Wandering in America del Sur

Travel time: July 2005 - March 2006  |  by Allison Webb

Just in the Nick of Time

Passport in hand, and appreciating it just a little more than usual, Nadia and I make our way to the airport - yet again, and funnily I must be getting used to this country because getting off on the side of the highway and jumping into a waiting cab under tarp with the sign $3500 to the airport posted on it doesn't seem the least bit strange anymore! Although the taxi drivers do look a little surprised to see us foreigners looking totally at ease with their system!

This time, for a change, we are flying domestically, to the north, but not the real, far north, but the "little North" "chico Norte" as its called to explore another part of this amazing country and give Nadia a different perspective on America del Sur than the shopping extravaganza and food extraordinaire of Buenos Aires, the beautiful coastline of Vina and the elevators and fading old grandeur of Valparaiso. And following the mighty Andes I could see immediately that things were a lot different as the landscape changed from green to arid desert landscape.

Emerged from the plane feeling parched and the feeling never completely went away. Grabbed a taxi to our hostel and settled in before heading out to explore La Serena, home to about 300,000 people and clearly developing. It had such an obviously different vibe to it than Vina and Valparaiso - much quieter and slower paced not to mention cleaner. The people were much more openly friendly as well. It is Chile's second oldest city and full of neocolonial architecture and old churches dating from the early 1600s which make it a wonderful place to just stroll. And since it is small and compact it's manageable in a few hours and after that you can just sit in the Plaza des Armas and watch what Chileans do best - public displays of affection! It's everywhere and all ages participate. Definitely different ... And when you tire of that you can turn down all the gypsies offering to tell your fortune in Spanish which you won't understand anyway.

And after that you can stroll 45 minutes down to the beach where the wind blows ferociously and swimming is forbidden, but the solitude is paradise and you soak in the smell of the salt and surf and feel your hair being wind blown and know you are ready for another adventure.

And the next day it starts as we head out with a little more intrepidation than excitement, to the car rental place for my first drive on Chilean soil. The roads in Vina and Valparaiso have done nothing, but instilled a real sense of fear of the drivers here. Crazy is putting it mildly, but I have hope for the north and the small towns. And with a few false starts on the new brakes where I nearly put Nadia through the window, we are off on the open road and it really is! Only a few minutes outside the town limits, we are in almost complete solitude.

We drive through this mountain pass with twists and hairpin turns and promise that we'll be back before dark and then the road straightens as we are in the desert and head to north on the Route 5 to Vallenar and Llanos de Challe National Park. Now this is not a popular destination because no one seems to know about this place, but it was in my Chilean guidebook so we had decided to check it out and see something different. What we had not expected was the solitude. After Vallenar - two and a half hours north - we took the road less taken, a secondary road into the desert and towards the coast where we didn't see another car going our way the entire time to the coast! Our own company was the desert flowers, and the incredible cactus of all shapes and types stretching out to meet the sky by the side of the dirt road and growing on all the foothills. And then, luckily, there were herds of guanacos (same family as llamas, but more delicate), leaping across the road and meeting our stares by shyly scampering away, but staying just long enough for a photograph with my telephoto lense.

Reaching the coast where the road got a little rougher, the coastline was spectacular, not only were there pristine beaches, but the sand was pure, crystalline white and the water dark blue. I longed to jump in, but knew it was too cold. We encountered a detour and then with Nadia in command, began to display our dune buggy skills as the detour track was so close to the beach that the sand covered every inch. Without saying anything we both imagined being stuck there all night! But fortunately skill prevailed and Nadia got us out of there and through a circle route back thru the town of Huasco Bajo and its olive groves to Vallenar, the gas station, the bathroom and a little stand to purchase a little of the famous olive oil of the region before we headed back south to La Serena. New word of the day at the gas station "full", yes it's the same in Chilean Spanish!

Naturally we realized that we would be driving in the dark long ago and had decided to follow trucks which will all their lights would be easy to see and would drive slower through the mountains. It all worked like clockwork and around 9pm we arrived back in La Serena and negotiated our way through the one way streets to our hostal. Yea!

The next morning, feeling just a little more confident, we left for the Elqui Valley and for some chilling out time. The Valle de Elqui is famous for two things: being home of the Nobel Prize winning author, Gabriela Mistral and for the grapes that it grows to produce almost all of the pisco in the country. Pisco to the uninitiated is the brandy wine used to make the national drink, the pisco sour, a potent concoction which will knock your socks off!

