Buses are all very well. In fact, in Chile, they’re great: comfortable seats, a multitude of flexible routes, fancy upgrade options and sometimes even an evening meal on board.
But there’s a certain magic you miss when riding high, ten feet or so above the road, on a long overnight bus trip. Chile’s roads are infused with it: lime green vineyards stretching straight from the highway to the sharp wall of the Andes; sudden rolls of hillside; fresh palta (avocado) for sale at the side of the road for US$2 a kilo. And it’s a magic you only really taste if you drive yourself, you and a couple of friends, following the map wherever it may take you.
Got van, will travel
We’re in a Santiago car park, keys rattling nervously in hand, loading up a brightly colored camper van for a trip down to wine country for fiestas patrias (Chilean Independence Day). We haven’t driven in central Santiago before, and certainly not in a van emblazoned with Easter Island moai and the slogan, “Chillin’ in Chile”. What will the more conservative local family holiday-makers think? Will we understand the road signs? Will we even make it to our destination, five hours (220 miles or 360 km) south of Santiago, in a wild piece of land near Cauquenes?
The bold-looking van is a Wicked Camper, a name instantly recognizable to Australians, where the Wicked franchise began. Wicked Campers – neat little vans equipped for sleeping, cooking and other camping necessities – have spread throughout Europe, Canada, the United States and South Africa, and a couple of years ago made their way to Chile, the first franchise in South America. Pablo Lama, Wicked South America founder and manager, was working for the Australian company when he and his bosses saw a golden opportunity to expand to nature’s greatest adventure playgrounds.
So Pablo headed back to his native Chile, and set up in Santiago with a fleet of two- and three-person vans. “Traveling in a camper van gives backpackers more independence,” says Pablo, in English, “and a really authentic experience of Chile’s incredible sights and landscapes.”
The call of the open road
The magic begins as soon as we shed the city limits and the countryside begins. It’s spring, a particularly lovely time to see central Chile, with vines coming into leaf, green on the hills and snow still gracing the tall, silent Andes. And the landscape is so much closer, so much more spectacular from the front seat of an ordinary-sized vehicle than from an air-plane scale bus seat. Stop for some groceries by the side of the road? Why not? Pull off to see the Colchagua Valley wine route? No problem!
Despite the holiday weekend, there’s relatively little traffic and we make good time down to Talca, the last major city on the Panamericana highway before we turn off to Cauquenes. We come off the highway and head through the sweet village of San Javier, decked out in its red, white and blue patriotic finery, until we reach our turning point: the Ruta de los Conquistadores. This will take us south-west through more wine country, leaving the Andes further behind as we creep up to our Fiestas Patrias destination.
And such wine country! We arrive at our hosts’ gate as the sun is beginning to set, and this does unbelievable things to the landscape: deep green fields stretching into quiet pine forests, golden-red earth, puddles at the roadside from last night’s showers, lit up a brilliant orange by the setting sun.
Natural paradise where Chileno meets hippie
We’re spending a couple of days at an Independence Day party being held at an eco-project in-the-works, a piece of land being slowly returned to the traditional crops, landscaping and agriculture of the region’s past.
“Kulenko” is 90 hectares of historic vineyard and wild country located about 9 miles (15 km) inland from the town of Cauquenes, in a valley between the small Coastal Mountain Range and the Pacific. Its geography gives it its own unusual micro-climate, both warmer and more humid than the land nearer the Andes or on the coast.
The local family who own the land are using the natural climate to recreate the native forest, repopulating the land with espino (spiny acacia) and boldo shrubs. The 60-year-old vineyard is being recultivated with the little-known grape of the region, uva pais, and the community is rebuilding houses lost in the 2010 earthquake using traditional adobe construction techniques.
Off the beaten track
Coaxing the van along the dirt-road to the campsite, the welcome view of the community fonda and the beginnings of a bonfire-barbecue opens up ahead of us. We find a level place to park and set up the bed and breakfast table, before heading down the hill for a much-needed glass of wine and a chorizo sandwich, the beloved Chilean choripan.
It’s spring, it’s dieciocho and people are itching to dance some cueca: this is a real piece of Chilean country life. And it highlights another joy of traveling Chile by road, because getting here by public transport – though possible – would be tough. South America inspires a certain spirit of independence and adventure, and some of its real treasures are tucked away where the buses can’t go. If you get the chance to drive, even for a weekend, then take it. You won’t regret it, and you’ll climb even further under the skin of this beautiful country called Chile.
By Clare Bevis