To the Coast

Part of the fun of travelling abroad is discovering there are national holidays you have never heard of. Fiestas Patrias (Independence Day) in Chile was one of those days for us. Ordinarily we are only too happy to join in on any national fervor sweeping a country but when the celebrations coincide with the day we selected to take a 2.5 hour bus trip, our enthusiasm wavers. In this instance we learned the hard way that people in Santiago love to spend their long weekend on the coast, splashing in the ocean, dining on fresh seafood and celebrating the end of winter and enjoying the earliest days of spring.

We had read and been told countless times that Chile was the easiest country in South America to travel in because of its extensive, well built highways and modern, affordable bus services. We had also been told that you almost never needed to book tickets ahead of time. Almost never. There are over 30 buses scheduled daily between Santiago and Pichilemu, many of them at excellent and convenient departure times such as 11am or 1pm. The very last four tickets we were able to acquire two days before our travel date was 6:10am. Now some of you might remember from an earlier post that not all members of our travel party are at their best when woken at 4:45. Unfortunately this is exactly what we had to do in order to cart our roving possessions down into the darkness to flag a taxi and dash to our bus. We opted to avoid the metro despite it being easy to use, affordable and with a conveniently located station right at the bus terminal. The thought of lugging our many bags up and down multiple sets of stairs onto bustling platforms and over the feet of busy commuters overcame our desire to save on taxi fare. Also, given our familial aversion to dawn outings and the gruesome appearance such early rising induces, it was wise to shun public places to avoid being confused with a herd of zombies looking for their next blood meal.

In the end, we had no trouble finding a ride to the terminal and spent most of the sold-out bus trip snoring and pooling saliva on the vehicle’s nice upholstery. We eventually arrived in Pichilemu blinking in the mid morning sunlight hoping that our host was on scene to get us to our new place. It only took Carlos a few moments to sort out that the bedraggled looking crew last to emerge from the bus were his new tenants. He greeted us warmly and quickly got us aboard his roomy 4X4 to whisk us a few minutes down the road to his very well run Cybersurf cabana.

Pichilemu is primarily a surf town, world famous for its large and powerful waves. The coastal geomorphology consists of long, shallow approaches to shore, ensuring mounting and roaring ocean fury. This draws in surfing maniacs in big numbers. This mix of local and international thrill seekers spend whole days clad in full body wetsuits, precariously balancing flimsy looking boards on newly arrived, desperately cold, antarctic waters. Even the most adept eventually experience massive wipeouts into the crashing, bewildering foam, working hard to avoid near by rocks and to escape the relentless undertow. We couldn’t wait to try!    

Carlos and his partner Romy were excellent hosts and showed us great hospitality throughout our almost three week stay in their guest house. They had an interesting past which they shared with us in perfect English acquired while working in the US for the better part of decade. They were worldly and really understood what we were doing with our family trip and the value of travel. Turns out they were huge Italy fans having learned to speak the language during their many visits. Rome was their favourite city in the world and given how many countries they had visited, including most of South America, much of Europe, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Russia their evaluation was hard to argue with. They were inspirational and got us even more excited about what lay ahead for us in our trip. They also patiently answered our many questions, attempted to guide us through the multi-angular and thus dazzling difficult-to-navigate streets of town and offered great advice on things to see and do. For example, the day after our arrival was Republic day and Carlos suggested we head downtown to check out the celebrations. We were glad we did as the small town came alive in robust flag waving commemoration of the nation’s road to hard fought independence from colonial Spain. Though the desire for self determination was declared on September 18, 1810, it took many years of struggle and countless lives to eventually throw off the royalty. It was this mid-month declaration date that has gone on to historical significance though, and it was on this day that we found ourselves visiting the country these 207 years later.

The big event was a parade down the main street, ending at the small square situated near the beach. What a fun event to witness! Every constituency of the community was represented in the parade, from nursery schools all the way up to a brigade of fire-fighters accompanied by their wailing engines. Even the local surfer school made an appearance and it was amusing to see a band surfer dudes strolling up the street carrying their boards, followed by a group of traditionally dressed dancers, sashaying their way forward. It was a varied and attractive mix of all of the town’s cultural quarters. All of the parade participants were dressed either formally in suits and skirts or traditionally in wide, richly coloured floral dresses and vividly patterned ponchos (known as chamantos). We really enjoyed the simple joy these public displays of patriotic pleasure produced in those on marching and in those, like us, lining the route waving red, white and blue spinners. All of those on parade waved and marched in solidarity with their fellow citizens, rightly taking pride in the success of Chile past and present, unhindered as it is from the many maladies that seem to periodically befall many of their continental neighbours. They have a growing economy, respected democratic institutions and unique and rich cultural traditions. This is a place well worth a visit and we felt very grateful to see a bit of it first hand on this important day.

Having only a single day off a week from their thriving small business, we were very happy to accept a generous offer from Carlos and Romy one fine Sunday afternoon. They spent the whole day taking us to see some of the stunning local landscapes; massive cliffs home to rare cacti clinging to a precarious layer of undetectable nutrient, a commercially productive salt lake, and low lying farmlands tucked away down twisting country tracks. One of the surprise highlights of the tour was witnessing a small herd of cattle, grazing on the sparse grasses of a tiny island about 30 metres into a shallow, briny lake. In fact the dozen or so animals appeared to have only about one square metre each and the theatre of them happily huddled together in the middle of the open water induced wide smiles but the scene was made all the more amusing considering the effort they must have expended swimming, presumably in an orderly row, to such a paltry nirvana. The other really enjoyable and unexpected pleasure from our outing was stopping at the home of an elderly horticulturalist who lived some distance from town. As a means of supplementing her income, she grew and sold flowering plants and edible herbs, lovingly raised in massive abundance on her modest sized property. She graciously allowed us to roam around her densely populated yard to enjoy gazing at verdant and lush examples of fruiting trees, intertwining vines, and raised beds featuring fragrant flowers, sporting petals of intricate shape and design in a visually rewarding swath of colour. Plus she made tasty jam. We consumed that jam like it was nobody’s business.

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