Central Chile

It’s amazing to watch the seemingly lifeless desert slowly recede and become once again full of life, something that we haven’t seen since Ecuador. Parts of the Atacama Desert seemed so dead with only giant mountains of sand and dirt, leaving one to wonder how anything could possibly survive in such a harsh environment with no water or shade. As we leave Chanañral, home of our hellacious car problems, suddenly cactus appears, and small shrub like trees are growing. The nights of silence only broken by the wind are now filled with sounds of small animals searching for alimentation, and we wake up birds singing in the morning. Four hours from Santiago and the desert has vanished, like that. Some odd 3500 miles of literally the same backdrop, and like that, we have found the flip-flop of Central California. Although the climate is still arid, we are surrounded by pine trees and forest, and the Indian summer heat has me thinking of September in my home state.

Leaving the desert also means leaving the peaceful isolation and solidarity that has surrounded us really since we left Ecuador. Aside from some tense moments in Lima and car problems in the north, travel has been really relaxing, camping where we feel like camping, stopping to by supplies from the odd store on the side of the road, and looking for places to surf that have no name and don’t appear on the map. Out of the desert we are suddenly funneled into Viña del Mar, which appears to be the equivalent of maybe Malibu in California, or Carmel by the sea. We have come here to meet up with my mother and her good friend Bob Levis, who have just spent the last two weeks at Parque Pumalin, a privately owned park the size of Yosemite in Southern Chile, dedicated to deep ecology. Parque Pumalin is owned by an old friend of my mother by the name of Douglas Tompkins, who has created quite a stir in this country, for his huge amounts of land he has purchased over the years. His goal is to save and nourish Mother Nature, but some just don’t see his ideas as like he does, and in the process he has received some bad publicity. (More about Parque Pumalin later…)

Through various emails and phone call attempts, we have set a meeting time and place, and Viña del Mar
is it. As night falls, our first evening in civilization has us lost and looking for somewhere to sleep. The side of the road has been our home for the last few weeks, and now, this just doesn’t seem possible. Imagine looking for a place to sleep roadside in some posh town in California. Is just doesn’t fit in, pitching a tent on a car pullout overlooking a million dollar home. After driving around for almost two hours, arguing about what we should do, we find a peaceful little location hidden off of the main highway that funnels tourist traffic to and from Santiago to the coast. After a nice pasta dinner cooked in the outdoors under a clear sky and an autumn chill, we are rocked to sleep by the occasional passing of a semi. We wake up to a beautiful morning shrouded by the sounds of commuter traffic and we are off to meet my mom and Bob Levis, who I must add provided us with some great entertainment five months previous back in Southern San Diego. (See the San Diego entry)

Its quite a shock to see family after all this time away from home, and to see my mom in Chile is a great surprise, and turns out to be quite fun. Our group has gone quickly from three to five, and me being the primary form of communication in Spanish, I find myself doing most of the talking when it comes to ordering food or asking directions for our group. Bob has no qualms when it comes to talking English in a Spanish speaking country. He asks people questions in English, and if they don’t understand, he apologizes in English and moves on to the next to see if maybe they do. It’s not at all rude or presumptuous as some gringos doing the same can be, and it’s great to see him throw in the occasional ‘Gracias’ or ‘No problemo’. We have a great time touring around Viña del Mar and Val Paraiso for two days, and for me personally, it’s really great to see my mom. It hits me rather abruptly that although I am loving being on the road, I miss my family, and for better or for worse, seeing my mom has reminded me this.

Years ago, I made a friend who was staying in Santa Cruz for a period of six months or so, taking pictures, working the odd job, and trying to surf as much as possible. His name was Alfredo Escobar, a talented, young photographer and photo editor of a Chilean Surf Magazine who also shared the passion of travel. I remember wanting to practice Spanish with him as we drove around the north coast of Santa Cruz, but Alf was intent on learning English, and always proclaimed; “now we are in the USA, so we must speak English, pero cuando tu vienes a Chile, hablaremos Espanol!” (When you come to Chile, we will speak Spanish!” So suddenly, I find myself calling Alf after almost five years of receiving the occasional email giving me grief for not coming to Chile to visit. I can remember vividly driving from my home in Davenport north to Año Nuevo, and listening to Alf note the similarities of his beloved coast of Central Chile to our North Coast of Santa Cruz county. “Eeets just like Cheeeeeley! But eets backwards!”

For the past 300 miles or so, Alfredo’s words have been echoing in my brain, as I sit and mentally note the similarities that he had once told me about his Chile and our California. Hearing his voice was a reminder and all I wanted to do was tell him how right he was, and how happy I was to finally be here seeing it for myself. Alfredo was exited to see us, and told us of a looming swell and how the surf was going to be, “Buenisimo brother!!!” Through a rather confusing set of directions, we set a place to meet on the coast just north of the beginning of the land of the fabled left pointbreaks of Chile. Ironically we set out to meet at a kitesurfing contest at a private beach a few hours south of Santiago. Upon arriving, we found the surf to be picking up, and the wind to be dying out. The competitors all were sitting around waiting for the wind that was obviously just not going to come, and we were waiting around for Alf to get the go ahead from the director of the competition to leave as he was there to shoot photos. As the afternoon progressed, it got glassier and glassier, and the surf continued to grow. Ziad and I were both itching to surf this fabled left that Alfredo had been hyping us up on. Finally, with three hours of light left, we got the green light, and as Alfredo stated it ever so bluntly, “Now, we go to Puertecillo!”

