This post was originally an email sent to our friends and family during our travels in South America Nov 2004-Feb 2005- please see the "The next big adventure.... and the previous one..." thread in The Dual Sport Zone for more details...
Enjoying the amenities in Middle Chile-Dec 31/04
Last left off in Vallenar, which is about the southern end of the Atacama Desert. We were about ready to get out of the desert too. We didn't notice it, but as soon as we drove through La Serena, a city with some green in it, our spirits lifted. We continued to Los Villos, on the ocean, where we rented a cabana with a full view of the bay and a kitchenette. Hadn't planned on cooking our own food, but we happened to stroll through this fairly small town and find a sizable supermarket. We hadn't seen a supermarket like you find at home since Metro (a really great supermarket that we only saw in Lima, over a month ago), and we went crazy! Familiar food - ravioli and bolognese sauce with Parmesan cheese and beer and wine (sold in the grocery store - this is true convenience) and cookies and yogurt and cheese and crackers. That was a good night and I even wanted to stay there through Xmas, just so we wouldn't have to eat out, but we went on to Vina del Mar, a beach town outside of Santiago.
Ocean front cabana
Now, in Northern Chile, you can basically travel South or North on good roads and there aren't too many choices to make beyond how far you want to travel, but as you get closer to Santiago, there are more people and more options in terms of highways. We were able to get off the PanAmerican and travel some smaller highways off the beaten path a bit, but still paved. The highway along the ocean towards Vina del Mar travels through a bunch of ocean front towns, some of which are quite ritzy.
It reminded me of driving the old Marine Drive through West Van. The ocean here is stunning - bright blue, surf crashing on the beach and the day (Christmas Eve) was beautiful and clear and hot. A very nice day to travel this road. We arrived in Vina to find they have... McDonalds!!!! We both scarfed down Big Mac meals in record time. Gotta hand it to McDs- they have excellent quality control worldwide. Hard to tell the difference between a Chilean Big Mac and a Canadian one.... I think this is why we had been craving it, even though we rarely eat McDs at home, we were mostly craving something familiar.
We found a place in Vina but I was kinda blue being away from family at Christmas time, so we had to go out and drink beers, which reminded me of being home for the holidays and we chatted with a couple of families, one from the US and another from Scotland who we met. Scott also stocked up on empanadas and goodies since we weren't sure how much would be open on Christmas day. We slept in until noon on Christmas day and if anything was closed for Christmas, it must have been in the am only because all the restaurants, anything on the beachfront was open and the place was hopping. We had planned to do motorbike maintenance on Christmas day but ended up spending the most of the afternoon on the beach with the rest of the city - it was a perfect day. We finally dragged ourselves off the beach (mostly because we were too thirsty) and found some oil and started working on the bikes. We managed to get oil changed out of the KLR and adjust the valves on the DR, but started running out of daylight. We cleaned up and headed out for Mexican food with a couple of guys we met on the beach - one Aussie from Melbourne, one German - they work for an international freighting company in a Chilean branch. They had just been transferred to the office and we couldn't help but think what a great opportunity it would be to be transferred to Santiago. This part of Chile is really quite similar to being in Vancouver, with beaches and mountains all within reach and plenty of infrastructure to be comfortable.
We arrived the next day in Talca to get word of what had happened with the tsunami in SE Asia. First we heard 6,000 people dead and that was already quite shocking. We couldn't quite drag ourselves away from CNN the next morning and stayed another day, and managed to get some laundry done and finish bike maintenance too (DR oil change and change KLR spark plug). The people at the hostel we stayed at were very nice - Scott needed a 13/16 socket to get his drain plug out and the owner of the hotel, who couldn't speak any English, just pulled out his huge tool box and left it open for us to use what we needed. According to his son (who spoke pretty good English), his father was a bit of a backyard mechanic and watched the whole process with great interest, every time another part came off the bike, he was right there, checking it all out. Scott speaks no Spanish and the guy spoke no English, but Scott showed him what he was doing all through the process and there was no miscommunication.
From Talca, we headed for Concepcion, again via the backroad highways. We got a slow start that day, again with the CNN. Scott sniffed out an amazing vegetarian restaurant in Concepcion - amazing because it is really out of context with everything else here - they love their carne!! The next day, we ended up in a small town around 2pm and we were starving (you know, because of no meat for dinner the night before - I don't know how you veg heads can survive). This time Scott located a great place filled with locals. In SA, lunch is usually the big meal of the day, followed by siesta, out of necessity since the meal is usually a huge chunk of meat. And the restaurants for locals don't have una carta (in English, a menu), they serve a menu (in English, a set meal, with some options to vary the starch - you can either have potatoes or rice). But these meals are fresh and hot and this one did not disappoint. Dessert was a big bowl of fresh, ripe, juicy black cherries. Really unbelievable produce here (we had fresh peas and raspberries yesterday). We pressed on to Villarricca (difficult to do after a meal like that, without the siesta), where we are staying up in another cute cabana with kitchenette.
loving the cabanas and cooking our own food!
Villarrica is on the shores of Lago Villarrica, near Volcan Villarrica, and 25 km down the lake from Pucon, one of the most touristed places in Chile. We visited Pucon yesterday afternoon and also rode up to the base of the volcano (which they ski on in Winter), but it was a bit overcast so we are going to try again today, earlier in the day because it looks like the view would be amazing and the ride up is nice (although we did it 2-up on the DR yesterday and that was less fun).
We have been really able to take it easy this past week - this area of Chile is so similar to being in Canada, both in terms of the nature around us and the amenities available (like bank machines everywhere). It is nice and comfortable but starting to get a bit boring. However, we are getting ready to head back into the wilds soon. We will go to the Island of Chiloe in the next day or 2 and from there, take a 7 hour ferry ride to the start of the Carretera Austral, which is supposed to be a beautiful route on surfaced dirt roads and beyond that, Ruta 40 in Argentinian Patagonia awaits. Tonight, there are supposed to be some fireworks on the lake here in Villarrica, and we'll see what happens beyond that. I'll try to stay up until 5 am to have a drink with all the BC folk, but it might be easier if you all could have a drink for us at 7 pm, when it is midnight here.
We miss you all and are thankful for this past year. Thinking of friends and family and thankful to be travelling South America and not South East Asia this time around. We last heard that death count was over 120,000. This is truly unbelievable and difficult to comprehend. Seeing some of the footage on CNN reminds me of watching the attacks on New York, only this was yet another tragic natural disaster, and it seems to make it harder to accept when there is no one to blame. Happy New Year to you all from us both. Have a safe one.
Scott and Pam