Chiloé

Chiloé has been the most un-South American place we’ve been in South America. It’s wooden buildings look different. It’s perpetually wet and grey weather feels different. It’s people speak differently. It’s un-Latinness was both surprising and familiar. We loved it.

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A postcard from La Serena Museo Arquelógico

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Other than the famous statues on Rapa Nui, the pre-Columbian cultures of Chile are little known outside of Chile itself. To get better acquainted, you can visit La Serena Museo Arquelógico and its small but impressive collection of artifacts, including skeletal remains, early tools and a dinghy made from the hide of a sea-lion. It’s interesting to look at the maps and displays detailing the history of the early cultures, with a particular emphasis on the pre-Colonial Antofagasta and Coquimbo peoples, especially if you’ve already (or are about to) visit Valle del Encanto. There’s even a complete Moai statue on loan from Easter Island, which I felt pretty damn lucky to see, since a visit to the island isn’t cheap.

Located on the corner of Cordovez and Cienfuegos
Tickets
adult/child CH$600/300
admission free on Sundays
Hours of operation
9:30am-5:50pm Tue-Fri
10am-1pm & 4-7pm Sat
10am-1pm Sun

High Altitude Geysers

Geyser El Tatio, Chile 4,320m

Below your feet, the earth bubbles. Vapor seeps and liquids spew out of shafts and cracks, while the freezing air bites at every bit of exposed skin. It bit at my skin, at least, as I was unprepared for the chill at 4,320 meters before the sun rises. I was so focused on waking up at 3:30 a.m. for the ride that I hadn’t even thought of bringing a hat. I did bring my swimsuit, however, for a dip in the high altitude geothermal spring once the sun rose and the plumes of vapor began to slowly dissipate.

Geyser El Tatio, we were told, is the highest active geyser field on earth. This came into doubt when we toured an even higher geothermal field in Bolivia two days later.

Nonetheless, the ghostly mist is quite a sight before it gets warmer and the steam becomes invisible.

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Sol de Mañana, Bolivia 4800m

Unlike El Tatio, where little circles of stones delineate where it’s safe to walk, Sol de Mañana is a collection of festering, boiling and bubbling mud pits and gas vents. It’s easy to get close to the action here and wander between deadly pits of hot grey sludge, as the melting earth clings to your shoes. One could fall in, if so inclined, or so delirious from the altitude. It’s a spectacular and odd experience to meander among solid, melted and melting minerals, high from the lack of oxygen to the brain, taking pictures with other tourists and wondering if anyone’s going to fall in.

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Curanto!

I could see Hoy Curanto, written in chalk, outside ramshackle restaurants all over southern Chile. I didn’t know much about it, other than that it was a local speciality involving seafood. In the fish market in Ancud, Chiloé, I finally decided to give it a try. When it came to the table, I realized that its inflated price in comparison with the other dishes wasn’t due to superior ingredients, but to its sheer size. This was a meal for at least two people, but could probably be shared by 3 or 4. Here’s a list of what it contained:

1 whole fist-sized boiled potato
a large handful of mussels
a large handful of clams
1 sausage
1 piece of pork
1 milcao (a kind of potato bread)
1 chapalele (a potato dumpling)
a mug of soup (the broth it was cooked in)

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Needless to say, I couldn’t finish it.

Feria Fluvial de Valdivia

We’d already become acquainted with the sea lions of Valdivia on our first night in town. But even that experience could not prepare us for what we would see at the fish market.

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From a distance you hardly notice its inconspicuous structure on the riverbank. But as you get closer, you hear it.

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The din of pelicans, cormorants, vultures, seagulls, hawks, sea lions, not to mention the shouting of vendors as they hauled, gutted and cut their produce was quite something.

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Wings flapped through the air whilst webbed and clawed feet grappled for balance in the spot most likely to allow a quick swoop down to catch the innards being thrown into the water.

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Huge, blubbery bodies lumbered up on to the docking areas, or skimmed gracefully through the water, back and forth, in anticipation of a chunky fish head or other unwanted scrap.

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Knifes filleted, descaled and cleaned; huge shellfish were piled high, weighed and thrown into shopping bags; colorful home-made liqueurs and oils sat in reused bottles; cheeses, fruit and bundles of seaweed towered in piles.

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A misty rain drizzled down and all the while people kept coming; to buy, to chat, to photograph…to eat.

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Wine tours in Argentina and Chile

We visited three wineries in Argentina (two in Mendoza, one in Cafayate) and one in Chile (near Santiago). The experience at each one was quite similar; a tour of the processing area and/or wine cellars and vineyards, then a tasting of a few wines followed, of course, by a trip to the gift shop (compare them to the bodegas we visited in Bolivia).

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Some varieties of grapes had already been harvested when we visited Mendoza at the end of March.

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Our tour left at 2pm and included transport and a guide, with visits to two different wineries and an olive oil factory (as well as English-speaking guides at each location).

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Bodega Dante Robino is fairly big, producing reds and whites for national and international consumption. As we were shown around, we were told how they make use of various technological processes to speed up production and increase yield. We got to try two reds and a sparkling white (which was too champagne-like for my tastes). There wasn’t that much explanation about the wines themselves and the whole tour was a little impersonal.

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When we reached Bodega Cavas de Don Arturo, it was a totally different story. The guide here was well-trained and knew just how to draw us in with anecdotes about Don Arturo and his family. Processing and production are done as naturally as possible, without the use of chemicals. It may have been my imagination, but the wines we tasted here really did seem better for it (and apparently it’s the chemicals that cause a hangover, not the alcohol…hmm…). We were given four different kinds, with a full explanation of each, as well as a ‘how to’ of wine tasting. This was easily my favourite winery.

