Sunday, January 12, 2003

Chilean reunions

Welcome 2003!

It has been awhile since I have found the time to sit and write. The past 2 weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, visiting friends and family before saying goodbye to Chile. Here is a catch-up on our most recent adventures...

La Serena is a beautiful coastal town, with familiar San Francisco-like fog in the morning, that burns off by noon to a more Southern California-type day. With time to spare before a reunion with Chris White, an old coworker from Airtreks, Dan and I opted to explore the Elqui Valley. It was the day before New Years Eve, when most of the tours would not be operating during the holiday festivities, so we were manipulated into taking a VERY expensive chauffeured/guided private tour. 'This was our LAST chance!' - a sales technique that worked well on me.

We left the scent of the ocean, heading due east toward the Andes, passing through three 'altitude' levels of the Elqui Valley. We visited papaya and cherimoya plantations. La Serena is famous for it's papayas which are nothing like the tropical fruit we are familiar with. First, the smaller fruit must be boiled before it is edible. It is then preserved in small jars, and is eaten much the way a canned peach is. They also make a deliciously sweet fruit juice out of it, which can be mixed with pisco to create a La Serena Libre cocktail. Papaya bushes that grow like trees gave way to farms of white grapes, primarily the kind that is exported to the U.S. as 'table' grapes, but also the vineyard variety which is used for the production of pisco. This unique alcohol is made of fermented, then distilled grape juice, and varies in alcoholic strength. It is a little similar to tequila. We visited the Capel distillery to learn more about the process and to sample (of course!).

The higher and further away from the coast we drove, the more scenic the journey became. The Andes mountains loomed higher and we reached the mother and father river (Turbio and Claro) of the Elqui Rio. We detoured off into a side canyon, home to a string of tiny, arts-oriented villages. Here was the home of Gabriela Mistral, a Chilean poet who won a Nobel Peace prize for her writing. The area is now home to grape farmers, artesans, and a mystical (or fanatical) crew of UFO/alien spacecraft followers.

Our final stop on the tour, and what made the cost worthwhile, was a night visit to Mamalluca, a local observatory. The night sky in this part of Chile is considered exceptional for astronomers, because the sky is extremely clear and free of clouds and rain for about 350 days out of the year. Most of the world's famous observatories are located within this region. The one we were able to visit is not used for scientific study, but is the only observatory that tourists can visit, that actually allows you to look through various telescopes at the night sky. We got a detailed 2 hour tour explaining various constellations, star clusters, and planets that are visible in the Southern hemisphere. We saw a nebula in Orion's Belt that is home to 4 new stars, and Saturn with it's rings.

We were back in La Serena at midnight, and were excited to see our friend Mr.. White. After a couple glasses of good, cheap Chilean wine, it was as if no time had passed since our year departure. Chris had rented a car, which had great advantage for exploring the area. He was interested in seeing the Elqui Valley too, so the next day we took him on a repeat tour.

That night was New Year's Eve. We we're staying at a friendly family-run hostal. The manager, Sonya, invited all guests to join them in a big asado and salad feast. At midnight we had joyous rounds of family hugging and sweet toasts with a champagne ice-cream cocktail, then hurried to the streets to watch the distant fireworks being shot from the beach lighthouse. Some of the permanent residents (students from Germany) invited us to come to a local bar/disco with them, where we drank more cervezas and pisco sours, and played a highly unskilled game of pool.

The next day required a long sleep-in, with not many people fit for an early rise. By late afternoon, we had managed to shuffle to Chris' rent-a-car, and headed to a beautiful bay beach south of Coquimbo. The water is shrieking cold, but the sun is scorching - fire and ice. This 'lazing' on the beach was a prelude to many days to come. Over the course of our time with Chris, we kept close to the ocean, sitting in sand, staring at waves, and enjoying the seafood fruits of its waters. Chile has some of the most fantastic and inexpensive shellfish and fish that I have ever eaten. We ate at a variety of establishments, from a small seaside shack in Los Vilos to a trendy, upscale restaurant in Pichilemu, and were never disappointed. Besides the well-known Chilean sea bass (corvina), served with a selection of sauces (mushroom was the best!), my favorites were the appetizers of machas (razor-back clams) stewing in a pot of cream and parmesan, and locos (abalones), deep-fried and drizzled with butter, white wine and garlic.