The drive was easy, a great road, beautiful scenery as we stayed in the mountain valley - elevation around 1800m, but the Andes surrounded us on all sides. A verdant green lake followed us as we wove around its shores. The sun was hot and the temperature noticeably warmer than La Serena as we changed to flipflops and stripped down for the drive. Stopped in Vicuna, a small town to check it out, provision ourselves with ice cream including avocado flavour (good! who knew?!) before driving to the famous Capel pisco plant for a free tour and samples. After all, you can't leave Chile, I told Nadia, without trying the national drink it all its forms.

Leaving Vicuna we headed to Monte Grande, Gabriela Mistral's birthplace and then to our final destination, Pisco Elqui. The scenery was spectacular and well worth the two hour drive from La Serena. Windy roads alternating between dry, burnt browns of the desert and the bright green of the grapes on the vine and always the Andes reminding us of how very small we actually were. Nothing like the world's second highest mountain range to do that.

In Pisco Elqui there was simply nothing to do, but chill out at our very cute hostel. The streets were dead and most of the stores were closed for the holiday. We were in bed and asleep early. The next day we enjoyed real coffee and sat around by the pool reading and luxuriating in the heat. Right in our vista were the Andes with their snowcaps.

Later in the day there was a lot of noise so went to check out a religious festival in full swing complete with a parade that came right by our deck and while we took photos everyone kept staring up at us instead of focusing on their own activities. Felt vaguely sacreligious to distract them so we crouched down trying to hide. The music of drums and flutes echoed in the street as the dancers and virgin statues faded away.

Were sad to leave such a beautiful place, but headed out early to get our car back before 12 in La Serena and to kill some time before heading to the airport at 4pm. The streets were quiet because of the holiday and none of the stores downtown were open at all. Took a taxi to the airport and lucked out with the sweetest driver who insisted on saying goodbye Chilean style kissing us on the cheeks.

Walked into the airport to find it deserted. Strange on a long weekend! Went up to the counter to get our boarding passes when the man working for Lan Chile told us that we had missed our flight. "Que?" I said in disbelief. What? He looked at us like we were really stupid - a look I've come to know well! I took out our itinerary which showed that the flight left at 17:15 and then he said yes and repeated it was gone. I took out my watch and showed him it was only 16:15 while repeating the time in Spanish. Finally he said to us in a kind tone that it wasn't 16:15, but 17:15 because the time had changed. Que? Cuando? What? When? On the Saturday/Sun (it was now Monday). Apparently being in the chill zone of Pisco Elqui had really taken effect, but now all the relaxation was gone in a second as we saw him simultaneously printing our boarding passes, radioing to the pilot and then he turned to us and said only his first and only word in English "RUN!"

We literally flew through the deserted terminal (did I mention that this was the last flight of the day and Nadia had a connection in a few hours in Santiago?!), through security, across the tarmac to see the pilot standing at the top of the stairs poised to meet the silly foreigners who were too stupid to know that there was a time change. Oops! The entire plane was staring at us as we ran to take our seats. A few minutes later, seat belts fastened, hearts still racing and laughing incredulously and in amazement at our luck, we taxied down the runway towards Santiago watching the incredible beauty of the Chico Norte recede in the distance.

That experience had given new meaning to "just in the nick of time", had we arrived 5 minutes later we would have missed the flight. So let this be a little warning, check the daylight savings time schedules of anywhere you're traveling because here in Chile the time change is 2 weeks earlier than in Canada. Who knew?! And if not, hope you have our luck or fill up your karma bank as we did by giving a ride to a student earlier so you have something to draw down on when you really need it and if not, remember, it'll always make a great story!

And with that little bit of excitement, I got Nadia back to the airport for her connection, unharmed, and just a little bit wiser and with lots more memories for our later years. A few bottles of Chilean wine in her carry one and she was poised to head back north while I negotiated the bus back to familiar territory of Vina - this time feeling like I was going home.

Nadia enjoying the solitude of the beach at La Serena

Nadia enjoying the solitude of the beach at La Serena

The open road, the beach and not another car to be seen!

Cactus, cactus, everywhere ...

Cactus, cactus, everywhere ...

Sampling pisco - just has to be done in the pisco valley!

Just another Sunday afternoon in Pisco Elqui

Just another Sunday afternoon in Pisco Elqui

The beauty of the Elqui Valley - see all those grapes growing!

Typical building in La Serena in the Plaza des Armas

Typical building in La Serena in the Plaza des Armas

© Allison Webb, 2005
You are here : Overview The Americas Chile Just in the Nick of Time
The trip
My trip through Peru before heading to Chile to work for 6 months and then travels afterward in South America
Start of journey: Jul 05, 2005
Duration: 8 months
End of journey: Mar 02, 2006
Travelled countries: Peru
The Author
Allison Webb is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 19 years.