Chile is like a deep, oxygen filled breath after months of struggling to maintain our yard even minimally alive in windy, dusty dry Argentine Patagonia. What a difference a mountain range can make! Cross the Andes, and it starts to drizzle, and the green becomes dense. Everything must grow here, I figure. Luis shakes his head in envy, "lucky Chileans," he mutters. But Chile has more than enviable vegetation: they´ve got nice highways, with clear signs and brightly painted lines. Lovely homes with huge, interesting windows dot the landscape. Service stations are bright, clean, and there’s toilet paper in every stall. And the food. . . . a plate of seafood is what, like, $10?? (Oh, for the days of a $4 seafood plate. . .) This is NOT the Chile I know. Something is happening here.
On a trip to Chile with Luis in 1998, he and I camped quit a bit, rented rooms in family homes at times, took buses, hiked a good deal, and kept our expenses lower than $1000 for the both of us, for two months. Now ten years later, we have shed our backpack slinging, hitchhiking ways, for a whole new style: we are in a big, white, rented Ford Windstar, with enough room to accommodate our two children, my parents, lots of luggage, and all the books, maps, cameras, binoculars, crackers, toys, cherry pits, etc. that are strewn about or tucked into various corners of the vehicle. We stay in nice hotels and cabins with kitchens and bedrooms, and frequently eat at attractive little restaurants. The times, they are a-changing.
But first, a short stay in Neuquén . . . .
My parents spent three weeks with us, the first one here in Neuquen. There are a few images that will stay with me, from that short week: My mom presenting Ruben and Estela with a very lovely, colorful, Teddy-quilt. Quilts are unknown here, and Ruben and Estela knew what a treat it was. Taking my parents to meet Luis’s uncle Chiche and aunt Yolanda, who were happy and surprised to have foreign visitors. Chiche, who is a storyteller and a jokester, kept us all giggling. Meals with friends, a couple of whom spoke English. And the one memory that we got on film: the two Grandfathers changing Maite’s diaper. It only took a couple of gallons of water, two diapers, a roll of toilet paper, and a very patient granddaughter. Too funny.
Chile part 1: The Lake District
The six of us crammed into our car and drove from Neuquen to Temuco, Chile, in a long, exhausting, cramped day for the unlucky ones in the backseat. In Temuco, a busy commercial hub of 260,000, we rented the Windstar. Pretty bougeious for the likes of us, no? It is so long, we dubb it "Kittyhawk" after a U.S. Cruise Carrier. My mom has a gift for finding the guy selling cherries on the street, and there was usually a bag of them making rounds in the car.
We might be riding in style, but we like to pretend we’re in a 4 x 4. We leave Temuco and the take the back roads --very back roads-- through the stunning countryside where oxen-pulled carts along dirt roads tell a very different story than the hustle of Temuco. Chile has a growing, capitalistic economy, but the wealth hasn’t “trickled-down” to everyone quite yet. My dad works hard to snap some clandestine shots of people plodding along on their carts. Luis makes futile efforts to ask directions from people walking along the roads. Locals apparently aren’t accustomed to people who don’t know where they’re going. A couple of times we follow roads that peter out in someone’s farm. The poor ability to give directions has been a repeated theme in our various trips to Chile over the years.
On our 1998 trip to Chile, Luis and I "discovered" a fishing village, Queule, whose charms must have been too simple to warrant mention in any guidebook. Ten years later, it’s pleasures are much the same: walk along the wharf to look at the fishing boats and talk to the fisherman. In the evening we climbed up the hill to a small, tastefully decorated seafood restaurant with a view of the bay. In the morning, we bought clams from a man in a wetsuit who had just pulled in after a morning of diving. We took them back to our little cabin, steamed them up, and ate them with white wine. My dad is especially pleased with our foray to the wharf, remarking over the unexpected experiences traveling can bring.
From Queule, we travel to Valdivia, where we got: rain; Lucas "driving" the boat along the river (thanks to the helpful captain); sea lions slumping on the dock; an amazingly friendly hotel, where the cook dropped by our cabin to show Luis how to cook fresh sea urchins; a tour of a 300 year old Spanish fort; more rain.
