Sunday, November 19, 2006

Day 17 - Seeing The Sights

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From La Serena back to Santiago is really only about a 5 hour drive, if you're avoiding scenic vistas and tourist traps, or flat tires on windy mountain roads. Clearly we didn't avoid the latter on the way north, and it was our goal to fully embrace the former on the way south.

Having consulted the Lonely Planet guidebook (though with a bit more caution following the Hurtado near-disaster), and talking with Victor some about other nearby things to do (he, in addition to leading tours of Isla Damas on the weekends is a student majoring in Tourism in La Serena), we had a few of ideas of things to see. After a couple of quick stops to walk around the Plaza de Armas, and to get our flat tire repaired (30 minutes and US$4!), we were on our sight-seeing way.

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Our first stop was in Coquimbo, the city just south of La Serena. But really, it was visible from La Serena. Victor had recommended it with some reservation, but we wanted to check it out for ourselves. It was, as you likely know if you are expert in extraordinarily large religious monuments, the Cruz del Tercero Milenio (Cross of the third millenium). And if you recognize the name, you may also know that it is the largest religious monument in the world.

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It is also very, very creepy. Not because of any qualms with Christianity's goodwill being hijacked for less than noble purposes recently. I'd like to say that it was a marvel of engineering, and a spectacular monument, but there is little that seems majestic about a concrete cross towering 98 meters over some of the most ramshackle slums we'd seen in Chile. There was some kind of strange disconnect there. Maybe I'm just not accustomed to religious monuments with gift shops selling t-shirts, buttons, and ashtrays.

Or maybe it's just the two hours that we spent trying to get out of Coquimbo that spoiled the sight of the cross for me. We'd decided to wait until after getting out of Coquimbo to stop for lunch (Lonely Planet had a recommendation for us), so we were short on energy to deal with the maddening crowds of people rushing across the downtown streets. Somehow, the only ways that we kept attempting to get back to the highway led us past the cross again and again (though we did come across the cool Fuerte Coquimbo).

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Eventually, though, the one way streets, clutch-smoking hills, and detours relented and we did get back on the highway south. Another 40 kilometers or so, and we'd reached Guanaqueros, our destination for lunch. After multiple meals over the last few days involving seafood, we were both looking forward to some land-based entrees. The name was something like El Pequeno Restaurant, and despite its misleading name (it was quite large and spacious), it did not let us down. Julie had the Chilean staple Carne Mechada, and I had the delicous Pollo Asado. Very, very satisfying. We were happy and full, and got back on the road.

Our next stop on the Tour of Small Towns Between La Serena and Santiago was Tongoy, a small town that was supposed to feature a great artisan's market. Trouble is, Lonely Planet neglected to tell us that it was an artisan's market half of the days of the week, and a fruit market on the remaing half. So, we got to see the last few minutes of the fruit market, which was probably more (pardon me) fruitful than more shopping for knick knacks. We did get to sample some unknow fruit which was very tasty.

Our goal for the night was to find a fitting end for our trip in Chile. Ideally, we were thinking beachfront cabaña, but luxurious hotel or unique bed and breakfast were also options. In order to cut down the amount of driving that we'd need to do on the day of our flight out of the country, we chose to cover a bit more ground, and stay somewhere between Los Vilos and Viña Del Mar.

Driving along the coast reminded me a lot of the Pacific Coast Highway. And Zapallar is the more wooded Malibu of the Chilean coast. Gorgeous mansions tucked between trees overlooking magnificently crashing waves on rocky shores. It was stunning, and presumably way out of our price range for the night (though we couldn't find any hotels to say for sure).

A couple of towns farther down, our dreams came true. We pulled into Maitencillo, a town with a myriad of hotel and cabaña options. We stopped to look at a few before seeing one that looked perfect. We pulled the car into the thatch-covered garage and stepped out to take a look. Opening the creaky gate we stepped into the perfect garden facing out to the beach. Not seeing anyone around, and fearing any guard animals, we quietly peeked into the cabins, before spotting a gardener at the corner of the yard.

The gardener turned out to also be the owner, and after a surprisingly short registration process (just write your name in the notebook!) we had an amazing room for the night. Or rather, we had an amazing kitchen, living room, bathroom and two(!) bedrooms.

Shelter arranged, we set out to get some food for the night. Amazingly, we were again able to get exactly what we were looking for. The local supermarket (three short aisles) had everything we needed -- wine, salame, cheese, and crackers. We went back to the cabin to watch the sunset, enjoy our dinner, and savor our last night in Chile.

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During dinner we had the good fortune of meeting a kind and loyal soul. Jorge.

At first, we assumed that Jorge (say 'hor-hay') was like any other stray dog, only interested in our food (and scaring off the owner's cat). But the salame that we tossed him did not interest him nearly as much as the few pets that we gave him after dinner. A walk down the beach solidified the relationship, as he took off chasing birds and barked at other dogs, then returned to loyally stroll with us.

As we snuggled into bed, we reflected on the amazing past few weeks, safe and sound, knowing that Jorge was sleeping on the stoop protecting our door.

La Serena pictures:

Coquimbo pictures:

Cabin pictures:

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