I’ve never been to Spain. Well I have been, I guess, if you count Catalonia as part of Spain, because I once spent a week in Barcelona. But I’ve been to Salamanca…oh, wait, not that Salamanca! Earlier this month, I spent two nights in the Chilean city of Salamanca, which I’d visited before, but this was an escape from Santiago after spending most of the previous two months in Patagonia.
|Gregorio de la Fuente's "Abrazo de los Pueblos" still decorates the now disused passenger terminal of Los Andes' Ferrocarril Transandino.|
How did I get to Salamanca? Well, I started slow, thanks to late-rush hour traffic out of Santiago, but then headed north to the town of Los Andes, where the Ferrocarril Transandino once carried passengers and freight across the Andean divide to Mendoza. I had no intention of visiting Argentina this time, but I did want to see the mural by Gregorio de la Fuente—his "El Abrazo de los Pueblos” (Embrace of the Peoples) at the old train station is a celebration of Argentine-Chilean friendship. It was just a brief stop, though I did learn that there’s now an occasional tourist train on this route.
|Vehicles pass along the old railroad route through Túnel La Grupa, near the town of Cabildo.|
Symbolically, at least, trains played a role in my route to Salamanca, as I took the paved highway west to the town of San Felipe and then north through scenic Andean foothills that resemble the higher, drier parts of Southern California. There are only scattered settlements along this route E-71, which leads to the town of Cabildo; there, a traffic light controls access through the Túnel La Grupa, one of a series of tunnels that belonged to the Longino, the Ferrocarril Longitudinal that connected La Calera (west of Santiago) to the nitrate mines and ports of the northernmost Atacama Desert.
|The landscape here resembles the higher, drier areas of Southern California.|
I’d driven this route before, but not for several years. In the interim, authorities have either paved—or begun to pave—much of it north of the border between Region V (Valparaíso) and Region IV (Coquimbo). This is significant because most of Coquimbo’s population resides along the coast, where cities like Los Vilos and La Serena attract beachgoers from Santiago, and this is a more adventurous (if slower) alternative to lesser-known points.
|Túnel Las Palmas marks the border between the Valparaíso and Coquimbo regions.|
|Café Quarzo is one of few roadside services here.|
There are few services on this stretch of “highway” but, surprisingly, one enterprising local has opened a small café on the northbound descent from Túnel Las Palmas, which marks the regional border. She sells ground coffee drinks—in a country where Nescafé is often still the default option—as well as juices and mineral souvenirs (hence the name Café Quarzo). The road continues, passing several railroad bridges, to the enigmatically named village of Caimanes (there are no carnivorous aquatic reptiles here, though; the name apparently comes from an indigenous Mapundungun [Mapuche] word meaning “six condors”).
|Carnivorous aquatic reptiles do not populate the area around Caimanes.|
|Túnel Las Astas is the last of three short tunnels north of Caimanes.|
The foundations of the old railroad station still stand here, but there’s no more obvious evidence until a short distance north, where the road passes through three short tunnels with no traffic lights. Several years ago, in Argentina, I met two US cyclists who’d taken this road on my guidebook recommendation and loved it, but they confessed their trepidation in riding through the narrow tunnels, with little room to dodge any oncoming vehicle. That said, this route remains a potentially great ride for adventure-seeking cyclists.
|The old train station at Limáhuida is now a country store.|
Emerging from the Túnel Los Astas, the road continues to Limáhuida, where the old train station is now a small market and fading wooden workshops still stand below it. That’s also where a new bridge crosses the Río Choapa and leads east to Salamanca, where I spent two nights at the modern and comfortable Hotel Recanto, on the eastern outskirts of town.
|Hotel Recanto is full during the week, but nearly empty on weekends.|
Oddly—or not—I was virtually the only guest in contemporary accommodations with spacious rooms, solar-powered hot water, and an outstanding restaurant. That’s because it clears out on the Thursday and Friday, as mining managers—there are large copper deposits in the area—leave for the weekend.
|Salamanca's old train station is now a museum and part of a pleasant public park.|
It’s not the area’s only attraction, though. The next day I took the paved highway north to Combarbalá, a village which, on the face of it, resembles some Mexican villages, with narrow streets lined by adobe houses and even ranchera music. To get there, I did veer northwest off the more direct but still unpaved railroad route (though, had there been tunnels, I would have taken it again).
|Mexican ranchera music is popular in rural Chile, including Combarbalá.|
|Small-scale mines extract combarbalita for local crafts workers.|
|The beginning of a nighttime tour at Observatorio Cruz del Sur|
|Combarbalá and other nearby towns will fill up for the July 2nd eclipse.|