Our car after living the majority of its life rusting in Alaska has numerous holes throughout its beautiful exterior, and many of these holes link right up into the interior, making it not the most ideal car for dusty roads. The best solution we have found to try and keep the dust to a minimum is to drive slow and keep the windows up. Following an extremely excited Alfredo on dirt roads that haven’t seen a drop of rain since last winter has our car filled with a fine dust that has Scott freaking out. Now I hate dust as much as anyone, but Scott has a hatred for the stuff that just doesn’t end. I gave up battling the dust a month ago in Peru, but Scott continues to fight it with a wholehearted hatred. As I try and keep our landboat closely behind Alfredo’s small sized SUV, the car slowly fills up with dust. After two hours of driving dirt roads at 40 miles an hour that we would normally drive at about 15, we finally arrive atop a bluff that overlooks the sun setting upon a beckoning left pointbreak with glassy lines coming in stacks to the horizon. Alfredo tells us excitedly that, “This… is Puertecillo!”

Between us and Puertecillo is only one obstacle. This obstacle is known to the Chileans as, ‘El Cuchillo’ or the knife. El Cuchillo is thee gnarliest and steepest dirt road I have ever seen. I kid you not, the steep switch backs and decomposed granite dust that makes up the surface have my palms sweating as I write. The sharp turns are banked down hill, meaning that if you start to slide, you are not going to stop. As we sit and look down this steep incline that seems more appropriate for a burro, contemplating our lack of four wheel drive and the setting sun and the perfect lefts that we watch peeling off in the distance, I am feeling emotional overload. Scott decides half-heartedly that we can make it down, and if it wasn’t for the perfect surf luring me on, I would have called bullshit and made us all walk to the point. As we began our descent, the feeling of the tires chaffing along, sort of locking up and sliding down the slippery dirt of the road causes my stomach began to turn and I asked ever so politely if I could get out and walk.

This is an excerpt from my lifebook, as it seems to be a bit more descriptive of how I was feeling at the time:

It is raining, March first, 2004. Enter Puertecillo. Yesterday was an emotional rollercoaster for me that started off hanging out with my mom and Bobby in Viña del Mar and ended with the scariest moment of our trip for me so far. Scott drove down the most intense dirt road I have ever seen driven, which had me seriously scared for his life. With Alfredo, Ziad and myself directing a white knuckled Scott down the steepest switchbacks I have ever seen, I couldn’t help but imagine the car suddenly skidding slowly of the edge of the cliff into the abyss that lay 300 feet below. Each turn was a new ordeal, and literally there were times where the car’s tires were no more than 10 inches from the edge of a cliff. One false move and our car would be part of the beautiful landscape of Puertecillo. After 20 minutes of decent that could only be maybe a kilometer or so in distance, we found ourselves at the base of this monster of a road, safe, and rushing to get into the ocean for the last minutes of daylight to surf some incredible waves. I literally had tears welling up, and I am not sure whether these tears were joyous, for having finally found the best waves of the trip so far, or out of guilt for having watched one of my best friends risk his life driving down a road that probably shouldn’t have been driven in the state of our vehicle. Either way, we made it, I am happy, and also feeing a bit inadequate next to Scott who has just done something that took courage and a calmness that I just don’t have, and he has done something that I could never do. Scott is gnarly, I have a lot of respect for his ability to keep it cool under situations that involve that kind of pressure. Thank you Scott. Thank you Alfredo. Thank you Puertecillo. (03/01/04)

Three solid days of surfing three times a day for hours on end has my body feeling the need to rest, and I am ready to move on. It is hard to drag Ziad from this wonderful place, as he is going home tonight, and this will be his last surf in Chile for a while. Santiago is a mere 3 hours away, but between us and the city is the dreaded ‘Cuchillo’ which we must climb once again to get out of our new found paradise. There is one option, which is to take a private ranch road which is much longer, but also much safer. The twist is that you need permission to use this road, which we do not have, and we have heard that the governing body of this road does not take kindly to trespassers. We decide to risk it, which proves to be a good decision, as we leave without problems, and without having to go back up the gnarliest dirt road ever made.

Santiago is like any city, bustling and filled with cars and pollution, but it has a good feel to me, and I feel at home, not minding the 3 days we end up spending here. Ziad is gone, safe at home back in California with his girlfriend and back to work, and I can’t help but be a little jealous. Although we are going home in one month exactly, I have a longing to be in my own bed, eating food out of the fridge, and to take a shower in my own bathroom. Luckily for us, Scott has the idea to go and visit the small Patagonia store in Santiago, which turns out to be a blessing as we meet Jorge, the owner of the store, who provides us with his office as a place to stay and introduces us to the wonderful, (and beautiful!) staff of the store. We end up staying here for two nights, hanging out in the city, doing some climbing with our friend Carolina, and enjoying the capital of Chile, smog and all…