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March 4, 2012
Day 16: Coquimbo, Chile

At the port of Coquimbo

Yesterday, our ship arrived in one city as a gateway to another. While most of the cruisers went off to excursions in Santiago, we chose to remain in Valparaiso and had an incredible day.

Today was a similar situation: the ship arrived in Coquimbo as a gateway to La Serena.

Our arrival in Coquimbo

Princess Patter: Located in northern Chile, Coquimbo is your gateway to our port of call, La Serena, which was founded in 1544. Chile’s second-oldest city, La Serena’s Spanish roots date to 1544, when it was established to facilitate communications with Peru both by sea and overland. Home to about 190,000 and counting, La Serena is one of the fastest-growing areas of Chile and an easy walking city. Walking through the town, you’ll notice its distinctive architecture, much of which was built in 19th-century vintage style. More than 29 churches and convents are still standing.

You’ll notice that there is absolutely nothing said about Coquimbo. Indeed, when Gail was researching our ports of call ahead of time, she couldn’t find anything noteworthy about Coquimbo either.

We were not interested in any of the excursions to La Serena. They included visiting an observatory (not very useful in the middle of the day) or driving 90 minutes to look at a scenic valley. Ultimately, we decided to make this a “down day,” to get some chores done and see what time we had left. We identified two priorities: do laundry and find an Internet connection.

Sleeping in, eating breakfast and doing laundry aboard ship took up most of the morning. It was after noon when we finally walked onto the dock of Coquimbo.

Outside of the cruise ship, Coquimbo’s dock was filled with tour buses waiting to take visitors out of Coquimbo.

Coquimbo is very much a working-man’s town. There is no tourist center. We could not find any maps or information. Nothing is in English and no one speaks it. Furthermore, it was Sunday and much of the city appeared to be closed.

The plaza outside of the port terminal had these funky statues. We never found out what they meant.

With the recommendation of some fellow cruisers (“Walk two blocks up and four blocks over, and you’ll be downtown”), we just started walking. The town appeared to be coming to life slowly, though downtown was not too much different from uptown (downtown had traffic lights).

The streets of Coquimbo were fairly sparse.
“Downtown” was a bit livelier.

We walked through downtown, where there was a full-on band playing music. We walked through a street market and made our way to the beach. By about 2:00 pm, we decided we’d better start looking for Internet somewhere.

Coquimbo’s beach looked great from a distance… but up close it was pretty dirty, and the stench was almost unbearable.

It has been a bit of a challenge to keep our website updated. There is Internet available aboard ship, but it is expensive (85 cents per minute) and unreliable (it is a satellite connection, even in port). “Elite” status passengers get free Internet time, and a friend donated some to Russell yesterday. However, just uploading a few text files took eight minutes, and we didn’t want to abuse the privilege.

So we wanted to take advantage of Internet while in port. Walking around Coquimbo, though, we realized we weren’t likely to find anything here. We couldn’t conceive of many people actually owning a PC.

We identified two likely targets for a wi-fi hot zone: two large stores. The first, UniMarc grocery store, actually advertised a wi-fi zone in its café, but after a half hour we couldn’t make it connect. We walked across town to the second store, La Polar, a department store. The non-English-speaking clerk informed us that they didn’t have wi-fi either, but he gave us a hint. He pointed down the street and said one word: “Pizza.”

Back out on the street, we found someone who could speak broken English. He told us that there was no wi-fi anywhere in Coquimbo; we would have to go to La Serena. We decided to walk one more block before giving up. Just before the corner was a Pizzeria. On the dining room wall inside was a sign: “Wi-fi Zona.”

The cashier spoke no English, but she was very helpful. We could use the wi-fi if we bought something. Gail ordered a pizza and we were given a piece of paper with a long password number and “pizzeria.” We sat down, but thirty minutes later we still couldn’t get the Internet to connect. The pizzeria even rebooted their server to no avail.

The cashier tried helping, but was stumped that all of our PC menus were in English. Finally, finally, we figured out that the password was the number plus the word “pizzeria.” We tried again and connected. For the first time in a week, we were able to do a comprehensive update.

Russell consulted with the non-English-speaking pizzeria for a long time to connect his PC to their wi-fi, but we were ultimately successful

By now it was 3:00 pm, and we needed to be back on the ship by 5:30. We decided to explore Coquimbo’s upper hills. Like Valparaiso, Coquimbo is a bay surrounded by hills that are covered with houses. Like Valparaiso, Coquimbo has stairs all over the place. Unlike Valparaiso, Coquimbo has no ascensors (funiculars). Instead, there are long, long passages of switchbacks.

The long and steep switchbacks of Coquimbo

The view from the top of our switchback (the Star Princess is on the left)

With our remaining time, we were able to make it about halfway up the hills of Coquimbo. Two things struck us. First, this is a very poor city. We saw dwellings composed of scrap wood and sheet metal. They were not even weather-tight.

The residential areas of Coquimbo

Second, the arrival of the Star Princess was a major event for this city. The ship stuck out like a gigantic behemoth against the skyline. People and families came out just to look at the ship.

It really struck us how wide a gap there is between our lifestyle and that of the natives. Sadly, Coquimbo will probably not see much commerce benefit from the arrival of the Star Princess. Other than port fees, most of the tourist dollars will land in nearby La Serena.

The Star Princess is ridiculously huge, even against the high hills of Coquimbo

People and families came out just to look at our ship. They were not allowed past the terminal gates, further highlighting the disparity between us and them.

We re-boarded the ship at 5:00 pm. Once again, it was warm enough for us to stand out on deck as the ship slowly made its way out of the bay. Coquimbo is our last port in Chile, but it has reinforced our appreciation for the country. We would love to return to Chile some day, hopefully via a land tour, so we can spend more time among the land and people of this amazing country.

The band that we saw earlier downtown came down to the port for our farewell. They played everything from “Brazil” to “Auld Lang Syne.”

In a fitting image, one of Coquimbo’s local dogs tried unsuccessfully to board our cruise ship


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