The Chilean Riviera

Trip Start Aug 15, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2012

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Flag of Chile  , Coquimbo,
Friday, September 17, 2010

We made it to Dieciocho break... a 10 day spring holiday where our school shuts down for the Mes de la Patria, known as the Month of the Nation... when the festivities to celebrate Chile's Independence day usually last for 5 days leading up to the 18th of September.  I am finding the Chileans to be a very proud people and they take their Independence from Spain seriously, and I found it no surprise that their official year of recognition of independence is 1810, even though they didn't receive it until September 18, 1818. According to a few of the Chilean historians that teach at my school, the insurrection against Spain was a bloody one that took many years of the "common" people fighting to convince the wealthier "elite", many with ties to the Spanish Crown, that full independence was a necessity for all of Chile. One of the great riches of working in an international school are the interesting conversations with the national staff... I love listening to their stories about their country's history, their customs and especially their personal opinions on politics, ethnic issues... any topic really... they always fascinate me!  

We decided that instead of heading too far from home, we would spend much of our break doing just that... taking a break... for it has been a long half a year for us as we transitioned from living and working in Turkey to working and living in Chile. To start off our holiday we headed out for a 3 day, 2 night sojourn on the coast... after a quick 2 hour drive we were immersed in what the locals call the Chilean Riviera.  This nickname is well deserved as it is a beautiful rolling coastline, lined with rocky cliffs, sand drenched bays framed by forests of exotic trees interspersed with cactus and wild flowers. When I say exotic trees I mean just that... Chile has some very strange flora and not all of it native... of course... as immigrants often brought various plants with them to also "colonize" the New World.   One such tree that is found along Chile's coast is the eucalyptus... although not native, it is cool as it's towering stature provides a cooling shade and it's heady smells perfume the surrounding air.   A couple other even cooler trees that are native to Chile are the Araucaria Araucana, otherwise known as the Monkey Puzzle tree and the Chilean Wine Palm. Even if your not a tree freak, as I have been called a few times, these trees rank on the top of the cool list... with the monkey puzzle as #1.  I remember seeing my first one about 25 years ago at Kew Gardens in London... and I remember asking one of the master gardeners there about it... he told me it was from Chile and Argentina and that it was not a pine, but a prehistoric species of tree whose nomenclature comes from the Araucana natives of Chile who used the nuts from the tree as a major food source, with the common name coming from the first English collector of the tree... who said that climbing such a structure would even puzzle a monkey... over time the words flipped and the "a" was dropped, and the name stuck. The Chilean Palm is a new acquaintance for me... it is a massive palm tree that is native to the area of Chile that we live in,  and is quickly disappearing due to a few sad factors... the first being that it produces coquitos,  small coconut like nuts that are over harvested to the point that it is not able to repopulate as the trees are being picked clean by harvesters, and slowly dying due to the massive nails that are pounded into their trunks as a make-shift ladder so they can be climbed to their 80 foot crown where the nuts hang... they also make a very sweet honey from their sap, which we bought at our first outing to a local grocery store upon our arrival in Santiago... shortly after I found out that in order to collect the sap the trees need to be cut down and drained... with the oldest often being the victims... and as this tree can live to be around 1,000 years old... it ends up being a sad event.  One last factor is that a wine is made from the palm's sap as well... with many villagers cutting the trees, draining them and fermenting the sap to produce a sweet port like wine.  Their is a small Chilean palm forest reserve that has been set aside, yet a recent study found that every tree over 30 years old, the age it needs to be before proper fruit production, was sickly due mainly to the multiple nails found in them... the human side of this fact is that many of the poor villagers in the countryside are the ones that are sneaking into the preserve to harvest the trees resources because it is a valuable source of money for them... Okay... sorry for going on about the plight of the Chilean Palm... like I said earlier I have a hankering for trees...   Check out the pics I have included on these awesome trees... or check out more about them online.  

Back to our vacation... 

