Expat Living Experience Chile 2010

New Chapters in countries that start with “CH” sound

So we are on to our next adventure, in our quest to live in all the countries in the world that start with the “CH” sound, we have packed our things up in China, passed through Seattle, and are on our way to Chile.  In a few years we plan to move to Chad, completing the trifecta.

Specifics of what we are doing there, how, and where exactly in the country… i will save for when I’m actually there and can write from a sofa wih the laptop in front of me and a cold Pisco Sour in hand.  Suffice to say the primary driver was this—after 5.5 years with Microsoft and working on the same core business (Silverlight & Expression product lines), I was ready for a change in latitude at work… and for the family, it was going to be now or never if we wanted the kids to be indoctrinated in the black arts of the spanish language with a native accent.  As most of my friends and many of my colleagues know, i lived in Chile at a young age and it has markedly defined my personal life perspective, goals, and temperament… i’ve always wanted to replicate some aspect of that experience for my own children, and low-and-behold, we opted to do a flashback and replicate it exactly! 

Cristina and the kids are on the beach in Zapallar as i type, already enjoying Machas Parmesanas, Locos con Mayonesa, Lucuma flavored ice-cream, Chirimoya fruit, and our favorite—Maraqueta bread, fresh twice daily, still warm from the oven when you put the butter on it and a inch of Palta (avocado) with some salt.  It is the 18th of September there tomorrow, the independence day of the country, so she is enjoying celebrating with family and is off to a rip roaring start.

I am finishing up at work tomorrow and turning in my badge (literally), then taking a week to wrap up things with the house and some friends and family, and then voila, off to rendezvous and begin the next chapter.  I’m officially changing the blog sub-heading today to “Chilean Keys”, as Beijing is now so yesterday…

Much more to come, now that Cristina and I can access the blog freely, from an unregulated internet market (no Chinese firewall to get in the way!

We are here — Chile 2009

Which is where? Pisco Elqui, of the Valle del Elqui, about 6-7 hours north of Santiago, due east of La Serena, close to the Andean border with Argentina.  Beautiful, dry and warm climate.  A throwback to the 70s with Chilean hippies, lots of crochet, and a very non-commercial yet tourist friendly ambiance.  Tiny.  It is 1% the size of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, with the same blend of colonial/rural/mestizo look and feel with a reverence for nature and new age spirituality. No gringo owned art galleries, no outrageously gorgeous jewelry stores, but a handful of tiny shops with local artisanal products, some really cute restaurants, cabins for rent, horses and lots of vineyards.  This is the center for Pisco; two brands that come from the region are Capel and Mistral, the latter taking its name from the famous poet Gabriela who hailed from the region. Not far from here is an organic winery. The valley also houses a couple state-of-the-art observatories with the some biggest telescopes in the world. Can’t wait to check them out, but for the time being, looking at the stars with the naked eye is pretty phenomenal–even with a moon, you can see shooting stars and globs of constellations, 300 days a year.

We live in a funky house that was probably built 100 years ago, but renovated with Balinese flair by Justin, son of Ximena, friend of Jane and Emilio. Justin and his wife Cony lived in India and Bali pre-babies. They’ve been here around 6 years. Very creative folks with cute kids and lots of interests. With others in their community, they helped start up a Waldorf school, part of a branch of alternative schools based on German philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s alternative beliefs about children’s development and education. One of our reasons for coming to Elqui (sight unseen for both of us) was our belief that this nurturing school environment would be the most stress-free way to get the kids immersed in Spanish.  So far, both kids come home jubilant and go to school excited to see what will unfold. It’s only a 10 minute walk and a big part of my day has been getting them both there and back (their days start and end at different times).

That says a lot about the pace of our lives.  There’s not a lot to do or anywhere to go, which is just fine by us.  Forest has been productive in a little office he set up here at the house. When the boys come home we all have lunch at 2, Chilean style.

October has always been my favorite month and Fall always felt like renewal to me, but on the flip side of the seasons, starting Spring on the flip side of life after Beijing, in our own topsy turvy way it all feels right.

