Chile is one of our “been there” places. However, when a country is 4,300 kilometers long, that’s kind of like saying “we’ve been to the USA” after spending a couple of weeks in Connecticut and Utah.
I became intrigued with Chile at age 7, while studying the “Risk” board game. I pronounced it “Ch-eye-l”. I was absorbed by the sight of the unique, long skinny country with the cool name. And I wondered what it was like there, on the flip-side of the earth from where I was sitting.
I followed up on this urge in the 90’s, one winter while in serious need of mood rehab. Maxing a credit card, I flew a day and a night and wandered through the streets of Santiago. I took the funicular to the top of San Cristobal hill and slept all afternoon in the summer sunshine. Then I started to feel a certain energy kick in. I ended up staying a month and a half. Chile is good like that. There is a mystery and a spirit here…and a linearity…it feels like an up-and-down meandering line, placed on a tilt from the enormous mountains down to the sea.
Much later, Baraka and I started coming here to ski. When it is summer in Puerto Rico, Chile is a reasonable overnight trip to get into some snow! We did this a couple of times, but were always short on time, and stayed close to Santiago and the ski areas nearby. We are glad to be back, with more time to explore longer reaches.
The Hotel Foresta in Santiago looks out to the northern tip of Cerro Santa Lucía, a hill-park rising across this street. In past lives, this hill has been a hermitage, a convent, and a military facility. For the past 135 years or so, it has been a wonderful public place to walk and climb. There is a little castle on top where you take in the view of the whole city and the towering mountain backdrop. On the hill’s side ledges are perched snack bars where you can get a coffee and a “completo”, the Chilean hot dog, piled with tomatoes, mayonnaise, and guacamole.
They gave us Room 604, which overlooks Cerro Santa Lucía’s northern entrance. From this room, you look down to the path leading up from the park’s iron gate. It’s a place where you can imagine star-crossed lovers meeting on rainy nights beneath leafy branches, or something equally dramatic. It was autumn, which we hadn’t seen in a long time.
If you fly all night, it’s great to check into the funky old Hotel Foresta. Prices are a little higher and the hotel is a little nicer each time we go, but it is still the beloved and quirky place, with the knight’s shining armor standing in the lobby. And it’s still a good value at about fifty bucks a night. The rooms are actually little suites. A TV and sitting room leads to a little bedroom fit with two little beds, all in matched and cozy dated décor.
Per protocol, Baraka switched on his cartoons while I unpacked. Then, per protocol, I closed the bedroom door, drew the curtains, crawled under those heavy blankets, and promptly slept for three hours. Those bedrooms have a certain power…
Neruda House #1
It is easy to learn almost nothing of the poet and Nobel Prize laureate Pablo Neruda when you live in the United States. A lot of this is due to the fact that he was an active member of Chile’s communist party during the Cold War. Neruda died in 1973, but he lives on as one of Chile’s heroes. If you are curious to know more about him, you might check out his autobiography, Memoirs.
Neruda built La Chascona, his Santiago house, for his third wife Matilde. The first part of the house, built while he was married to someone else, looks appropriately clandestine with no windows facing the street. This contrasts with the other parts of the compound, built after their relationship went public, which are more open. All parts are delightful and quirky, filled with items and humor and stories, and with narrow passageways and low openings where the 6-ft and bulky Neruda would barely fit and could easily bump his head.
A secret moving panel behind the bar leads to a spiral staircase. In the upstairs bedroom, Matilde’s makeup seat and table swivel shut to appear as a ‘50s washing machine. There is a massive pair of shoes in a sitting room, which look like they’d fit well the world’s tallest man which we’d recently learned about at the Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not Museum. These are fake shoes that had hung outside a cobbler’s shop in southern Chile in the early 1900’s, to identify the shop to people who did not read.
In Neruda’s study, on the wall behind his chair, is a large and morose old oil painting of some stern-looking old lady. Who is this important person, to occupy such an important place in Neruda’s life and home? Oh, nobody he knew. He just thought she was incredibly ugly. He put her there so that, when he would tire of reading and start to daydream and look around, he would see her mug and prefer to get back to his reading.
