Copiapó to Santiago, December 10-14

In the very pleasant town of Copiapó, we had the good fortune to again stumble upon the local mineral expert. Way back in Malargüe, Argentina, we enjoyed a visit to the home of José, an amateur collector who happily showed us around his yard piled with crystals and fossils. In Copiapó, we were again sent to the home of someone named José, although this visit was different.

For starters, it turns out this José died 2-3 years ago. His collection is tended by his widow; a son from Santiago was in town as well. Son and especially mother seemed more than happy to uncover and unbox literally thousands of rocks in José's seemingly endless and impressively organized collection, and we were directed to look at many of them through special magnifying glasses. This José had been a professional -- later in our visit we were shown faded news clippings and an extensive guest book from his heyday of foreign visitors. Even later, we were treated to Sprite, photos of the extended family, and a romp with the widow's dogs. We ended up spending the entire afternoon. We tried to make some substantial purchases in return, but the small pile of unusual crystals we picked out only set us back $20. Photos 1 & 2 show some phases of our visit.

Next, we checked out the Elqui Valley (photo 3), known primarily for its extensive vineyards sandwiched between high mountains. The grapes in this area are used to produce pisco brandy, the main ingredient in the popular national drink, pisco sour. We toured a large distillery, which included tasting piscos of various ages -- embarrassingly, we couldn't really tell them apart. The pisco-sour cappers were yummy though (photo 4).

The Elqui and other nearby valleys provide access to many of the world's best astronomical observatories, located here for the clear air, high mountains, and lack of lights. A small one, Mamalluca, was built specifically for tourists. It offers visits every night from 8:30pm, with the last one starting at 2:30am. We opted for the 8:30 tour. The telescopes weren't super-amazing, but the sky was, and we learned a fair amount from the knowledgeable English-speaking guide.

After our fill of astronomy and pisco, Emily and Jennifer went for a horseback ride in the mountains (photos 5 & 6, obviously). Emily is angling for a minimum of four horse rides during our South America travels; with two so far and past the halfway mark, we're barely on track. Tim, meanwhile, is satisfied with bicycle rides.

From the Elqui Valley we pretty much drove through to Santiago, with an overnight stop and a couple of short mountain bike rides in the botanically and historically notable Parque Nacional La Campana (photo 7).

After much debate, we decided not to spend time in Santiago. It wasn't clear where we could stay overnight, or even where we could leave the camper conveniently and securely while visiting the city. (Our hunch was confirmed by José's son, who was so kind as to research the matter and send us email -- he didn't find anything within 70 kilometers of the city.) Also, although Santiago has some attractions to recommend it, our feeling was that we'd prefer to spend more time in Patagonia and less in the city.

Thus, our only activity as we passed by Santiago was a visit to the Apumanque mall, specifically to the model-airplane hobby shop in the mall. (Tim pinpointed the shop well in advance by emailing someone who'd posted a news article about Chilean model-airplane activities.) Tim spent considerable time examining numerous remote-control airplanes as potential Christmas presents, but it turns out the easier planes to fly are impractically large for the camper, and certainly for bringing home. Tim settled on an elaborate simulator program (with real remote control) for now, a wise choice in our current circumstances. Emily, who generally has more modest material desires than Tim, took the opportunity to select a new watch for her Christmas present.

Christmas is indeed right around the corner. When they've been feeling good about each other (which certainly isn't all the time, but often enough), the kids have dipped into their $1/day souvenir allowances to buy each other a few small Christmas presents. In addition, there's been quite a bit of activity in camper decorations: Scores of cutout snowflakes are hanging throughout (photo 8); there's a string of Christmas lights on the inside (plus a second removable string for the outside), a tiny tree, wreath, and tinsel. No doubt we're living in a festive Christmas-y atmosphere, contrasting (from the Northern Hemisphere point of view anyway) with the warm, dry summer conditions outside.

One persistent problem is the lighting of the lights. Electricity management in the camper is rather complex, and with our current scheme it's not possible to use a South American AC plug unless we're connected at a campground. Meanwhile, campgrounds in Chile so far have been less prevalent than in Argentina, moderately expensive when they do exist, and designed mainly for tents and not motorhomes. We've been opting mostly for "wild" overnight parking spots, unless we want to be really close to a town. (As we move south, national parks become more frequent -- they often make excellent overnight stops.) It's possible we can reconfigure our flashpacker array of converters, inverters, and plug adapters to light the lights from one of the camper's two batteries; as Christmas draws closer we'll undoubtedly be pressured to try.

Incidentally, if you've been anxiously awaiting batches of photos like we made available on the first part of the trip, you'll need to continue the wait. (No doubt many of you have been losing sleep over this very issue.) Uploading a set of photos can be a lengthy process, and so far we've had internet for short periods at a time -- our mode lately has been to search for a street corner in town with access to a wireless network, do our business from the confines of the camper, then depart before anyone notices. If by some miracle we find ourselves with overnight internet at some point, we promise to upload a set or two of photos. Meanwhile, we'll make sure to include a good compliment of photos with each travelog.

Next: More driving south, headed to the regions of Pucón and then Puerto Montt

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