Road Trip to Copiapo

Oct 26, 2010

This weekend we decided to hit the road, departing from Pisco Elqui (where we have been living in Chile, in case that is news to you!):

(view from our home’s porch, up the valley):

The valley behind leads down from our town towards the sea and the “city” of La Serena…

… (which is in the IV Region of Chile) to head north towards Copiapo, capital of the III Region.  A gorgeous drive on the new “coast highway” in the III Region, about 200 miles of “dirt” road that drives like a dream–we could make 60mph+ for long stretches at a time.  We saw 3 cars all day on Saturday, and literally 100s of miles of gorgeous beaches with few to no people on them.  Here’s the road… sometimes straight as an arrow for 20-30 miles at a time.

The view out the window was captivating, and although we saw many “vicuna xsing” signs, we didn’t see any (vicunas are like llamas… wild in this part of the country)

Did I mention, the beaches were EMPTY?  Here’s our car parked at the national park parking lot… gorgeous dunes, not a soul in sight!

At our northernmost point, we hit “Bahia Inglesa”, a lovely beach resort with 150 full time inhabitants.  There were about 50-60 beach goers there on the saturday, presumably from the nearby Copiapo and Caldera cities (towns of 50,000 or less, 90  minutes drive from this isolated beach):

We stayed in the hamlet of Huasco one night, caught the local children’s halloween costume parade, apparently becoming very popular down here in the southern hemisphere.

we hit a local market for fresh produce on our way back home; Cristina’s keen sense of haggling, developed in Beijing and in Chinese, has transitioned marvelously to the Chile/Spanish…

and then arrived home sweet home.  All the best from the entire family, from Pisco Elqui Chile (sorry, couldn’t get a picture of all four of us yet–we’ll keep working on that!)

Pisco Elqui Gorgeous Views

Nov 23, 2009

So our little house in Pisco Elqui is part of a vacation rental complex run by our neighbor/landlord called Cabanas Elquimista, and amongst the little cabins/houses dotting the side of the valley wall is his house itself, which he built and which has a super groovy hippie good-times vibe going on.  My favorite feature of his house is his porch, which has a completely open/infinity-horizon thing going on because it actually has no railing/safety perimeter, rather, it just extends to an edge and then drops about 12 feet down the ravine… a perilous environment or late night drunken accidents to occur (remember, this is the home of Pisco production in Chile, a brandy like booze of 100+ proof, usually drunk with sugary mixes which makes it go down faster and hit you harder than usually prudent).  Take a look at the porch:

I tell you, it is positively exhilarating to be on a structure that has both a great view, and a palpable sense of imminent chaos of human bodies flying off the edge into the abyss!

The entire property has that feeling to some extent, in that the houses are all built along the break in the valley, giving great panoramic views from most places on the property, including the pool and the terraced cactus gardens (we are in a desert, remember!)  Here are a few more shots of the environs:

Mistral Pisco Distillery Tour

Nov 23, 2009

Per the namesake of our little town, yes, there is actually some Pisco distillery action in the ‘hood at the Pisco Mistral production plant.  Pisco is a Chilean and Peruvian liquor that runs between 40 and 55 % alchohol levels (80 to 110 proof), and to my untrained palette taste pretty much like a brandy.  In it’s basest form, the stuff is usually mixed with Coca Cola to make a “piscola” drink which gets you drunk in a hurry and at a super low cost.  A bottle of generic Pisco runs as little as $5 USD at the market.  The industry apparently has some hopes of upping the profile of the drink, perhaps because they are loosing out on the “get drunk quick and cheap” market segment to Rum, which is even cheaper still, and comes in from export countries that have a ton of sugar crops which i presume are higher yielding/volume than growing Pisco from wine grapes.  So, towards the end of improving the drink’s reputation and charging more per bottle, the local Mistral distillery has been putting the product into oak barrels to age for a few years, giving it a decidedly woody taste and a yellower color. The tour of the plant is most impressive, particularly in admiring the swanky new “bodega” they have put in place to make the whole thing seem more regal.  Check out the inside:

The old copper boiling kilns were pretty cool as well, where the grape juic/wine is boiled to extract the alchohol so that it can be condensed and then distilled and later put into the oak barrels.

