Well the 15 hour night bus from Atacama to La Serena really wasn't so bad. I'm getting quite accustomed to them now and half a sleeping pill really seems to work well and put me out fine. I was however seated next to a smelly local but once I'd seen a picture of Jesus in a crown of thorns on his phone background I was less worried about my losing my stuff! It was nice not to have to get up and get straight off the bus in the morning - the extra few hours onboard until lunchtime was actually nice and relaxing and gave me time to wake up. La Serena is situated on the coast at the southern tip of the large Atacama desert, and it was so nice to be back at sea level. I had become totally acclimatised to the altitude but still always got out of breath walking up stairs and things, so I suddenly feel rather fit and healthy now I can breathe again!
We had the afternoon free to wander round the town, which had a pretty small centre. We were staying in a hotel near the central square which was actually a 20 minute walk from the beach. As Atacama was so small it was hard to gauge how developed Chile was from wandering its streets, but in La Serena it really hit me that I was practically back in the western world. The town was more modern than many I've visited in Spain and Italy, with plentiful chain stores, normal and well behaved traffic, nice cars and lots of well dressed locals. Its a world away from Bolivia and Peru. In the evening Joaquin took us down to a nice seafood restaurant on the sea front where we could watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean, which was really pretty. The beach was clean but not so nice and the Pacific Ocean was freezing and far too cold to swim in, and with temperatures of around 17C and a chilly wind a beach day was not really an option. So the next day we visited a very modern and swish shopping mall, where I had a disgusting local KFC (complete with a beer) and bought a baseball cap from the Adidas store bearing the logo of Chile's most famous football team - Universidad de Chile. I then wasted away the afternoon doing not a lot waiting for our 7pm departure tour up into the Elqui Valley to visit the Mamalluca Observatory.
The skies above Elqui are amongst the clearest in the world so the landscape is littered with observatories. Elqui is also the region which produces the Chilean equivalent of Pisco (a drink that is everywhere here), but I know from our tour of a Pisco winery in Peru that it is not the drinks´ true home! After a swift 1.5 hour drive we arrived at the observatory but sadly the Moon was near full and shining bright, so despite the clear sky there were not that many stars visible (nowhere near as many as I saw the other morning near Uyuni). We got taken into the observatory to look through their telescope, which I was actually a bit disappointed with. Zooming in on the Moon was quite cool, but otherwise it just blew up Jupiter to the size of a small marble, and showed us that there were stars in parts of the sky not visible to the human eye. The barely visible nebula cloud was also marginally impressive. We then went outside where the tour guide took out his incredibly powerful laser pain and showed us some constellations. But other than the Scorpion (the southern hemisphere's clearest constellation) I couldn't really make any out. Not even the southern cross, which is on the Australian flag. Lastly we were shown a powerpoint presentation illustrating how small our galaxy and sun was, and then it was back on the bus for the late drive back. All in all it was a nice evening but I was expecting a bit more.