Chile, March 2022: A chilly reception (Part 1: Chiloé Island)

Saturday, March 19, 2022-Sunday, March 20, 2022

Travel can be stressful, we all know that, but usually the rewards easily outweigh the inconveniences.  International travel, with the global pandemic still ongoing, raised the stress quotient to a whole new level, as we experienced this trip.  Bookended by potentially disastrous wrinkles, the middle chapter would make those events pale in comparison.  If this trip were a 3-part operatic drama, this first section would be titled Innocence.  The second section would aptly be titled Trauma and the third, Recovery.

The original plan was built around the total solar eclipse in December 2020, traversing the Lake District of Chile.  We had so enjoyed the prior year’s total solar eclipse, which passed through the Elqui Valley of Chile on July 2, 2019, that I wrote up the experience for Photo Focus and we immediately decided we would return the following year for the eclipse.

From a perch on a hillside property of Viña Falernia in the Elqui Valley of Chile, the view of the total solar eclipse over Puclaro Reservoir was awesome!

Of course, the pandemic and restrictions on international travel at the time meant we had no choice but to postpone to a random future date, minus the eclipse.  Surely the pandemic would be over 15 months later?

In spring of 2022, Chile was still a dark color on the world map of Covid-19.  This depiction seemed a disconnect from what we encountered, with high rates of vaccination, awareness and masking compliance.

Even putting together the necessary time off to take this trip was more than the usual amount of work.  Our merger at work and chronic short-handedness meant I had to do a lot of horse trading to secure the second week off.

Two months before, when it finally became clear that we’d secured the necessary time off, the Internet paperwork began.  For entry into Chile, I had to upload photos of our passports, photos of us with our passports next to our faces, dates, type and lot numbers of our vaccinations and booster shots.  That was the easy part.  We made appointments for PCR tests at a UCSD testing facility after work for Thursday before our Saturday departure, within the 72 hour limit.

After the results came back on Friday morning (relief, the guarantee was for turnaround of 24-48 hours), there was more electronic paperwork to do the night before departure, in addition to finishing packing.  We had to complete an affidavit indicating we had adequate insurance and a negative PCR.  Completing this form took a little ingenuity.  Our first address in Chile, Tierra Chiloé, didn’t include a street number, although the form required one.  I put in 0.  The address itself couldn’t include “special characters”.  I tried first taking the accent out of San José.  That didn’t take.  Next, I subtracted the commas between the components of the address I found on the Internet.  Accepted, printed, I thought we were home free.  The insurance requirement was surprisingly specific: we had to prove we had sufficient insurance to cover us up to $30,000 per person should we contract Covid in Chile and have to be hospitalized. I uploaded a picture of our health insurance cards and thought we were good.

An unpleasant surprise the next morning at the airport evolved when the agent checking us in balked at our proof of insurance.  While she consulted supervisors and explained that American had been fined by Chile for letting passengers board with inadequate insurance, my phone rang.  It was Greg, in exactly the same predicament in Chicago, trying to board his flight to meet us in Dallas.

We slunk away with our luggage to regroup and began working both phones, trying to call our health insurance provider (no response on Saturday) and Amex (endless hold, with the minutes ticking by).  Meanwhile, I pulled up a website with multiple quotes for travel insurance.  To get a quote, I had to input the dates of our trip. Putting in the actual date was a roadblock-insurance has to be bought in advance of departure.  But wait, we wouldn’t arrive to Chile until the following day!  I tried again, inputting the next day as the date of departure and that worked.  The quotes ranged from $3500-5000!  I chose the cheapest one and began entering our info, while hoping the agent from Amex that Steve was holding for would come back with a much more reasonable figure or better yet, confirm that we were already covered.

Determined to board that plane, I paid by phone for the insurance and we got back in the line.  Just then, the phone rang and it was Greg.  I had sent him a screenshot of the insurance company’s name.  He had called them directly and come up with Covid specific coverage for $60!  I called them as the line inched forward and by the time we reached the counter, had purchased this limited policy, figuring we’d be able to cancel the other one, which I did, after boarding the plane.  In retrospect, I suspect the expensive policies were cancel for any reason, comprehensive travel insurance policies.

With that as a start, we ended up arriving to our gate as boarding began.  Luckily, we had arrived at the airport with an extra hour to burn, which the insurance fiasco completely consumed.  

