Chile – It may be winter in Toronto, but it’s summer here. While Santiago is blissfully empty, yesterday’s brief excursion to the coast had us competing for beach time with hordes of locals on vacation.
We drove northwest through Valparaiso, past Viña del Mar. Traffic moved at a snail’s pace, and the beaches were crammed with bodies, blankets and umbrellas. Each bend in the road revealed more high-rise condos looming over the ocean. It wasn’t what we expected, but we’re still determined to find that perfect sliver of sand and surf.
Today we’re 45 minutes from the coast. Should we drive north past yesterday’s disappointing outing or head off the beaten path? As we cruise along Route 68, I spread out the map and consider the possibilities.
I notice a twisty road that branches off the main highway and meanders toward the Pacific. The end of the line is an intriguing beach town called Quintay. It’s not mentioned in our guide book, but Rick gives it a thumbs-up and we’re on our way.
The freeway is wide, paved and empty. Fields of eucalyptus border the roadside, their menthol-like fragrance strong, and we decide they’re both intoxicating and toxic since nothing grows beneath the taller trees.
Near the outskirts of Quintay, the road winds down toward the coast. The air cools and the smell of the sea replaces that of eucalyptus. We strain our ears and finally hear the ocean.
At the end of a long, steep hill, we discover a tiny, perfect beach. Waves crash over the rocky alcove. Children frolic in the surf while adults keep a watchful eye. Kayaks and snorkellers bob in the froth, and dogs bark at divers in wetsuits. It’s busy but not crowded. Even our car gets an ocean view as it joins a dozen or so in the small parking lot.
A few restaurants line the beach, and we cross the boardwalk to Pez Cadores, the one with the largest deck. The Spanish menu lists varieties of fish unfamiliar to us, but English-speaking owner Lorena recommends some local specialities, abalone ceviche and rockfish grilled with garlic.
The meal is good enough to pair with a fine Chilean wine, but we stay with our original choice, a couple of cold Escudo beers.
Lorena fell in love with Quintay on her first visit 12 years ago and realized her dream of opening a restaurant seven years later.
But now her livelihood and Quintay’s charm are threatened with the area’s recent “discovery.” Local fishermen have been offered large sums for their modest homes. Tired of the strenuous work or ready to retire, many are accepting, and Lorena’s worried about where she’ll get her seafood.
Colourful cottages are jumbled across the surrounding hills. When we inquire about spending more time here, Lorena points out a small blue cabin. The owners live in Santiago and are amenable to renting.
After lunch we walk around the cove and visit an old whaling station, closed in the 60s. The curved skeleton of the building seems to echo the bare bones of the whales. It was a huge operation, which explains the impressive road leading to Quintay.
Back on the beach, we sit in the shade under the boardwalk and dig our toes into the cool sand. A wall of sound envelopes us – children laughing, dogs barking and ocean waves crashing.
Reluctant to leave, we stop to say goodbye to Lorena. The fishing boats are returning, and she calls us to the edge of the deck. “Come quickly and look,” she says. “Here is my fish for tonight.”
Below us, men pull a blue wooden boat out of the water and across the sand. A crowd gathers to inspect the day’s catch as it glistens in the late-afternoon sun. We want to stay but can’t, promising to visit on our next trip to Chile.
We only hope that the same Quintay will still be here to welcome us.