To mark the third year since we set sail from Holyhead, we jumped on a bus to Pichilemu, the surf capital of Chile. Franco thought that sixty-one was a good age to learn to surf on a board.
I held secret reservations. The weather forecast was for daytime temperatures of 15 degrees Celsius, fairly cool. It had dropped a lot since early May when we had first contemplated the venture but because of Franco's persistent cough, we'd gone to Argentina instead. I think Franco had similar concerns but we didn't talk about them.
We both have wetsuits, and although I understand the theory of a thin layer of water inside the suit which insulates against the cold, mine always feels as if the whole ocean is whooshing through and doesn't seem to keep me any warmer than my birthday suit.
It took quite a long time to get to Pichilemu which is two hours south of Santiago, on the coast. So when we got off the bus at last, we went for a stroll to stretch our legs. The town, think 'Clacton-on-Sea' rather than 'Saint-Tropez', was developed in 1891 when Agustín Ross Edwards, a Chilean politician planned to transform the small village behind the dunes into a European style beach resort for upper-class Chileans. The shady palm tree garden and the old casino, now a cultural centre, are Ross' remaining legacy.
The old casino
Much later, in the 1970s a tall bearded Californian turned up with a board and walked out into the surf, much to the amazement and horror of the local kids who watched him, dumbstruck. The sport has grown since then and there are at least five surf schools operating off the beach.
Our favourite dog and café ‘Sweet Rock'
Pichilemu is expanding rapidly as Chileans flock to build seaside holiday homes along its dirt streets. Bustling in the summer, it is very quiet this time of year and felt like a village as everyone we met knew each other. Other than the odd surf instructor, most people make their money running grocery stores (there's a small shop every hundred metres) or selling 'empanadas' (Chile's answer to Cornish pasties). Main Street is 'empanada city' with practically every restaurant, fast food joint and corner shop advertising 'empanadas'. At week-ends, even the car parking attendants were offering 'empanadas' as a sideline. We checked out the 'King of Empanadas' and while we waited for our pies to bake, a customer returned to complain about the lack of seafood in her pastry. Not receiving the redress she had hoped for, she called out to us:
"There's no seafood in his empanadas."
We were pleased to hear it as we'd ordered 'cheese and mushroom'.
We wandered back along the beach to our studio. The sky was overcast and the surf looked huge.
"Were we crazy?" we wondered.
The next morning we piled on fleeces and our padded jackets and walked to Infiernillo Surf School in silence. We were preparing ourselves mentally to be very cold indeed.
Infiernillo Surf School
Cool surf dude
Rodrigo, the school’s director and owner, took one look at our wetsuits:
"No good," he declared, handing us a couple of thick neoprene suits with glued / stitched seams and baffles.
What a difference! Now I understood why I'd paid only £25 for my suit when all the others were priced over £100. It hadn't been a bargain!
Luis, our instructor took us down to the beach and after a warm-up we headed into the waves.
Kath heading into the waves
Kath, Luis and Franco
Luan, our swimming instructor
Both of us stood up on the first run and decided we would be champions by the end of the week.
I always thought surfers just laid around looking cool. They never seem to do much other than bobbing up and down in the swell, catching the occasional wave, so we were rather surprised to feel absolutely exhausted after an hour and a half in the water.
The next morning we felt as if we had been beaten up. Our arms and shoulder muscles screamed and our abdominals creaked.
This is how it feels (the bigger the head …)
Photo credit: Wikipedia - Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm Sweden
This is how it looks
Sometimes it goes badly wrong (Kath’s bottom up syndrome)
Getting it right this time
By the end of the week we were doing rather well, having a great time and the weather forecast was fine, so we spoke with Rodrigo, our landlord and stayed another six days.
A humming bird visited our apartment every morning
When we weren't surfing, we had plenty of time to work, catch up on the blog or wander around Pichilemu. As in most Chilean towns, dogs, stray or pet, roam the streets freely and, wherever we went, one or more attached themselves to us. We soon worked out that we were something akin to a 'dog conveyor belt' offering safe passage through 'no-go zones' guarded by resident hounds.
Pichilemu came to life at week-ends. The beach stalls and restaurants opened but visitors remained elusive.
Franco with Rodrigo-the-third a.k.a. the Emperor of Empanadas (most people we met in Pichilemu were called Rodrigo)
On our first Saturday, the navy sponsored a surfing competition to commemorate the 'Gloria Naval'. In 1879, two small wooden Chilean warships took on two modern Peruvian iron-clads during the War of the Pacific. The difference in force is like a small yacht against a destroyer. Franco loves telling the story:
"Arturo Prat valiantly, or foolishly, attacked one of the Peruvian ships. He went down with all his men and became the most famous Chilean national hero. Yes, the name is unfortunate. The other Chilean captain turned tail and lured the Peruvian warship onto the rocks, thus winning the battle. He is barely remembered. His name was Condell. In my mind, he is the true hero!"
We sat on the beach and watched the pros. Our instructor Luis was out there somewhere. We were impressed with the resources put forward by the navy; a ship on standby in the bay and a helicopter and first aiders on the beach.
Pro surfer performing a bottom turn
On our second Sunday we were recruited for a 'learn to surf for the aged' TV programme promoting Pichilemu as a tourism destination throughout the year. We were the most advanced but then it wasn't hard, most of the others had never surfed in their lives.
Franco watching the hectic preparations for the senior surfer class
Abuelitos surfistas - Surfing Granddads
Fame at last! page 2 of the regional rag
On our penultimate day, the strong breeze was knocking the waves over and the surf zone was a frothy chaotic mess. Even Luis wasn't keen to go out. Despondent, we wandered along the promenade and came to a sign offering horses for rent. We hadn't noticed it before and nowhere in town had we seen any advertising.
"I'm here with the horses all day every day." The huaso told us. His name was Carlos.
We tried to get him to explain how it worked as as it seemed we were heading off on our own. Franco joked that we might have to insert a coin into a slot to keep the horses moving. Facundo and La Mancha were keen for some exercise and it didn't take much to get them galloping. The payment system was more like a motorway péage with money owed each time we crossed another line. We galloped forty minutes through the dunes and back along the beach, more galloping than we had done in our 16 days of riding in Patagonia.
Carlos and Franco on La Mancha
We left Pichilemu, fit and bronzed, ready for Teahupoʻo, the monster wave in Tahiti. I jest!
Unknown surfer on Teahupoʻo
Photo credit: wikipedia - http://www.flickr.com/photos/thelastminute