We take the CH5, the Pan America Norte from La Serena. This involves an incredible snarl up at the traffic lights in La Serena. Everything seems to try to get on to the Avenida Aguirre at once. The resulting melée is alarming and noisy given the Latin predilection for using the horn. Once that particular hazard is negotiated it is plain sailing onto the big new highway and off we go.
This is an impressive road. Very well surfaced, furnished and signed. We soon leave the city and find ourselves surrounded by high, cloud covered hills. The sleek modernity of the road contrasts markedly with the scattered and rickety shanties which dot the hills for miles. The landscape becomes increasingly rugged.
Outside the cities in Chile it is usually apparent that you are on a continent. The sheer scale of the landscapes takes you aback. We found ourselves on a monster switchback with the road looping up and down into the far distance. The appearance is very much like that of the California coast round Big Sur. Huge hills dropping into the sea as massive rocky headlands, the low cloud always hanging above our heads.
Which cloud started to break up as the road took to winding up and up gigantic hillsides. We eventually reached a shoulder which led to a long descent in bright sunshine. We passed the turnoff for La Higuera. Some miles further on we leave the nice big road and take the D110 towards Choros. This quickly reverts to a mud surface with plenty of dust on it. After a few miles we are leaving the hills behind us and motoring into a vast plain which is apparently the Plain of Saint Lucia.
It is a long drive across the cactus spattered plain on a stony, dusty road to Choros itself. Here in this populated zone as the sign has it, the road suddenly becomes well surfaced for the kilometre or so before you run out of civilisation. There are the usual low houses in cheerfully assorted colours. The usual strikingly ugly electrical and telegraphy arrangements. We stop at the little shop and cafe. We sit in the sun with a snack which the rapidly recovering Alison has grabbed on the way out to assuage her returning appetite and which turns out to be some species of breakfast cereal. It goes quite well with the acceptable coffee.
While we are sitting there a couple of guys appear and start knocking on the house doors. Everywhere you go in Chile someone is trying to sell something. On the streets, at the side of major highways, at the traffic lights. These two are selling t-shirts and, wait for it, standard lamps. Not lampshades mind you, the whole thing. Here, right in the middle of nowhere. A variant on the Aladdin tale perhaps. But they make no sales while we watch.
The town has a cultural centre cum gallery too, but it is closed so we hit the road again. More dusty miles emphasised by the telegraph poles shrinking into a distant perspective, a cliché but effective. A few tough looking vehicles pass us at fairly high speed given the surface. We cross a section which is in danger of disappearing under the drifting sand and then we see Punta de Choros and the Pacific beyond.
It is a bigger settlement than we expected. It has a school but no road surface other than the native dust and sand. It is surrounded by vacation cabañas of various designs including the domes we’ve seen elsewhere. We first stop on a rise which seems to be the local rubbish depository but which gives a view over the point. It is obviously very rocky. We see the dark blue of the sea breaking vigorously over the rocks. There is a long pier, a hodge lodge of shacks, a number of fishing boats on the beach and what turns out to be a huge mound of the shells of some large marine mollusc. These are being scavenged by a mixture of gulls and what look like turkey vultures.
Several miles out from this rough shore we can see the islands off the point, they are a fair size. The water around them is the haunt of whales, dolphins, sea otters and the Humboldt Penguin. It is possible to take trips out to the islands. The ones which land on the breeding ground of the penguins are frowned on by environmentalists as damaging. You can take trips round the islands too, but there are so many of these in the season that these too are suspected of disturbing the wildlife. We haven’t planned for one anyway. They sail from twenty five kilometres north of here and it is getting late in the afternoon.
We drive back towards the pier. From here we see small boats anchored and tossed in the rough sea. A boat is setting off with some well clad fishermen in it. This is a fine day with a breeze. In rough weather this must be a formidable place. A blackbird sized bird with a white necklace is hopping very nimbly over the rocks then sheltering from the fresh breeze in a concrete structure like a box which looks like it was made for the purpose. There are shacks all around the pier in no special order. Urban planning does not seem to be a priority consideration in Chile. Further round the point are dome cabañas. The overall impression is that we’ve reached the edge of the world but everyone’s chilled about it. No worries.
Just back from the pier the fishermen seem to be passing their catch to a lorry. It looks like molluscs again. Not exactly identifiable. These guys look pretty tough. I guess weedy types would not be applying for the jobs available out here. There is a statue of Christ on the rocks which I hope serves to protect these folk. I thought it was a statue of Popeye at first but it lacks the robust forearms and anchor tattoo. We drive back through the bright, breezy sunshine and the dusty, sandy main street past a large mural of the Humboldt penguins and an information kiosk with Hawaian style thatch.
We stop at a cafe and order an empanada. It arrives quickly though is of basic standard. The place is a big timber framed hall with large windows making it very light. The lad serving us looks like Buddy Holly. The decor is sea oriented. Wooden fish caricatures, basketwork mermaids and a large and rather clunky model of a modern multi-storied cruise liner perched, with a fine disregard for any health and safety regulations that might apply, rather precariously on a Coke machine. Ah, well, makes a change from sailing ships although there is also a modest representative of that overworked genre on show.
Just as we are about to settle up and leave who should turn up but our old friends with their t-shirts and standard lamps. They have no joy here either. The lamps may have been insufficiently nautical. Maybe something in the shape of a lighthouse? With a top which revolves and flashes? A niche market perhaps, but I feel there are opportunities for the bold and imaginative entrepreneur.
Back out onto the baked mud road to Choros with its diminishing telegraph poles. On back through Choros, taking note of the kindergarten picket fence decorated like coloured pencils and the church sporting a cheery, kiss-me-quick blue and white livery. Back to Saint Lucy’s Great Big Plain then up onto a cactus covered hill where we spot a group of animals which turn out to be black-faced guanacos. They have lovely thick coats and astonishingly seem to be feeding on the ferociously spined cacti.
Then we spot the tell tale irregular white line of the snowy Andes many miles to the east. Before we came here I had the idea that we would have to edge our way along this narrow country, carefully moving sideways like crabs, taking care not to trip over the Andes. It is not quite like that but wherever you are here you are not far from a view of these enormous peaks. You walk down a grotty street in a town, turn a corner and suddenly they are there. You’re driving down a road surrounded by hills which are already high and there behind them are the real mountains, vast, aloof.
Then we’re back to the big highway. We cruise happily along in brilliant sunshine this time. Through the big Pacific landscape, from time to time catching sight of great rocky promontories far below with the waves crashing against them. The huge scrubby hillsides slide past us. The roadside shanties in their hobo colours look more optimistic in this light.
We wind and climb and drop and eventually approach La Serena. We are passed by a green and white car of the carabineros de Chile with red lights flashing. We think nothing of it until we approach to our familiar Avenida. The road is blocked with traffic, a huge jam, maybe an accident. The delay is not long though. The carabineros efficiently funnel the traffic off on a side road and we follow a large coach which seems to know where it’s going although we have our moment of doubt when it heads down a dusty single track. Not to worry, it is a good guide and we are soon in familiar territory inside the town.
When we get back we are treated to another of La Serena’s wonderful sunsets.