The first thing I did when I got to Chile was flush the toilet to see if the swirl went backwards. After all, it's in the Southern Hemisphere, so things like that are reversed. As far as I could tell, the can operated normally, however the South American weather was the exact opposite of Seattle's. In Chile, the height of winter is in August. At that time of year a die-hard snow enthusiast could be boarding in waist deep powder in Chile as the rest of the US is cursing the heat. With this in mind, I booked a trip for myself and for my brother Jim. However, to skip the crowds of the high season we decided to check out the South American ski resorts in September. After thirty hours in the air and four connections, there I was zoning out in the airport restroom in Santiago, Chile.
Santiago isn't much to rave about. Take a second rate city like Tacoma or Albany, then LA size-it, surround it with shanty towns, throw in some traffic jams and smog, and boom, there you go, Santiago. Maybe, that's a little harsh. The old part of downtown is nice and the Plaza des Armas is quite pleasant. Also, Santiago has an efficient subway system, probably the cleanest I've ever been on. My Bro and I booked a reasonably priced hotel (Hotel Sao Paulo) and went out for grub. The fast food, and some of the not-so-fast food, in Chile is pretty crummy. The national dish of choice is called a Churrasco - hot salty beef, coleslaw, green beans and a generous glob of mayonnaise on a bun. If you order a "Completo" you'll get a hot dog heaped with tomatoes and mayonnaise. Finally, a dinner salad consists of cold cooked vegetables with lots of salt and, you guessed it, mayonnaise. Here's a convenient expression I learned in Spanish "sin mayonaisa."
Jim and I high tailed it out of Santiago. After a wild cab ride through the city and a heart stopping bus trip up narrow mountain roads, we arrived in the resort town of Farallones. Only about 30 miles from Santiago, the difference between the two places is like night and day. The town is really laid back. Everyone we met was really friendly including the manager of our hotel, ( Posada de Farallones) Pau. He was one of the few people we met on our trip who spoke English. Amazingly, every word that came out of his mouth sounded cool. All of the guests agreed, Pao was quite possibly the coolest dude in South America. One of his talents was the ability to drive the hotel van through deep snow on twisty, sketchy roads. No matter how hectic the driving situation was, like sliding backwards towards a cliff, Pao came through.
On Pau's suggestion we went to the "La Parva" ski resort. There, we met and American ex-pat named Jason in the rental shop. He's an escapee from Southern California who works at La Parva in the Winter so he has his summers off to surf the Chilean coast. Jason's set-up was pretty cushy. Most of the time he would hang out, download MP3's from Napster, flirt with South American girls and occasionally do some work. Jason hooked me up with the biggest board he had in the shop. It was a 167 Rossignol with a close up photograph of a corncob on the top. On the bottom, the Rossi had seen better days, it had some wicked digs in it. But, it was the best thing he had. I took the big board with corn on top and holes in the bottom and dubbed it "Cornholio".
Our first day of boarding was sweet. There had been a big dump the night before and visibility was excellent. I was surprised that on such a perfect day hardly anyone was on the mountain. Apparently, Chileans kind of forget about boarding when Spring arrives. Jim and I cruised over to the Quad and jumped on. Even though it was one of the only lifts in operation, La Parva's Quad services some excellent terrain. Pretty much all of the resorts in Chile are above tree line so the ski areas are massive, open and exposed. I took a few minutes to scan the incredible view before heading down. As far north and south as you could see, 12,000 foot (3,600 meter) peaks pierced the sky. To the west a great brown cloud covered Santiago. It was hard to believe that I was right outside of a huge metropolitan area because the city shrouded itself in a blanked of smog. I bee-lined for the bowls. Most of the time I found excellent turns on largely untouched snow. In some places, what looked like tempting windblown turned out to conceal nasty, sharp volcanic rocks. Needless to say, I put a few more holes in Cornholio. Back at the hotel, Jim and I were served a great meal with some excellent local wine. I noticed that it was snowing outside. That night I dreamed of chest deep powder.