After recovery in La Serena, we spent a slow day journeying to Viña del Mar. Along the way, we stopped in Fray Jorge National Park, which hosts a unique cloud forest along the coastal cliffs and Los Vilos for lunch. In Vina, Chris, who was on a short-term travelers budget, decided to splash out and stay at Cap Ducal hotel, one of the oldest, nicest and most unique places. The hotel is shaped like a boat, with marine motif, and sits atop a rock base that is literally lapped by the Pacific ocean. Chris chose a top-notch room overlooking the ocean with a wooden planked balcony, which the three of us shared. We paid what little we are accustomed to, and Chris generously treated us to the difference. Perched on a wee peninsula, we had a view of Vina and Renaca to the right, and Valparaiso coast to the left - spectacular!

The next day we lunched with my Tio Osvaldo, Lina and Francisca. It was hard to say goodbye to this man who I have deep respect and love for - he was a pivotal role model for my father in his youth. At 84 years, he is still super sharp, and I do hope that we get to see each other again. ---------------------------

Chris had a standby ticket back to the states, so our stay in Vina was short. He had to try and catch a particular flight that seemed to have more space availability than the coming days. We had our last afternoon together in downtown Santiago, shopping for lapiz lazuli in Barrio Bella Vista, eating hotdogs at Dominos, riding the funicular to the top of Cerro San Cristobal for city views, and ending with a stout toast at Chris's favorite irish pub.

Dan and I were back at Rossina's house (my father's cousin) with her children Ignacio, Francisca, and Maty. Hospitable as always, it was nice to be in a familiar home. On Sunday, Alvaro (another one of my Father's cousins) invited Dan and I to spend the day with him and his family. We stopped for juicy empanadas (a local secret), played ping pong, cooled off in his pool, Dan jammed on guitars and a full drum set with Alvaro Jr. and Cristobal, singing and playing Radiohead and Doors covers, I finished my book on a comfy couch, and we snacked on olives, salami, fine cheese and crackers, with red wine. The next Monday, with Fran and Rossina at work, Dan and I made plans to see our Australian friend, Steph. We had met and traveled with her in Bolivia, and kept in touch over the next few months, swapping stories. Santiago was her last stop before returning to Sydney. With 2 days to spare, our timing for a reunion was perfect. We basically spent 7 hours hopping from one Providencia cafe to the next - eating lunch, sharing jugs of claris/bergonia (wine, sugar and fresh fruit), and sipping cafe.

Part 2 with Chris White.
When we next heard from Chris, it was to tell us that he missed his flight, and was hanging with a group of surfers in Pichilemu, a small coastal town about 4 hours from Santiago. This locale was on our agenda, as Dan was determined to get some more South American swells under his belt before our return. We hopped on a Tuesday bus to join our amigo, and had an excellent 2-day retreat. The town is completely different than stylish Vina del Mar with all its high-rises. Parts of Pichilemu reminded Dan and Chris of Big Sur and Santa Barbara. The town itself was more country, with dirt roads, wooden bungalows, and horse drawn carriages. The crowded beach is a popular holiday destination for Chilean families on summer vacations. The waves are renown amongst surfers and draw a mixed group of foreign wave seekers who rent cabins for a couple of months at a time to live as beach bums. We lodged at Mary Pily's residencial with an all male clientele of Canadian and Brazilian surfers. It was strange to be around so many foreigners, but so few 'backpackers'. The surf traveler is a whole different breed. Dan and Chris donned wetsuits, braved the cold water and happily tired themselves out in the ocean. I opted to lay in bed and be a bookworm. Together, we returned to Santiago, and said our second goodbyes.

Our final days have been a whirlwind of visits, last-minute errands and goodbyes. The last highlight was a day spent at the home of another distant cousin, who lives in Los Andes, a small agricultural country town, where the Allegro side of my Father's family originated. Mauricio, a cousin who stayed with my family in Los Angeles over 10 years ago, lives here and runs a company that exports dry fruits around the world. He lives in a lovely spanish colonial style home with vistas of the Andes, with his beautiful wife and 3 adorable children. Rossina drove us to his home for an Asado BBQ and a day of swimming, drinking, and resting on his shaded patio.

It is Sunday, January 12th. Exactly one year has passed since we left Los Angeles. Tonight, we are flying to Lima, where we will have 10 days in the North before returning to Cali!!! We are really looking forward to seeing everyone, and are hoping to squeeze in many visits.

much love,
Sarah and Daniel
We're working on posting the photos - give us a couple of days! and


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