Tuesday, April 30, 2019

I've Never Been to Spain?

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.
Farm-fresh garlic spreads at Salamanca's central plaza
Salamanca's old train station is now a museum and part of a pleasant public park.
Nevertheless, the hotel was still walking distance from a handsome central plaza with a lively crafts and farmers market, a former train station turned museum and municipal park, and easy access to nearby petroglyphs. There are also wineries in the area, though I didn’t get to visit those, but Salamanca—where I’d stayed once several years earlier, still struck me as a good weekend getaway.
The pre-Columbian petroglyphs at Cerro Chalinga are walking distance from downtown Salamanca.
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).
The fountain at Combarbalá's central plaza represents indigenous Diaguita motifs.
Mexican ranchera music is popular in rural Chile, including Combarbalá.
Small-scale mines extract combarbalita for local crafts workers.
What Combarbalá does have is small-scale mining for the semi-precious gemstone combarbalita (I visited a local mine, thanks to Paola Yáñez of Inti Wasi Tour), and the community astronomical Observatorio Cruz del Sur, which offers nighttime tours in one of the best possible areas for professional and amateur astronomy. I stayed at the cozy Eco-Hostal Alto Algarrobal, one of many accommodations that will fill up in for July 2nd, when a total eclipse of the sun will pass nearby (Combarbalá will be slightly south of totality).
The approach to Observatorio Cruz del Sur, in the daylight hours.
The beginning of a nighttime tour at Observatorio Cruz del Sur
Combarbalá and other nearby towns will fill up for the July 2nd eclipse.
After a night at Combarbalá, I headed the next morning for the coast, where Los Vilos would make an ideal beach break for Santiaguinos returning to Chile’s capital. For my part, I continued along the coast to Viña del Mar and Valparaíso, which will be another story here in the near future.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Malbec World Day

Today, April 17th, is officially Malbec World Day, marking the date in 1853 when President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento established the foundation for Argentina’s wine industry by designating a French agricultural expert to import new vines from Europe. Among the varietals imported was Malbec which, a decade later, nearly disappeared in France after a Phylloxera aphid outbreak.
Argentina's 19th-century president, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, gets the ultimate credit for  Malbec World Day.
In Phylloxera-free Argentina, though, Malbec has flourished. Since the 1990s, it’s become an icon of the industry, but it's also present in California, Chile, and some other parts of the world. While it’s still relatively rare in Europe, last year we managed to find it in Bruges (cinematic reference too tempting), and couldn’t resist sampling it.
Last year, in Bruges, we found this French Malbec on a restaurant wine list.
Malbec’s always on hand in our household, but this World Malbec Day has a poignant aspect. On March 8th, as I was traveling in Chile, our beloved Alaskan malamute Malbec—nearly 15 years old—had to be euthanized.
This is our first World Malbec Day without this 2004 vintage.
Having returned home, I still expect to see him in one or another of his customary resting places when I get out of bed in the morning, and as I walk around the house during the day. On this Malbec World Day, we’ll raise a glass to him this evening, and encourage all his admirers to do so. He left a lasting imprint (pawprint) here.
Before Malbec died, the attending vet made us a pawprint.

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