We enter Chile over the Andes and descend from 4,000 feet into typical lovely Chilean scenery. This part of Chile is in complete contrast to what we have become accustomed to - rich farm lands, huge designer villas and lovely asphalt roads! You have got to leave the wealthy lake shores to find a ‘normal’ wriggly tin / wood slat / that’s sometimes patched with plastic sheeting home. Summer for these home owners passes in a frenzy of wood chopping in preparation for the long winter. The extremes of society can be clearly seen here.
The other big difference is the weather - almost constant rain and low cloud cover thwart our sight seeing plans regularly. When the skies clear we are rewarded with fabulous lake, smoking volcano and fjord scenery that is absolutely superb.
Nessie becomes a feeding station for all the abandoned puppies and kittens that we find along the way, it’s not that Chileans don’t like animals, just that most can’t afford to feed or neuter them - very sad.
Valdivia is the capital of the region and is a very pleasant university town that could fool you into believing you were in Europe, until you see the sea lions begging for scraps from the local fish market plus horse and cattle drawn carts making their way around town.
But it’s not just this town that aims to confuse us - most of the lakeside towns and villages are steeped in German history. Settlers first arrived in the late 1800’s, another influx in the mid 1940’s completed what has become a ‘micro Germany’. Everywhere we go we see evidence of this - the fire station is called ‘Germania’; the health clinic ‘Alemana’; even the street names are German - Schmidt etc. We have to pinch ourselves regularly to remind ourselves of where we are!
Entre Lagos to Paso Pehuenche
The Mapuche indians are the true ‘owners’ of this land but trying to find out about their history is not so easy. One museum that is meant to represent them well is closed for building work. We do find a market to wander where traditional items are sold, only to find ourselves facing a cow’s head that has been made into a bucket! Very odd.
We decide to take a gamble with the weather and rather than head for the beach we stay in the mountains to visit Conguillio - a national park. The tourist information office tell us that the road is awful, so we drive instead to the National Reserve Malalcahuello - Nalcas and spend a night in torrential rain and cold hoping for a clear sky the next day. We get it. The scenery is fantastic - we drive around on volcanic ash tracks, snow and rubble until the tracks disappear completely and we can go no further. Lava flows, mist covered valleys, lunar landscapes, a snowcapped volcano and huge monkey puzzle trees are our reward.
Correct pronunciation is crucial at this German brewery!
Tottie patrol at lovely Panguipulli beach
Valdivia’s museum and colourful riverside market
Smoking volcano’s are always taken seriously
Volcanic ash roads and craters in Malalcahuello
Satisfied with the mountainous areas we quickly drive west to the Pacific Ocean for some stable weather.
We are not disappointed - the sun shines every day and the temperatures reach into the mid 30’s at times. For two weeks we hop from one beach to another watching pelicans and sea lions fish in the cold sea water.
The Chileans really know how to beach/bush camp - pit toilets are dug out, huge swathes of material drape over mini tented ‘villages’ to provide shade and asado fires burn from dawn ‘til dusk. They are excellent neighbours.
We stumble upon what is to become the highlight of this trip - a rodeo. Not just any rodeo but a annual event that has both Chilean and Argentine competitors. Chanco is a lovely traditional village that has a little of everything - a beach, National Park forest, lovely old terraced buildings, a superb Sunday market and very friendly locals.
The weekend festivities start in a farm field 4km’s out of town - the Argentine gaucho’s provide dancing and asado, the Chilean huasos provide music and refreshments whilst they thresh hay by chasing horses around a roped area - very entertaining to watch and a great day out.
Sunday is market and rodeo day. We have never been to a rodeo but we had some preconceived ideas of what to expect - they were wrong! The entire town seemed to be packed onto the groaning stands and the atmosphere was electric with excitement. The event started with some skill racing, where the horses had to weave around a line of chairs, next it’s musical chairs and when the music stops it’s a frantic race for the rider and his horse to get to a chair. Lasso and boleadoras skills are shown off as wild horses are caught, brought down and then mounted. The crowds scream with delight at every success and failure and the Argentine gaucho’s prove themselves to be true entertainers and superbly skilled. An absolutely tremendous day throughout which our newfound Chilean friends make us feel welcome.