Accommodation is scarce along the coastline we traveled to, as most of the area is dotted with beach homes of wealthy Santiaguinos... but we managed, with the help of a colleague to find a place on a 5 kilometer stretch of beach along the overgrown fishing village of Maitencillo. Our place was a rundown cabana, a Chilean beach hut, situated right on the beach with a patio space three times the size of the hut... with the sounds of crashing waves and various clicks, screeches and twills of the local sea birds... PERFECT!  With a quick bite to eat on a treetop patio at a local cafe, we headed out for a walk along the coastline, and as the coastline in Chile is public, one can easily walk for weeks or months I guess, as they run for around 6500 kilometers, that being over 4000 miles.  At one point we crossed below a stone clad home that was enormous, a true modern day castle... epitomizing the great wealth that many upper class Chileans possess.  Chile is considered South America's most stable and prosperous country... at this point in history, yet also claims the worst income distribution figures on the continent... meaning that the divide between the rich and the poor is vast... attesting to the tin and plywood shacked barrios that we drove by on our way to the coastline. 
For the rest of our few days on the beach we flew kites on the windy coastline , jogged the beaches, ate local empanadas, sipped Carmenere wine while watching the sunset from our balcony, made sand sculptures on the beach, did a bit of bird watching at the lagoon... with our highlight being our jaunt a few kilometers up the coast to observe a penguin preserve on a small island just off the shore of Cachagua.  For about an hour we watched the fat little buggers sunning themselves on the rocks, walking around the island, ducking inside of their nesting caves, waddle across the island before sliding off the rocks into the frothing water below, floating like little black and white bobbers.   The high powered binocs that we bought a few years back were awesome, as they allowed a really close up view of these strange little creatures... perfect, as the island has been set aside as a preserve for them and the other various sea birds that use it as a rookery.  The coastline that fringes this part of the ocean in Chile is amazing and the community that owns it has done an impeccable job protecting it... although many homes line the coast, it is still very natural and wild looking... except for the most unusual rock path that twists amongst the shoreline as it winds it course.  We took a walk along this most amazing path... at one section we felt like we were hiking through stretches of the stone paths shown in Lord of the Rings...   This particular area ringing the Atlantic ocean off Chile is a great mixture of a wild and rugged coastline, interspersed with calm and serene coves of sandy beaches, populated with an abundance of coastal birds darting amongst the rocks... with modern architectural masterpieces looming high above on the towering cliffs above makes Cachagu an amazing community... incredibly upscale and downright filthy rich... giving them the benefits of buying up vast lots of land, leaving it heavily landscaped so as to create a "natural" and peaceful setting... even to the point of leaving the local streets unpaved...  giving it a unique model for other wealthy communities. It was a great hike and we have decided that we will return and continue to explore this awesome coastline... heading north toward the vast lands of the World's driest desert, the Atacama.  
As we left the coast to return to Santiago... we stopped at a few fruit, vegetable and flower stands to pick up a bag of avocados, some local crafted honey, a few artichokes and other hand grown goodies... passing on purchasing the bottles of miel palma (palm honey).    
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Cheryl Renwick on

What great pictures and adventures for spring break. It is great to hear about Chile and the Cota expeditions. Keep the blogs coming. FYI-The red (orange) beaked bird is an oyster catcher.

Mike Guggenberger on

Sounds like you are having a great time keep the pics and blog going love reading them.Take Care Love to all of you worldly Travelers

Tim Henkels on

Fantastic. I am so glad you guys are loving it so much. What do the boys think of it all? Do they like the school? Please tell Carsten we all miss him in the middle school! Oh, and fav fav favorite wine!

Robin Walsh on

We met on the flight from Istanbul to Chicago. Our son had a life changing discussion with you on this flight.....he is completing his MBA in Nashville, TN, USA, then taking his teaching certification to teach in an IB program internationally......all because of your inspiration and discussion about the merits of IB teaching internationally.
Sincere thanks,
Robin Walsh

Tim Henkels on

Wow, Todd, that's a pretty huge compliment in the previous post!

Joe on

Hi, I loved your blog. My wife and I are heading to Maitencillo in April and I was hoping you could give me the name of the cabana where you stayed, including their contact info. Thanks in advance.

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