La Serena is truly where the Atacama desert FINALLY ends. There´s all this funny green stuff around that I hardly recognized!
After 4 days resting up and doing some bike repairs in La Serena I took off towards Valle de Elqui. This is one of the wine growing regions. It looked a little different than the sand I was used to.
This is a prime Pisco region. Pisco is kind of like brandy... distilled from wine made from muscatel grapes. I visited the Capel pisco factory while here but frankly, after spending 20 years near the Napa valley, I didn´t learn anything new about the process. Now the tasting... that´s another story.
I had been planning on taking a dirt road that was recommended to me south from Elqui, and the first part was fine. But after a while I hit loose dirt on steep curves. After my experience in the sand (and a still sore back) I figured that if I dumped the bike in this stuff it was going to be too much strain to get it back up, so I returned to La Serena and went south on a secondary, but paved, road. I spent the night in Combarbalá. Nothing special.
From Combarbalá, I took another dirt road south. The road itself was fine, but then I hit a series of three tunnels. As you might imagine, tunnels on a dirt road are also dirt. They are also not lit. This makes it very difficult to tell where the wall stops and the floor begins. I went very slow through these, and after 30 miles went back to pavement.
The last stop before Santiago was the Reserva Nacional de Chinchillas (National Chinchilla Reserve). I figured I would visit my coat, while it still had a personality. The area where the chinchillas live is semi-arid with a lot of cactus. I looked all over and couldn´t spot one of the little suckers. Finally got to the visitor center (I was the only visitor, so had a nice private guided tour) and found out that chinchillas are nocturnal. No wonder I couldn´t see them. It also probably explains why they only go well with evening gowns.
The visitor center was very well done, and they had a darkened section of cages and displays where you could see the chinchillas and other nocturnal critters of the area. So my coat is still alive and well and living in Chile!
I arrived in Santiago on Christmas eve. I had been invited by Luz Muñoz, a young lady I met in Nazca, to spend Christmas eve with her and her mother, which I thought was really sweet. We spent the first part of the night cooking pastel de choclo, a traditional Chilean dish of corn, meat, onions, and other mystery ingredients. My assigned job was to stir. When I asked Luz for how long, she said ¨siempre¨ (forever). Fortunately I only had to stir for about an hour and a half, or until my arm fell off and into the corn mix.
Luz and I decorated the tree, and since we had no proper base for the tree I introduced them to the Panamanian tradition of ¨Christmas Bricks¨. Many Panamanians don´t know about this, but they are used to balance the tree and keep it from falling over (look closely at the picture). Of course, we only had ordinary bricks avaliable, not the silver or gold variety traditionally used in Panama. (Don´t worry, Luz didn´t beleive the story either!)
Luz gave me a couple of biker T-shirts and a balaclava (or is it baklava?). I either look like a biker ninja or an Al Quaida escapee. Luz´s ex had just bought a motorcycle, so we spend part of Christmas day giving him some bike lessons.
After Christmas I went out to the coast, north of Valparaiso, and visited Lucho Palma and his girlfriend Rene. Lucho is a friend of Jaime Brito, the brother of Jose Brito, a friend of mine in Panama (got that). They graciously invited me to their place on the beach at Paduco.
I then headed for Valparaiso, where I discovered that there is no hotel with parking for a bike, and all the parking lots are closed on Sunday. After a few very frustrating hours I returned to Santiago.
I spent new years with some other friends who invited me to a New Years Eve party. Lot´s of fun (the little I remember). The next day Karen walked me around to do some sight seeing (this is Cerro Santa Lucia). Santiago doesn´t have a reputation for being a great tourist destination, but there are some really nice parts.
Holidays being over, it was time to get back on the road.