Sunday, September 19th: Calama to Chanaral, 600 km, 6 hours
We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn (23 Degrees and 26 Minutes, South) this morning, helping us celebrate the completion of our 5th month on the road. The sun will now always be in the northern sky as we drive farther south.
Clouds, nonexistent during the past few days in the dryest region of the world, the Atacama Desert, appeared on the horizon in front of us. about noon, offering hope for escaping this world of rock and sand.
Monday, September 20th; Chanaral to La Serena, 500 km, 5 hours
As a bus in the oncoming traffic lane passed us, the driver made a rolling motion with his hand. Unable to determine what message he was trying to convey, we continued blissfully on, coming to an overturned car half an hour later. Assistance was being offered to the injured occupants, but they really needed communications to call an ambulance. I attempted to reach help using the ham-radio equipment I brought, but it was useless; there was no one listening within range. I continued driving for 75 kilometers (about 45 miles, 30 minutes) before I found a customs agent who could make a phone call for help. Towns are hundreds of kilometers apart and there is nothing in between.
Tuesday, September 21st; La Serena to Vina del Mar, 400 km, 5 hours
On the 21st day of September, the sun passes directly over the equator. For us in the southern hemisphere, it continues moving south, giving the first day of spring. For those in the northern hemisphere, it moves farther away, marking the first day of autumn.
The drive from LaSerena to Vina del Mar, 400 km, took 5 hours. Four days of driving through desert finally gave way to some greenery about 250 km north of Santiago. As we moved south, vegetation became more lush and plentiful. In the true fashion of the "accidental tourist", a lady we met in a gas station suggested leaving the freeway at Putado and driving along the coast, good advice, which led us to the Putado Yacht Club for lunch. A half-sized version of Newport Beach's Balboa Yacht Club, we felt at home for the first time in weeks.
Elsa met Pedro Meza, staying at the Hotel Americano, who offered to help us plan our journey, so we checked in there as well, in order to meet him later that evening.
Wednesday, September 22nd
Took a city bus into Valpariso with Pedro for a "self-guided" city tour. Starting at the harbor, we "chartered" a fishing boat for a half-hour ride around the bay. The city exists on hills around the bay. Funiculars, cable cars running in pairs, one going up while the other goes down, provide access to higher elevations. We visited the stock exchange, now electronic and devoid of all physical activity. A few computer screens around the former trading pit were running Microsoft operating systems, all in various stages of crashing.
Thursday, September 23rd
Heading for Argentina, we drove east toward the Andes with Pedro, who needed to visit a client along the way. We dropped him off in Los Andes and continued up 27 switchback turns to the crest at 10,000 feet. The border between Chile and Argentina is in the middle of a three-kilometer tunnel at the top. Chilean and Argentinean customs share a building, designed to keep all the proceedings indoors, out of the severe winter weather, at the exit of the tunnel. The road down the east side was much more gentle.
The paradilla, where we stopped for lunch, accepted our Chilean money, which was lucky for us as there wasn't a chance to change money at the border.
In Mendoza, we stayed at the Park Hyatt Hotel on Plaza Independencia. They claimed no relationship to the hotel chain in America, but the logo was unmistakable. Our room was outstanding, with an ultra-modern bath (clear glass sink), a heated out-door pool and a terrific breakfast buffet every morning.
Wine flows like water in the local restaurants. It's good and not expensive. A bottle that might cost $15 in the US is only 15 Pesos here, or about US$5.00. Beef is plentiful and the cuts are thick enough to be cooked with a little pink in the middle before turning them to a shoe-sole. Overcooking a very thin piece of meat is the most common culinary sin in these parts, aside from piling salt on everything.
Friday, September 24th
Hoping to taste some Argentinean wines, we headed south of Mendoza along San Martin road. Lagarde Winery appeared first and gave us a tour, a tasting; we bought several bottles. The manager of the only sushi restaurant in town insisted we visit Dolium, a unique winery with all its equipment underground for temperature control. He called the owner and arranged a tour for us. Chandon, a relative of the northern California Domain Chandon, was next door, so we stopped in for champagne tasting and a bottle to open in Ushuaia.
Saturday, September 25th
After hearing about the movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" for months, we finally got to see it in Argentina. It was in English with Spanish sub-titles and cost 6 Argentinean Pesos, or about $2.00 US. The significance of the film was lost on most of the viewers, I suppose, but no one we talked to liked Baby Bush in any case.