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THE WANDER YEAR

A Chilean Ramble Long on Beauty and Hospitality

THE WANDER YEAR / WEEK 39: CHILE * A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

November 05, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

COPIAPO, Chile — To travel without expectation is to invite surprise.

Andrea and I arrived in South America largely ignorant of Chile, having scarcely cracked our guidebook. The lack of a rough itinerary was not by design. The longer we wander, the less time there is to plan. So we came prepared to see only what was put in our lazy path. Lucky for us, Chile picked up the slack.

Joined by Andrea's mom, Phyllis Whitebread of San Diego, we left the capital, Santiago, in a rental car and meandered mainly north during the next week for 500 miles. It felt like a lot of ground, but we merely covered the waist of this long, skinny country that stretches about the same distance as Los Angeles to Anchorage. Still, it was far enough to be dazzled by some of Chile's rugged coast, vast desert, lush vineyards and soaring mountains.

We spent the first night in Las Cruces, a resort town on a small, sandy bay midway down the Chilean coast. Most of the vacation homes were buttoned up, awaiting summer in the Southern Hemisphere. We were the only guests at the Hotel Villa Trouville, where the Pacific Ocean slammed against the rocky point below our window.

In the morning, we drove a few miles north to the hamlet of Isla Negra to tour the former seaside home of Pablo Neruda, one of Chile's two Nobel laureates in literature. The snaking, quirky house is built like a ship, with round ceilings and narrow passages. It's crammed with marvelous objects the poet collected during his wide travels--carved ships' figureheads, African masks, glass piano casters, crucifixes, a life-size wooden horse.

Two days later we reached Zapallar, a tony coastal village an hour north of Valparaiso. Modern villas and old mansions spill down a hillside of pine and cypress trees to a crescent of white sand. We sipped drinks in the sun at an empty cafe as fishermen mended nets and flying pelicans surveyed the clear, blue water.

Later in the week, we left our main route, the Pan-American Highway, and headed inland to the pleasant town of Vicuna. The region is the site of international astronomical observatories because of the exceptional clarity of the northern Chilean sky. We climbed stairs to the dome of the Cerro Mamalluca observatory and peered through a telescope at galaxies, clusters and nebulae. When I glimpsed 100,000 stars in a speck of space where my naked eye had seen nothing a moment earlier, our trip around the world suddenly felt like a weekend jaunt.

The next day we drove farther east, up into the Elqui Valley, an area thick with vineyards of muscat grapes. The distilled wine produces the brandy called pisco, the Chilean national drink. The green vines, along with the purple petals of blooming jacaranda trees, contrasted brilliantly with the brown mountains rising from the valley floor.

Back on the main road, we continued north through the Norte Chico, the semiarid zone between the fertile heartland and the barren Atacama Desert. The region is usually an expanse of bleak scrubland, but we caught it during the rare phenomenon known as desierto florido (flowering desert). Every four to eight years, heavy winter rains prompt dormant seeds and bulbs to sprout through September and October. As we sped along, we saw dull shrubs standing amid vibrant carpets of wildflowers--purple, yellow, red and blue.

In the small city of Copiapo, we settled into Hotel la Casona, a quaint inn with pastel walls, Diego Rivera prints and down quilts. It was our last and favorite in a series of charming, family-run hotels in this clean, affordable and friendly country.

We hired Sebastian Martinez, a local mining student, to take us in his four-wheel-drive pickup to the striking, desolate plateau between the two ranges of the Andes. We drove 100 miles east on a bumpy dirt road that climbed through mountains streaked with copper, iron and sulfur. After crossing a 13,000-foot pass that left us lightheaded, we descended to Laguna Santa Rosa. Dozens of pink flamingos waded in the green, salt lake. A guanaco, a wild relative of the llama, gazed down from a knoll. A fox timidly approached us as Sebastian tossed bread crumbs. It was easy to squeeze off a couple of rolls of film.

We continued around the lake, no one else in sight, passing the ruins of an Incan settlement studded with bits of pottery. We returned over a different pass. An hour later, an approaching cloud of dust heralded the only other vehicle we saw that day. It was a Brink's armored truck, bound for a mine at nearby La Coipa to pick up a load of gold bars. The cargo it would carry back down the mountain was like the landscape we'd gaped at all week: precious.

NEXT WEEK: Drifting into the high plains of Bolivia.

*

Did you miss a Wander Year installment? The entire series since it began in January can be found on The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/travel/wander.

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