Chile Travel — 25 April 2011

East of Santiago are the white sand beaches of Viña del Mar. With its music festival and casino Viña is a big city, so if you want to avoid crowds go further north to Quintero. But if you are a young person and you want to leer at the women in bikinis or perhaps bed one of them–or maybe you are an old person wanting to do the same–then Viña del Mar is the place for carousing. There Argentine beauties decamp en masse to escape the heat of Mendoza and to preen for one another and their friends on Facebook. Of course there are lots of Chilean beauties too with their jet black hair, white or copper colored skin, and legacy of the Spanish and Mapuche races etched onto their faces. (Peruvians for example descend from the Incas and Mexicans from the Mayans. You can readily see the difference.)

To the south of Viña are the beaches of Algorobbo, Las Cruces, and the port city of San Antonio. But these are close to Santiago so while Chile–with its 4,000 miles of coastline can never be considered “crowded”–if you want to escape to something more rural and perhaps more exotic go two hours south to black sands of Pichilemu and the towering surf of Punta de Lobos.

Take a look at a map of Chile between San Antonio and Pichelemu–and for that matter to the north of Zapallar as well—and you would see there is much coastline with absolutely no towns, no roads, and no houses. Why is this so? It must be that these stretches of rock and sand offer no safe harbor for fishing boats so no town has developed around the same. A corollary to that idea might be these beaches might be too dangerous for swimming. Many beaches even in the populated areas will say “este playa no es apte for el baño” meaning don’t swim there if you don’t want to be dashed to pieces on the rocks. Chileans call beaches which are suitable for swimming “balnearios”.

So it was for Easter Weekend—called “Semana Santa” in Spanish—that my girlfriend and I headed with her mother, her teenage brother, and her three kids to Pichilemu in my father-in-law’s car. My relations here can only be classified as “poor” which is reflected in their auto. I don’t own a car here yet so we headed south of Santiago in my father in law’s ancient car with its cracked windshield, its dashboard lights that don’t illuminate, its tires which wobble badly at slow speeds, and arriving overloaded with 7 passengers. No one in the USA would pile 7 people to a car, but here in South America where gas costs $6USD per gallon and tolls are $4 or more such overcrowding would not draw stares. However it did draw the attention of the carabineros (police) who pulled me over and said I had one passenger too many. “No worries”, we said. Our son would return home by bus. After chastising me for not carrying my passport he let us on our way.

This was only one of our adventures en route. The road to Pichilemu is well marked here but still I missed the first turnoff from the Autopista del Sol to Melipilla. So I found myself in a small town with no signs telling me how to get back onto the highway. So as we normally do we asked directions. I think my girlfriend makes the same mistake I used to make until I learned to listen more carefully. That is she asks one person then does not listen carefully to what they say so she has to ask another. I let her talk with the natives—I just drive. So after turning this way and that across roads with no pavement we asked one last fellow, “How do we get to Pichilemu?” This fellow was drunk but not menacingly so as he might have been in the States. He was funny as he talked for 10 minutes repeating the same thing over and over until I drove off with him fairly clinging to the door. The kids in the back took a break from fighting to laugh at the same.

The beach was great was great of course with lots of surfers and freezing water which can only be enjoyed with a neoprene wet suit. Despite warnings from my girlfriend that the ground here was still rumbling from the earthquake and that there was much wind I had selected this beach in part to research where to buy a house having visited many other towns up and down the coast. Here in Chile you can buy a house right on the beach or two blocks away with a view for $50,000. The real estate ads invariably say there is one house with room to build two more so that you can fill your lot with bungalows and rent them to tourists. There is not much construction in many of these lower-priced wooden structures with no insulation, no central heat, no air conditioning. Such extravagance is not needed in a country where the vast Pacific Ocean regulates the temperature and the cost of natural gas and electricity means most people bundle up indoors. If the temperature outside is 45 degrees when you arrive at your beach house then it will be 45 degrees inside as well there being nothing between the weather and the inhabitants but simple plyboard.

Coming back to Santiago we had our second adventure when someone on the highway waved at me some 30 kilometres short of the city. I thought that we had a flat tire or one of the lights was not working. So I pulled into the Copec service station and climbed out to take a look. Nothing was wrong. Back in the vehicle I put the car in gear to the sound of metal grinding on metal. By mother-in-law got out of the car in time to see a ball bearing rolling across the parking lot. Of course the kids were still fighting adding to the stress as we realized the transmission had failed. It was much luck it failed here and not on the open road. Still the highway was crowded with vacationers returning to Santiago with no bus, no taxi, and no hope or rescue in sight. But the father-in-law had not come with us—he works two jobs—so he borrowed a car and then drove us home. I offered to pay for a wrecker but he said he would return the next day with a rope and a friend and tow the vehicle home


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