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Central Chile: wine, timber, lakes & volcanoes

A note to our readers: As of this blog post (12.31.2018)  we have made the comments field of our blog  interactive, so that we  can reply to your comments. In the process, we lost visibility of your past comments (apologies!) but we really wanted to be able to interact with you all, and answer questions when they were posed, something we couldn't do with the past format. 

Getting to Chile

Our first Chilean adventure began in Peru.

With our long and oddly shaped recumbent bikes, we knew that boxing the bikes for plane flights would involve some customization, so we got three bicycle boxes from two different bike shops and went to work frankensteining them back into two. What we failed to do was design our new boxes to meet the airline's maximum baggage size requirement of 130 cm (L+W+H). Had we focused on this detail, we could have made it work, but instead our boxes measured a little over 140 cm. We figured this out as we were finishing packing them up. Since they were so close to the prescribed size, we decided to go to the airport early and seek the mercy of the airline staff - it didn't work. They absolutely couldn't take oversized packages, and told us that we'd have to take the boxes to airline cargo for shipping. They implied that this was common and straightforward. It isn't, and it wasn't. Thus began an 8-hour odyssey of taxi rides, stranger's kindness, shady middlemen, multiple notaries, and ultimately, circumstance-induced blind faith. Thank goodness our flight wasn't until 10 pm! We climbed onto the plane not knowing for sure if our bikes would even be allowed to leave the country. We arrived at our guesthouse near the Santiago airport around 4 am, and settled in to wait, which we did for 3 days as the complicated and cryptic process of "importing" our bicycles from Peru to Chile took place. It finally did, and we spent an entire morning completing the customs paperwork and retrieving our bikes. Now our adventures in Chile could really begin!


Santiago de Chile

We are lucky, because Kacia has a Chilean friend, Andrés Pirazzoli, a past co-worker and Spanish teacher now living in Santiago, who drove to the airport and picked us up with our bikes and all of our gear. We stayed with Andrés, his wife Natalia and their adorable new daughter, Carmela, for a few days, while we rebuilt our bikes, got our first tastes of Santiago, and learned how to make ceviche. Thank you, Andrés and Natalia for your wonderful hospitality, the illuminating conversations into the night, and for Carmela warming our hearts!


While in Santiago, we met our friends Jan & Rick again at the end of their trip for an afternoon in Barrio Brasil, with its funky murals and Chile's Museum of Memory and Human Rights – dedicated to documenting the extraordinary atrocities of the US-backed Augusto Pinochet regime from 1973 to 1998 and Chile's path out of dictatorship. We continue to be amazed by the recent, tragic pasts of each of the South American countries we visit, and learning a bit about how each country is making their way forward. Chile's dark period was longer than many, but also finished longer ago (in 1998), which has allowed it more time to get back on its feet. You can see this in the level of infrastructure, development, adherence to the rule of law and sizeable middle class – all are more robust than the other countries we've visited thus far.


Bicycles - feelin' the love

We got to ride in Santiago's Sunday "Ciclorecreovía" where they close down a number of the major streets in the city center for only people-powered travel. As in Medellín and Quito, where we've participated in similar festivities, it was great fun, and we on our recumbent bikes made for much amusement for the locals.


Leaving Santiago was when we really got to see how different the City's bicycle infrastructure is compared to the other South American countries we've visited. We were able to ride on dedicated bike paths out of the city for over 25 kms, where we then found that the towns in the country also had dedicated bike paths stretching throughout the region. We were ecstatic, and envious of this infrastructure that the United States has yet to invest in.


Wine country

Heading south, we entered the wine country of Chile, one of the world's biggest wine producers. We were treated to new views of the Andes (the ever-present constant of our trip), the sights and smells of spring in full bloom, and affordable, delicious Chilean wine everywhere we shopped and ate. Even the smallest tiendas have multiple shelves dedicated to a good selection of red and white wine from the region.



