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Central Chile


On the other side of the tunnel the mountains kicked their natural beauty into full-gear. And it was immediately obvious that my climbing had ended, and moreover I was about to plummet down — fast.

But before I could punk some trucks down steep winding roads, I had to clear immigrations. And there was the problem of the $130 reciprocity fee that Chile charges US citizens upon entry into their country. Well, wonderfully, I soon learned that this fee is only leveed on US citizens arriving via an international flight, and land-based entry into the country is free of charge. ¡Yipee! After passing a very thorough inspection for fruit and vegetables, I was free (it’s best to say that you have fruit and vegetables on your immigration form even if you are pretty sure you don’t. If you say you don’t, but it turns out that you have something like peanut crumbs, you’ve got to pay a very steep fine. However, if you say you do, and you don’t have anything, then nothing happens. Just a tip…).

The plummeting commenced and continued until I’d lost 7,000ft of elevation and arrived in Los Andes, my first chilean city. The central square was immaculate and had working drinking fountains, the stores sold ginger ale (I’m a man who loves his ginger-based beverages very much), and the fields were cultivated well and responsibly. Alright, I thought, if there are abundant campgrounds like in Argentina, I’m set in a very big way.

And I don’t know about abundant, at least not where I was, but I did find a campground with toilets with seats, showers with hot water, a pond which had been developed for swimming, and my particular campsite was surrounded by streams on both sides. And it only cost $4. This was perhaps — perhaps — the finest campsite I’d been in since Cape Lookout near Tillamook, Oregon. So I spent that night wondering if I’d maybe not survived the descent down into Chile, and had in fact died and gone to heaven.

The next morning, the mystery of my survival continued as I rolled through lush wine and avocado country (40 cents a pound for Hass avocados??? 30 cents a pound for mandarin oranges??? ¡¡¡Si!!!), but was finally resolved as I hit some pretty awful traffic around the town of Quillota, with no clear alternative route around it. But before that town I’d ridden along the outskirts of a national park, through gently rolling country (the best kind of country) along quiet rual routes, so it was clear that Chile offered some really tranquil roads to ride along.

As I neared the coast, the hills started to roll more sharply and the going got pretty slow as I had to continually give way to speeding busses. But eventually I reached Viña del Mar and was struck homesick by its strong resemblance to San Francisco, a resemblance that continued into Valparaíso, the “Jewel of the Pacific”. I decided that I’d have to give this region a few days of my time to explore (as well as endure the difficult task of familiarizing myself with chilean wines).

Familiarization done, leaving Valparaíso was a very difficult task. Not only was my liver weighed down by all the fine wine, but leaving Valparaíso meant more or less riding straight up. Well I did that, and in the process my super-metabolism came back on line, and after about thirty minutes I was back in riding form.

In many places, Chile offers high-quality rural roads that head in the same general direction as the main highway. I decided that taking some of these roads, and losing track of where I was for a while, was too good a prospect to pass up. So I found myself riding through pasture, pine plantations, and fields of wild flowers in full bloom. Every now and again, I would hear the faint and distant rumble of a truck on the main highway, and think about how its exhaust and wake were not even close to affecting me. I smiled. I had water, I had food, and I had daylight until after 8pm. I didn’t have a care in the world. This is what my tour started out as, and this is what caused me to fall in love with touring in the first place.

Briefly the pasture gave way to vineyards, a town, and a junction headed back towards the coast, and more significantly, towards the house of the late poet Pablo Neruda. Being a sensitive sissy-boy, I was greatly taken by what examples of his poetry I’d encountered along the way, and was keen on seeing his museum-home.

So I took the junction, the vineyards died off and the pasture returned. The hills continued to roll and roll towards the coast, until finally I could see a bank of fog and smell the cool salty breeze of the Pacific. Strange how it smells exactly the same way down here as it does in California. And perhaps the combination of transplanted monterey cypress, eucalyptus, and sea air is exactly the same.

At any rate, I went to his home and it was closed. Dag! So, reluctantly, I rolled down the coast a little ways and shortly came across a campground just before the town of El Tabo. It had a view of the ocean, was situated in a grove of cypress, and the caretakers were a canadian and american couple. Well, that sounded perfect.

In Valparaíso, another traveler had given me his copy of “Into the Wild”. I’d seen the movie, and since some of you had drawn comparisons between him and myself, I figured I’d read the book to get a better idea of what motivated travels, and whether I felt the comparisons were fair. Until I find the right words, I’ll just say that I don’t think that what he may have been seeking and trying to fix in himself, are what I seek and have sought to repair in my own soul. I did enjoy reading the book, and it seemed to compliment the mental space I was in while reading at that campground and over the next couple of days.