The next morning it was still snowing. In fact, it was a total white out. Strangely, some of the folks at the hotel were actually bummed out. "Too much snow," they said. I looked at them like they were crazy until I realized that they were weaklings from the East Coast. Soon afterwards, I found out what they meant. In Chile, a massive dump means they have to dig out all of the lifts by hand. So, they pretty much close everything down during storms rather than dig and re-dig. La Parva's quad was closed. The only thing running were two Poma lifts. Fortunately, the upper Poma accessed some of the same excellent terrain as the Quad. So, I braved the crotch crushing device and let it drag me to the top. It was totally worth it. I was one of the only boarders on the hill that day and was rewarded with massive, untouched powder, top to bottom, on almost every single run. The relentless storm reduced visibility to nothing so I had to use the Star Wars technique to find my way down, "use the force Luke". After six hours of riding blind, I retired to the lodge, exhausted, wet and giddy. The scene in there was way mellow. Jim and I hung out by the fire and sipped brews with the handful of others who braved the storm. We practiced our Spanish with the employees and listened to their heavy metal tape collection. Gesturing at a box of cassettes they pointed out tapes by, "ee-ron-mai-deen" (Iron Maiden) and "cee-proos-heel" (Cyprus Hill). It kept snowing, glorious, unceasing, until late that night. The storm washed away the smog covering Santiago so we could see the lights of the city. It was a gorgeous sight which, according to the hotel folks, was a rare treat.
After 36 hours of snow, the next day we woke to blue skies. This was exactly what we had hoped for, an epic day. I tried not to let my pre-ski-jitters get the best of me, but I could hardly sit through breakfast. The thought of all that untouched powder was making me crazy. Everyone else seemed totally chillin. No one else was freaking out like me. When our van got stuck in a snowbank I thought I might just run up the road. But, amazingly, when we finally got to La Parva, the quad wasn't even running. I started to flip out! Untouched powder everywhere, blue skies, and no lifts? The thing I realized later is that Chileans have a very laid back attitude towards the sport. There is usually so much powder, and so much terrain, that everyone will get untouched lines all day long. So, what's the rush? The quad belched diesel fumes and rattled into life. I made a fool of myself with an old-fashioned "Yee-Haw!" Jason hooked me up with Cornholio again (on a fat powder day - holes or no holes is fine with me - I'd ride a friggin two by four) and he set up my brother with a long board. As we rode the lift, the first boarders of the day cut their signatures into the fields of untouched powder. I watched them float by. I clipped in at the top and launched myself towards the fall line to find knee-deep powder everywhere. Untouched. Unmolested. I laughed and whooped my way down. Have you ever admired your own line as you rode back up the lift? It's a great feeling, which I was able to enjoy all day. There were literally only about thirty other folks on the whole mountain!
As morning proceeded into afternoon, Jim and I ripped it up, only briefly stopping for lunch. At a certain point, I started to notice that my face felt hot, almost chapped. I was going to chalk it up to windburn, because I was using SPF 20, however, I looked at my Bro and saw that he was turning beet red. At 11,000 feet (3,300 meters), we were getting burned to a crisp. Apparently, the Southern Hemisphere has less Ozone than the North. I'd almost call it "radiation burn" rather than "sun burn". Jim got the full force of it. He turned into a friggin tomato. Aside from the massive UV dosage, we had a brilliant afternoon. Jim is a die hard East Coaster. At first the deep snow put him off, but by mid afternoon he had the feeling of "surfing on snow" and would never be the same. It was awesome to see him lean back on the board, pull the nose up and ride the glide like a champ. "It's like floating", he shouted. Even our buddies from the Hotel who had complained about "too much snow" had gotten into the groove by the end of the day. All in all, this was what we had hoped to find in Chile - epic snow, clear skis, massive mountains and a resort all to ourselves. You really couldn't ask for it to be any better. That evening we headed back to Santiago, satisfied, exhausted and burnt to a crisp.
Jim and I headed south on a cushy tourist bus. Chile is the world's longest and skinniest country. Unless you fly, marathon drives are part of the game. The eleven hour ride gave me plenty of time to slather my sun baked face with Aloe and to rest. When we finally arrived in Temuco, we cabbed it to La Casa de Juanita, a family home that rents out cheap rooms to tourists and students. Juanita was super friendly and was very enthusiastic about helping Jim and I learn Spanish. The next day, we walked to the town square, which was pleasantly casual compared to the hustle and bustle of Santiago. People were out everywhere, selling stuff, running errands, and talking on street corners. We headed down to the municipal market where the vendors were all in a cheerful mood. They were kicking off a long weekend, Monday was "18 de Septiembre" the Chilean "4th of July". We stopped for a pleasant lunch with a generous amount of Red Wine. A marching band trooped by playing traditional music. Later that afternoon we bussed-it to the resort town of Pucon. The countryside in this part of Chile is truly beautiful - green rolling hills, Swiss-Style Chalets, and massive snow capped peaks in the background.
