Late last winter, during the famed 18 de septiembre holidays of Chile, we decided to head north. Our ultimate destination was La Serena, but along the way we made a stop in a small agricultural community called Ovalle.
Chile's unique shape leads one to think linearly in terms of travel within the country. With Santiago just about in the center of the country, unless you decide to hop in a plane the limits of your traveling will be predicated on how many hours you can stand to be on the road. It's for that reason that many Chileans know their own country only as far north as La Serena or so, and as far south as Puerto Varas or Chiloé. That's about as far as most people are willing to drive at one stretch, and those with the money to fly often choose more distant destinations, such as Buenos Aires, Brazil, the Caribbean or other places in the US or Europe, rather than San Pedro de Atacama or Punta Arenas within their own country.
As travelers of modest means, those same limits apply to us as well, and the extremes of the Atacama Desert and rugged Patagonia are, so far, still unknown. But once we set our sights as far north as La Serena, a little research turned up an oddity of a national park known as Fray Jorge along the coast near Ovalle. Generally speaking, as you head north from Santiago the climate grows drier and drier, and to the south wetter and wetter. But Fray Jorge is an exception, a dripping wet forest lying some 7 hours to the north of Santiago and surrounded by arid landscapes. Why not check it out?
So we got a hotel in Ovalle and started looking for a way out to the coast. It turns out there's no public transport heading there, and no rental car agencies in such a small rural town. But a few taxi companies were scattered around the main strip, and boasted turismo among the variety of services proffered on their signs. After some negotiating I was able to work out a reasonable price for a full day trip to Fray Jorge and another potential destination or two to be decided. So after a night's rest with cable TV, we got in the backseat of an SUV and were on our way.
Valdivia, some 7 hours south of Santiago. Also seen along those hills is a swatch of road which would carry us up and over to the other side.
The cloud of mist hanging over the forest, known in an indigenous language of the area as camanchaca, is the source of moisture for many plants and animals living in the otherwise dry north of Chile. Similar mists and fog blowing in from the coast grace the landscape of other parts of the northern deserts of Chile as well, and help to explain how any vegetation can exist at all in places with no rainfall in recorded history.
Pretty and nice to walk around in, but it was no forest. Some say climate change is the culprit of such deforestation, while others blame direct human exploitation of the area for timber and firewood over the years. At any rate, some 100 square kilometers of misty hillsides are now under the protection of Chile's CONAF, and from what I've seen in my limited interaction with CONAF's park rangers and infrastructure, they run a tight ship.
So we opted for the more relaxing alternative, Termas de Socos. That was a set of hot springs in a resort. After a previous experience with some nice rustic hot springs in Pucón, that sounded like a fine idea. In the photo here you can see a very promising pool, for example, to the right of our little girl. But oddly, that was not hot water. It was damn cold, in fact. Hence the total lack of bathers. The real hot spring water, inexplicably, was pumped only into bathtubs of the sort you would have in your own bathroom, tiny and narrow, each located in exceedingly uninviting private stalls. Fortunately, the receptionist at the resort gave us a chance to check out the facilities before we paid, and after a cursory inspection, we promptly headed back to the car. It was baffling to me that a resort would develop such nice facilities, only to set up the main attraction, the hot springs, in such an unattractive way. Any resort I've been to before has either built public pools, or designed private baths in a setting more in touch with the overall design of the resort itself.
That was too bad. But it illustrated a more general observation we had of Ovalle. The town of Ovalle, too, bustling with activity for a community its size and seemingly a fine place for the local people, was nonetheless at something of a loss for what to do with visitors. While it is surrounded by a number of nice attractions for tourists in the near vicinity, we were the only tourists to be found in the area, and this during a week-long holiday when literally millions of tourists were in search of vacation spots. As a destination, Ovalle is decidedly off the map for travelers. Which begs one of those chicken-and-the-egg quandaries. Does Ovalle lack tourists because it is unprepared to receive them, or is the infrastructure lacking because no one comes to enjoy it?