Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Coasting Down the long Fringe of Chile


The Mountain of Iron—Earthquakes in Coquimbo—Canaries and Mangoes—The Vale of Paradise

From TRAVEL magazine, June 1925, with eight photos by the author, digital capture September 2008 by Doug Frizzle

SCATTERED along the bleak, brown, unattractive coast of Chile southward from Antofagasta are several small and commercially important ports at which few of the larger steamers call. To the tourist or the ordinary visitor these spots are of no interest whatsoever, but one at least is well worthy of mention. This is Cruz la Grande, an almost unknown and most unimportant place until very recently, but now a source of incalculable riches and the ultimate destination and lading place of a steady stream of huge freight steamers. Here, close to the sea, is a vast and almost inexhaustible deposit of the highest grade iron ore, so located that it can be almost literally shoveled from the mine into the holds of the ships. Indeed, the harbor itself, if harbor it can be called, is excavated from the iron mountain. Although iron ore, even of the best grade, is perhaps the cheapest of ores, yet so accessible is the Cruz la Grande deposit, and so favorably situated, that despite the long haul it can successfully compete with ore deposits in the United States.
A full cargo of twenty thousand tons can be 1oaded on a ship in a few hours, and the steel corporation that controls the mines finds it profitable to send its largest freighters down our coast, across the Gulf of Mexico, through the Panama Canal and down the Pacific to far-off Chile to secure the ore and retrace the long journey to the States. It is a most striking example of the possibilities of mass production, even when applied to low-priced material.
Just beyond Cruz la Grande the character of the coast alters. The mountains appear less desertlike and have a pale, grayish-green tinge; in the ravines and valleys between the hills are tiny patches of dull-green verdure, and as the ship passes an out jutting cape and heads across the broad bay for Coquimbo, the .mountains recede, and, stretching from the sea to the far distance is a broad valley with level plains green with growing crops and dotted with trees.
At the mouth of a river meandering through this plain is the ancient, quaintly Spanish town of La Serena with its church towers and its tiled roofs half hidden in trees, the whole forming a picture which seems wonderfully attractive and restful after endless days of sere brown peaks and ridges and glaring desert sand.
Coquimbo, on the farther side of the bay, and the port of call, is a little town of most remarkable appearance. It seems almost as if this must be the end of Chile and of the world; as if man, driven to desperation by some cataclysm of nature, had made his last stand oh this God-forsaken, upheaved point of lava rock, so raw and burned and crinkled that one has the feeling that it must yet be steaming hot.
So narrow is the strip of black, rock-strewn beach above the waves that there seems scarcely room for the row of dingy buildings and dust-powder e d warehouses behind which the raw, ochre-colored hill rears itself in a series of jagged, sharp-tipped pinnacles like the yellowed fangs in an otherwise toothless jaw. And up these precipitous slopes climb the houses, clinging like limpets to ledges and cliffs, perched precariously on outjutting spurs, wedged into crevices or balanced on massive boulders which are scattered everywhere and seem in imminent danger of rolling down the slope and crashing into the buildings below. Up the rocky ridge, gulley-like streets meander as erratically as so many dried-up watercourses, and in many places these thoroughfares are so steep that it has been necessary to build them in flights of stone stairs. It makes one's legs ache to think of climbing up and down that shadeless hill in order to get to and from one's house and from or to any other spot, but the Coquimbans have developed goat-like characteristics, as have the ragged, bony, little nags that pass for horses in the town. Never, in any supposedly civilized community, have I seen such streets. In the circumscribed area of fairly level land that forms the business part of the town they are cobbled with stones apparently selected for their irregularity, their sharp edges and their disparity in sizes. And not content with thus having placed every obstacle in the way of rapid or comfortable transit, the powers that be have torn up the pavement in spots, have piled the debris in mounds in the middle of the highways, have left gaping holes and trenches, and have laid a railway track through the center of the main street still further to hinder traffic. The side streets that have taken to mountain climbing are a hundred times worse, and it seems impossible that any wheeled vehicle can traverse them. But the vehicles of Coquimbo are built like artillery wagons and are fully as uncomfortable. Comfort, however, is of secondary consideration, and the springless, lurching, rattling, heavy wheeled coches stand the gaff and deliver the goods though they rock and roll and pitch like laboring ships in a tempestuous sea. One almost forgets the bumps and jolts and spine-shivering shocks in admiration of the diminutive horses that are the motive power of these vehicles. Apparently quite ob1ivious to their surroundings, they progress at a jog trot, with heads down and half asleep, clambering over rock piles, digging their toes into crevices as they attack a twenty per cent grade, tobogganing down hill on their haunches, skidding side- ways to make a sudden stop, and hurdling pitfalls and gulleys regardless of the fate of the vehicle attached to them by a patchwork of rawhide, rope and leather.