We leave Chanco reluctantly and drive inland passing the famous grapevine regions of Chile - it was quite surreal to actually see the vineyard that produces our favourite Chilean wine! Onto Talca and a very pleasant day of shopping and cinema. We pass beautiful traditional buildings as we drive to the excellent Lago Colbun - a great bush camping lake area where we spend a week relaxing, swimming and painting Nessie.
Paso Pehuenche is the 8,000+ foot Andean pass that takes us to Argentina. We may be biased, because this is our first ‘clear view’ Andean pass, but it is unbelievably beautiful. Volcanoes, crazy volcanic geology, fabulous high altitude lakes and superb weather make it an unforgettable drive. Chile has stolen our hearts.
We drove to Santiago quickly to surprise friends, they drove quickly to Mendoza to surprise us. We missed each other on the Santiago motorways by a few kilometres - unbelievable. So we drove to Kaufmann’s, the Mercedes garage that seems to be allergic to communicating with customers via email or telephone, and chatted to them about some work we want done. We then had to fight our way across the city during Friday rush hour traffic with our GPS continually misdirecting us and no detailed map of the city - it was hell. An incredibly friendly street dog and 3 beers later, we were calm and settled into our parking area for the night.
Our street dog slept under the truck guarding us for the night - ensuring a generous breakfast!
Cristo Redentor to
The next morning we debate where to go and decide on south. We race down the motorway to eat the miles then turn off at San Fernando. Talca and Chanco are so close that we consider returning but decide to use our diesel to see new things - first on the list is the lovely wine area of Santa Cruz. It is probably the prettiest wine region in South America. We stumble on a fiesta in Lolol and by luck meet the wonderful Fernandez family, who’s 14 year old son is a genius with computers and robotics - we were ashamed when he taught us a thing or two about our laptop! Ha ha
Goodbyes said we turn south again toward Lago Vichuquen, where we hope to spend the next week lakeside camping. Unfortunately the lovely lake shore is FULL of millionaire holiday mansions - there is not a centimetre of spare space for us - we are very disappointed and mutter about turning south yet again.
Instead we drive to the northern beaches in the area and spend the next few days doing our usual beach camping, we find it difficult to settle down anywhere and we end up almost level with Santiago in only a week. Thank God that we do. On the one night that we decide NOT to beach camp a huge earthquake and resulting tsunami hits....
At 3.35am we awoke from a deep sleep when we felt the truck dip to one side, forgetting we were in South America, we immediately thought that some-one was robbing us, so we shouted, ‘GET LOST’. Another dip of the truck and we were sticking our heads out of the window to see how many robbers there were! It was at this point the world went mad. The truck was suddenly being thrown around. I was shouting over the noise to Dave, ‘Move the truck - quickly!’ He was more concerned with finding his underwear. ‘ Sod your knickers, get the truck moved now!’ I’m shouting. We were parked on the edge of a earth valley wall and I was frightened of us being swept down in a landslide. Poor Dave jumped out with no shoes on and ended up with his feet full of thorns but at least we were now ‘safely’ parked - it was just a matter of waiting it out. The tremors continued all night, some very violent, some a strong quiver. It was terrible.
Santiago street dog, Quintay ‘beach’ house and Pablo Neruda’s lovely Isla Negra home.
At sunrise all seemed calm. No panicked people running around, no alarms - we began to think that maybe our minds had exaggerated the incident.
We drove the short distance to the nearest town - there was no electric, no phone signals, no water and the town marina was destroyed by what one local described as a tsunami. We discover that our ‘robber’ was in-fact a 6.5 Richter earthquake, if we had given into the temptation to return to the south we would have been in a 8.8 Richter quake.