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Whilst on a tour of Quebrada de las Conchas, we didn’t realise that we were going to stop in at a winery in Cafayate.

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Like Mendoza, the region is very dry and needs complex irrigation systems for the vines. This area is especially well-known for Torrontés (a white grape variety). As whites go, it wasn’t bad but I still preferred the reds.

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The bodega we visited is similar in size to Don Arturo’s, although it was more of just a tasting experience than a full-blown tour (they have a nice looking lunch menu, although we had to eat elsewhere).

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In Santiago we decided to skip the tour group and go ourselves to the Concha y Toro winery (but we still, understandably, had to join a tour once we arrived). The grounds of the Concha y Toro estate are really beautiful…and big! Depending on how you count – acres of vines or gallons produced – it’s the second or third biggest in the world (the other two are E&J Gallo and Fosters).

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Concha y Toro produces the Casillero del Diablo line of wines (which happens to be the only decent wine we could find in 7-11 in Taiwan). We were taken into the ‘Devil’s cellar’ and left in the dark while a dramatic voice explained the legend behind the name. I won’t spoil it by telling you.

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Mendoza: half-day tour booked through our hostel, ARS$100 per person.
Cafayate: day tour booked through tourist agency in Salta, ARS$150 pp.
Santiago: our transport was kindly paid by David Bronson, winery tour CLP$8,000 pp.

Torres del Paine

Torres del Paine national park is stunning. Looking at my pictures now, it’s hard to believe that I was actually there; the sunlight was so bright, the water so sparkly, the rocks so jagged, I could barely take it all in.

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Torres del Paine can be visited as a day trip from Puerto Natales, Chile or (as a very long day trip from) El Calafate, Argentina. Camping is permitted, but be extremely careful with fire – whole sections of the park have been scorched away due to uncontrolled campfires.

A postcard from Valle del Encanto

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He asked us where we were from, then followed with a stream of everything he knew that was associated with the USA or England.

“California, New York, Boston, Texas, Florida, Washington, Barack Obama, George Bush, Ronald Reagan…. Manchester, Liverpool, London, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher.”

Only after we’d nodded in approval at every reference did he sell us entrance tickets and give us a map. We’d come to the Monumento Archaeológico Valle del Encanto, a 4,000 year old site best known for evidence left behind by the El Molle culture (200-700AD).

It was an easy 5km walk from the crossroad where the bus dropped us off. The route was flat and straight until near the end when the dry land opened up and plants and rocks jumbled together in its depths. The little admission office stood on the edge of the road as it headed downwards. The man stood outside, looking through a pair of binoculars, seemingly aimed at us. We stopped to photograph a flowering cactus, and he followed our movement until we were right before him.

He explained the three different sectors of the valley where we could see evidence of the people who had lived here hundreds of years ago. Both mundane in their use and profound in their proliferation, are ‘cup marks’ or mortars, hollowed out of thick rocks by ancient hands grinding foodstuff and pigments. Faint traces of red waves and lines can be seen on rock faces, though what the pictographs are supposed to be is difficult to tell. More spectacular are the petroglyphs; carved images of people, masks and headdresses. Some are just a foot tall and barely visible except at the right angle. Stick figures dance alone or in groups like a child’s drawing of a family. Square faces with antennae-like protrusions recall a parallel to other ancient sites that purportedly represent aliens. Other petroglyphs are elaborately etched in deep relief, grinning, or grimacing skull-like, with deep lines and decorated bodies more than six feet high.

We felt like children on a treasure hunt, following the crude map to all the little x’s and looking out for painted arrows directing us to each individual piece of rock art. We scrambled over rocky outcrops and past towering cacti that looked like they were growing toothpicks. Occasionally we’d see a small creature run away; a long-legged mouse with a furry black-tipped tail. Birds chittered and flew from rock to cactus to scrubby bush.

A shallow river runs through the valley – the same water source that led people to settle here 4,000 years ago. Trees growing along it give plenty of shade for picnic tables and BBQ areas, but we were the only ones there until we found a small campsite and a few people cooking lunch. Looking at the sizzling meat, I wondered what the Molle people had eaten here and whether they had ground the same spices these modern day cooks were using to flavour their meal.

The valley got narrower to the west and the river dropped away steeply. We had to climb over big boulders to follow its course, but there was one thing left to see: the Baños del Incas. Two giant rocks had huge depressions in them, two or three meters wide and of the same depth. The sides were smooth and rounded, just like the small holes of the mortars. Despite the name, it’s hard to believe these could have been made by people. Millions of years of water pounding down on these rocks is more likely to have caused the wearing away, but this was the only evidence of a much more powerful river and ancient waterfall that must have been here.

Back up at the admission office we turned for one last look at the Valley of Enchantment. The binoculared man smiled and asked us if we had enjoyed it.

How to get there:
Valle del Encanto is about 19km from Ovalle. A taxi costs 15,000 Chilean pesos return or 10,000 one way.
Any bus from Ovalle heading west will drop you off at the crossroads for 2,000 pesos. However, they will NOT pick you up again from the same spot. You need to hitchhike back to town or walk around 9km to the nearest bus stop.

Admission:
Tickets cost 500 pesos. There are some old and dusty souvenirs for sale (postcards, T-shirts, replica pottery) ranging from 200-15,000 pesos.

Facilities:
There are outdoor picnic and BBQ areas, but bring your own food and fuel as none is available on site. Remember to use the garbage cans provided or take your litter back with you.
Camping is permitted at the western end of the valley in sector three. Bring your own equipment. Porter-cabin toilets are available.

See more pictures in our photo essay.