Most of us embark on study abroad adventures with the hope of fitting in some travelling. During long weekends here and there, vacations and before or after the semester, students look to make the most out of their overseas opportunities by throwing on a backpack and setting off to see the sites.
These excursions greatly differ depending on where you are. Many friends of mine are studying abroad in Europe, and a quick trip can mean jumping on a train to Paris or taking a quick boat ride from Spain to Morocco. In South America and more specifically, Chile (the longest country in the world), finding a way to make it to some of the “destination” spots can be a little trickier. Bus trips can take days and flights are expensive.
That can be frustrating sometimes, since there are a lot of places on my bucket list: Patagonia, hopping over the border to explore Argentina and the ultimate dream of making it to Easter Island. But making these traditional tourist destinations a reality, both economically and logistically, is proving difficult.
This past weekend, a group of friends and I decided on a quick trip to La Serena, a small town about seven hours north of Valparaíso. We had four days to travel and even though the town wasn’t necessarily on the top of any of our lists, it seemed like a good compromise. It was far enough away to be a change in scenery, but also a short (by South American standards) and cheap bus ride away.
We jumped aboard and immediately pulled out our travel books, eventually planning four days packed full of tours and walks to encounter the must-sees. We would spend one day in the actual town, visiting the markets and seeing the churches. The next we’d take a boat ride around Isla Damas, a penguin-filled island a few hours away, before screeching back to town in time for a visit to an observatory to experience the famous stars of northern Chile. And the last day, we’d make our way to the Elqui Valley to spend some time outdoors and take a pisco (the national drink) distillery tour.
Well, you know the saying about “best laid plans.” After arriving at the penguin island and hiking up its rocky slopes to check out the ocean views, a friend of mine missed a step on a huge outcropping of boulders, tumbling about five metres downward into a crevice. Though she was bleeding from multiple head wounds and from both hands and knees, everything miraculously turned out to be superficial and she was able to walk down the path back to our boat on her own. After some wound cleaning, a concussion check at a hospital back in town, and pain medication, things finally quieted down (with the exception of lots of animated storytelling about all of the day’s craziness).
We had multiple days left of the trip, but were left with limited activity options; the friend was pretty badly bruised and not quite up for most of what we had planned. So we scrapped the schedule and for the next few days, wandered and explored in town. And to be honest, that couldn’t have turned out better.
We stumbled upon an empanada competition and were interviewed by multiple Chilean television channels about our thoughts on the differing flavours. We encountered a small fruit juice stand and became quite friendly with the owners after multiple visits back for their fresh blends, ultimately acquiring a few mysterious fruits to take home with us. We made friends with some other wandering travellers, sharing a few bottles of wine over a newly learned card game (which the Americans never quite got a handle of despite the insistence by the Germans that it did, in fact, make sense and was a classic back home). And we got lost wandering along the roads of La Serena, which led to the discovery of a cute café and a great pizza restaurant.
What was best about the whole adventure was that we had an incredible time without any real destination visits. The five of us had only been in the country together for about a month, and had been living with different families and busy with our own activities. This trip was a perfect time to sit back, swap stories and get to know each other.
Though it wasn’t quite what we had planned for, we learned that the classic destination spots aren’t the only places worth seeking out during time abroad. Sometimes getting to really know the ins and outs of a small town a few hours away, with the right company, can turn into just the adventure you’re looking for.Add this article to your reading list