Never need the Coquimbans be troubled with the problem of motor traffic or of vehicles exceeding a safe speed limit. No vehicle but an airplane could move rapidly in the town, and even the ubiquitous Ford finds the place almost beyond its powers of conquest. It is said that there are a few "tin Lizzies" in Coquimbo, but I saw only two and these had been stripped of their tires and were operated on the railway to which their sphere of usefullness was strictly confined. The only good street in Coquimbo is the sea beach, and as that commences outside of the town it is of value merely as a highway between Coquimbo and La Serena.
But despite all this, Coquimbo has certain attractions and is not by any means a dead or non-progressive little spot. There are a number of quite well-stocked shops, quite a few excellent public buildings, and a couple of dusty, hopeless looking little plazas wherein are pathetic palms and struggling flowers and shrubs. But there are some really attractive houses just outside the town at the tip of the jagged, rocky point. Here the foreign residents have their homes—lovely chalets in the midst of roses, vines, flowering shrubs and shade trees which seem strangely incongruous among such a waste of sere rocks. One cannot imagine any one dwelling in Coquimbo by choice, however. There seem no diversions or amusements, no means of recreation, unless it is to play golf with the gulleys and peaks for bunkers and hazards, and I noticed that the principal amusement of the children was clambering over the gigantic boulders, evidently playing at Alpine chamois hunters or mountain climbers, and apparently in imminent peril of slipping off and breaking limbs or necks.
Coquimbo, by the way, was one of the towns that suffered most seriously from the great earthquake of 1922, and a good-sized slice of the town was swept away by the tidal wave that followed the quake. As the portion thus destroyed was a muddy, filthy slum it is questionable if the place was not really benefited by the catastrophe. The only wonder is that it suffered so little, for it appears as if the thousands of boulders on the hill above the town would come rattling, hurtling down like a barrage of giant shells at the least quiver of an earthquake. La Serena was far harder hit by the quake than Coquimbo, many buildings being cracked or destroyed, much of the water front washed away and hundreds of lives lost, while a large part of the hillside, whereon was the cemetery, slid away, exposing bones and bodies in a gruesome and most unsanitary fashion.
To those who love quaint old towns, Serena will prove a delight, for it is probably the best preserved of old Spanish towns in Chile and remains, outwardly at least, much as it was in the days of Dons and buccaneers.
Everywhere are iron-grilled windows, jutting balconies, wide arched doorways leading to flower filled shady patios, red tiled roofs, narrow cobbled streets and alleys and age-mellowed churches fronting drowsy plazas. From Coquimbo a railway leads to the old Spanish town, but one may visit it easily by coach, provided the ship remains long enough in port, and the trip is well worth while. At Coquimbo, too, the visitor finds fruits and flowers in profusion. Men, women and girls come in flocks aboard every ship, all laden with strawberries, mangoes, figs, cherries, flowers and countless preserves, candied papayas, and raisins, together with dried fish, boiled sweet potatoes, outrageously ugly trinkets, boxes of painted sea shells, and innumerable canaries.
