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[whitespace] beach with boats

Chile's coastal resort town of Pichilemu bears a striking resemblance to SC--minus the asphalt and vegetarians

By Heath Davis Havlick

Picture a scenic beach town with great waves and laid-back locals. Every summer the population swells with an influx of tourists. This wooded coastal range enjoys a temperate climate and a long-standing fishing industry. I'm not talking about Santa Cruz. I'm talking about Pichilemu, Chile--Santa Cruz South.

A wedding invitation from an old friend led me south of the equator. Kevin Abegg, a fellow UCSC alumn and journalist, decided to spend a year in Chile and subsequently lost his heart to a Chilena. My husband was asked to read in the wedding--how could we say no to the honor and to the travel opportunity? My husband had been to Chile before and we had other friends who were due for a visit as well, so we packed formal clothes and beachwear and dug up our passports.

The 14-hour plane ride left us tired, but a good night's sleep prepared us for Kevin's wedding in Rancagua, Chile's answer to Fresno. I expected some cultural differences, but everything from the gown to the ceremony to the tented reception smacked of my own wedding--except that this one was conducted in Spanish and English.

After an entire day of nuptial festivities, the newlyweds left for their honeymoon, and we set off to visit Mitch Anderson and family, friends who have lived in Chile for 10 years. A potentially life-threatening three-hour bus ride sped us southwest from Rancagua down narrow roads through brilliant green countryside to the gently sloping beach town of our destination. Indigenous Chileans called the settlement, Pichilemu--Little Forest--for the velvety evergreen foliage covering the hills above town.

Pichilemu's best physical feature is, however, not the forest but the beach: black sand, twice the depth of Santa Cruz's main strip, with stony outcroppings to the south. It's a crescent bay reminiscent of Monterey, but smaller. Oregon pine blankets the hills ascending above the coastline, and a small river lazes through town, feeding a tranquil estuary in the northeast. The downtown area consists of two paved streets of shops and restaurants. Beyond that, hard-packed roads lead to cinderblock houses both small and two-storied. Environmentalism is not a burning issue here, so don't be surprised by candy wrappers in the streets.

Humble Beginnings

On a bumpy back-seat sightseeing journey up the coast, Mitch Anderson tells me that Pichilemu at the turn of the century was a small settlement removed from the coast. When Edward Ross, an entrepreneur of British descent, arrived in town. he saw gold in the black sand and built a tourist empire which included a first-class hotel, casino, tennis courts, garden (known now as Ross Park) and mud baths. The rich and famous came in droves and put Pichilemu on the map.

Then the US stock market crashed, and Chile entered its own Depression. To make matters worse, Vina del Mar and Valparaiso entered the contest for remaining vacation pesos. Pichilemu rode on the coattails of its former glory until the late '80s, when the Chilean economy began to boom. The fickle rich have moved on to new playgrounds, but the middle class keep coming back. Other people have begun to discover its charms as well.


Things you won't find in Pichilemu.


Mitch Anderson has lived in Chile for 10 years, where he has worked with Youth With A Mission (YWAM), an international Christian organization. First stationed in Santiago, Mitch, his wife Juliet and their four kids relocated to Pichilemu, their favorite vacation spot, in 1994. Once there, the Andersons began to build a new YWAM school and a sports center. Both lifeguards and surfers, Mitch and Juliet have organized several surf contests with local and international surfers in attendance. Michel Junod, local board maker and former Pichilemu resident, won the advanced division in one contest. Mitch, with the help of friends, also hand-poured a regulation-size pool, where they teach swimming lessons during the summer. As we discovered, the Anderson home is an unofficial UN embassy: on any given day, the home might host visiting Americans, a German, Chileans, a Peruvian or two and some Uruguayans.

SC Locals Catch a Wave

Heather and Anna Garaway, two of Santa Cruz's young surfing luminaries, happened to be in Pichilemu when we visited. Heather had just finished a European surf-teaching stint when she found out about Kevin's wedding and thought, "Why not? I'd just finished college, and I didn't have anything tying me down." The sisters stayed in the newlyweds' tiny house while they honeymooned and washed dishes for lunch at the Andersons' after their morning surf.

And how was the surf? Anna said it was BIG, but some days were a bit stormy. Even the surfers who aren't that great charge the double-overhead waves because "not surfing the big waves means not surfing," Heather said. October is Chile's early spring; the best surf comes in January and February. However, you then run the risk of not being able to get out to the waves because the beach is crammed towel-to-towel with vacationers. Heather's been here four times--it's one of her favorite places to surf--but she doesn't recommend it because she doesn't want it to get too crowded.

Nothing To Do But Be

Be prepared to relax in Pichilemu. That's why thousands of people flock to its volcanic shores each year. If you're not a surfer, there's not much to do BUT relax. Pichilemu is a place to just be. You could take a stroll through whatever remains of the "little forest" (the last mayor sold the land for timber and neglected to mention it until he'd left office). You could take a horseback ride on the beach in summer for a few dollars. Or you could set out for ice cream, my favorite daily diversion. There's an ice cream vendor about every 10 feet. There are restaurants and a few night spots as well.

Walking is truly the best mode of travel in Pichilemu. It gives you a feel for the town and its people, and no place you need to be is very far away. Mitch reports that there were only a few cars in town until the late '80s, and until the early '90s there were no car taxis to be found. You can still see horse-drawn carriage taxis in the downtown area, but they are few.


Vegetarians, beware. Kindness to our hoofed brothers has not caught on in the long stretch of coast that is Chile. Meat's served lunch and dinner if you can afford it. One of our barbecues consisted of freshly killed lamb--the meat still smelled of the pasture it was raised in. I passed. I also passed on the incredible meatfest called Cocimiento, a soup consisting of every meat currently known to man. Crabs and other shellfish go into the pot, shell and all, which makes for a rather gritty broth. I did give in to the primal need for flesh at a barbecue restaurant, where we were served portions of every conceivable four-footed animal AND chorizo on sizzling braziers.

Chileans do serve salad--often a mix of onions, tomatoes and green beans--and seem overly fond of small, flattish individual breads whose shape varies from region to region. Delicacies include cherimoya, a prehistoric-looking fruit that's mildly sweet and makes a great yogurt flavor, Nestle ice cream bars called Feelings which beat Dove Bars hands down, and locos, an abalone-type creature found only along the shores of Peru and Chile.


There are a few hotels downtown, but to get a better feel for life in Pichilemu, pensions are the way to go. A night's stay costs between $15 and $20, without meals. Private holiday cottages are available for rent as well, though they cost more and are self-catered. If you want to lug your tent all the way to Chile, there's also a vacant lot-cum-campground for the serious budget traveler. The tourism office in town offers information on lodging and a handy map.

A word of caution: learn some Spanish before you go. Not many people speak English in Pichilemu. And why should they? It's the responsibility of the tourist to attempt to navigate the host language. No matter how long you're planning to stay or what you'll be doing, polite attempts at Spanish are always appreciated and will make your reception that much warmer.

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From the May 7-13, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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