Sunday, November 8, 2015

Another Side of Chile

Map picture

When I last had a chance to write, the ship was docked at the port city of Valparaiso, the gateway to the Capital of Chile, Santiago. That was a turnaround day, and it also marked the beginning of our last voyage segment to the southern reaches of Chile, We had been to this part of the world on more than one occasion and thus expected little in the way of surprises, but boy was I wrong. I had never cruised here on an expedition ship, and that has opened up new vistas.

Anyway, Valparaiso was four days ago. Since then we have been on an almost non-stop adventure that has left us exhausted, but also in wonder. So, it will be impossible for me to write about every day in detail, but I can present an overview.

Our first port of call was to the small city of Niebla which I had never even heard of much less visited. However, it was only the starting point for a drive deeper into Chile to visit the city of Valdivia which was founded in 1552, by the Spanish and which today is home to around 127,000 people……………………………….

“Sorry, had to take a quick break. A large pod of dolphins and killer whales was in a feeding frenzy just off the side of the ship, but by the time we turned back there was not much left to see. Pooh! So back to Niebla.”

At Niebla, we visited one of the old Spanish forts, and then drove along the river to Valdivia. Unlike what we had seen of Chile so far, this was a quaint little town with strong German influences and architecture. Even today the German private schools are among the best in the country, and graduates are permitted at no cost to obtain higher education by travelling to the Universities in Germany itself. Apparently the German government funds this little community in an effort to retain its German heritage. Thus, our first stop was the Historical Museum, basically the restored home of one of the German founding families, and now a museum. From there we drove to the city center and stopped at the fish market. The city lies up the river from where we anchored at Niebla, but the river is too shallow to allow our ship to navigate directly here, hence the 10 mile drive. At the market, we had basically an hour to look around, and Lisa and I made our way to the town square, near the McDonalds I might add. We engaged in “people watching” while sitting on a bench, and immediately found this town to be quite alive. It is home to a number of Colleges and Universities, and overall is quite alive. After a stop at a local restaurant to sample some local food, we headed back to our ship. Since we had a very early departure that morning, our arrival back at the ship around 1:30 pm concluded a six hour outing, and we were tired. But not to worry, the next day would have us departing at a more civil hour of 8 am, but then it would turn out to be only a 10 hour day!!

So day two saw us arriving into Puerto Montt, where we had visited before. However, on the previous visits we never saw anything approaching the beauty of what this visit would bring. This was now our second day of bright sunshine in a part of the world where that is a rarity; Puerto Montt was no exception. The city is the gateway to the Lakes Region of Chile, and home to a ring of Volcanos capped year round with snow and literally hundreds of lakes. On previous trips, there was low clouds and drizzle, and so we never saw the real beauty of this region. On this trip we finally got to see the real beauty which we had heard so much about.

We drove inland to the town of Ensenada, and then along the huge Llanquihue Lake which is dominated by the Osorno volcano. Just six months ago, the nearby volcano of Calbuco had erupted and covered Ensenada and the surrounding areas in a thick layer of fine volcanic ash and small pebbles. Even though authorities had done an incredible job of clearing the main roads still at times the dust was so thick that we could not even see the bus in front of us. Numerous times traffic came to a standstill where road construction and repairs were underway. Still once out of that area, the weather was simply beautiful with perfectly clear sunny skies. We entered the Rosales National Park and proceeded to an absolutely beautiful lake called Emerald Lake. Here we boarded a very nice catamaran for almost an hour cruise around the lake and surrounding volcanoes. Let me just say, the pictures were awesome. But then, once back on our buses, we proceeded to climb the side of the Osorno volcano. We climbed above the tree line and to the base of the snow cover at an altitude of approximately 4,000 ft. The top of the volcano is at around 8,500 feet. Lisa and I immediately jumped onto the chair lift which would take us halfway up the volcano, but because of time, we were not able to take a connecting chair lift to the top. They made us walk all around the building to get back on to come down, and while that sounds easy it was definitely not. The little building sat atop a knoll, which required that we climb down a steep hill in loose sandy soil, circle the knoll, and then climb up the other side. As our guide would later say, “this is Chile.” As I am riding down in my little chair, I look across the valley to the nearby volcano that erupted only a few months earlier, and I can still clearly see plumes of steam still spewing from the top. It suddenly dawns on me that sitting on top of another volcano in the same area where one had just erupted may not be the smartest place to be!!

Once back on the bus, we visited on our way back to Ensenada a series of waterfalls which had been cut through the volcanic rock. Now this was comical to the extreme; we now have over 100 of us dutifully climbing a very uneven and sandy surface to reach these magnificent vistas, along the way we were watched over by gun toting police (not uncommon in Chile), but in a National Park – give me a break. Anyway as is usual, I am the last to reach the top of the trail which then makes a sharp left to a narrow little bridge leading to one viewpoint. Almost everyone going down the other side was laughing and shaking their heads and I quickly saw why. This narrow, and short little walkway went out for about 10 ft. and then it was blocked off to further traffic. From the end of the walk, the falls are barely visible and what view there is, is marred by the trees in the way – in short, there was nothing to see. The little walkway did go on, and had we been blocked another 10 ft. down, we would have had a good view, but alas, “this is Chile.”

