All in all, a great time was had – beaches, steaks, rum and sunshine… What more could you want from a long weekend away? 🙂

Hasta la proxima,


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