I never did try to go back to Pablo Neruda’s house the next day. Sometime during the night I realized that his poetry was not tied to a place or situation, and that by giving them context, I would be taking away context from my own interpretation and understanding. So I continued south along the coast.

Around the town of Santo Domingo I took the road headed inland through strawberry fields towards Lake Rapel. En route, my chain started to come apart again as it had a habit of doing in Bolivia, but hadn’t done since. This troubled me greatly, as I thought that the chain and I had grown beyond this. I spent a lot of time ministrating to the chain, and when I was fairly sure that we’d reached an agreement, I set off for the final climb and descent to the lake.

I arrived around 7pm, and started to get anxious for a place to make camp. The first campground I came across was gorgeous, and was charging $15 for a night. So I left. The next was closed, and the following may have been closed as well. But the water ran from the taps, the location was wonderful, and the prospect of camping there for free was too good to pass up. So I pitched my tent by the lake, washed the chain grease from my hands as best as I could, then set about eating, and finally crawled into my tent after it became too dark to do anything useful outside.

The following morning I took the same rambling approach of the previous two days towards the central valley and the Panamericana. As I approached, the Andes once again came into view with their glorious snow-capped peaks, but when I finally arrived in the valley, I was confronted with 95F temperatures. I rode south for a little while, trying to make the best of it, but finally decided that I really needed to do was to head back to the coast at the next possible opportunity, and then work my way along that.

And while I’m glad I did, my legs are not at all. Before I could reach the coast, it was one more trip through wine country. This particular valley is supposedly the best region in Chile for wine, and there are train tours available to see all the wineries. But I was alone and drinking alone — even for educational purposes — has never held much appeal for me, so I forwent the train tour. Luckily in Santa Cruz, where I stopped for the day, there is a wonderful anthropology and paleontology museum focused on the development of life in Chile from Pre-Cambrian times to the present. It was extremely comprehensive, and I enjoyed every minute of the two hours I spent wandering through it.

But after that was done, I had no reason to linger in the town any longer, and so I continued my push back towards the coast. I finally arrived in the town of Bucalemu (mapuche for ‘large forest’), found a spot near the beach with a good view of the surf, and made camp.

The following morning, the road rolled out of town, and then pitched sharply upward and downward as it crossed over hills seperating the numerous river valleys. Finally, having gathered great strength from my cursing, the road pitched upward at an angle that I didn’t think possible. I took one look at that road as I approached, and thought “There’s no way in hell that I’ll be able to ride up that…”, so I got off the bike and hoofed it for about half an hour, until the grade calmed down enough to ride again.

Along the ridge I was surrounded by pine and eucalyptus plantations, and these continued for my duration along the coast. Eventually, the road started to wind around the perimeter of Lago Vichuquén, and finding a free campsite, I called it quits for the day.

And a good thing too. Apparently as I regained strength, so did the road. The grade out of town could only be summited by forestry equipment, and I walked the bike uphill once more. Eventually I reached the crest of the hill, and the road followed that for a while until finally it got near enough to the coast that it decided to plumment downward at the same rediculous angle. I rode down this, and at one point I tried to stop to take a picture. I found that the combination of loose dirt road and demonic grades were too much of a match for my brakes, and stopping proved impossible.

Well, that troubled me greatly while I was descending, but I made it to the bottom safe and quickly tried to put the whole experience out of my mind. And that wasn’t so hard to do either. For the rest of the day, the road was more or less gentle rolling along the coast. I stopped on the beach a few times to picnic, and finally finished the day in Constitución, a city known for its cellulose plant and also as the place where the original Chilean constitution was signed.

After the beaten that I’d received at the hand of the road near Lago Vichuquén, I started to think that I’d rather sweat from the heat, rather than from that torture, and so I resolved that if the road started to get stupid again, I’d take the next chance to head back inland that came my way. That day it never did, and the scenery was still just as lovely as it had been the past few days. But all the same, I was starting to get tired of exclaiming “This is just like California!” every few miles, and after a restful night in the Chanco National Reserve, I knew it was time to head back inland.

And that was a excellent idea. When the Andes finally came into view, gone was the grandeur of Aconcagua, but in its place had arrived snow-capped volcanoes. In my first few of the Andes, I saw about three giant peaks, with a fourth view opening up towards the south. Also, just before my arrival in the town of Chillán I left what Chileans consider to be the central part of their country, and had entered the south. Soon come the lakes…

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