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Chillin' in Chile

January 18th, 2012

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Garry's side of the story

Traffic is speedy on the four-lane freeway and even though the cruise control is set precisely at the 120 km/h speed limit, almost every car on the road is passing us. The late afternoon sun is high, looking more like noon.

Life is comfortable inside the sporty Hyundai Elantra GLS. It’s quiet too, aside from the sound of pages turning in the guidebooks wife, Lisa Calvi, is flipping through trying to determine what exit to take. We are relaxed and joke about all the things we’ll do on our January escape from Canada’s gloomy, frozen winter.

My mind wanders then focuses on the last time I drove this Chilean section of the Pan American Highway. That was 25 years ago and instead of motoring south to the Colchagua Valley in a nimble, sporty Elantra, it was north in a diesel pick-up truck. It wasn’t my loving wife beside me but burly Montana-based Rolling Stone magazine writer Tim Cahill and we hadn’t just spent three nights pampered in South America’s only trendy W Hotel.

The interior of the Elantra is neat and tidy. There’s state-of-the-art instrumentation, my iPhone on the centre console and laptop computers in the back seat beside a Nikon digital camera.

Want to touch base with home? Simply pick up that IPhone and call, text or e-mail. No need, we’ll be in Colchagua Valley’s hub, Santa Cruz, settled into the cozy Hotel TerraViña in an hour. Our biggest problem will be deciding whether to try the upscale Italian Restaurant across the vineyard or the cute Peruvian one down the road for a late sunset dinner.

Twenty-five years ago when Tim and I were at this point in the first production 1988 GMC 3500 diesel Sierra pick-up truck, things were different. We had driven non-stop for three days from Ushuaia on the Argentina side of Tierra del Fuego, about the same length of time since Lisa and I arrived in Santiago on a non-stop flight from Toronto.

The Sierra was filthy inside and out. Tired and wound tight with what lay ahead we looked and smelled the part. The bleary-eyed young men bent on setting a new record for the fastest time from the bottom to the top of the Americas were hoping to rendezvous with a container ship in Cartagena, Colombia on Day 11 of the quest. We had no iPhone, laptop computers or digital cameras because they did not exist. Texting, email, fax machines or a freeway Chilean sector of the Pan American Highway? Dream on.

“Take the Ruta del Vino exit four kilometres past San Fernando, then its about 45 minutes to the hotel.” Lisa snaps me out of the daydream.

Driving Chilean secondary roads is like playing an arcade video game. Traffic moves at a lively clip and tailgating seems a national sport as drivers prepare to pass. There are lumbering transport trucks, bicycles and farm equipment to avoid and road signs can be ambiguous, but the agile Elantra and I are in our element as we get into the rhythm of ‘el road’.

“It keeps you on the defensive but its actually fun to drive here, Lisa.” I laugh as I overtake a massive Scania tractor-trailer creeping up a steep hill.

Over the next week we slip into full vacation mode as every day seems like two. With sunset close to 10:00 p.m., January days are long this far south of the equator. Life at Hotel TerraViña in the middle of a seemingly endless vineyard is relaxed. Awake with the sound of songbirds, breakfast mid-morning, lunch at a winery wrapping up as late as 4:30 in the afternoon then dinner about ten in the evening.

We drive an hour to the Pacific coast one afternoon but Chile’s built-in air conditioner, the Humboldt Current that pushes cold nutrient-rich deep water onto its 4,000-kilometre coastline, keeps the coastal temperature about 15-degrees Celsius cooler than inland locales like the Colchagua Valley.

A week in one of Chile’s premium wine-making areas tucked in the Andean foothills 200 kilometres south of the sprawling capital Santiago is like an all-inclusive holiday indeed. However, rather than being trapped in the confines of a Caribbean or Mexican beach resort with throngs of North American snow birds, the entire Colchagua Valley, with its meandering back roads, superb wineries and funky commercial hub, Santa Cruz, is a resort unto itself.

On the eleventh day, we load the Hyundai for the three-hour drive back to the airport in Santiago and our flight home. As we eventually pull onto the Pan American freeway, my mind drifts back 25 years again. On Day 11 of the Pan American Challenge, Tim Cahill and I and were approaching Cartagena, Colombia right on schedule.

We had crossed Chile’s Atacama Desert, avoided the Shining Path Maoist guerrilla insurgents in Peru, conquered Equators mountain passes and been at gunpoint 21 times in the 60-hour run through Columbia. The GMC Sierra was crusted with road grime, our eyes bloodshot. The plan to rendezvous with the container ship to transport us through the Panama Canal around the roadless Darien Gap was on track.

