Last month, Carine Camboulives, Manu Bouvet and their 2 daughters left their Maui home for a coastal village of Chile for a 6 month house exchange and SUP adventure. Between the endless point-breaks and the mountain lakes there is a new life to embrace and an experience to share.
It is a foggy July day on the deserted coastline of Peru . Carine and I stand a few meters above the ocean but can t even see the waves, the fog being so thick! The already rugged landscape made of grey sand and rocks over hills as far as you can see turns into a ghostly atmosphere when the sky, earth and ocean melting into one colorless entity.
“Chile is much better than this place, I can tell you that !”. I did not see my interlocutor until his silhouette came out of the fog a few feet away from me.
“waves are more consistent and the landscape more appealing, that is without mentioning the quality of the wine” he said in a grin? I will find out later that Felipe is an architect who, like all the Chileans we will meet later on, has an unconditional love for his country with a contagious enthusiasm to share it.
“Have you been to Chile?”
I was first reluctant to confess I hadn’t, fearing an avalanche of tourism-brochure like arguments that sometimes flow from the home-sick travellers after several days of bad weather.
"No I haven’t” I finally confess “but it is a place that is on our list. We ‘ve actually been thinking of taking a long trip to south America in the future; maybe settling down for a while so we can work on our Spanish and get to know the continent better"
- “Chile is the place to do that" started Felipe while sipping on a glass of Pisco sour.” Do you actually know that the original Pisco sour is from Chile and not Peru?"
- “No but I think it is actually a French drink” said Carine in a laugh.
The weather was definitely not improving so we kept on chatting with Felipe who confessed his desire to spend time in Hawaii with his wife and then only son Pedro. A year before we had made a one month house-exchange with a family from the Island of Moorea in Tahiti and it turned out to be a total success. We love the whole concept “you take care of my place, I take care of yours”, no money involved. Sharing is caring as they taught us as kids. We even exchanged cars to make it easier.
-“Why don’t we do a house swap some day then?” I asked Felipe
Before making plans we learned from each other our common passions for board riding sports, our love of nature and good wine. That was enough for a good connection and a good plan. Felipe went back to Chile, we went back to Maui and we lost track of each other. Fast forward 6 years later on the parking lot at Hookipa on Maui’s North Shore. I am listening to pro windsurfers Robby Swift and Victor Fernandez’s love story with Chile; how they scored amazing waves and finally bought some land where a guy called Felipe is about to design their dream home! That was enough of a good sign to reconnect with our old Chilean friend. To make a long story short, Carine and I had a 15 minute Skype meeting with Felipe and his wife Barbara who now have 2 kids the age of our 2 daughters. Felipe will be waiting for us at the airport in Santiago early March. He will take us to their home 2 hours south where they will spend 5 days with us to show us around before taking off for Maui for a minimum of 6 months. How does that sound for a plan?
I don’t think we ever had to wear a jacket and a hoody while having breakfast inside a house. The mornings are cold in Chile when winter is around the corner and Felipe’s house is definitely not wind-proof anymore. That’s got to be for too many earthquakes shaking the mono-block design home made of large glass windows and wooden structure. School starts at 8.30 and it is still dark when we wake up. By the time we leave the house, the whole Pacific ocean unfolds right below our windows to reveal the most amazing view a surfer can dream of. 100 meters below the house, a long black sand beach stretches out at 180 degrees. To its left, a rocky point marks the beginning of a long point break where a left-hander peels all the way across the bay. While our girls, Lou and Shadé enjoy the Chilean breakfast of champions made of toasted bread with avocado (it is called “palta” in Chile) I just need to look to my left to start mind surfing the break. All the way through this 6 month experience I found it nearly impossible to follow any type of indoor activity without being permanently distracted by this view. I definitely can’t resist the temptation from the view of a perfect wave set up.
It is a 15 minute drive on a winding dirt road to get to the girls school located in the middle of a farm with the Pacific ocean on the far right and the snow capped “cordillera” (mountain chain) to the horizon on the left. I am truely amazed by how well our 2 girls are adapting to a whole new game! Neither Lou or Shadé speak a word of Spanish, they don’t know anyone in the school but after only a week or so they are disappointed when the week-end keeps them away from the Waldorf school! The school was designed and built by Felipe and his partner “Pelado”. The 2 free spirited architects, surfers, musicians moved out of Santiago’s traditional live style and education system to find an alternative path for themselves and their family. The school's pedagogy emphasizes the role of imagination in learning, striving to integrate holistically the intellectual, practical, and artistic development of pupils.
What we loved right away about the school is that kids would start the day by chanting an anthem to nature. Later on, the kids would have for lunch what they manage to grow on the farm. Each afternoon is dedicated to a different workshops: music to start the week, then surfing on Tuesday, knitting, acting to finish the week.
What makes that school even better is that once I drop the girls off I keep on driving on that same dirt road surrounded by eucalyptus and pine trees until I need to switch Felipe’s car into the lowest 4x4 gear to drive down the steepest trail I ‘ve ever driven on.