Why canaries should be one of the famed products of this particular spot is a mystery, but Coquimbo canaries are famous all up and down the coast and are noted as fine songsters, although the stranger takes a great risk in buying the birds and will often find, after his purchase is made, that he has a mute or female canary on his hands.
Like many another west coast port, Coquimbo cannot be judged by appearances. One marvels why it exists at all or how the inhabitants manage to make a living. But it is really a very prosperous and highly important spot with a trade entirely out of proportion to its size or outward aspect, and is the outlet and intake for a tremendous farm and cattle district. Its trade in fruits and vegetables is larger than that of any other town in Chile, and Coquimbo potatoes and other agricultural products are shipped up and down the coast from Valparaiso to Callao and beyond.
Beyond Coquimbo, the coast again assumes its hopelessly barren, rocky aspect, until the hills about the harbor of Valparaiso are seen ahead. So much has been said and written of the beauties of Chile's chief port that one expects a literal "Vale of Paradise."
But the city and its surroundings viewed from the sea are very disappointing. Instead of a setting of verdured hills there are endless, half-brown mountains of dull tan color dotted with clumps of dusky brush and looking, for all the world, like moth-eaten hides with the skin exposed between the remnants of fur. From the sea, half way to the summits of the hills, the town sprawls about the edge of the bay for a dozen miles, and though it is a big town, yet it appears most unattractive, dull colored and half hidden in a misty smoke pall, like San Francisco in the Pittsburgh atmosphere. In some ways, too, it reminds one of St. Thomas stripped of color and picturesqueness, or Fall River, or a combination of all.
Its harbor is packed with shipping—with rusty, dirty, coastwise and cattle boats; stately square-rigged ships; great, grimy, coal hulks; trim schooners; big passenger steamships; ugly tramps; tankers and colliers; tugs and launches; rowboats innumerable; lighters and destroyers; with the big dry dock occupying the center of the stage and Chile's pride — the dreadnought "La Torre," like a grim gray watchdog, in the offing.
But when one steps ashore all first impressions are cast aside. Valparaiso is an amazing town; a surprising, fascinating city. Viewed from the bay there appears to be but one level street between sea and hills, but beyond the immense concrete landing pier are broad asphalt thoroughfares, splendid plazas with statues and palms and great stone and concrete office and municipal buildings that would be a credit to any city. Double-decked trolley cars clang everywhere, sidewalks are crowded with hurrying, busy pedestrians, motor cars are legion, and the stranger realizes that he has entered a metropolis of modern, energetic, feverish activity. In many places one might almost imagine one was in the financial district of New York. There are the same types of offices and buildings, the same streets, and the throng of passers-by is in no wise different from a New York throng. The men and women might be Americans as well as Spanish, they dress as well or even better and in the same style as New Yorkers, and they have the same air of hurrying somewhere as if to keep a most important engagement, even though there is no engagement to be kept. Evidently it is sheer zest of life that drives them.
The city seems a city of stores. Along every street they are legion and the stock in trade they display, along with the attractiveness of their windows, is truly marvelous. But on every hand are innumerable proofs that this is Latin America and Chile, and not North America. The signs are in Spanish, the hum of conversation on every side is Spanish, the helmeted, besworded policemen are unmistakably Chilean and, despite its modernity, Valparaiso possesses an indefinable, indescribable foreign atmosphere. And it is thoroughly, totally different from any other city in the world. Many a city in many a land is built on hills, but with the possible exception of Mauch Chunk no other city of any great size or importance can equal Chile's chief port in adapting itself to the encircling mountains.