Santa Cruz is to the Chilean wine region what Napa is to California. We stayed just one night, but treated ourselves to a wonderful meal at the downtown institution of the Club Union Social, enjoying a bottle from a winery we rode by on our way into town with a fancy building and a very oversized field decoration. This country is into wine.

Andrés' family owns a winery in the region, Viña Pirazzoli, near the town of Lontué, which is small and nondescript, except for all of the large wineries that surround it, including one of the production centers for Concha y Toro, the largest wine producer in Latin America (and a common sight on store shelves in the USA). We went to Viña Pirazzoli and stayed for two days, hosted by Adriana, the family's longtime caretaker for the vineyard. The extensive grounds include many varieties of grapes as well as kiwis, and industrial-scale bee pollination and flood irrigation. We were treated to a private tour of the winery by Rosa María, the estate's winemaker of over 20 years, and her enthusiastic assistant, Jorge. Compared to the small wineries we're used to touring in Oregon, Viña Pirazzoli is huge. Their operation provides grapes and wine to many of the large Chilean wineries (including Concha y Toro), wineries in China (a large and growing market), as well as for their own, private-label wines – which, by the way, are delicious! We even got to taste some of the blends that Rosa María and Jorge are making right now - great fun! Thank you, Andrés, the Pirazzoli family, Adriana, Rosa María and Jorge for giving us an extra special, personal connection to Chile's wine region!


While in Lontué, we also had a challenge turn into a nice experience.

 

Clark lost his phone (it fell from an unzipped pants pocket) during a climb over a steep hill. When he rode back up the hill to retrieve it 30 mins later (he knew right where it was lost), it was gone. This was a significant setback, as all of our day-to-day trip management is accomplished on the combination of apps on our two phones. Beyond just email, web browsing and phone communications, we do navigation and route planning, guesthouse booking and follow the weather and global news on these remarkable little devices. We were resigned to buying a new one in the next city we came to, but the next day, while still at Viña Pirazzoli, we received an email telling us that the phone had been found! (We have "business cards" for our trip and each of us has placed one in our cell phone cases hoping for just such a good Samaritan!)

We hired a taxi to take us back over the hill, and exchanged a gift of chocolates and wine with Nicolas, our latest Road Angel.

In Talca we took the first of what we hope will be many significant hikes in the southern Andes. We took the public bus to the Reserva Nacional Altos de Lircay and hiked the Enladrillado ("brick pavers") trail. We raced to complete the 25 km (15.5 mile) round-trip hike before the last bus of the day. The destination is a remarkably level plateau formed by the tops of a vast number of huge basalt columns -- hence the "brick paver" name – with spectacular views of peaks and glacial valleys. We also saw a bounty of lizards, interesting plants and flowers in bloom, and even a fox, which we snuck up on as it was busy spying on a couple ahead of us on the trail.


Chile's differences

We've noticed a number of things that seem to be common to this part of Chile, and markedly different from the places that we've been in South America, thus far. A sampling includes:

Flags:

Chilean flags commonly fly outside houses, businesses, industries and country "estancias", displaying a genuine sense of national pride that we haven't seen before.


Dogs:

All properties in Chile seem to have fences, and for the first time on our trip, we found dogs contained behind those fences. Wow. They still bark at us like crazy, but now at a safe distance. Where they aren't fenced, but still "belong" to a house, we find they have a different approach to guarding their territory – they now focus on protecting their driveway (which we pass quite quickly), not their whole property line. In fact, some dogs we catch outside their fences actually run for the driveway, duck into the property, then proceed to bark at us making sure we don't come in. We can't really describe how big and welcome this change is to us, but a quick review of our "Dogs chasing Brockfolk on Bikes" video from our last blog might help you understand. Given that many dogs are “part of the family” in Chile, we are perplexed by the number of feral dogs here. The feral dogs we’ve met throughout South America are quiet and deferential, but here they are very trusting and friendly to humans. To our eyes, feral dogs seem to have a place in Chilean society that resembles that of cows in India (which we observed during our Asia cycle tour in 2001-2002) – they are tolerated but neglected. Unclaimed dogs in Chile seem to have incredible license to wander and sleep where they want, including walking into restaurants and curling up on sidewalks without getting chased away.