Pucon is widely regarded as the "Adventure Tourism" capitol of Chile. You can book yourself on a river rafting trip, or go alpine mountaineering. You can even rent an all-terrain vehicle and go tearing off through the woods. We decided to snowboard on the slopes of Volcan Villarica, an 11,000 foot (3,300 meters) active volcano. Unfortunately, we had the worst possible conditions, rain and clouds. Jim and I got sick for the next two days. We holed up at Hotel Gudenschwager, (a nice place but no hot water) coughing, wheezing and filling up snot rags. It rained the entire time we were there so it was pretty miserable. The only redeeming event was a fun outing to Termas des Huife, a hot-springs resort that really got the goobers flowing.
After a few dreary days in Pucon, Jim and I headed to the airport to catch a flight to Northern Chile. We had heard that we'd find sun in the North. Unfortunately, we happened to be traveling on the 18th, Chilean Independence Day, so our flight was rescheduled for the next day. We made the most of it by hanging out in Temuco. It worked out okay because it gave us the chance to check out a national holiday in a small town. On Temuco's main street everyone had turned out for a parade. Spirits were high, bands were playing and vendors were selling Chilean flags everywhere. After a long, confusing delay the parade started. First came the little kids in school uniforms, then the bigger kids with fancier uniforms, then the soccer teams. Lastly, the army divisions marched in. It seemed like anyone who had a uniform could participate. The military display was the most interesting. Many of the soldiers were outfitted with alpine gear and snow-ready uniforms. Curiously, there was a brigade of donkey troops. They were a bunch of guys with pooper-scoopers leading Burros around. The animals had machine guns mounted to their backs, kind of like low budget tanks. Possibly, the point of these guys is to make the enemy laugh so hard that they can't fight. Picture a donkey charge, "heee - haww". The event as a whole was really interesting. It reminded me of what it must have been like in small town America in the past - very cozy, friendly and accessible.
Arica is a small city in the desert just south of the Peruvian border. In the past, Chile and Peru have had some difficulties, including a huge war at the turn of the century. There is a pretty sizeable military presence in town, and I don't mean guys on donkeys. The town is a little rough around the edges. We noticed a lot of homeless folks and scurvy looking stray dogs. However, Arica won me over, there are lots of friendly shopkeepers and the pedestrian mall is quite amusing. The beaches to the north and south are refreshingly undeveloped.
Our last adventure in Chile was a one-day bus trip to the Altiplano, a high altitude desert. The incredible thing about Chile is the variety of bio-regions for travelers to experience. Our excursion took us through several of these regions. Lush river-valley gave way to scrubby rolling hills. Then bizarre cactuses appeared with dreadlock like branches. Higher, in the Atacama Desert we saw sand dunes. This area is so dry that no precipitation has ever been measured here. I began to feel the effects of the altitude at about 12,000 feet (3,600 meters). Here we saw the village of Putre, home to a handful of farmers and crafts people. Magnificent snowcapped peaks emerged from the hills as we finally reached the Altiplano area. We stopped at a tiny Indian village with a population of about six families. Gasping for breath and feeling woozy, I stumbled over to the nearest vendor and asked for "bebitas". The woman shuffled away and returned with a two-liter bottle of "Inca-Cola" and a bag of tiny fried donuts. I was feeling so giddy that I bought it all, along with some nice weavings, and hoarded my goodies. I think that I got a little loopy, because soon after that we ascended to 15,000 feet (4572 meters) and I started talking gibberish. It was absolutely spectacular up there. We were at the shore of the highest lake in the world, Lake Chungara which reflected the perfectly cone shaped Volcano Sajama who's peak stands at 21,325 feet (6,500 meters). It all seemed very surreal. I felt like I was all hopped up on goofballs, so I asked the driver for some oxygen. He informed me that it was only for emergencies. This struck me as very funny so I went back to the van and went to sleep. I awoke back in Putre. We had lunch there. I walked around and saw a dog eating a goat's head. Back in the van I zonked out again to wake in Arica.
As Jim and I wound down our trip I discovered the joys of Spanish language television. One network seemed to show nothing but Circus acts every night. It's funny how you sometimes start out a trip doing a million things a day and eventually wind down to just vegging out in front of the boob tube. The flight home took about 27 hours, which was only a tad shorter than the flight there. The marathon flight was partially due to distance but also because my travel agent (Around the World Travel - JustFares.com) totally screwed me over when I booked the tickets - but that's another story. All in all, a trip to Chile is a great experience. It's a wonderful way to learn about another culture and see a totally different part of the world. We were very fortunate to meet a lot of really great folks, pick up a tad of Spanish and hopefully spread some goodwill.