Mediterranean? Southern Cal?
We went back to Limache, to visit my old friend Luisa.
Limache and the neighboring town Quillota are set beneath the coastal peaks of La Campana, close to the ocean ports of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. Charles Darwin climbed this peak during his voyage with The Beagle in 1835. Limache for me contains an unusual energy, and a bittersweetness. It is a lovely place, and it feels like a place where centuries of things went down and were not always wonderful. There is a quietness in the bustle on the main street at night. I feel ghosts in the plaza, of townspeople all gathered for some reason, or for New Year’s Eve.
I so fondly remember New Year’s Eve, 1994. At midnight, we toasted with glasses of champagne containing 12 grapes, one for each month of the coming year, and we each ate a mouthful of boiled lentils for good luck. Then we sat down to a feast of barbecued meat. THEN, at about 2:30 AM, we got dressed up and walked into town to the night club, and danced until daylight.
Limache and Quillota have a Mediterranean feel, and when you get closer to the Pacific Ocean, a southern-California feeling starts to seep in…but not quite. It is the flip-side, it is Chilean. The area is agricultural and famous for its orchards of avocado, as well as the lesser-known chirimoya and lúcuma. Chirimoyas are sweet and look kind of like a fused artichoke, and Quillota boasts the only trees in Chile that give a sweet fruit (many elsewhere give no fruit at all). When you spy a chirimoya in the grocery store in Chile, it’s from Quillota. Also abundant are the lúcumas, which give a soft, sweet creamy fruit ideal for use in ice cream, pies, and other desserts.
In addition to explaining the fruits, Luisa gave me lessons in medicinal properties of hiperiucum, hierba de San Juan, thuja, dandelion, passiflora, laurel, and artemisa, which are all easy to grow here. It is interesting how overlooked is the common and versatile dandelion. We don’t get the name right in English: it’s not a “dandy lion” but rather “diente-de-leon” or “lion’s teeth”.
We visited Chile’s oldest city, Valparaíso. This place rocked before the Panama Canal took away most of its business in the early 1900’s, but it is still boisterous and full of character. We took one of the old ascensors up the steep hill from the port, which were built in the heyday between the 1880's and 1916. Going into the wooden turnstile room and climbing into the cab, I was struck by the aroma and feel of my beloved, long-gone elementary school which had been built in the same time period.
From there, we walked a bit and got a cab to La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda’s Valparaíso house. Like the house in Santiago, it is lovely and funny, and also has wonderful views out to the harbor. Of course, on the dining table you see colored water glasses. Neruda insisted that water tastes better when you drink it out of colored glasses.
Heading North On I-5
Rain clouds gathered, and we headed north on Chile’s deluxe and cost-effective bus system. We rode to La Serena in a pink cloud along the Pacific Ocean, and the vegetation thinned. Rain caught up with us in La Serena, where walked to a hotel at night in an uncommon downpour. The next morning on the dark-gray beach, I spied two snorkelers in swim fins walking backwards into the cold surf.
We continued north on the Pan-American Highway, which incidentally is called “Highway 5” in Chile, just like it is called in the United States. In fact, you could drive this road all the way to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, if it weren’t for the Darien Gap between Columbia and Panama, an 80-km stretch of unpaved rainforest.
A further sixteen-hour trip got us to Calama, the heart of Chile’s world-dominating copper mining industry. The Chiquicamata mine near Calama is one of the world’s largest open-pit mines, and unfortunately the tours had been suspended. We also passed semis laden with sodium nitrate, another important export, though not as important since the Germans started making synthetic nitrates in the 1930’s. The nitrate mines were important enough for Chile to “annex” the region from Bolivia in 1879, prompting the War of the Pacific.
It is said that “the journey is the road” in South America, and you can really feel this on the Pan-Am Highway. In the early morning, you pass banks of semis parked by the side of the cold desert road. You see the drivers…many have metal boxes fastened to their rigs down on the driver's side, containing a burner and a tea-kettle.