In Puerto Montt, (no rain!) our next stop, we were surprised by the changes over the last ten year. This is a country on the move. New buildings have sprung up, there are banks and nice hotels. We take a long walk along the new, snazzy waterfront, for the kids to run and play. Puerto Montt has a large seafood and artisan’s market, which has become much, much bigger since we were last here. I understand why: a cruise liner was parked right out in front of it. Unbeknownst to us, a neighbor of my parent’s in Tucson was on that particular boat, and we bumped into her at the market. Weird.
Part 2: Chiloe Island
Chiloe is one of Chile’s poorest, most undeveloped areas, a bit backwards perhaps, famed for its superstitions and folklore. We toured the gorgeous island in our Windstar, stopping in small towns to wander around and admire their famed, simple yet elegant wooden Catholic churches. We stayed in several remote cabins, and ate loads of fresh seafood. Lucas was delighted with the various ferry rides between the islands (we poked around several of the small islands near Chiloe), and was particularly happy when the boat driver let him "drive" on an excursion to see penguins.
One of my favorite stops was the town of Chonchi, with its old rickety wooden homes. We found a little museum on the main street, a century old house with one whole floor dedicated to display tools and machines from the turn of the century. Lucas wanted to know the workings of all of them. He kept the guide very busy, with his questions and observations.
Other favorites were a remote cabin nestled into a mountain with a spectacular view of the ocean. From our porch, there were no signs of civilization; just rocky shores, an island, and the ocean. It was Thanksgiving day, and I guess the view made up for an unremarkable meal we had at the resort’s restaurant. There was a large group there for a retreat, and they got a big kick out of Lucas and Maite. Lucas brought down the house when he and my dad started dancing, and Maite was the belle of the dining hall. The next day we took a boat tour to see a penguin colony. (which is where Lucas got to drive the boat). Luis, incidentally, finds penguins a rather uninteresting bird. A common bird, for a South American.
The ongoing theme, throughout our trip, was seafood. Clams, mussels,sea urchins (plus other shell fish I can’t find words in English for) abalones, salmon, sea bass . . . We left a trail of empty shells wherever we went. We ate in nice restaurants, at eating joints in the markets, and in little holes in the wall where locals dined. Lucas and Maite liked most of what we ate, and it was particularly fun to watch Maite trying to pull the clams out of their shells with her chubby fingers.
For those of you who know my parents, you won’t be surprised to hear that my mom stitched away on pot holders whenever she could, and my dad was pretty involved in reading the Book of Daniel. Lucas and Maite explored, played, and climbed as much as is humanly possible. They liked Grammy’s willingness to read to them. They rode together in the back seat, laughing hysterically at every bump in the road. Luis kept busy as head guide and driver, maneuvering The KittyHawk around the islands and on and off ferries.
Chile part 3: Back to the mainland, and goodbye to Grammy and Uppie
Back in Temuco, we turned in the Windstar, and saw my parents’ off. They headed to Santiago, the capital, to spend a few days seeing the sights before returning to Tucson. We made tracks back to Argentina, stopping for a completo (Chilean hotdog, loaded with avocado and mayonnaise) along the way. We returned home to find our grass had turned yellow, burned by the sun. Also, we had no water. In fact, much of Neuquén was suffering water shortages. Luis and his cousin Eduardo have spent the last two days working on a new water system that will supposedly allow us to always have water. Sigh. I miss Chile already.
Chile was as gorgeous as I remember it, and, impressively, the economy is growing more than any other in South America. This country is working hard to organize and improve itself, and it shows. Likewise, it’s a comfortable place to be a tourist, although don’t count on saving any money. Food and hotel costs are approaching U.S. prices, we felt. It must be a hard place to be poor, because we were told that many salaries are somewhere between $300 -$400 a month --similar to what they are in Argentina. But Argentina is generally cheaper, and unlike Argentina, education and health are not free.
Chile gets five stars from me. Did I mention how nice Chileans are? We were treated kindly and graciously by just about everyone. See for yourself. And while you’re at it, stop by and visit us. We live just on the other side of the Andes, the parched side; no worries, though, we’re getting a new water system.
For pictures of this trip, click here