On June 3rd early in the morning I met my dad, mom, and sister at the airport to start their vacation in Chile! It was so great to see them and I had a week of travelling through central Chile planned. After picking up the rental car we drove into Santiago to drop our car off at my building and to see my neighborhood. We walked over to the university to meet all my friends, and when we got there they had sopapillas and tea ready for us to try! It was really fun to show my family where I work and everyone that I work with. Next we walked around Santiago Centro and checked my parents into their hotel and had pisco sours at the bar. Even though it was raining all day, we had a great time wandering around the city and had a fantastic supper of grilled meats and ice cream in the Lastarria neighborhood. Cerro Santa Lucia and the top floor of Costanera Center (tallest building in South America) were two highlights of our Santiago stop.
The next stop were the two coastal cities of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar. Driving and walking along the coast was amazing, and the way the buildings and houses blanket the hills are something else. My family tried Peruvian food for the first time and we rode an ascensor up to the top of Cerro Conception to have coffee and brunch with a great view. With houses of all different colors, ships coming in to dock at the port, and rolling hills filled with character I wish we could have had more time to explore Valparaiso, but we continued our road trip north to the city of La Serena on Ruta 5. The drive took us through tunnels, weaved through coastal mountains, and occasionally followed Chile’s rugged coastline as the sun set over the Pacific. The more north we drove, the drier and warmer it got. Trees and green shrubs were slowly replaced by cactus and desert scrub plants. We reached La Serena in the dark and found supper at a restaurant on the coast.
The next morning we left La Serena to start our way inland to Elqui Valley, a “magical” valley east of La Serena, according to my Chile guidebook. We drove through small villages that became further and further apart as we headed toward Argentina. We tried to take the road all the way up to Paso Agua Negra, one of the few mountain passes that goes all the way to Argentina but due to 8 full days of rain the police had decided to shut down the road. The mountains here were extremely high and snow-capped, and the terrain was so rocky and bare of vegetation it’s amazing that they can still manage to grow grapes in these high valleys. When we got to the town of Pisco Elqui, it was easy to see why everyone recommended we stay a night there. It is literally perched on the side of a mountain, overlooking fields of grape vines under some of the clearest skies in the world. We went horseback riding in the Andes with our guide, Ramon, did a short walk through a pisco distillery, and did some shopping in the shops that sold bracelets, copper earrings, and other knick knacks made by local artists. The highlight of Elqui Valley, though, was the astrotour. We went even deeper into the valley, nearly to the end of the road, and learned about the southern hemisphere’s night sky while seeing everything up close with a telescope. We saw the southern cross, a constellation not visible in the northern hemisphere, the llama figure outlined in the Milky Way, galaxies, star clusters, and the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn (with rings!!). We could even see three of Jupiter’s moons from the telescope. The sky is so clear and the stars so bright that we saw the night sky in a completely new way. Our guides had worked in an observatory for 4 years before buying their own telescope and starting their own tours so it was a really great experience.
The next day as we left Elqui Valley, we decided to take a different road back south instead of taking the same road back. It was really amazing to drive up and around through the sun scorched mountains through the cactus and rocks. Every once in a while we would drive past a small farm but other than that we didn’t see any other signs of life in this desert, except the occasional goat. As we learned from Angelica, a woman who we gave a lift into town told us, almost everyone in this area has goats. She told us about the wildlife in the mountains: coyotes, snakes, spiders, and pumas. After we dropped her off in Hurtado, we slowly wound our way out of the Rio Hurtado valley to the southwest to our next destination: Termas de Socos. We stayed that night in a hot springs resort about 40 minutes outside of the city of Ovalle. It was a very neat place, but almost creepy because the huge old hotel and cabins were nearly vacant. We had our own cabin near the top of the hill and the hot springs consisted of a building of tiny rooms, each with a bathtub, where they pumped the mineral-rich water from the earth so guests can enjoy a hot mineral bath. Kami and I shared a tub and were a little skeptical at first with regard to sanitation, but the hot bath felt nice in the cool night.
The following day we again drove south, to another Chilean beach town a little ways north of Valparaiso. We again decided to take back roads to see more of the country, but this time the heavy storms the week before soiled our plan. After driving for a while on gravel roads we reached a point where we had gone in a circle. Luckily there were lots of construction workers nearby who told us that the road south was dangerous to drive on and no one had tried it since the storms last week. We reluctantly turned around and backtracked to take the interstate, but my mom was much more content knowing we would be on a paved road with traffic rather than on a deserted gravel road. We arrived in the beach town of Zapallar in time to explore the coast and see the sunset on the water. Having the beach all to ourselves was a little strange, and we wondered how crowded this city was during the summer months. We slept well after a very tasty pasta dinner at the hotel. The following day we drove south again along the coast, skirted around Santiago to avoid traffic, and then one more hour south to see the city of Rancagua and do a little hiking in the Reserva Nacional de Los Cipreses nearby. The Reserve was tucked away in a sprawling valley carved by a raging mountain river. While we didn’t see any llamas or other wildlife, we did see lots of unique plants and many streams and rushing rivers.
The last day of the road trip was spent back in Santiago getting souvenirs and having one last lunch together before my family had to go back to the airport. Overall, my parents and sister were extremely happy to have had this experience, with the different culture and language it is a very different place than Gwinner, ND. Driving proved a little more difficult than in the states, as signs were literally nonexistent in smaller cities and towns and we got lost trying to get through a town more than once. The food was always excellent, but the beer was alright at best. They have better beer in southern Chile, as I mentioned in a previous post. I am very glad to have gotten to see so much of Chile and to spend time with my family. Even though it was a little tiring being the only person to communicate (i.e. order food, ask for directions, read signs, etc), I am relieved that I have learned enough to be able to get around without trouble!