La Serena is about seven hours north of Valparaíso, by bus. I left Valparaíso Saturday night at 10:30 and got to La Serena at the butt-crack of dawn. I had e-mailed a hostel ahead of time for a reservation. This is definitely my recommendation, if possible. Use www.hostels.com or www.hostelworld.com to reserve a place for your next destination. Unfortunately, upon showing up in La Serena and getting dropped of by the taxi at the hostel (who took off immediately), I found out they were full. The Web sites clearly don't always reflect reality. Thankfully, another taxi pulled up right then and knew of another place that did, in reality, have a room. And even better, it was just a stone's throw from the bus station, so it would be easy to get my next ticket.
I tried to get the lady at the hostel to book me for a tour the next day, but she didn't know if there would be enough people. She said she'd let me know that evening, and if I couldn't get on that tour, there was another one I could go on. I was in my room from about 7:00 P.M. that day until 9:00 A.M. the next and never heard a peep. I felt far down under the weather and so didn't have the motivation to pursue it myself. So, I just tooled around town a bit and also swung by the bus station to bump up my ticket from 10:30 P.M. the next day to 4:30, a few hours earlier. If I wasn't going to go on a tour, I might as well get a head start on San Pablo de Atacama.
If you have the time and feel so inclined, La Serena is probably worth a stop. It's a nice little town and has a few nice historic churches along with the common avenue which is open to foot traffic only. I also found a nice little restaurant which had good food for a good price.
After my second lunch in this little joint, I stopped of at a small plaza to work my way towards completion of my current tome—Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum. Sitting next to me on the bench was an older guy, probably in his sixties, wearing a black leather jacket, brown leather slip-on shoes, and dark trousers, zipper to the bottom. He had a bag of what appeared to be garbage—myriad paper items. Maybe he's into recycling. He was reading a dirty newspaper, presumably today's edition, since that's usually how it works, but based on appearances, it could have been lying in the dirt for days. After he finished catching up with current events, he pulled out a piece of scrap paper from his collection, rolled it up tightly until it was about the size of a cigarette. He proceeded to take his homemade Q-Tip and clean the wax from his ear. The beauty of his Q-Tip was its reusability. With a normal Q-Tip, once you shove it in your ear and run it around a bit, that's all she wrote. With this chap's variety, you simply remove it from your ear and brush the muck off of it, then go back for more. Based on my observations, it's good for at least three cleanings. I'm going to guess that this chap doubled that, still having one ear to go. In the middle of all this, he stomped his feet, presumably to scare away the pigeons. He repeated the stomping when I got up to leave, although there were no pigeons that time.
La Serena, a nice little town, growing fast, and with tours that are supposed to be great. Worth a visit if you're traveling between Valparaíso and Calama or San Pablo de Atacama.