We want to see more of Chile, since it’s such a long, slim shaped country with a diversity of topographies. Extending from 17 degrees south to Cape Horn at 56 degrees (a whopping 39 degrees long in longitude!), Chile is about 292,000 square miles (756,000 sq km), with roughly 2700 miles (4300 km) of coastline. The actual length of the country is 2653 miles long (4270 km), and the width ranges from 221 miles (356 km) at the broadest point to 40 miles (64 km) wide at its narrowest. The average width is 110 miles (177 km) from the Pacific Ocean on the west to Argentina on the east. Peru is the northern neighbor, and to the south there’s only Antarctica. In fact, there are some Antarctic islands and a peninsula that have been claimed by Chile as part of its territory.
So we’ve rented a car, and we’re driving south, heading toward the region of Patagonia. (The map showing our route thus far is at the end of the blog.)
We started in Santiago, and it took a while to get out of the city. Santiago itself is on a plain, maybe some 1500 feet (500 m) above sea level, with the Andes to the east and the coastal range to the west. We continued along that plain, huge mountains off in the distance in one direction and small mountains on our other side. (I’ve read that most of the population resides in this fertile Central Valley – the Andes actually comprise between one-half to one-third of the width of the country!)
This plain is the agricultural region of the country, so there were orchards full of fruit trees, and even more vineyards in every direction. Gorgeous green grape vines filling the valleys between the mountain ranges. Chilean wine is well known, especially the reds, and this region seems to the place for wineries. Plus tall poplar trees as windbreaks, just for variety.
We’re in summer, and fairly far south, so sunset is about 9 PM. (LOVE all the sunshine!) This means we could have long daylight hours of driving, but we try to limit our time in the car – we want to be out exploring the country, not just sitting in the car.
Our first night, we stopped in San Fernando – not on the map, but a bit north of Talca. It’s a pretty town, not very big, and we found a nice hotel. Walking around in the evening, we encountered an interesting church that almost looks like Russian Orthodox churches, with the bulbous dome on top. But as we got closer to look at the front, we realized there was a LOT of damage to the façade of the building, and it looked like it was probably from an earthquake. Not a strong or severe enough earthquake to topple the entire building, just enough to damage the more delicate areas around the windows and ornamental features.
Oh, I may have forgotten to mention our little earthquake one evening. We were in our apartment in the Santa Isabel neighborhood of Santiago, maybe 10:30 PM, and we felt a slow, easy sway, back and forth. Richard asked if I felt a movement, and I confirmed that yes, I felt it too. The swaying and rocking continued for maybe a minute, nothing sudden or jerky, nothing stronger that just a rocking sensation, such as you might feel in a boat on calm seas. Very gentle. It stopped, and we didn’t feel anything else that night. But our apartment was on the 16th floor, and yes, it’s a little scary to try falling asleep after a small tremor, knowing there’s a chance it might be the preface to a much stronger quake in the middle of the night. (The other school of seismological thought is that small tremblors release pressure as the tectonic plates move, and thus actually prevent stronger earthquakes. In either case, earthquakes aren’t easy to predict.)
After our night in San Fernando, we continued south on Ruta (route) 5, the major north-south highway. We stopped in the town of Talca mid-day, to stretch and get some lunch. We walked through the market full of gorgeous produce, and wandered a bit more, just because it was such a beautifully sunny day.
And then there it was, a giant Chanukah menorah, in the middle of the city park. NO idea why (this was a month after the end of Chanukah this year), nor who put it up. And we weren’t really interested enough to cross the busy intersection to see if there was a sign saying who installed this menorah. It was just odd to see it there.
We decided to head to the coast and take the Ruta del Mar, the Route of the Sea. We headed west, through more vineyards and orchards, through the small coastal range, and finally to the small town of Constitución. Yes, that’s “constitution” in Spanish, though the emphasis is on the “on” at the end.
Anyway, Constitución is a pretty little town with beaches between huge rocky headlands and sea stacks, filled on this weekend with vacationers and local tourists. The rocks and sea stacks are home to gulls, terns, pelicans, all kinds of sea birds. The sand is sort of a dark grey, matching the rocks. There were occasional sand dunes above the road, huge hills of the same grey sand, spilling down onto the road. With people climbing up and just sitting on the sand. (Some people tried sliding down a little way, but they had to be careful not to slide down into the road!)
We tried to find a hotel along the coast, but there were only restaurants, a few homes, and scattered cabins or bungalows that all seemed to be rented.