In DFW, we found a wilder-than-usual hair version of Greg at the gate and boarding had already begun for our flight to Santiago.  Fortunately, scrutiny of our printed out affidavits, PCR tests, proof of vaccination and our newly acquired electronic proofs of insurance went smoothly and we boarded our plane with a collective sigh of relief.  I devoted some of the 10 hour overnight flight to screening Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical 2021 film, Belfast, based on his childhood memories of growing up in northern Ireland during The Troubles beginning in 1969.  It is affectingly told from the point of view of a 9 year old member of a Protestant family. After catching a few hours of fitful sleep, I breakfasted watching a compelling Uruguayan film written and directed by Rafa Russo called El Año de la Furia (The Year of Fury) set in 1973 as the lives of two comedic television writers and their friends are upended by the tightening vise of the military coming to power in the year preceding the coup of 1973.

Landing in Santiago, there were more surprises, but they were pleasant ones.  We’d expected to submit to another PCR on arrival, but it turned out to be random, selected by passport number and varying by day.  Both Steve and I were exempted, while Greg’s passport number ended in one of the day’s unlucky numbers, so off he went to be swabbed.  

Our flight to Castro was short (2 hours) and uneventful and Hernán was waiting for us at the airport with a sign.  En route with two other couples, we chatted with Eric and Russell from New York, on the second leg of a 3-week trip.  We learned later that evening it was Eric’s birthday.  

Our room wasn’t ready, but lunch was, when we arrived, a half hour drive from the Castro airport.  This connection was a significant improvement over our original eclipse-focused trip itinerary-the internal flight connections were more direct, with less flying back and forth to Santiago to visit different regions of this elongated country. 

Lunch was reineta ceviche (meh), olive bread with pebre (the ubiquitous Chilean version of salsa, finely chopped tomatoes, cilantro and spring onions), pork loin with mushroom risotto and homemade black forest ice cream. 

We headed out for a half day excursion to see Castro and a couple of its wooden world heritage churches with Valentina guiding us and Hernán driving us. 

 

Chiloé is an archipelago, known for its distinctive and colorful wooden palafitos, traditional fisherman’s houses on stilts. By the next morning, the tide out, the stilts were revealed to be embedded in a muddy tidal basin.

Chiloé’s distinctive wooden churches collectively are considered World Heritage treasures; this is the Nercón Iglesia, near Castro, the capital of Chiloé. They are constructed of local wood, with shingled roof and walls and architecturally are examples of a unique style of architecture called Chilota School, a mash-up of Spanish and indigenous elements.

A stall in the mercado in Castro sells vegetables and a local staple harvested from the sea: bull kelp (cochayuyo) (rope-like bundles far left and behind vendor), as well as more readily recognized products.

Separated at birth? Greg with one of a series of carved wooden sculptures in downtown Castro on Chiloé Island which depict mythological folk-tail creatures, as we learned on our walk with Valentina from Tierra Chiloé.

After a pre-dinner drink of the local version of pisco sour (made with honey  instead of sugar), we dined at a windowside table.  I started with the green salad with candied almonds, while both Steve and Greg launched with a local fish in yogurt sauce on toast. Steve’s beet and ricotta gnocchi was so-so.  Greg and I fared better with the trout en croute.  None of us especially loved the tiramisu, favoring the large sampling of Eric’s birthday cake delivered by Russell.  

Monday, March 21, 2022

We elected to spend today on an all day hiking excursion to Parque Tepuhueico on the Pacific Coast, taking in a verdant forest, sand dunes, coastal cliffs, sea stacks and a tempestuous, not very pacific looking Pacific Ocean on a longer option loop trail.  Russell and Eric also elected this excursion.  We were driven by Alvaro and led by Marcela.  It was raining en route but let up by the time we arrived after a 2 hour drive across the island, with cloud cover and later, peeks of sun.  The Castro palafitos were now standing in mudflats at low tide as we passed through Castro.  The “tri-color” sendero started us off in a dense and intensely green forest, brushing past a variety of wild berries on the narrow path.  Russell spotted a small brown native deer in the vegetation, a pudú, a rare sight per Marcela.  