And, this awesome looking old school truck for transporting the grapes from the harvest in the fields:

But by far, better than the product/pisco that we sampled, was the “disneylandesque” garden and restaurant, which have been built to convey “better than your average piscola” heritage to those visiting:

Halloween in Chile 2009

Nov 23, 2009

When i was a kid living in Chile in the 1970s, the lack of a Halloween celebration was one of my biggest beefs with the country (the other two were lack of Root Beer, and no saturday morning cartoons).  So it is with surprise and amusement that we now find that Halloween is a serious event here, even in our own little town in the mountains.  I have mixed feelings—on the one hand, it is obvious that kids love the fun and the candy, so it is a great thing for children everywhere to partake in.  On the other, the shameless consumerism of made-for-industry holidays like this one (something like 20% of all candy for the entire year is sold for the event, in the USA) is abhorrent and a bummer to see it so far away from its consumer roots in the USA, infiltrating little villages in the Andes!

Check out the little dirt roads in our town, with scary kids in pursuit of mischief and candy + artificial colors.

Desert Drive to Coast

Nov 23, 2009

Emilio and I did an amazing overland trip from Pisco Elqui.  When you look at a map of chile on Google Maps, you get a very false impression that all roads are created equally.  In our part of Chile, maybe 10% of the roads are paved, so a good local map not only distinguishes between paved/not but also between degrees of “not paved”, which range from packed gravel, to packed dirt, to loose dirt, and then the lowest form of them all, loose dirt SINGLE TRACK, roads that are so gnarly that you not only need a 4×4 vehicle, but also to drive with trepidation because at any moment you could find yourself facing down another vehicle, on the middle of a steep hill with no guardrails.  The first leg of our weekend outing was on such a road, south from Vicuna into the Rio Hurtado valley.

The first hour we probably were making 40km per hour progress, but then the road got really hard core and we were down to 20km/p/h for long stretches.  It took us over 3 hrs to go less than 40 miles.  But it was the most fun i’ve ever had with a 4×4 vehicle, and the vistas were just incredible… the air is so dry, you can literally see mountains in the distance that are 100s of miles away.

Once we got to Hurtado the road opened up and eventually became paved, as we made our way into Ovalle for a yummy lunch at the local “Social Club”.  Afterwards we continued along a paved road down to Combarbala, through river valleys and past mile after mile of grapes, avocadoes, and other fruits being squeezed from the desert by modern irrigation marvels (we saw several large irrigation damns).

The cacti were fantastic, some flowering with bizarre fruits.  Late in the afternoon we hit the coast at Huentelauquen and made our way down to Los Vilos, a windy place to say the least, but still charming.  We found a funky little hotel with a great deck view of the bay:

and then we walked out to the point of town to catch the sunset, followed by a feast of abalones and wine before snuggling up in our beds (i had forgotten how humid the coast is, i much prefer the dry as bone desert air in our village)

The next morning we did some exploration of the coast between Pichidangui and Los Vilos for possible property investment, the highlight of which was this piece of land, complete with amazing cliff and ocean inlets—a bit pricey at $130,000 USD for 1.5 acres. 

On the plus side, it does include water and electricity… unlike other properties we saw that were 1/10th the price, but playfully offered as “eco-lots” because you are on your own to produce solar/etc. for your water and power needs.

Here we are at Pichidangui beach, which tata of course wanted to immediately ravage with a quick swim (i held him off till later in the day, in Totoralillo closer to Serena).

Punta Choros and Isla Damas

Nov 23, 2009

This weekend we picked the kids up after school and headed down to the coast to explore the Isla Damas national park area, famous for fauna lining the islands just off the coast.  The Humboldt current runs along the coast of most of southern Chile, with icy cold waters that come up in a subduction zone that brings rich nutrients from the depths up to the surface where fish can gorge themselves, and then a sequence of predators can gorge on them and each other in a fantasmagorific orgy of consumption.  Bottle nose dolphins, orcas and other whales, dozens of migratory birds, sea lions and otters, etc. line the coast feasting on each other.

The drive on yet another dirt road was fun as always, the thrill has far from eluded me (to date), and led to a windswept peninsula/point with the little town of Punta Choros.  I had found some cute cabins on the web earlier in the day, and they were even better in person.