Desert and Oasis
From Calama, it is a further hour to the Atacama Desert oasis of San Pedro de Atacama, on the edge of a salt basin at 2,400 m.
In the past decade or so, this adobe village has added “tourist mecca” to its eons-old identity as a simple desert oasis. The quiet lanes are now filled with rest houses, bike-rental, and tourist restaurants with nighttime courtyard fires. To keep the fires roaring, they sprinkle a powder on the new wood to get it to flare up. I wondered if they were using the sodium nitrate we’d seen loaded on the semis and was a little concerned, but found out that it was only sugar.
Though a bit hyped, this is a friendly and interesting place where you can comfortably feel the desert and oasis ambiance. We enjoyed tooling around on bikes, and Baraka had fun kicking ball in the dusty lanes with other children.
Outside the village of San Pedro is the Atacama Desert for real, the world’s driest desert, where it might rain once or twice a year for maybe a minute or two each time. Some weather stations in the region have never recorded any rainfall at all. San Pedro is at the edge of a basin set between the coastal mountains and the Andes, which used to be part of the ocean floor. It rose up, evaporated, and left a plain and intermediate mountain range comprised significantly of salts and crystallized gypsum. In the Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountains), you can walk up to walls comprised largely of these substances. If you stand next to one in the evening and are quiet, you will hear it cracking and groaning with the change in temperature.
Commanding the Andes skyline to the east is the 5,916 m volcano Licancabur, “The Protector of the Town”. It felt weird that this relatively minor peak is taller than Mt. Kilimanjaro. The area is teeming with volcanoes. To the southeast is visible the flat-topped Lascar, the most active Chilean volcano prior to Chaiten rearing up in the southern Chile this past May. Lascar erupts an average of once or twice a year, but really blew up last in 1993, causing ashfall in Buenos Aires.
You can rent a mountain bike and a sandboard for 10 bucks and pedal up a salt canyon 4 km out of town to “Valle de Los Muertos” – Death Valley – where you’ll find the local sandboarding hill. It is surreal and lovely, to carry what appears to be a snowboard through this dry landscape and hike up on a dune. The sand at this time of the year is warm on top as long as it is in the sunshine, and comfortably cool underneath. We went barefoot.
Hunter-gatherers started living here about 11,000 years ago, when it rained a whopping twice as much as it does now, i.e. not much. Unlike the Sahara, this place has a long history of hyper-aridity – one lasting 15 million years or so. Naturally, the oasis we were staying in has been used as such for quite awhile.
About 4,000 years ago, these people developed into a more agricultural society. They also developed sophisticated methods for mummifying the dead, presumably to ensure eternal existence of the body and soul. Also about this time, they started sniffing hallucinogenic powders.
From about 500 AD onward, they were significantly impacted by and involved with the Andean empires to the north. It seems the latter-day Incas get a lot of the glory in popular conscience, but it was the earlier empire of the Tiahuanaco that had a more significant impact on the people of the Atacama. The Tiahuanaco culture, which began around 1500 BC, presaged the relatively short-lived Incas. By 500 AD, the Tiahuanaco started expanding to form one of the first great American empire-states. This empire lasted about 500 years (until about 1000 AD) before going into an unexplained decline. The Incas followed a couple hundred years later, and arrived in this part of the Atacama a mere 90 years before the Spanish came in 1540.
I did not sleep well in San Pedro. The nights were restless, and full of unsettling dreams. The more I learned about the area and the ground we were sleeping on, the more this made sense. As we climbed onto the night bus to Arica, the feeling dissipated.
We got to northern border port/resort/casino city of Arica and checked into the Sunny Days Hostel, a friendly hangout run by a New Zealand guy named Ross and his Chilean wife, Beatriz. All of our clothes were laden with Atacama dust, so I loaded them into the washing machine and then hung them out to dry. Can you believe they did not get dry?! Arica gets about the same amount of rain as does San Pedro de Atacama. I swear I felt a raindrop. I felt blessed!