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Getting To Know The Locals

June 6, 2012

We left La Serena, Chile, after Manuel had changed the piston rings. The car seemed OK, but shortly after we left La Serena, we noticed there was a new chugging noise when we accelerated, and the car started stalling every time we came to a stop in the street.

Our next surfing pit stop was a small village called Portofino, which is full of vacationers during the summer, but during fall and winter (we are currently in Chile’s fall season), it’s a ghost town. We were checking the waves coming off the point when we were approached by another guy checking out the point, and his two companions.

The point at Portofino

He turned out to be the only year-round resident of Portofino, Cristian Ramos (aka Chico Cristian), and he happened to be with two reporters from a national TV show called Chile Conectado, who were interviewing him about his interesting way of life at Portofino. Cristian surfs Portofino all year and lives off the grid, using solar panels. We surfed with Cristian that day  (maybe even getting a speaking part on the TV program — we’ll see in a couple of weeks when it goes online!), and he and his good friend Mauro invited us to barbecue with them that evening. We had a fun time chatting, eating and watching a Chilean surf movie together.

Mauro, Cristian and Michael relaxing in the sun

Me, Mauro and a giant whale vertebra

Michael and a giant whale rib

The next day, it was off to Antofagasta, a mining city on the coast. We ended up staying there for 5 days, looking for a good VW mechanic to help us with the small problems Berenjenita was having since we’d left Manuel’s in La Serena. In Antofagasta, we randomly met a friendly dude named Carlos, who works in the mining industry, while we were using the wi-fi at a gas station. Carlos had just moved to Antofagasta from Iquique, which is further north, and he gave us the advice to drive to Iquique to see a mechanic there, since Antofagasta is much more expensive because of all the mining industry money. We decided to take his advice, and the contact information of a good VW mechanic in Iquique that he gave us, and head north the following day.

Camping on the beach in Antofagasta

That same evening, the day before we were going to drive north, we started talking to a local guy in the street who asked us if we were surfers after seeing our surfboards in the van. His nickname is Coka; by day, he’s a Coca-Cola distributor, and by night, he’s Antofagasta’s only surfboard shaper. Coka was excited to show us his workshop. We shared a beer, he gave us a tour of his shaping and glassing studios, and we hung out and talked about Chilean surfing with him.

He drew us a map of all the good surfing areas, including secret spots, within 45 minutes south and north of the town. If only we’d met him at the beginning of our stay in Antofagasta! We didn’t get to surf there, but we did do a lot of tide-pooling right in front of where we parked and slept on the beach. Here are a few of the sea-dwelling beasties we stumbled upon:

La Portada, one of Antofagasta’s natural wonders

Instead of staying to explore Antofagasta’s secret surf spots, we stuck to our plan to drive to Iquique the next day, since we’d arranged to meet up there with our friends Lacey and Luis from Lost World Expedition. We had a fun time seeing them again, doing up a true Chilean-style meat-and-potatoes barbecue before parting ways. We brought La Berenjenita to the VW mechanic that Carlos had recommended, named Jorge, and he was able to adjust our carburetor so that the car would no longer stall whenever we stopped at red lights or slowed down. He could also tell by the chugging noise, and our recounting of the work we’d had done in La Serena, that there was some wear in our engine block where the drive train rests, and that we would eventually need to have the block re-machined and some parts changed. But he thought we could make it to Cuzco and Lima, and he advised us to have the work done in Peru because it would be cheaper and faster, since there are way more VW kombis in Peru than in northern Chile. For anyone needing a Volkswagen mechanic in Iquique, we fully recommend Jorge Vera (something we can’t do for Manuel in La Serena, as we found out later that his work was incomplete and badly done, causing us more problems than he fixed).