Memorials:

Elaborate roadside memorials pay homage to the deceased person's particular livelihood and/or passions. We found many of these to be incredibly thoughtful, detailed and intricate, making for artistic roadside surprises for us.


Difunta Correa:

In addition, we also found multiple memorials made with the recurring theme of stacks of plastic water bottles...?? We asked Andrés, and learned of the tragic legend of "Difunta Correa", a woman in the 1800s who is said to have died of thirst while still nursing her infant son, who survived. She clearly has a large number of devoted followers in Chile and Argentina.


Food:

After our fraught love-hate relationship with food in Peru, we are happy to report that the food in Chile has been consistently good. Even in small towns we can enjoy fresh empanadas, chewing carefully until after the filling’s lone olive with a pit has been discovered. In cities we find a pleasing variety of restaurant choices (interestingly, the most highly recommended are usually Peruvian). The meat is expertly cooked to order, and interesting vegetable offerings exist, including salads. As far as we know, Chile has ensured that clean drinking water exists throughout the country, even in rural areas. We rejoice in being able to eat salads again. Strangely (to us), the salad ingredients arrive separated on the plate, without dressing. Olive oil, vinegar (or fresh lemon) and salt (but not pepper) are served on the side. You then "get to" cut the vegetables to the size you like, then dress and toss your own salad. It's a bit odd, but we're super happy to be able to consistently get some vegetables into our mostly restaurant-food diet!


Bus shelters:

Bus stop shelters are common and regional. It seems like a little thing, but after 5 months and almost 4,000 kms, we're amazed with Chile's commitment to roadside shelters, and have enjoyed seeing how their styles, materials, level of finish and decorations change along our path.

 

 

We also found that bus shelters were a common place to find political graffiti. As we passed through one region, we found recurring messages of protest against the Coexca Corporation, a large pork producer in South America.


Similarities to the USA:

We've also found that life in Chile bears more similarities to life in the United States than any other Latin American country we've been to. We see industrial farming and shrink-wrapped hay bales, cookie-cutter subdivisions on the edges of communities, processed lunch meat, drivers respecting pedestrians in crosswalks, fresh-squeezed fruit juices being a luxury rather than a staple, and solar panel street lights and solar "farms" in the countryside. All this feels oddly familiar as we explore the country.


Similarities to the Pacific Northwest:

Santiago is at a similar latitude to San Francisco, so as we've worked our way south from there, we've ridden into more and more familiar landscape and climate. We're seeing a "Pacific Southwest" that is similar in many ways to our home territory of the Pacific Northwest. Rolling countryside next to foothills accented by snow-capped volcanoes, wine country interspersed with large-scale agriculture, abundant water (at least in the late springtime) and abundant greenery all stand in stark contrast to Peru's arid mountains and desert coast.


Timber country:

Our sense of familiarity increased even more as wine country transitioned to timber country (as it does in Oregon) and we started riding through second-growth forests and clearcuts with many family-scale timber operations on the roadside that are resupplied with new raw timber from a constant stream of long timber trucks that flew by us on the roads.


Here's a 5-minute video of our time in Chile's wine country:

Ripio

The roads here vary across a spectrum, with smooth pavement on one end, and sandy gravel on the other, with various states of compacted soil and loose rocks in between, making us into connoisseurs of dirt roads (referred to as “ripio” in Patagonia), good and bad, and forcing us to deflate our tires for poor roads, then re-inflate them for pavement, sometimes multiple times in one day.


