It’s all round & round, up & down. Why go that way?
We had a wonderful time exploring the mountains , rivers and lakes of Argentina, but we needed to return to Santiago to collect Juergen’s new passport. After completing the border formalities on the Chile side of the Cristo Redentor tunnel, we were happy to make our way downhill again. I had heard about the road down, but it had to be experienced to be believed. It has almost 40 curves, most of them complete hairpins (switchbacks), and when I was on the outside of the road I could look straight down on it, zigzagging below me, since there are NO guardrails to block the view! It is a magnificent feat of engineering but also a little scary. I wasn’t sorry to reach the bottom, but did manage some photos on the way down…
We stayed overnight in Los Andes and drove into Santiago the next day – exactly a year since I arrived there in 2014 looking for work as an English teacher. The drive was pleasant but the scenery along this route is dry and desolate, and not very interesting – occasional vineyards or orchards add some green, but all in all, uninspiring. We arrived at 5pm – our ‘home’ parking lot in Santiago was just as always, and we settled right in. There are bright lights, so the eye mask must be found, and noise, so the fantastic fan runs all night. And sometimes there are annoying disturbances, but for a city parking spot it works for us.
We realised that this would probably be our last time in Santiago so we set about doing the things we needed to do and wanted to do, and discovered a couple of new gems along the way. We didn’t know how long we would be there, but we didn’t want to stay too long – we feel like we have experienced Santiago to saturation point. So, we collected the passport – no hassles; we researched and bought a new camera – my Panasonic point-and-shoot (bought Dec 2007 in Panama City) had been leaving unsightly blobs on otherwise good photos for some time, so I am now the happy owner of a Nikon Coolpix L610; we wanted to visit Tirso de Molina market once more to buy cheese – managed; and I wanted to visit Vitacura English to say goodbye to Andrew and Stuart – I arrived back in Santiago just in time because Andrew was leaving the next day for 3 weeks, visiting family in Europe!
Mo’s Gelateria was also on my list. I had discovered this ice cream shop very early in my time in Santiago. Somehow, all my ice cream experiences since then are compared to Mo’s, and I have yet to find better. We also discovered the Tortilla Factory for a great lunch, near Alto Las Condes shopping mall, where we were researching cameras. When we went to the embassy to get the passport we found Paul’s right next door, and bought excellent bread. It was newly opened – we are just sorry it wasn’t around a year earlier!
Leaving Santiago a few days later, I was excited because I felt like I had now completed my time there, and everything ahead would be new. Our plans were rather vague, although that is the norm for us! We would drive north towards La Serena and look for a place where I could teach English and we might want to stay for a while. First we made an unexpected return to Valparaiso, because it was sort of ‘on the way’, spending an enjoyable afternoon wandering areas we hadn’t seen before, and collecting more photos of the amazing architecture and street art this city has to offer.
Then we retraced our steps north along the coast and spent a restful time at the property of a German man Juergen knew in Maitencillo. We did some maintenance on the truck and camper, caught up with some computer work and just relaxed in a quiet and welcoming environment. It is something that is sometimes needed when you travel like we do.
We left there and took an inland route to La Serena from La Ligua, along roads we hadn’t travelled before. Immediately leaving La Ligua, we were climbing up along a serpentine road into the mountains again, and then down the other side to the Petorca river valley, which we followed to the town of Pedegua. Somehow mountains and rivers are a defining part of our journey at the moment, but the mountains are relatively featureless after those in Argentina, and this particular river valley was almost dry. The usually lush farming areas, that we were used to, were replaced by orchards full of dead or dying trees and houses that often looked deserted.
We crossed the dry riverbed on a narrow bridge which Juergen thought must have been an old railway bridge. Soon we discovered that the road we had chosen was built on an old railway corridor. Initially it was a fantastic paved road, rising steadily up into the mountains. We started to see a lot of cactus, some of which had beautiful red flowers. A little higher and we discovered an old acquaintance – the Palma Chilena – those massive beauties we had first met last year in La Campana national park . It was nice to see this ‘vulnerable’ palm in its natural habitat.
Our road map showed that we would go through a tunnel, but we hadn’t realised it would be an old railroad tunnel, 4.5m high and 3m wide, dirt floor and rough-hewn stone walls. After Tunel Las Palmas, the road started down again, but unpaved and very corrugated. That it followed an old railway line soon became obvious as it passed through very narrow cuttings, and all the bridges were also narrow. Fortunately we met the few oncoming vehicles away from either of these impossible places. We saw a few more palms but, as soon as we descended a bit, they were gone again. However, the cactus covering the mountainsides have stayed with us.
Shortly before Caimanes we reached pavement again – it was still narrow and following the old railroad, but at least the dirt was behind us… While we enjoyed the experiences of this unusual road, we decided there and then that we were not going to drive any more unpaved roads on the way to La Serena, so we turned west towards Cavilolen following a river valley, then up and down again to Las Cañas, and along a river valley north to Illapel – not that the river valleys have less winding roads than going up and down over mountains!
The road from there took us in a north-westerly direction up and down to a small village called Los Pozos and then up again in a north-easterly direction. As we were coming down again towards Combarbala we suddenly saw the most amazing ‘real mountains’ – the massive Andes came into view behind the ‘hills’ we had been driving over, which also became more rugged and colourful than previously, and hence more interesting. Some of the vastness we had experienced in Argentina became evident here on the Chilean side.
From Combarbala we left the high mountains behind and mostly followed river valleys to Monte Patria and then on to Ovalle. All the way on this trip we had hoped to find a nice place to stop for a few days – by water, a bit of grass, some shady trees – but it seems we were in the wrong part of Chile for that… Instead we drove through river valleys with dry river beds and failing agriculture. Then up over a mountain to the next dry valley. We were a bit confused because we would see agriculture like vineyards that had failed – obviously due to lack of water – and then right beside them new vineyards being set up at great expense. Sometimes also an established vineyard that seemed to have an adequate supply of water, although where it came from was not evident. Even the huge Embalse La Paloma near Monte Patria was almost empty, although the Rio Grande that we followed to Ovalle did have a little water in it. We were in the Limari province of the Coquimbo region and later discovered that this particular province is one of the worst affected by the current drought which is gripping Chile . From Ovalle to La Serena it is mostly relatively flat and, as we got closer to La Serena, there was a lot of agriculture – mostly vegetables. We don’t know where their water comes from, but it’s certainly not from the south.
We arrived in La Serena 4 days after leaving Maitencillo – according to our navigation apps it would take just over 6½ hours on Ruta 5. We chose the roads less travelled, as usual, and had hoped to take a little longer and stay a couple of days or so in a nice place. However, we were not particularly over-awed by the landscape that we drove through, and never did find that spot. We were rather a little saddened by the plight of the people who are suffering such a long drought.