We were undeterred by the wind and set off for several great hikes along the coast, with mostly clear skies over the weekend and warm temperatures if you could lay down low enough to get out of the wind!

Sunsets were fantastic as usual, and a local fisherman sold us a dozen LARGE abalone for about $1.50 USD per… it was yet another abalone orgy, as we prepared them with mayonaise, stir fried with pasta, and ate them on little toasted breads.

The evenings were fun, we didn’ t have internet connection or tv, but we did have our portable electronics and plenty of electricity to power them…

The highlight was the “3 hour tour” (we explained the meaning of that phrase to the kids, who thought that it sounded hilarious (Gilligan’s Island) to the islands.  As luck would have it, my camera ran out of battery power very early on the outing, so i missed dozens of great wildlife shots of dolphins and sea lions, which were a thrill to see in such high density in their wild environments.  The dolphins were everywhere, jumping high into the air at several points, and following our boats around playfully as usual (we see quite a bit of them in Santa Barbara shores in California).  Here’s a poor stand’in photo wise:

Just 30 minutes into our drive back home sunday morning, both the boy asked “when can we come back”, so this clearly ranked as a top 10 destination for them—they really like being in beach cabins i guess?

Rural Roads in Chile

Dec 3, 2009

Only one road goes in and out of this town.  No one goes to work in an office. Kids don’t play organized sports of any kind, and although there is a big open dirt field to play futbol, hardly anyone does. There are three nice bars and 2 divey ones. Everyone hates the foggy coastal city La Serena. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t do some kind of art, craft or music. You can get Pisco Sour flavored ice cream. When we need to buy one or two things for a meal, we go to the local almacen that has stuff behind a counter. When we want to stock up on meat and produce, we drive 45 minutes to Vicuna, a bigger town that has one store for veggies, one store for meat and dairy, and one for dry goods like beans and rice.  The kids get a comic book  and use their pocket money to buy “Gogos,” the latest craze in small, collectible plastic playthings, or maybe we’ll indulge them with a Bilz, the Chilean “Bebida de Fantasia,” a bright red soda that tastes like heaven.  We are always happy to come back to the warm embrace of the dry hills that envelope our valley cabana.

In the Greek classic the Odyssey, and in Tennyson’s poem “the Lotos Eaters,” Odysseus and his men get mired in a land of languid air and intoxicating flowers which the sailors want never to abandon. Why go back to a land of toil, they ask, when one can spend days looking at the view? From their awesome terrace? Drinking wine and eating cheap avocados every day?? To hell with the crappy internet connection. Oh, wait, what was I talking about? The Land of Lotus Eaters or Pisco Elqui?

We settled in here 2 months ago, and have been loving it.  However, when the boys break for Summer vacation in mid-December, we will take off.  We spent the last month diligently researching areas to live for the next couple of years, and it was a hard decision to rule out Pisco Elqui, on the grounds that Forest’s business will be very hard to manage out here with the internet infrastructure being sub-optimal, adding time to international travel (it’s another 1-hour connecting flight up here from Santiago and only one a day).

Staying with the “Ch” theme, we will move to Chicureo in January:  20 minutes outside the capital, semi-country, semi-urban, great Montessori school, lovely house with big yard.

I’m sad.

I feel like Robert Plant when he sang “Baby, you know I’m gonna leave you. I’m a leave you in the summertime. Leave you when the summer comes along.”

People have asked how we are able to do this. Move around. We have our methods. But it isn’t so so so easy.  My feelings get all stirred up. I cry. We talk. And then we ramble on.

Santa @ The Beach in Zapallar

Dec 25, 2009

In what is clearly the most damning evidence that Santa Claus and Christianity in general are ill suited to southern hemisphere culture, we are enjoying the pagan winter equinox festival which coincides with the coldest and darkest season in europe, summer equinox style at the beach in Zapallar with family.  Balmy days, sun setting at 9:30pm, and santa arriving at the beach do deliver colorful balloons at sunset while the kids scream and go crazy—good times!