Marcela, our cheerful and charming guide to the Tri-color Sendero, enveloped by the green forest, which soon gave way to taupe sand dunes and then to the blue of the Pacific Ocean.

Smiles and wind-whipped hair, courtesy of southern Chilean winds on the Tri-color Sendero in Parque Tapuhueico: Steve, me, Greg, Russell and Eric.

We stopped for lunch overlooking a wide sweep of tempestuous ocean. Lunch itself was a sandwich, apple and a really excellent bar.   The more difficult part of the hike, the second half, was only marginally more difficult, a few more ups and downs. Horses grazed along the way. The trail encompassed a site specific artwork, the Muelle del Tiempo (Pier of Time) by Marcelo Orellana Rivera (known as Chumono).

A site-specific Chiloén artwork on which you can climb: Muelle del Tiempo, with a tempestuous Pacific Ocean backdrop. Greg is brandishing a 360 degree camera.

 

Meanwhile, Steve was learning the Arsenal, a camera accessory. Greg would never get a chance to try his out this trip.

The lonely Pacific coast of Chiloé Island, via the Tri-color trail, in Parque Tepuhueico.

This hike was rated as difficult, but probably was only about 3 hours hiking.  What was difficult was staying awake on the 2 hour drive home. Late for dinner, I had to settle for a 30 minute massage.  Dinner commenced with a zingy carrot ginger soup.  The beef bourgeon was disappointing, with tough beef and the disconcerting inclusion of pickled pearl onions. It was served on mashed sweet potatoes. I deferred having dessert (ice cream) until after my massage.  Steve and Greg were still at the table on my return.

Tuesday, March 21, 2022

For our second full day excursion, we elected to board the hotel’s adorable boat, the Williche, for an excursion to a nearby island, Chelín, including a visit to their World Heritage Site historic church and the nearby cemetery. A nice couple from Santiago were the only other passengers.  Enough wine and snacks were imbibed to stimulate conversation in a mix of Spanish and English, complete with him showing us images from his PET scans on his phone, before and after chemotherapy for testicular cancer.  I had a long philosophical conversation in Spanish with one of our guides, Ariel, which veered to the next world (he believes in reincarnation) and back.

The World Heritage wooden church on Chelin, an island near Chiloé, made with traditions derived from the region’s ship-building heritage. This was the only one we were able to tour the interior as well.

The World Heritage churches of Chiloé Island have in common a distinct architectural style fusing indigenous and Spanish colonial elements and regional building techniques (making use of local wood and boat-building methods, with use of wood joinery rather than nails). The interior of the church on Chelín shows how the roof resembles a boat bottom and faux marble painting of the wooden columns.

Inside the Chelín World Heritage site church: a rematkably graphic depiction in painted wood of Christ on the cross.

I found this painted wood sculptural depiction of Christ, also from the interior of the World Heritage Site church on Chelín Island near Chiloé, interesting as well. He points to his heart, which glows with radiating spicules but resembles (to me) an acorn. Perhaps a metaphorical reference to Christ’s teachings, spread through the land like a seed?

 

 

Cemetery architecture on the island of Chelin mimics the shingled style of the houses.

En route, a large pod of dolphins kept us entertained and our shutters hopefully clicking.

Dolphins alongside the Williche, en route to Chelín Island from our perch at Tierra Chiloé, enlivened the boat trip.

Definitely not my best dolphin shot, better thought of as a dolphin miss abstract; I just liked the play of the water alongside the dolphin’s sleek body.

We returned in the afternoon early enough for me to enjoy the indoor pool and indulge in a facial before dinner.

Our short stay on Chiloé was a thoroughly peaceful and relaxing recovery from the long journey and the stress of our nearly derailed departure.  Little did we know that we’d need reserves of calm to deal with a coming, completely unexpected crime caper, which ensnared us en route to the next component of our trip, the Lake District.

Innocents abroad, practicing a groupie on the Williche, the Tierra Chiloé’s boat for guest excursions. Little did we know what “adventures” were in store for us the following day, on the way to the Lake District in a rental car.

-Marie

A preview of the Lake District of Chile, a region dotted with volcanos and lakes. This is Lago Villarrica, from the terrace of Hotel Atumalal. Unfortunately, before we could relax and enjoy this view, we were in for some Trauma (stay tuned).

 

 

 

 

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