Chilling in Chile

We spent a couple of days taking it easy in the Elqui Valley. After the dryness of the Atacama Desert the Elqui Valley comes as a pleasant change with greenery set amongst the dry hills. The guidebooks describe it as an extremely pretty valley but maybe we are just becoming over exposed to wondrous sights we only thought it was ok.

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The valley is famous for two things, grapes and stars so we thought we would try and appreciate both. First up we went to a small vineyard to sample some wines. The vineyard only made 30,000 bottles of wine a year and sold them all locally. The lady giving us the tour could only do it in Spanish but she promised to speak slowly. Gilly and I were pleased that we understood virtually all of it. I don’t know whether that is our Spanish improving or it was just on a topic we both enjoyed! At the end of the tour we got to sample the wine and of course felt compelled to buy a few bottles.

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What the valley is really famous for though is not wine but Pisco (distilled wine) which is the national drink of both Chile and Peru. Gilly and I had already been introduced to this drink in the way of Pisco Sour (Pisco mixed with lemon juice and sugar) which was a great aperitif. We decided to do a tour of the biggest Pisco factory in the valley which was also the biggest producer in Chile. Again the tour was only in Spanish and again we were pleased at how much we understood.

The girls were really interested in the factory part of the production where the Pisco was bottled and packaged.

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Again the end of the tour involved a pleasant tasting.

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Whilst in the valley we also booked to go to one of the Observatories to look through their giant telescopes at the stars. As we are on the edge of the Atacama Desert this is one of the best places on the world for star gazing due to the dry climate and lack of light pollution. We were a little worried though about the weather as it was fairly cloudy. We arrived for the tour at 7pm and the astronomer decided to head up to the observatory on the hope the weather would clear. Unfortunately there was light cloud cover over the sky and we were not able to see the stars so we all a drove back to town disappointed.

On a brighter note earlier that day while filling up with diesel we bumped into our friends Michael and Natasha at the petrol station. We had last seen them in Bolivia and it was great to bump into them out of the blue and catching up on our respective travels over the last couple of weeks.

From the Elqui valley we had a long drive (500kms) South to Valparaiso. As we drove the scenery changed. The desert had changed into light scrub and the further south we drove the landscape became more lush and green. As we hit the coast again the scenery started to remind us a bit of Northern California. Valparaiso is a very hilly port city so we knew it would be difficult to find somewhere to park the truck for the night. With this in mind we drove to the popular nearby beach resort of Villa del Mar. This resort reminded us of Spain with all the apartment and high rise hotels. There was nowhere to park though and they even had signs along the front saying no parking for Motorhomes.

Now that we are back in the first world it is much harder to just park up anywhere. Whilst Chile has lots of campsites they are all well out on the countryside with not many in towns. In other countries we could park in hotel car parks but this seemed less acceptable in Chile. We spent ages driving around trying to find somewhere to park without success. Eventually as it was getting dark we decided to park in a mirador (viewpoint) about 15kms outside Valparaiso. It was near the road but seemed reasonably quiet so thought would be fine for the night.

At 2am we were woken by red flashing lights outside the window. I dragged myself out of bed to find two very young policemen in their car. They said we could not stay where we were parked. I asked why and they said because it was very dangerous. I expressed my surprise and asked if they were sure. They said yes that many people pulled into the parking to drink and we were not safe. I said we had seen people pull in during the night but they were not drinking. I suspect they were too busy with other matters as it was a quiet spot. Having driven so far there was no way this spot was dangerous but the police were insistent we had to leave. They wanted us to go to a hotel but I refused. After some discussion they then decided we should go and park at the police station where we would be “safe”. I did not want to do this so said I would drive to a nearby motorway service station and park with the other truckers. They were ok with this but insisted on giving us a police escort to the motorway.

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In Chile petrol stations are well equipped for truckers and are not too bad a place to park. They have clean bathrooms often with showers and free wifi and are happy for you to park up for the night. This one also had a 24 hour McDonalds and after been woken up we felt we were all in need of a midnight snack.

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The next morning it was raining and as we drove into Valparaiso we wondered whether it had really been worth all the hassle to visit this city. We still did not know where we would park and the city near the port area had not looked that appealing. As it was we just parked on the street in the metered parking. We took up two spaces but no one seemed bothered and the parking attendant just charged us for two spaces.

As we started wandering up the hills the weather improved and the cities hills proved to be charming and well worth the visit. The city is a gritty port city and all the way up the hills the houses are covered in either graffiti or art work. The colourful buildings made for great scenery and there were some great views over the hills. There are also funiculars to take you up the hills and we rode up the oldest one.

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We had a lovely lunch in one of the old building and also went to visit one of the houses of one of Chile’s most famous poets, Pablo Neruda. The house dated from the 1950s so had some interesting furniture and choice of furnishings however it made for quite an interesting tour and the walk there allowed us to enjoy the views.

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We decided that after all our driving we wanted to have a more restful day so headed out to a campsite we had seen the previous day about 30kms from Valparaiso. The campsite was large and set in a wooded area but we were the only people staying there. Unfortunately the weather was not great for our rest day but it was nice to chill and do a few jobs. We also used the opportunity to cook some lovely steak on the fire.

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The next day we headed to Santiago. After 55,000kms our tyres were coming to the end of their life and we needed to get some new ones. Our tyres though are quite specialised so we we knew it would be difficult to find the same ones. We had been given an address of where to go to look for them so decided we would brave driving into the capital to see if we were in luck.

We spent the day driving around a few places before we were directed back to where we had started. We were told to meet someone in the morning who might be able to help with tyres virtually the same as we currently had. The question then was where to park up for the night. The MAN dealership said we could just park out the back with all the other MAN trucks so we did.

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The following day we again looked into getting new tyres. The garage had some Michelin tyres that should fit but were a very slightly different size. This meant we would have to buy 5 and they were not cheap! Still we did not have much option. When they came to fit them though they did not fit properly so we abandoned this option. We had another option of a different make but exactly the same size. The tyre shop selling these did not take credit cards though so the MAN garage said they would buy them and then resell them to us. As they were the same size we only needed to buy two. It was late in the evening when everything was all fitted including finally fixing the tyre valve on one of our spares. Everyone here has been so incredibly helpful we can not thank them enough. As it was late we slept in the truck in the garage yard again. The girls spent most of the day stuck in the truck which was not ideal but did mean they had a double school day.

The last thing we needed doing was to have the disc brake pads replaced. To do this we had to drive 7kms to the related MAN garage. This garage was the main MAN dealer in Chile. While they tried to find matching parts we were given the use of one of their offices. This reminded me of been back at work as it was exactly like one of my old meeting rooms. We were really well looked after been served coffee and a late breakfast and then taking to the work canteen for lunch. By evening they still had not found the parts but hoped to get them in the morning. So the only thing for it was to spend a night in their yard. Mind you we were not the only overlanders staying there. There was another MAN overland truck having some work done and the German/South African couple were also sleeping in their truck.

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The following day while they continued the search for the parts we decided to head into Central Santiago for the day. Santiago is a modern developed city and has a very European feel to it. We visited the cafe district, the viewpoint from one of the small hills, Cerro Santa Lucia and the Plaza de Armas. We also visited an art museum: the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes where to be honest we found the building more spectacular than the artwork.

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The highlight though was our visit to the Mercado Central which is full of fishmongers stalls with amazing fish and shellfish. There were also lots of little restaurants in this area so we had a fantastic lunch of shellfish and fish.

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When we returned to the garage they had replaced the disc pads on the two front wheels but still had the rear ones to do so it was another night sleeping at the garage. Hopefully it will all be finished in the morning and we will be on our way again.

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