Returning to Chile VII: California Dreaming

Traveling along Ruta I-50, nicknamed the Ruta del Vino, from San Fernando to the coast, you begin California Dreaming. All the leaves are brown in the dozens of vineyards along the way. The road ends at Pichilemu, a surfers’ Eden. And in between, the earth yet trembles.

The main city on La Ruta del Vino is Santa Cruz, 62 kilometers (37 mi) west of San Fernando. This is the capital of the Colchagua wine district. As in many of the towns in O’Higgins Region, Santa Cruz’ adobe architecture crumbled back into the earth. The city’s main church was totally demolished by the quake. Museo de Colchagua also suffered significant damage and is closed. Several hotels and restaurants were also affected.

In the countryside surrounding Santa Cruz and westward towards Pichilemu is the Ruta del Vino de Colchagua where some of Chile’s finest wines are produced. Viu Manent vineyard was shut for several months after the quake, but has reopened. Many other wineries are also throwing open their gates to visitors For more information, check with Viñas Asociadas a la Ruta del Vino de Colchagua in Santa Cruz (Plaza de Armas 298, Santa Cruz, Tel: 72-823199, Fax: 72-825458, E-mail: info@rutadelvino.cl / reservas@rutadelvino.cl, URL: www.rutadelvino.cl).

The villages along Ruta I-50, like Manantiales, San Rafael, Santa Ana, Marchigüe and Alcones, are more wreaked than Santa Cruz. These small towns are largely composed of adobe homes. In many, mediaguas now stand next to the mounds of decomposed dirt and straw bricks.

Then the land begins to bunch into pine-forested hills, the Cordillera de la Costa. This range is caused by the earth buckling as the Nazca plate slips beneath the South American plate. The recent earthquakes are also provoked by this shift of plates. Soon, far on the horizon, the Pacific Ocean and Pichilemu are seen to the southwest.

Pichilemu's iconic ex Casino. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

The road ends at Pichilemu, a popular beach town 3.5 hours south of Santiago where many Santiagueños have built vacation homes here. Some complained that the dunes stringing the beaches were ugly and should be removed. But sometimes Mother Nature knows best. It was precisely because of them the town was saved from the worst effects of the tsunami. Only those areas along the Costanera not protected by the mounds of sand suffered damage. Pichilemu’s iconic ex-Casino, which had recently been renovated to become a cultural center and public library, suffered superficial cracks and one wall is unstable. Some adobe buildings were downed. The hotels and restaurants remained largely unaffected.

Many of the aftershocks continuing to quiver across the region are near Pichilemu. They can be barely felt, but about once a week a near-five-pointer will jerk the land. It seems everybody with Internet access has the Geophysical Department’s website on the favorites, ready to check out if what they felt was another replica or just a truck going down the street. One local bar has concocted its own house drink: Terremoto y Replicas, or Earthquake and Aftershocks.

Try a Terromotos y Replicas. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

But the earth’s continued trembling doesn’t keep the surfers away. Pichilemu is renowned for its three zones of left-break points—Playas Puntilla, Infiernillo and Punta de Lobos—with some of the most consistent large waves in South America. It is gaining popularity as a surfing hot spot among Chileans and foreigners alike both because of its own merits and because beaches further south of the capital were destroyed February 27. Cobquecura, the epicenter of the quake, is destroyed, as are other favorite spots.

Heading for the waves. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

For several weeks after the quake, the sea at Pichilemu was calm. Then it began to swell again. During Quiksilver’s Big Wave International competition May 19-20, waves reached nearly 25 feet. Winners pledged 50% of their takes to the town’s rebuilding efforts. On the recent Independence Day holiday weekend, the road out at Punta de Lobos (6 km / 3.6 mi from Pichilemu) was lined with cars. On the heights laypeople watched the surfers bob on the platinum-blue sea, waiting for one of those big waves to rise.

Most vacationers come to Pichilemu in the summertime. In the off-season, some hotels and restaurants close. But even in the off-season, some come for a weekend escape, to these warmer shores. Even in the dead of winter, the surfers come, boards under arms, for that is then when the waves are best in Pichilemu.

Damage from the February 27 earthquake extends 960 kilometers (576 mi), from Valparaíso to Valdivia. The country’s landscapes have changed, not only in terms of geology, but also what travelers can expect. Accurate information has been difficult to find. V!VA Travel Guides traveled through the zone to compile the most up-to-date information of any guide and is preparing a free post-quake supplement to V!VA Travel Guides Chile. Colin Bennett, a Santiago-based correspondent, checked out the situation in Santiago, Viña del Mar, Valparaíso and the Wine District. Lorraine Caputo, the principal author of the Chile guide, returned to Chile to cover from Rancagua to Valdivia.

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