Concepción

In Concepción, we took a break day to spend the morning visiting the University's art museum's special exhibit on Chilean artist Nemiso Antúnez and an amazing mural by Jorge González Camerena entitled "Presencia de América Latina", full of pre-Colombian mythology and South American imagery. Fantastic!


We spent the afternoon taking a tour of the nearby El Chiflón del Diablo ("Devil's Blast") below sea-level coal mine next to the ocean in the town of Lota, which closed in the 1990s. The hallmark of this mine-turned-tourist attraction is that the tour guides are former miners from the region. Our guide was a highly charismatic and animated storyteller, who turned our 1-hour tour into almost two hours with his dramatic tales and personal anecdotes.


This same trip included a visit to the town's beautiful and extensive Parque Isidora Cousiño which, in the 1800s, was part of the private estate of the Cousiño family that owned the mine. Here we enjoyed Chile's iconic drink (snack), "Mote con Huesillo”, a sweet drink full of husked wheat kernels and a whole reconstituted dehydrated peach, complete with the pit.


Puerto Montt

While in Concepción, we reviewed our schedule, and our goal of cycling through Patagonia in their summer (Dec - Feb), and realized that it was again time to take a strategic bus ride to keep us on track. So we spent a day on the most luxurious “sleeper” bus we've ridden yet, continuing 800 km south through agricultural and timber lands to Puerto Montt, a city that is clearly in transition from vibrant port and fishing center to vibrant tourist hub at the northern end of Patagonia. The sights of multiple snow-capped volcanoes, right on the edge of the ocean continued our nostalgia for the Pacific Northwest, this area more closely resembling British Colombia, Canada.


Though it's rough around the edges, we really liked Puerto Montt. It has a great mix of funky, colorful houses, new urban parks, German-influenced architecture/food/beer and an energetic fish market that has clearly made the transition to tourism.


Just south of Puerto Montt lies the vast archipelago of Chiloé, famous for a large number of iconic wooden churches built by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries. We took a one-day bus tour that was pretty underwhelming, partly due to public employees being on strike which meant the Chiloé museum was closed, and partly due to the ramshackle condition of the few churches we actually visited. The day also included a traditional Chiloean seafood feast, Curanto al Hoyo, served to us by the chef in his home, which was a real treat. Iglesia San Francisco de Castro, the final church on the tour, with its exquisite all-wood interior also made the day worthwhile.


The Lake District

Riding north from Puerto Montt we got a brief, 3-day taste of Chile's "Lake District" before heading south to Patagonia. The ride was dominated by the iconic Volcán Osorno, which we rode around for the whole three days. We again enjoyed Chile's commitment to bike infrastructure as we traversed the area, moving from bike path to bike path surrounding the lakes. Along the roadside we found numerous wooden churches, in much better repair than those we saw on Chiloé. We also found many chalet-like buildings, with many selling kuchen and strudel, more evidence of the distinct German influence in this area (and a great reason to stop for an afternoon break!)


Here's a short video of our taste of the southern end of the Chilean Lake District:

Back to the Andes

We turned eastward, heading back into the Andes, to cross into Argentina and begin our Patagonian trek south. Along the way we visited Parque Nacional Puyehue, named for the large, active volcano that has erupted as recently as 2012. We camped in the park, visited many waterfalls, and learned about the edible Nalca plant, a giant-leafed Chilean rhubarb plant that we'd been seeing along the roadway for days. When we asked the name of the plant, a park employee broke off a massive (and spiky!) young stalk and peeled it for us to eat – it is very juicy and tart!

 

We left Puyehue and climbed up to Cardenal Antonio Samoré pass and entered Argentinian Patagonia, the stories of which we will leave for our next blog. ;-)


We are now riding south through the very scenic Patagonia. To find out where we are at any given moment, check our Track My Tour page, where we post a photo and blurb every day that we’re on the move. Also, you can get more up-to-the-minute, spontaneous updates if you follow Clark's accounts on Instagram and/or Facebook.