Published: June 26th 2006February 14th 2005
I rented a car in Santiago and drove over 3000 kilometers through the country. At my furthest point in the city of Castro on Chiloe Island, I was further south than anywhere in Australia, Africa and most of New Zealand. Why Chile? It is said:
"When God created the world he had a handful of everything left: mountains, rainforests, deserts, oceans, cactus, lakes, glaciers, volcanoes-and he put it all in his pocket. But there was a hole in this pocket, and as God walked across heaven it all trickled out, and the long trail it made on the earth was Chile."
Along the way to the south, my first stop was in Chillan to meet with my friend Noelia. She's a high school teacher and speaks great English. When I met her for the first time it was for lunch with 2 of her friends. It went well, they were all really cool people and Noelia and I hit it off. That night we all went drinking. The next day Noelia and I visited an arboretum and old mine in Concepcion, crossing the enormous Bio-Bio river,
Chile's largest. That night we went out for Mexican Food(just like home!) in Chillan, after all it was Valentine's Day! We danced most of that night away to the music which, to my ear, was all "Latin Music". Noelia however could make out the subtle differences: Cuban, Argentinian, Columbian, Spanish, Mexican and Chilean. But both of us knew the origin of the song "Like a Virgin" and "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun", which would be played at the most random times! Think face paced Salsa and Mamba, couples dancing in a flurry to the piana and trumpets- then the DJ cuts to Cyndi Lauper... which ironically would bring everyone else who wasn't dancing to the floor. We then spent the next day at the rocky coast of Playa Cobquecura. It was these first days I cherish the most out of all my travels.
From there, I ventured on my own to do many things: I went camping and hiking in P.N. Conguillo, river rafting in the Andes at Villarica and Pucon, hot springing and fine dining at Puyehue, saw summertime fireworks and had late nights in Puerto Varas, ate Curantos in Puerto Montt, visited waterfalls and volcanoes in Petrohue,
drove to the fjords and turquoise green waters of Puelo, saw wild penguins on Chiloe Island and hiked in the ancient rain forests of Alerce Andino. I spent most of my time in the far south with Fernanda, a tour guide and college student. She was a super cool Chilena, chain smoker and liked to have a few beers now and then. Fluent in German and English, Fernanda's knowledge of her region and country was astounding. I don't see how I would have had a meaningful time without her!
Even through all this traveling though, something was oddly different, yet substantially similar about the experience's I was having there.
Im usually very oriented to my environment: I always know which way is north, the names of most trees and plants, the biomes I live in and biomes I live near, the names of all the national parks and locations of hot springs, the phase of the moon and position of the stars.
In Chile, none of these things were the same. The sun and moon move along the northern horizon, making north seem south. The plants are totally different, yet the landscapes looked strikingly similar. Chilean forests
are lush and enchanting, yet there are no native Pines, Firs or Cedar trees in the high mountains. Like California, Chile has a vast array of National Parks lining its mountains. but unlike California, I knew few of the names or what to expect when visiting the. At night the stars of the southern hemisphere are completely different, while Orion and the Moon are upside down. Going south in Chile is like going north, the weather gets colder and wetter the further you go. Every mountain seems to be unnamed, untamed and familiar.
Flying in Santiago was like flying into LA... lots Spanish, big city feel(6 million people), big mountains at your back, gorgeous Mediterranean weather, a huge metropolis and lots of freeway. The similarities to California's climate and geography were striking. This feeling of being in a place so similar to home, yet so fundamentally different still is with me to this day.
The Chileans are a very homogeneous people. They are all thin(except for the potato lovers of Chiloe island), have dark hair, are
Conguillio National Park
very friendly and very happy people. All of the girls in my demographic were gorgeous, in 15 days I must have seen more beautiful women than in the last 2 years traveling around the United States. Besides ugly girls, the most noticable thing missing was different ethnicities. I saw no African-Americans, people, no gringos, no East Indians, no Asians. While some people rightedly point out that this diversity is what makes America so great, being the rare caucasion outsider in this Latin culture so recently open to the world was quite pleasant! Most people don't own cars; they ride the bus, micros(mini-buses), collectivos(crowded taxis that follow routes) and taxis. You can ride to work, the gym, the store every day and visit Santiago once a month for only $50, so it makes sense so few people had cars. There was also the undeveloped feel of Chile. There were lots and lots of dirt roads, anything that wasn't a main road was dirt. Its like a step in the past, for almost every public road in the United Sates that isn't in a National Forest is paved. It felt exactly like California, but 20 or 30 years ago. And while Chile
may have unpaved roads, cheap land and cheap houses, they also have a wealth of natural resources: clean water and electricity because of the many rivers flowing from the Andes. The damming of Chile's rivers come with a price however, such as losing the best whitewater river in Central Chile, the Bio Bio. 3 out of 7 dams were constructed along its length, flooding Araucaria Forests, Hot Springs byt eh river, the best rafting sections and native land to the Pehuenche people. Currently in Patagonian Chile, XI Región de Aysén, fights a hard battle against a major Dam project on Chile's greatest Patagonia River, the Rio Baker.
There was lots of forestry, large scale plantations of Monterey Pine(Native to North America) and Eucalyptus(native to Australia) trees. These two trees which comprised forests stretching for many miles were unmistakably like the California coast. Lots of Native Chilean forest was clear cut to make room for these operations, and this practice of destroying native forest continues to
Southern Beech Forest
Conguillio National Park
I feel the need to return to Chile, because it feels like I could make a difference there. Here in California, all the rules are set in place: the forests are protected, the houses are expensive, the people are intoxicated with the riches of their economic development and international acclaim. In Chile they are humbled by 8.0 magnitude earthquakes every 40 years, happy for recently breaking free from a Dictatorship, reminded daily of the hole in the Ozone layer. They live in a land of many riches, having the fastest growing economy in the Americas for the last 20 years. They live in an agricultural and outdoor adventure hot spot, with the pacific ocean on one side and the towering Andes Mountains at their backs. Their future is very humbling and very bright, but it's not a future that's on the center stage. That sounds perfect to me....
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