We drove back to Ensenada for a late lunch (it was now around 3pm), and while late, it was absolutely wonderful. Then back onto the bus to drive to our ship, but wait – they drop us off in Puerto Montt at a handicraft market, and gave us 45 minutes to look around. We were all tired and ready to get back to the ship, but first there was one more blockage. When we arrived at the port, everyone had to get off the busses at the gate and proceed through a “security check.” It was a long walk to the security hut, and once there, they “glanced” at any backpacks, and had us walk through metal detectors that were turned off. “Why?” we asked our guide, and of course you already know the answer, “this is Chile.” We finally did arrive around 6 pm. Just in time to be dressed and ready for the “recap and briefing” at 7 pm. Another, very long day. Perhaps the next day would be better!

But, it was not to be. Because of local ferry schedules, the next morning we had to be ready to get off the ship by 7 am. If there was any good news, it was in the fact that this was to be a half day outing, and we should all be back on board by noon, (Good Luck). We were anchored in the harbor at Castro, Chile, a port I had never even heard of. It is not on the coast, but rather buried among the many islands of southern Chile. Our final destination was yet another island, that of Chiloe. Chiloe Island is famous as being the home to over 150 wooden churches, many of which are designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

We began our day by a quick zodiac ride to shore where as usual, we all had to undergo a check by agriculture officials before boarding our busses. From there, we made a bee line to the local ferry for the short transfer over to the island of Chiloe. The ferry boarding was a hoot. There was no formal pier, but rather a simple sloping concrete ramp to which the ferry pulled up and dropped a ramp. Our group was in three busses, but all three could not fit on one ferry. They got the first two on, and then squeezed on as many cars as they could before setting off for the crossing. When the next ferry arrived, I was amazed that several of the cars and trucks had to come off backwards, and then turn around on the small sloping ramp. It was comical to watch, until our guide said that sometimes even the busses must get on backwards: whoops! Our ride was short, and soon we were passing some rich farmland and beautiful homes while driving on narrow winding roads.

Our first stop was in the shore side village of Curaco de Velez. We drove through the quaint town passing our first wooden church, then stopped along the shore to stretch our legs and to admire the large tidal flats stretch before us. Here they experience a tidal change every 6 hours of over 8 ft. After a quick look around, we again boarded the busses for a drive to the town of Achao, which was founded as a city by the Jesuits in 1743, and is now home to 2,500 people. Here we visited our first UNESCO church, the Achao Church, which is the oldest wooden structure on the island of Chiloe. It was constructed in 1730. It rests on immense rocks, and in spite of all the earthquakes, it has endured over the centuries. It was so well constructed that today it stands as a unique monument. Inside is a beautiful baroque style building still very much in use today.

Departing Achao, we headed off along a country road and stopped along the roadside at what from the outside looked to be a typical Chilean farm home. We were invited into an annex where tables had been set for all of us to enjoy a pisco sour and some local food, while a little man played the accordion, accompanied by a guitarist; locals demonstrated the local dances. It was all quite lively, and many of our guests got into the act. It turns out that the little man on the accordion was indeed world famous, so we had a special treat.

We departed the little island of Chiloe by the same ferry as before, however, this time our bus had to turnaround on the little boat ramp and then back onto the ferry. The ferry, meanwhile, is trying to stay stable in the current causing the ramp to move back and forth along the slick ramp. We scrapped the bottom as we climbed up the steep angle of the ramp, and somehow ended up where they wanted us, and they jammed cars all around us. It was really quite an experience.

After the crossing, we were once again in the city of Dalachue, but this time we went into town and stopped at a craft mall, and from there we walked to the town square to see another of the UNESCO wooden churches. Unfortunately, we could only see the outside because the church had just been renovated. Actually the renovation was completed in July, and every day they expect the church to re-open. So when we asked the obvious question, why is it closed, we got the standard answer, “well, this is Chile after all.” At this point, I think most of us noticed a little problem: our ship was scheduled to sail at noon, and by my watch it was noon already. The tour operator seemed not to notice, but we did set off to return to the city of Castro where our ship was at anchor. All of us assumed that we would go directly to the ship, but no, we went into the town center to see yet another church, a garishly painted tin covered Cathedral, which closed at 12:30. Our guide rushed to get inside as we pulled up exactly at 12:30, and she did convince the custodian to let us have a quick peek. It was well worth the visit, but when we came back outside, our busses were nowhere to be seen. They could not park in front of the church so their only option was to drive around, and the mid-day traffic on this beautiful Friday afternoon was bumper to bumper. They finally made the return circuit, and we all were prepared to literally jump-on, since the bus was blocking traffic.

Now off to the dock we went to get our zodiacs back to the ship, but wait – there were the authorities for another security check. What a waste. Once again we walked through metal detectors which were turned off and thus of no use, but “this is Chile, after all.” The ship was finally able to sail by 1:45 pm, which did not make the Captain very happy.

Today we are heading south, ducking in and out of the little islands. At times we are sheltered and cruising through narrow channels between the islands, and at other times, such as now, we are in the open sea. It is starting to get cold, and by tomorrow we should be at anchor deep in the Chilean fjords for a zodiac visit to the Pio XI Glacier.

Because of where we are, satellite coverage is becoming very sporadic. I hope to get this out today, Saturday the 7th, but it might well be delayed.

Hope everyone is well, and if I can get some time I’ll try to get caught up on three days of photographs.


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