Santiago, Chile could use a small dose of the heat wave blanketing the U.S. these days. The nearly 300 folks attending this week’s annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance had to pack coats, because it’s the dead of winter here.
Not that the winter’s so bad. Chile is a long, narrow country that runs from the tropics in the north to near Antarctica in the south, but Santiago is about the same latitude south of the equator that Raleigh is to the north, so the weather is comparable to January in North Carolina.
Nearing the end of an overnight flight from Atlanta, I was lucky enough to be on the left side of the plane on Sunday morning, and thus able to watch the sun rise over the Andes and layers of cloud. Arrival was uneventful, though expensive — did you know Chile charges Americans $160 just to get into the country?
The central part of Chile is gnarled by three mountain ranges, all of which run generally north to south. The Andes, with peaks up to 21,000 feet, are covered with snow this time of year. To the west, the Central Range runs to 6,000 feet, comparable to the Appalachians. Further on, the Coastal Range tops out at about 4,500 feet.
With no meetings on the agenda, I set out to see some of the countryside, hiring a driver/guide who spoke passable English (far better than my flunkable Spanish) to take me west through the small Curacavi Valley that winds through the Central Range and into the Casablanca Valley, home to many of Chile’s respected vineyards. Most of Chile’s rains come in the winter, so hillsides that are normally brown oozed verdant green through the rainy mist that held firm until we exited a tunnel that led us into the Casablanca Valley (which has nothing to do with Humphrey Bogart’s famous movie of the same name, which was set in Casablanca, Morocco).
Vineyards cover not only the hillsides, but also the rich flatlands of the valley that runs between the two lower mountain ranges. The grape vines are sharply pruned and skeletal in the dead of winter, a reminder of nature’s cyclical pattern that will bring new growth in the spring.
As Highway 68 — a private toll-road, like most major roads in Chile — winds through the Coastal Range, the stunted trees we’d been seeing gave way to tall firs and pines, with a few hardwoods mixed in. Valparaiso, first explored by westerners in 1536, is older than Santiago. And, even though Santiago is the capital, the National Congress meets in Valparaiso.
Valparaiso, Vina del Mar, and several smaller communities make up a metropolitan area that stretches over — and sometimes hangs onto — the sides of steep hills surrounding a large bay that hosts one of the country’s most important seaports. The cities, as one might expect, include small wealthy enclaves as well as larger districts marked by poverty. A few hillside trolleys remain from the many that used to aid residents in getting from their hillside homes to the city center below.
A day spent exploring one small part of Chile was yet another reminder that we live in a world far too beautiful for words, and far too precious to mistreat.