Road Trip to Mendoza

April 5th, 2010

So it was easter week here in lovely christianized south america, and Cristina was itching to get out of dodge so we opted for what we thought initially would be a proverbial “3 hour tour” to cross the Andes mountains over to the Argentinian side of the border, and the fabled city of Mendoza which is famous for wine and great steaks.  Looking at the map it looked like 3 hours of driving, but we added a safe 2 hours to handle the vertical since we would be going from about 3,000 ft to about 10,000 ft at the pass, plus dealing with the border crossing itself.

Before we left, we set out getting the paperwork in order for our party—both passports for the people and documentation for the car.  This led to a goose chase to track down about 5 different documents that we needed to procure for the car, including a sworn affidavit so we could leave the country with the car since the car is in my uncle’s name (we couldn’t buy the car when we arrived because we needed a RUT #, another wonderful paperchase unto itself); we also needed a international insurance policy (which we bought at a department store akin to Macys), and we needed to find the equivalent of the car’s pink slip (which had been mailed to us in a non-descript envelope that luckily we kept out of uncertainty, about 4 months earlier), and as luck would have it, it was also the time of year to renew the car’s circulation papers.  On the passport front Emilio had to leave the country and come back as he has been here for 180 days without exiting, and we had to dig up and find our “residence permit in transit” papers to show that we are ok to be here for more than 180 days which it has been since we arrived.  Alas, we found everyting, a miracle unto itself, and promised to set off FIRST THING in the morning on Friday so that we could avoid the expected crushing traffic at the border from other weekend trippers heading over in search of great steaks!

A lazy morning and late departure later at 9:30am (as opposed to the goal of 7am) and we had a lovely drive up the valley which is really amazing in how quickly it rises, getting narrower and crazy steep very quickly and culminating in a series of switchbacks that traverse the last 1000 meters of vertical rise in a mere few miles, culminating in a tunnel that goes through the border and into argentina.   The Chilean side topography and flora are completely different than the argentinian side, so it is very dramatic to emerge from one side of the mountain on the other—most notably, the slow and undulating slope down from the mountain on the argentinian side hints of the less violent nature of the mountain formation on that side of the tectonic action.

Then our “3 hour tour” illusion was burst, as we pulled into the joint border processing center, about 5 miles past the border, where we pulled into a nicely compacted line of cars that turned out to be a 2.5hr snail crawl into a large building where no less than 5 different government functionaries stamped and reviewed our various documents—the car getting the worst of it (are there a lot of cross border car thefts?)  The kids were remarkably fine with the long drive in the car, kept busy by Little Lulu books and their Nintendo DSs + some Simpsons episodes on the iPod. 

The remaining drive down the valley and into Mendoza was lovely, along really pretty river terrain but with worsening traffic as we connected with the Mendozino day trippers who had escaped to the mountains for some hiking and river rafting.  We arrived at our hotel after 6pm, a solid 10 hr drive (including a break for lunch).  Yikes!!!  Much more than bargained for.


Of Mendoza, i’d say: beautiful, large european style promenades, gorgeous old homes throughout town, great outdoor restaurants and ice-cream shops, bustling nightlife (of course!), and delectable Steaks and Pasta!  Really surprised us how nice the city was, significantly more interesting and entertaining than a similarly sized chilean city would be.  The wine culture there has developed a nice tourism halo around it, with lots of wine tours and foodie activities (we were with kids so didn’t fully appreciate).  We had a great saturday walking around town, must have done a good 10km of walking total—kids were troupers although their feet hurt at the end of the day.

And for the ride back—in terror of facing a long border crossing and Chilean car traffic returning from the long weekend, i forced the family to get up and be in the car by 6am, which turned out to be fantastic as we had NO traffic, no wait at the border, and made the return trip in 5 hrs door to door!  I wouldn’t do the drive again on a holiday weekend, ever, as we heard that the border can take 5 hrs to get through just in immigration/paperwork and i think that would have really driven me over the edge of sanity.  Definitely would return to Mendoza, our visit was too short.


The ice-cream shop had 6 different variations of Dulce de Leche—just like Eskimos have lots of words for snow, Argentinians like their Dulce de Leche ice cream!

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