After hours of constant effort we get a very short phone signal and call home to say all is well. The next day the police in Quintay invite us into the station to watch the television reports on the disaster - we can’t believe how lucky we have been. We missed the huge China earthquake by a several hundred kilometres, this one we have missed by a only 200 kilometres and the resulting tsunami by a mere 40 kilometres!
As we sit watching the news the entire police station appears to be lifted and dropped - another big tremor - the police advice us to watch the roof carefully and to be ready to run. Bloody hell. Locals are keen to advice us not to camp on the beach overnight but we are well aware of tsunami risks - after Thailand who isn’t?! The truck is still regularly being shaken by aftershocks, some are mild quivers others score 4 on the Richter.
As always we are lucky - not only are we in an area that has no looting, but a German / Chilean couple invite us to camp in their grounds. At £10 a night it’s expensive but it solves our immediate problems.
We are very anxious to hear from our Chilean friends in Chanco, all our other Chilean friends have emailed to say they are safe. French overlander friends emailed us 2 days before the quake from where the epicentre was. We are very concerned. (Three weeks later we hear that all our friends are alive and well.)
Meantime, other Chilean friends of ours have appealed on their 4x4 forum for information about our location, they knew our plans were to be on a beach further south and they fear the worst for us!
The tremors and aftershocks continue for weeks and we see footage of a beach side village we slept in 2 nights before the disaster - it’s completely gone!
Dave said we should frame our broken inverter and hang it on the wall - if it had not been broken we would have been happily beach camping much further to the south when the tsunami struck.
We visit Santiago on our way to and from Easter Island and we are shocked at the damage - the side streets around Santa Isabel are badly damage, rubble lines the pavements and buildings are collapsing. In the city centre ‘Peligro’ (danger) tape lines the streets and we spend our time constantly looking up to check for falling masonry. The historical buildings of the city centre have sustained damage and one church steeple has collapsed into the roof.
Our taxi from the airport drove over a bridge that had a 1 metre gap bridged by a metal board - it was very disconcerting!
We try to visit some of the tourist sights but many are closed due to damage. Fortunately the stunning Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino was open as was the Cerro San Cristobal where the Virgen de la Immaculada Concepcion overlooks the city from on high.
Life in the city appears normal at first glance, new students accost pedestrians for money, the cafes are full and the shops open. But when you look closely you see differently, queues of people at electrical stores desperate to buy torches, batteries and inverters and people begging for money to help rebuild their homes.
We see business men assist a man off a ledge high above a main road, drunk and desperate, he receives compassion and care from passersby.
We have been in parked in the same place for over 40 days and although we’ve had a good time we are VERY ready to leave! Both of us have ‘cabin fever’ from lack of overlander miles so we are excited to be on the road again visiting some our Chilean friends. Our route takes us to Valparaiso, a scruffy looking naval port that has gained UNESCO status for it’s vibrant street murals and wriggly tin houses. By luck we arrive in time for the Latin American Naval Bicentenary tall ship visit - a wonderful group of ships representing several of the South American navy’s. Valparaiso becomes a city of many ‘firsts’ for us - our first tall ship experience, our first street art city, our first multi-storey cemetery and our first Latin American funicular - a shaky ride! For a city that initially looked ‘disappointing’ we actually enjoyed our stay.
Click on the photograph for the story about puppy....
Onto Santiago once again, (it is becoming something of a ‘home from home’), to visit friends. We spent a lovely day eating a Andean high altitude BBQ with our friends who happen to be Land Rover owners - we may not have a Landy anymore but in our hearts we will always be Landy fans. One of our friends is a Professor of forestry, the other a Geologist - probably the most perfect companions for the our beautiful surroundings!
Back in the city we visit some of the sights that we missed on our last visit and enjoy lots of meals with our friends - Eduardo - you are a star chef!!
Onto Vina del Mar to visit more friends followed by a quick visit to puppy and then it’s time to leave Chile.
Pirates cave - El Yeco
Santa Lucia - Santiago
What can we say? Thanks for the great meals, the superb company and the many hands of friendship!