We set off south on the CH5 this time. We are going to the Fray Jorge National Park. This is a cloud forest on a ridge overlooking the Pacific. The incoming fog as and clouds sustain a woodland which is uncharacteristic of this arid region.
There is the usual noisy snarl up on the Avenida Aguirre as everything tries to be in the same place at the same time but soon we are bowling along with the traffic to Coquimbo. This is a large seaside town joined on to La Serena and taking up part of the same bay. It is said to have a burgeoning night life which is why we’ve avoided it so far. It also has the Cross of the Third Millennium. This is a gigantic structure overlooking the bay possibly set up as a rival to the Christ figure at Rio. It doesn’t quite have the style or location of that particular icon though.
Then we are in a formless area of shanties, building sites and undefinable elements of urban mess. We are also climbing. This continues until we are approaching the level of the low coastal cloud which begins to break up. We descend onto a huge plain. The continental scale of South American landscapes in evidence again. We reach a toll gate and pay CP2 600 for the privilege of continuing on the same highway. We pass a number of roadside stalls. They often signal their presence with a cluster of coloured flags. We decide we don’t need anything and carry on.
Eventually we reach a turn off signposted for the National Park. As is the way of Chilean minor roads it rapidly becomes a baked and dusty mud track. It winds towards the high hills towards the coast. We meet a couple of settlements. They are randomly scattered low houses and shanties dignified with a few hundred metres of well surfaced road before the underlying track reasserts itself. In these parts the ubiquitous tall cacti are utilised in lieu of fences or hedges. The resulting tall spiny barrier would certainly deter most things with any sense from entering or leaving any designated area.
Again we are climbing and twisting. The surroundings are less arid, greener. In fact the whole thing is turning into a blossoming meadow. With the window open you can hear lots of bird song and smell the fresh fragrance of the spring flowers. Even the fiercely armoured cacti have big white flowers on them.
We reach the entrance to the park. There is a ranger’s cabin complete with the inevitable Chilean flag. We are charged CP5 000 to get in. There are some wall charts illustrating the local flora and birds. We are issued with a set of rules to be followed in the park. Common sense stuff about fires and litter mainly. We stop to look around. Flowers everywhere, lots of birds flying around. This would be commonplace in the English countryside on a nice May day. Here it is quietly spectacular. We drive on.
We go slightly off course at a picnic area. It begins to sink in that we have made the mistake of starting off on our expedition with a small bottle of water and one apple. As in the US national parks here are not the native haunt of the cosy cafe selling cream teas. We are a little underprepared. Not to worry. We head off again, rather slowly as we have got ourselves behind a tourist bus. After eating its dust for a mile or so it turns into a parking area. We carry on.
At this point I am glad we have a 4×4 vehicle. The track is now distinctly rough and gleefully climbing at about one in three. It does this for quite a while. The rented Subaru Forester we have named Harry Potter keeps up with it no problem. I could get into 4x4s. Eventually we reach a flat bit. We get out to look around. Looking back we see the distant wall of the Andes and the track winding back for miles. Magnificent. Round about we still have the flowers and the birds and a for the first time few small trees. We drive on to the official summit car park.
The access to the park is by way of an earth path on the inland side and a wooden path on the coastal side. You access the inland hillside first. It an extraordinary mix of plants, mostly unfamiliar. There are still some of the large cacti. There are tall stalks with a spiked flower head and bright yellow flowers which look like medieval maces of a particularly vicious design, there are the shorter spiky leaved succulents we have met before, but there are also a mass of delicate blooms of all shapes and colours. The whole hillside looks like an exotic garden. Birds like firecrests but about the size of a sparrow are flying through the plants. They are quite bold so that we can get decent photos of them. On the down side we are attended by a couple of the biggest horseflies I’ve ever seen.
As you pass to the coastal side there is a remarkable transformation. Suddenly you are in a cool, green, temperate wood. The shade is very agreeable. There are a number of unfamiliar species here. All of them well grown, full size trees. The only ones for many, many miles.
You then walk onto a platform which gives a terrific view of the rocky coast way below with the breakers white against them. Beyond these, a couple of miles out to sea, is the low cloud which is a more or less permanent feature of the coast and which, as it blows onshore in the evenings makes the whole remarkable ecosystem possible. It is a fabulous view. As we look at it Alison spots a lizard on the rocks under the platform. We make our way back up towards the car park. We share our meagre supplies and feel a kinship with the hardy souls who must have pioneered this land centuries ago.
We didn’t set off with particularly high expectations of the park. It does not feature greatly in the guide books. Just a mention. But on a fine day like this a chance to view this extraordinary place and its wonderful views is worth every mile you have to drive to get here. It deserves to be much better known.
On the way back we took in the Andes again. I keep having to remind myself that what I’m seeing is that fabled range. No longer just a name on the map. We drive back out of the park portal and return the rule sheet to the ranger. We compliment him on his park. As we drive through the lower part of the track we disturb a sizeable group of donkeys or should I say burros, enjoying a dust bath at the side of the road. Then drive on to disturb a group of sheep sprawled in the middle of the track.
Back to the main road. We stop at the first roadside stall. It seems as if he family actually live here as they are eating in a back room. There are oranges for sale along with something which looks like a white and purple avocado stone. We do not venture to experiment but buy two oranges. We drive off the road looking for a quiet spot to assuage our hunger. The oranges have a peel whose thickness accounts for roughly half of their diameter but they’re better then nothing.
Back across the sun baked plain. As we approach Coquimbo the cloud increases. It is overcast by the time we join the rush hour traffic. We reach La Serena without too much trouble. We filter onto the congested Avenida and get back to the hotel. Apparently it had been cloudy and dull all day here. We made a wise choice in heading out of town. We get ready to hit the restaurants and refuel.