Saturday, March 28, 2009

La Serena

I felt this one in my bones. It was only a short (7 hour) bus ride from Santiago, but we staggered off the bus having watched a lifetime's quota of bad Nicholas Cage movies, complete with 2+ pitting edema and tired eyes. We passed the time until we could get into a hostel with eating a hearty German breakfast, making travel plans, and wandering along the beach. We must have still smelt of the Germans, or the breakfast, or something way more interesting when we headed to the shore, because the dogs flocked (again). They frustratingly hung around for hours; wet and sandy, smelling like only moist, stray dogs can smell, shaking their matted hair on us any time we would attempt a sunny nap on the beach. Thankfully the hostel had a dog proof door that locked.

Enjoying sitting on anything phallic

From la serena

The next day, we got cocky and rented a car to explore. I ended up driving (Andrew did not bring a driver's license). We headed out to Fray Jorge national park, a unique patch of rainforest in the middle of the desert. The coast around La Serena is very dry. In fact, some sites farther north have never recorded rainfall. This is a new-er occurence, because as recently as 30,000 years ago, the same coastal rainforests that make southern Chile so lush extended all the way to the northern border with Peru. Since then, the climate has dried significantly, so the northern forests died off, except for 400 hectacres in Fray Jorge. Some incredible fluke combination of topography, predominant winds and temperature ensure that a few hillsides along the coast are shrouded in almost-constant fog. The vapor from the fog condenses and provides enough water to sustain a few tiny slices of the vestigial rainforest from 30,000 years ago.

But the most incredible thing is that presence of the forest itself increases the moisture available. The leafs and moss provide extra surface area for the fog to condense, so that if the woods were to disappear, the soil would probably dry so much that it would be impossible to plant a tree and have it grow there. When you visit, you walk awhile in fog-bound scrub, drab and brown, until you turn some mysterious corner and enter a verdant, green forest that is dripping water. Incredible. Inexplicable. Cool.


The cloud of fog that sustains Fray Jorge coming in over the desert.

From la serena

Moisture collecting in the forest.

From la serena

Taking a stroll through Fray Jorge

From la serena

We had an appointment that night for some stargazing at one of the observatories in Vicuña. The isolated skies around the area are supposed to supply some of the best stargazing in the world, and many of the world's largest telescopes are housed in white mushroom buildings on the hills of the desert. We overconfidently decided to take the inland, bumpy route to the observatory where we had an appointment at 8:00 for some looking upwards. The route began paved, surprisingly, and we had over 4.5 hours to go only 54 miles. The smooth pavement that initially suckered us in, quickly took ugly stepsister mode and decayed into a dusty, bumpy one lane track carved into the hills (also filled with poisonous snakes and landmines...). At 9:00, after me sharing some not-so-nice-stressed-out-driver words, we decided to pull over on the side of the road and bivy for the night. It was actually better than making it to any city, as it was a moonless night and the stars were out full-force. My stargazing alliances are fleeting: mountains above treeline, desolate desert, or on the beach with the sounds of waves in the background. It might be because I just had a desert experience, but I think that stars among sand and cacti is the best.


Driving in the desert.

From la serena

The next morning we found our way into Vicuña, finally, where we toured a pisco plant (with disappointing sample sizes) and learned more about Gabriel Mistral. Pisco production seems not to be so much of an art as wine making, even though it is made in similar ways. Grapes are separated, smashed, fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled by an amazing production line. Mr. Rogers would giz in his pants if he saw the wonders of the bottling room at the Capel pisco plant. Forget crayons.

Pisco fermenting.

From la serena

We headed back to La Serena, where traffic was a cluster. Roads were discontinuous, one-way, and seething with traffic. To top that off, the bus stations have no entrances. You actually have to be parachuted , or catapulted depending on your preference, into the parking lot to get on the bus. I found out over these two days that I miss driving as much as I have missed my TV over the past two years...not at all. I gladly boarded the bus that night to let someone else drive me to San Pedro de Atacama.

3 comments:

  1. I recall that Andrew said "I will not need my drivers license." So you never made it to the observatory? The small area of the Rain forest in the desert sounds really amazing. Andrew will be happy to know that I was inspired to order a murtilla murta plant (small bush) from Raintree Nursery. According to my research - murta should actually grow well in the Puget Sound Area of zone 8. I was rather surprised to discover that the bush was available from a nursery located in SW Washington State.

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  2. Dios mio. I have a picture of Jay Boren doing the exact same cannon ride. Great men are attracted to powerful phallic symbols, no doubt. I may be jealous

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