Although the business section, the warehouses, the railway station and most of the government buildings are on the level, yet the greater portion of the town has cemented itself to the hillsides or has dug itself into the precipitous slopes. Many of the larger buildings are backed up against a hillside so that one enters by the front door on the ground floor at street level and emerges from the back entrance on the sixth or eighth floor to find oneself on another thoroughfare with the roofs of the lesser buildings beneath one's feet. Everywhere as one glances up from the main streets of the town are houses and buildings like architectural strata. In places the hillsides have been faced with stone and brick to support the narrow streets and the overhanging buildings above, while the roofs of one series or layer of edifices abut most astonishingly on the front gardens of the superimposed layer. The whole city, with the exception of the restricted level section, is, in fact, a series of terraces of masonry, buildings and streets, the whole ablaze with gorgeous roses, masses of climbing pink geraniums and glorious flowering shrubs and vines that riot over walls and railings, clamber over the roofs and droop down from the upper terraces like veritable hanging gardens. To reach these upper strata of residence and business streets broad flights of stairs are provided at intervals or one may go aloft in the elevator of an office building and reach another street; but the customary and popular method is to travel to the upper tiers of the city by means of one of the numerous ascensors. These convenient and picturesque conveyances are typical of Valparaiso and may be seen crawling like gigantic bugs up or down the hillsides between buildings at various spots. They are, in effect, boxlike cars running on steel rails and operated by cables, and in a way remind one of the coaches in use on the Mount Washington railway in the White Mountains. They operate always in pairs on a double track so that as one goes up the other goes down, and though their progress is slow it is very sure and very safe.
Valparaiso, of necessity, and not from choice, was forced to overrun the mountain sides, but if the city had been purposely designed from a scenic standpoint it could not have been better. From any one of the upper streets, reached by the ascensors, the visitor has a marvelous panorama spread at his feet. Above, a curtain of flowers trailing downwards to the roofs below, or standing at a roadside railing that literally overhangs the city, one has an unobstructed glorious view of the crescent shaped water front, the great bay with its teeming shipping, the hazy hills in the distance and the gleaming white buildings of Vina del Mar amid the palms and verdure far to the right.
But as one gazes at this charming scene and glances about, one cannot help thinking of the chaos that would be wrought were the city to be shaken to its foundations by an earthquake. How these surrounding buildings would come toppling, crashing down! How these steep retaining walls and brick facings would crumble, slough off and rain death and destruction on the crowds below! How the highest edifices at the very verge of the mountain top would fall, dislodging those below and these in falling carry those still lower with them until like a row of cards these incalculable thousands of tons of masonry, the millions of rocks and bricks and timbers would thunder onto the splendid buildings, the wide streets, the hurrying, scurrying, panic-stricken populace at the foot of the slope, and in the twinkling of an eye would reduce the city to a chaos of ruin and death! And such a terrifying, horrible catastrophe is possible, even probable, in Valparaiso at any time. The city is in an earthquake belt; only eighteen years ago it was devastated by a quake, and throughout my stay in the city I never felt quite at ease, for a place could not be worse designed to withstand earth tremors of any force. It was actually with a sigh of relief that I left the city behind and drove over the magnificent asphalt road leading to Vina del Mar, where, even if an earthquake tumbled things about one's ears there were no buildings to fall from the skies. Vina del Mar is a residential suburb, a busy little town, a place of palaces and mansions, a summer resort, a watering place, a picnic ground, and an altogether delightful spot, all in one. It is perhaps the most beautiful community in South America, and the Chileans may well be proud of it. With its wide green lawns, its splendid, broad, ashphalt streets, its wonderful gardens filled with palms and flowers, its shady avenues and its magnificent residences it is like a bit of southern California. But along the water front, where the surf breaks in upflung spray upon the jagged black rocks, and turreted castles and picturesque chalets perch upon the crags, and the terraced walls are ablaze with flowers, Vina del Mar is far more like a fragment of the Mediterranean coast than like anything American. Here the well-to-do business men and officials of Valparaiso have their homes. Here people flock of a holiday. Here the Chilean millionaires have their imposing mansions, and most fittingly indeed could Vina del Mar be called "The Vale of Paradise," were it not for the fact that it is not a vale.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.