It is Tuesday 26 november, around noon, when I get in Henk and Wilna's car, with a rather strange feeling. They will bring us to Eindhoven, and there we will take the train to Soest. That's the place we will spend our last night in the Netherlands for a while. The next morning we drive in single file to Schiphol, where we will be seen off by family and a dear friend.
Our first stop is a snowed-over (!) Chicago. Thankfully we fly to Miami the very same day; I didn't travel here for this kind of cold. In Miami a car is waiting. The hotel is easily found, as is a place to eat, and after dinner I fall asleep like a log. The next day we have time enough to check out the scenery. We even visit a crocodile farm. Yep, a genuine tourist trap. But that's alright, we haven't really started our trip yet. After an intensive check (they think it's rather suspicious; two travelers with a one-way ticket to Chile) around midnight we leave for Santiago.
Immediately the first impressions of Chile are good. We pass the customs quickly, and get quick and friendly directions to Valparaiso. At 10 AM we landed in Santiago, and at 1 PM we are in Valparaiso. We decide to check up on our bikes immediately, even before looking for a place for the night. It's almost weekend, and it is entirely possible we can't arrange anything then.
We are incredibly lucky. The ship has arrived on time. The race against the clock is on. We "run" from office to office, and at 5:15 PM (yes, they are working overtime for us) we have the necessary papers. Now to the harbor. There people work until 8:30 PM, but we don't need that long to break open the crates and get the bikes ready. The only thing missing is an insurance, but that's something for tomorrow. First we have to find a place to sleep. And that is not so difficult; we have been given a flyer when we arrived in Valparaiso, with several B&B (bed and breakfast) places in it. The one we select even has its own garage, where we park the bikes. After a simple meal we retire, tired but satisfied.
We had liberated the bikes easily, but obtaining insurance is harder. We thought it might be difficult during the weekend. But we are in a maritime city, there is enough to look at in the two days of forced rest. We visit an Internet cafe and collect our first mail, and we send home my excess luggage (including my phone; it doesn't work here).
We also frequently use the buses and taxis. The buses drive regularly, and are very cheap. For about 50 cents each you're at the other side of the city. Try that in Holland! The taxis aren't expensive either. Often you share the ride, which lowers the price. The taxis operate in certain quarters, denoted on signs on the car. If you want to go beyond that, the driver simply removes the sign. An average trip with a taxi costs about 60 cents per person.
That Monday we start looking for an office that can sell us an insurance policy for a reasonable price. Preferrably something like an European green card. It's not easy, I literally blistered my feet. After two hours we get a golden tip: you can get those insurances in the city hall. Unfortunately, that office closes at 2, we have to postpone our start yet another day. But on Tuesday all is settled. At noon, exactly a week after our leave from Belgium, we are on the road to Santiago, heading for the road to the south.
In our travel guides we have read that the most famous wine houses in Chile are located 70 kilometers south of Santiago. That looks like a perfect first stop. We have to get used to the scant road signs in this country, but late in the afternoon we have found the place, and with it our first camping. Great to sleep in our own "house"!
We visit the vineyard of Concha y Toro. Wine tasting, at 11:30 AM. You will understand I haven't done much the rest of the day. But this visit was fun, so now we want to visit Unduragga as well, one of our favourite houses. This vineyard should be in Santa Ana, but nobody can point us the way to this village. After two hours of crossing the landscape we give in. We set our sights on Ruta 5 (better known as the Pan-American Highway), to the south.
Ruta 5 is of unexpected quality. The surface is so good, that I have ample time to enjoy the scenery, despite the stiff pace. We pass vineyards and farm fields. The buildings look poor, in contrast with the area around Santiago. Wooden shacks with plates as roofs. It probably doesn't get really cold in the winter. And when there is something to be sold, you see groups of shops huddled together. Like 5 furniture shops, or 10 fruit shacks in a row. There is a wide variety of vegetables and fruit. Even asparagus are sold in quantities.