As I set the Elantra’s cruise control at 120 km/h, I look over at Lisa. She is tanned and relaxed as she checks the e-mail on her iPhone.

“There’s a message here from Air Canada,” she says. “Looks like the Business Class upgrades have come through.”

Lisa's side of the story

I’m feeling oddly proud and have a stupid grin of success on my face. I’ve managed to order an entire meal in guttural Spanish with not a word of English. How do you say Chardonnay in Spanish? It’s really a pathetic, barbaric mixture of Italian, French and ‘Speedy Gonzalez Spanish’. I can picture the waitress making fun of us when she gets back to the kitchen. Check out the ‘gringos’ at table cinco.

Driving a 2012 Hyundai Elantra from Santiago to the Colchagua Valley is my first time driving south of the equator. At my very first intersection, a taxi hurtled towards me, horn blaring because I dared venture out onto the street 500 metres in front of him. Hmmph.

Since leaving Santiago, Chile, we’ve stopped at service station after service station, looking for a road map of some kind. Is getting around Chile classified information? Husband and travel partner, Garry Sowerby, finally emerges triumphant from a service station in Santa Cruz, holding aloft a sealed-in-plastic map like a trophy.

The area in which we are having fun getting lost is Central Chile. The driving is a mix of joy and terror. Joy as as you’re enjoying the pastoral valleys and meandering narrow roads, with the warmth of early summer and that omnipresent smell of burning leaves coming through the open windows. Terror as a flat-faced Scania truck comes barrelling, and I mean barrelling, around the corner. Oh that’s right, we’re driving in South America not some bucolic two-lane road in the Okanagan Valley.

With grapevines growing right up to the edge of the road, we are about as far in ambience from the glitz of ‘Sanhattan’ as we could possibly be. ‘Sanhattan’ is the nickname given to the area of Santiago where Garry and I landed three nights ago to celebrate the New Year.

With no plan in place for our ten-day visit to Chile except for the first few nights in Santiago, we had some decisions to make.

My dreams of Chilean beach-lolling were crushed by our day drives to two of Chile’s popular beach destinations. Santaguinos pack the beaches of Viña del Mar and Valparaìso. We checked out these two noisy, bustling beach towns but skies were cloudy, traffic was heavy and the temperature was 15 degrees Celsius cooler than the vine-voluminous Garden of Eden we had left behind after that last ‘yeehaw!’ climb-and-descent mountain range.

The surf towns of Pichilemu and Bucalemu, further south along the Pacific Coast, where the sands are black and the waves are gnarly, although interesting, were just as cold and cloudy. Drat that Humboldt Current. Good for marine life. Bad for sun- and heat-seeking humans.

The Lake District is a 1,000-kilometre drive from Santiago and, after a year of moving around for more than 75% of the days, our wish was to check in, unpack, putter and discover a region no more than 200 kilometres in area.

I was stubbornly hanging on to my idea that, since we had travelled so far for long sun-drenched evenings and toilets that flush counter-clockwise, the temperature must hover between 30 and 35 degrees Celsius.

From the seething metropolis of Santiago, where midnight fireworks from our hotel window rang in our 2012, we ‘changed the channel’ as Garry likes to say.

Now the stars in the night sky look strange and the grape vines that are growing over our heads are whispering in an eerily human way. The balmy summer air feels odd considering it’s the second evening of 2012. The sun set about 45 minutes ago, it’s almost 11:00 p.m. but there is still a glow in the west where I know the Pacific is roiling just beyond the silhouetted mountain range.

Garry shines the flashlight for an instant onto a sign, well it’s sort of a sign. It’s the word ‘hotel’ with an arrow, printed on the bottom of a wine barrel cask that’s been mounted onto a post in the middle of this vineyard on steroids.

We are walking under a big night sky, in a labryinth of grape vines, trying to find our way back to our Hotel TerraViña. Instead of fireworks, traffic and revelry, all we hear are crickets and the vines murmuring in the soft breeze in the heart of Chilean wine country, the Colchagua Valley.

It was fine getting to the restaurant. Hotel owner, Anna, said Rocco, the ‘house dog’, would escort us there through the vineyard while it was still light out. And he did. But stumbling back to the hotel in the dark, we are on our own with a flashlight. The big glass of fermented carménère grapes and the plate of homemade spaghetti alla puttanesca at the Restaurant Vino Bello have dulled my senses.

Tomorrow, if we make it back to the hotel, I’ll hand over the wheel of the 2012 Hyundai Elantra and my designated driver will escort me to the myriad wineries set on magnificent slopes of the arid mountains that surround Colchagua Valley. Muy bueno! Muy delicioso!

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