There’s a road that runs down the coast a bit here, but then it just ends at a huge pier and area full of food stands. This turn-around point was packed with people who either were like us, clueless and just turning around, or deliberately going here for the food and maybe evening music. It was a mob scene of people and vehicles, and the road back to Constitución was equally packed. But there were scenic overlooks along the way, so we could walk a little, admire the scenery, and enjoy being at the coast, even if we didn’t get to the beach.
We found a place to stay in town, and drove back to the beach for dinner. Empanadas and sandwiches seem to be the easy meals in Chile, and just about anything can be turned into an empanada or a sandwich. Usually, shrimp empanadas are made with cheese, but I found a place where the woman was making empanadas to order – so I had an “empanada con camerones, pero sin queso” – a shrimp empanada, no cheese. And with a nice hot sauce to add in. Really tasty.
We enjoyed our evening by the sea, though about sunset the wind really picks up and the temperature plummets. Seriously, the temperature during the late afternoon can reach the low 80s F (25 or so C), but drops to 50-ish (10 C) at night. Most hotels have two or three blankets on the beds – and this is summer!!!
Next morning, we headed south along the coast, following the Ruta del Mar. There’s also a Ruta de los Conquistadores, but we had no idea where that went. We also didn’t want anyone to think we were supporting nations who conquer and colonize and pillage and all that. So we went with the apolitical Ruta del Mar.
Our lunch stop was in the sweet little town of Chanco. The town was founded in 1872 or so, at least that’s the date on one of the plaques in the small central plaza. Hard to say exactly what happened on that date, since my Spanish is rather limited. Anyway, we walked around town, and I was trying to find a cup of tea – it was a cold, greyish afternoon, and I just needed something hot. No one serves tea in this town, apparently, only coffee, with a ton of sugar. Finally some very nice ladies in a bread shop (panadaria) made a cup of tea for me, and I thanked them very much. (They wouldn’t give me a price and insisted it was free. That’s how wonderful they were!)
Richard got some coffee, I had my tea, we sat in the park and enjoyed the ambience of Chanco. We enjoyed the park – a few families were there, parents on benches while their children borrowed one of the go-cart things provided by the town, and raced circles around the park. They were very funny to watch. (And they were polite, saying “perdono me” to not hit those of us walking around.)
There was a statue of Señor Chacon, who may have been the founder of the town and somehow the letters were transposed? No idea. Also, there was a bust of Señor Bernardo O’Higgins – yes, an incongruous name. We see streets and towns named for him all over the country – turns out that Bernardo O’Higgins was the illegitimate son of an Irishman employed in the Spanish colonial service, and the daughter of a wealthy family of Spanish colonists. His father was appointed Governor-General of Chile in 1788, and determined that his son would have a formal education. Bernardo was sent to Peru, Spain, and finally England. He returned to Chile after his father’s death, and became a gentleman farmer. When Napoleon invaded Spain, Bernardo seized the opportunity to begin the fight for Chilean independence from Spain, which was eventually achieved. He became the first Chilean head of state from 1817-1823. So he’s something like the Chilean George Washington.
Heading south again, through logging country, we encountered logging trucks on the road, saw mills, lumber yards, and the air was scented mostly with pine. There were occasional pulp mills, which smell horrible, but mostly we smelled evergreens.
And the wildflowers! Fields of purple, white, yellow, pink, blue, with pockets of orange along the roads. Very Impressionist, very Monet. But of course there weren’t places to pull over for photos, especially with all the logging trucks racing by.
Finally came to Lebu (pronounced LEH-boo, though we preferred saying it as leh-BOOOO!), and headed to the beach – wow, this was an incredibly gorgeous day and beautiful beach!!!! There was also a cavern at one end, and occasional huge waves creating wonderful sea spray explosions! Again, a few restaurants along the coast, some cabins for sale, and no hotels. So we headed back to town, and walked around a bit.
We found a tiny tourist office, and the woman was very helpful. She called around and found a cabin in our price range. But with our language limitations, well, we thought the cabin was near the beach. Turned out that it was off in a woodsy area at the opposite end of town, away from everything. It was very pretty, and a comfortable cabin. But with a noisy neighbor down the road who was having a pool party that night. With loud pulsating ramped-up bad disco music. In Spanish. Ah well, it happens. Richard can sleep through almost anything, and I have a little stash of sleeping pills for such situations. So we managed to have a decent night’s sleep despite the neighbor.
And onward. We headed to the city of Temuco, which is back on Ruta 5, down the center of the country, about 680 km (roughly 420 miles) south of Santiago. We’ve spent one night here, but I’ll make this a second blog since this is getting to be a bit long.