I’m still feeling the bliss of having Savannah down here with me. Every day that I’m not called in for work, I’m blasting off to a new adventure with her. My life feels complete now that she’s made it here. Photos are sometimes better than words, so I’ve dumped a ton here of some of the things we’ve been up to!
On a weekend off, we ventured South to a mountain cabin in a valley neither of us had been to, in the town of Las Peñas. The German family running the campground started building it in the early 90’s and it was lovely. Savannah brought us there, but we took a break from vanlife and stayed in a cozy cabin equipped with a fireplace and full kitchen. We soaked in a hot tub heated by a wood burning stove and made friends with the German family running the campground. There was a very stoic dog who kept us company, and the vibe of the place will tempt us to return. (And I got my mirrors replaced by a guy who custom makes them with the license plate etched in – it may very well be some game here in Santiago, but I hope if I play along, they won’t be stolen again)
After our trip, I’d be solo for a bit since there were firetrucks to be serviced in Bolivia. There weren’t a lot of blood samples collected that week, so I was able to roam about. I drove about an hour and a half North of the city to check out La Campana National Park which is known for being home to ancient Chilean palm trees. The drive was beautiful and it was apparent that autumn has arrived in the wine country.
My foot was bothering me a bit from the big hike the week before, running back down the mountain in worn out hiking boots wasn’t the best idea. After looking at the map, I decided I’d do a chill hike to “nuclear palma,” which I assumed was the center of a group of palm trees. The park ranger warned me that I may see some locals on horses or donkeys taking the dropped coconuts and carrying them up over the valley to sell on the other side. This was illegal, but if I didn’t take photos of them and minded my own business, it wasn’t dangerous. The park gate would close at 5:30 PM, camping was not currently permitted because the fallen palm tree debris was a fire hazard during this dry season. I felt crunched on time again with the gate closure, so I set off quickly to see as much as I could. The park was absolutely stunning – I never even imagined a mountain valley full of palm trees!
Once I got to the nuclear point of the palms, and it was in fact right in the dead center of a massive groove of trees, I took a brief break. I saw though that the trail continued and looked like it might crest the top of the valley rim. I checked the time, saw I still had a few hours, and decided to hike to the end of the trail/top of the ridge to see what was on the other side… maybe I could even see the sea.
The trail climbed up the valley. Soon I heard whistling and hoofbeats behind me, and my mind wandered back to what the ranger had said about coconut smugglers. I checked over my shoulder and saw a thin, older man riding a horse with two sacks of “items” lashed to the saddle. Behind him were 5 dogs of mixed breeds. I continued on the trail, but I knew at some point he would overtake me and it would be better to encounter whatever situation this was about to be now rather than later. I stepped to the side of the trail, smiled and waved. The dogs ran up around me, excited but not aggressive. The man returned my greeting with a big toothless smile and said “¿Cómo está, señorita?” to which I replied I was well and asked him the same. Seeming pleased to have a conversation he said he was also well and told me to enjoy the afternoon. He rode on past, I got a lick on my hand from one of the dogs, and soon they disappeared. The rest of the afternoon, occasionally, I’d think I could hear his whistling from up the valley.
I huffed my way up the switchbacks to the pass over the valley. Time was running out but I felt like I could still make it, maybe I would just have to run back. I knew I was getting close when I felt the wind pick up, it was refreshing! Once at the top, sweaty and out of breath, I realized there was no view of the sea, barely even the valley. Instead the pass was crowded with brushy scrub that I couldn’t see over even if I climbed up on some of the boulders. I couldn’t help but laugh though, then checked the time and realized it was time to run. I could see Savannah’s solar panels reflecting down in the valley and hoped I’d make it before the gate closure. I enjoyed the sunset as I padded back down the trail, again wistful I’d have to leave during my favorite time in the mountains. I made it to Savannah and through the gate just in time, then headed to my campsite.
That night I found a local campground listed on iOverlander. It was completely dead and it seemed that their company had been hit by covid pretty hard. It looked like in the past they had a thriving business since I saw remnants of a pool, picnic area, and some cabins. That night I had the company of a few dogs, who I may or may not have shared some of my dinner with.
I found out that I still didn’t have any bloods to process, so the next day I drove to the sea. I didn’t do much besides stare at the waves, it was perfect.
The second half of the week, blood duty called so I was back in Santiago. The packaging method has gotten more creative now the nurses are sending me the samples via Uber drivers. It may look like I have a secret admirer, but those gift bags are in fact full of tubes of blood. Switching back and forth between hippy and scientist sometimes gets blended together and I accidentally wore a not so professional shirt to the lab (bought in Mexico), good thing for lab coats 🙂
Over the weekend, I was able to blast off again, this time South. I explored the beautiful Reserva Nacional Rio de los Cipreses, which is nestled in a canyon in the Andes mountain range. Savannah had to work a bit to get up the washboard, dirt road 6 kilometers into the park. I did a 12 point turn on a very narrow road with a cliff on one side and a drop to the valley on the other. Once she was safe and parked, I realized winter really was on its way as I layered up with leggings under my shorts and a rain jacket over my Melly sweater. I wanted to get as far up into the canyon, along the river, as I could so I chose to do the trail farthest from the entrance of the park.
As soon as I started hiking it felt like the wind picked up and it had begun to sleet. The park was totally empty, likely due to the weather forecast. The trail was the width of a road and it gently followed the contour above the river and up into the side canyon. The mountains were stunning now dusted with snow and I’d occasionally trip on a rock or rut as my eyes were glued to their sharp summits. I met two horses along the way, saw a lot of condors, and even more tricahue parrots.
When I finally made it to the canyon and down to the river, I couldn’t believe how much it reminded me of Alaska. Perhaps it was the rich autumn colors or the bright, blue, glacial fed river. It was beautiful. I sat on a rock for a bit listening to the rushing water and my heart was full.
On the hike back, some wild fog moved in and performed light tricks on the summits. The fog and clouds danced along the ridges, it was magic.
I finished the evening watching a brilliant sunset from Savannah. Now, back in Santiago, I’ll finish my last week of work in the lab. Next week I’ll ship some DNA samples up to Chicago on dry ice, box up the equipment and left over supplies, and start preparing to travel to Chicago with a liquid nitrogen tank of the cell samples. The plan is for me to work in Chicago for 2 weeks, then make a quick visit home, before returning to Chile. Then, I’ll wait to be sent to Peru to start the same process of setting up a new lab and we’ll continue with the study on Peruvian populations. Life is about to be filled with movement very soon.
Been bopping around to this throwback lately: Hand in My Pocket by Alanis