That night we sleep on a camping near Molina. There we meet two Dutch cyclists. They are 7 months underway; we get to hear funny stories and useful tips. It gets way too late drinking wine and enjoying a camp fire, but it is lots of fun. The next morning I have a nice hot shower. We didn't have that at our last camp site. I can shower quickly now, when I have to.
Our next goal is the volcano Antuco. For about 130 kilometers we follow Ruta 5, and then leave this highway. Fortunately the road inlands is good as well. That is, until 20 kilometers before we reach the village Antuco. The asphalt suddenly stops, but the gravel looks firm. With some tips from Adriaan it isn't that bad. I even manage to shift into third gear. After a short stop at a waterfall however, things go wrong. I get into a thick layer of loose gravel. The tip "the more speed, the easier the ride" doesn't apply here. My front wheel digs in and the bike is uncontrolable. I fall down, the first time this trip. The good news is that now I don't fall on my righthand side, the mirror survives the roll unscathed. But the dynamo casing has a hole in it. We pick up the bike and the pieces, and plug the hole temporarily. After a fall it is important to get going again, so we try to continue towards the volcano. But the road gets worse, so we decide to turn around and head for one of the campings we saw on our way down here, and call it a day.
Tourist season obviously hasn't started yet, so we have the campsite at the Polcura river all to ourselves. Again a great spot, and the weather is fine (about 25 degrees Celsius), so we decide to stay for 2 nights. Again no hot water, but after a day in the sun a cold shower is not so bad. Almost the entire day I stay behind Adriaan, he attracts the huge horse flies buzzing around and trying to sting you. I deliver quite a few blows, but all for a good cause.
We forget about going to the Antuco volcano, and head south again. We do make a detour to see the El Salto del Laja waterfall. Our next goal is the lake district, almost 400 kilometers away. Between Villarrica and Pucon we find a campsite at the Villarrica lake, with a view on the Villarrica volcano. This volcano is still active. When we arrive the top is hidden by clouds, but late in the afternoon the clouds disappear, and we see the crater venting a small plume of smoke. What a magnificent sight! At moments like these I wish I was able to sketch or paint.
Again we have the campsite all to ourselves. And for a small amount of 2500 pesos a night (700 pesos is one dollar) the campsite owner lights his water boiler especially for us. We even have hot water. The question what to have for dinner is settled by choosing grilled chicken. Amazingly that is available at the local supermarket. With a glass of wine we enjoy our meal of kings, the sunset, the thunderstorm across the lake, and eachother's company. Life is good to us.
When we wake up, a stiff wind is blowing, and the other side of the lake and the volcano are invisible. We are so chilled, we decide to hide in the tent for a while, cozy and sheltered. Around 2 PM it has cleared up a bit, and we decide to pack up. There are lots of thermal baths around here, and we want to try one out. To have to ride over gravel to reach them seems worth it. Also, I have to cross quite some gravel during this trip, so I might as well start practising while temperatures are pleasant, right?! Perhaps my style isn't as well as before, but I am fairly pleased. Even when we notice we are on a dead end road that doesn't lead to the promised bath, I don't feel the urge to return to the asphalt. We try again, and now we reach a triple waterfall. We can take a natural bath, but despite the sweat from the exercise this idea doesn't thrill me. We have done 25 kilometers of gravel, and it is almost 6 PM. We decide to return to the asphalt after all, and try again tomorrow.
Going to the campsite we pass a GSM pole. A great opportunity to check our mail. While Adriaan takes care of the technical stuff, I look around me. My eye catches an advertisement for Spanish lessons. We already discussed something similar, so I decide to check it out. To learn the basics they advise us a 3-day course, 3 hours a day, 8 dollars per person per hour. And class starts tomorrow. I quickly talk this over with Adriaan, and 5 minutes later it is settled. Now I should actually be doing my homework, instead of keeping you up to date on our adventures.