Iquique vista

From Iquique, we drove to Arica, a northern Chilean surfing town, and camped on the beach where we’d boondocked the first time we’d visited, about 2 months ago. We got to surf some fun beachbreak waves for one morning at Playa Las Machas. We headed out the day after we surfed, and crossed the border back into Peru. Our first planned overnight spot in Peru was a town in a valley in the middle of the desert called Moquegua. About 40 minutes before reaching Moquegua, a grinding noise starting coming out every time Michael shifted gears, and then 20 minutes before reaching the town, the grinding sound started happening more frequently. We just made it up into the area where we were going to camp that night when the grinding started sounding so bad that we knew we couldn’t drive further. We spent the evening looking online for a listing of VW mechanics in Moquegua, population 65,000. No luck.

The next morning, we decided to walk around the town and ask a few owners of the many VW Beetles we saw in the streets for a mechanic’s contact information. We had made it about 100 yards from our parking spot when we saw a Beetle in the lot of what looked like a military airport. We went into the yard, and it was actually a military flight school. They called for the school’s machinery mechanic, Gilmar, who then asked permission to leave from his colonel to help us out that day.

Gilmar called his friend Jesus, who knew a mechanic specializing in Volkswagens, and Jesus and his wife Margarita came to tow our car to the shop.

So now we are getting the work done on the engine block that should have been done the first time we’d had trouble, in La Serena, but it would likely have been much more expensive back in Chile. That terrible grinding noise? Our flywheel was loose and fell off while we were driving; it’s one of the several parts that we’ve now replaced. The mechanic will need a couple of more days to finish up the engine rebuilding.

In the meantime, we’ve been staying at Jesus and Margarita’s house. They’ve been so helpful and welcoming, and we’ve been having a lot of fun hanging out with them and their two teenage kids. We played a game of Monopolio (Spanish Family Game Night!):

Clockwise from left: Michael, Jesus, Margarita, Gilmar’s wife Marlene, Jesus’s daughter Maria Fernanda, Gilmar, Gilmar’s daughter Alessandra

and spent an evening showing each others’ childhood and current homes on Google Earth:

There’s something about this family that makes us feel very comfortable, as if they are our relatives. The culture of kindness and hospitality towards strangers is much more alive in Chile and Peru than we’d ever imagined possible. There may be parts of the U.S. or Canada where folks will take complete strangers into their homes, but I’ve never seen or heard of it happening firsthand. I think most people nowadays, especially city-dwellers, would be too cautious to invite strangers they meet on the street to stay in their homes. The kindness of the strangers we’ve met during our time so far in Chile and Peru – Chico Cristian, Miguel from Lima, Carlos from Antofa, Coka the surfboard shaper, and now Gilmar and Jesus and Margarita – has opened our eyes to what it really means to treat others as you would hope to be treated. My feeling is that in the U.S. and Canada, we’re a lot more guarded with our time, our energy and our possessions, and we tend to mistrust strangers until they’ve proven us wrong. Our experiences in South America have shown us that the opposite sentiment is prevalent in these cultures: share what you have, as tomorrow it may be yourself who needs help; trust in the kindness of strangers until they prove you wrong. Staying with Jesus and his family, we’re learning a lot more than how to speak Spanish.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2012 6:42 am

    Darlings, What a wondrful experience you are having. The VW repairs have led you to some wonderful people and wonderful experiences. I love this entry Delphine. I’m excited abbout the prospect of viewing Lake Titikaka? nd Machupicu? through your eyes. Keep Well and Happy. Love, Momma

  2. marisabowe permalink
    June 7, 2012 4:15 pm

    Love the beasties and “No Tocar NADA.” The last para made me teary. But maybe that’s just because I need a nap.

  3. November 12, 2012 10:33 am

    very nice trip, very nice blog! Could I ask you for some information? We are currently in Iquique with our VW and have technichal problems. Do you have the address of or the direction to the mechanic that is specialized on VW? Thanks a lot in advance.

    • November 12, 2012 10:41 am

      Hi there! Yes, here is Jorge’s information: Iquique, Chile: Jorge Vera, phone: 98380291, on O’Higgins past Pedro Prado (call to get him to meet you)

      Excellent VW mechanic. He adjusted our valves and could tell that we would need to get done what we later got done in Moquegua just by listening to the engine, and he told us to drive over the border into Peru because it would be a lot cheaper to get the work done there. Super honest and nice guy.

      I will email this to you as well. good luck with the vw!

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