That is the fastest way to get to my morning SUP solo session. Chileans surfers are few and not early birds which makes my morning routine a solo experience 80% of the time. The set up is similar to all the bays in the region; a long sandy beach with a rocky headland to the left that marks the beginning of a point break. Until very recently the nature around was untouched by development and all you could see while sitting at the line up was Eucalyptus and pine trees covered hills falling into the ocean.
It still is the case for many spots but world famous Chilean big wave surfer Ramon Navarro is now bringing attention to protect his beloved spot of Punta de Lobos that is threatened by uncontrolled development. Even though Chile is known worldwide for the beauty of its natural environment it appears to be threatened in many ways. One of them is the lack of environmental consciousness from its elite that seem to work hand in hand with greedy developers. The must see movie "180 degrees South” shows the beauty of the country but gets into the environmental threats that Chile is facing. During our trip we meet several local surfers who expressed their worries about wild coastal development wondering how building permits for luxury gated communities were issued on Tsunami zoning land (Chili has a high seismic activity) without any prior environmental impact studies. It is heart breaking to witness over and over again the same mistakes being made by “developing countries” while managing a so called economical growth that benefits mostly the wealthiest to the detriment of the native people who end up losing their land. It is often the short term and speculative vision that drives coastal development. We have witnessed it in many spots around the world like on the Island of Sal in Cabo Verde where ghost residences are popping up in the sand dunes from the drug money laundering activities or on the Buckit peninsula in Bali where the most corrupted country in the world has allowed bulldozers to disfigure the ironically called "Dream Land" beach to fulfill the megalomaniac appetite of Indonesia’s prior president’s son. Hopefully the Chilean government will realize that the country and its people have much more to win by preserving its coastline than by allowing wild development.
As we are slowly heading into the Chilean winter the south wind that usually picks up in the afternoon slowly backs off and the surf is pretty much good all day long most of the days. SUP is a great option on those long point breaks because they’re exposed to a strong lateral current that constantly pushes the surfer down the coast forcing him to a non stop paddle-battle to reach the lineup. Obviously it is much easier to manage such inconvenience standing up on a board than laying down. One more advantage to the SUP is that cold water is easier to deal with when not immersed in it the whole time... and yes, the water is cold down there.
Looking at a map of south America one can easily think that Chile is all about the ocean. With more than 4000 KM of Pacific Ocean coastline and only 177 km wide the potential for good surf is second to none but the desert and the mountains also offer an attractive playground for nature lovers. By the time winter break comes in July we have already investigated the possibility of bringing our SUP boards to the high altitude lakes of Chile in the Cordillera of the Andes by the Bolivian border. Some of the colors we had witnessed on pictures struck to our minds and the perspective to paddle surrounded by such landscapes was enough to get the whole family packed up and ready to go. The desert of Atacama in northern Chili is a unique place on hearth that requires a little bit of time to adjust to in order to actually see the magic in it. At first, before the eye or maybe the brain turns on all its ability to discern such subtle colors, the rough and deserted landscape can appear flat, even repulsive to some. After what seemed to be a short adaptation time we stood in awe most of the week we spent there. Even while in motion either driving (lots of driving there) or paddling or walking I felt like I was mesmerized and not able to do much but stand there and look in disbelief. I had never seen anything quite like it and even though it sounds like a cliché it felt like we were somewhere in outer space, maybe on the moon or planet Mars. The SUP side of things takes the whole experience to another level because it offers a playground that has no equivalent anywhere else on earth.
Some lagoons are the color of the most beautiful Polynesian waters, in the middle of nowhere, accessible after several hours of driving on a flat and straight dirt road . They seem to be surrounded by snow but it is actually salt that extends as far as you can see. On the horizon some majestic 18 000 feet snow capped volcanoes stick out of the desert. I witness Carine and Lou, each one on a natural turquoise pool practicing SUP yoga. The sound of silence you only experience in the montains seems ever present here, to the extent where it is taking over its own space, forcing you to stay silent. Once used to the high altiutude of San Pedro de Atacama we decide to take the drive to the “lagunas Altiplanicas” which are mountain lakes, located around 15 000 ft above sea level. It might not be the best time of the year to go there in the heart of the southern hemisphere winter because the lakes are partly frozen in ice which makes the launching in the water pretty hard (ask Carine how to break the ice with a paddle!) On the up side, you might get to paddle with snowcapped volcanoes all around you and not a soul for miles on end.
When back on the coast in our favorite little fishing village we realize that we would need much more time to actually get to see everything we want in the country. We had in mind a trip to the far south of Patagonia, dreamed of Robinson Crusoe and Chiloe islands, we thought of paddling the Lakes region down south and much more. We also realize that we learn a lot about Chile by just staying home and spending time with the people around us. It is actually even more enjoyable in Chile because Chileans are super friendly, welcoming and very social. They always have a good red wine to share, a “parilla” (BBQ) going…and they even accept people like me who don’t eat meat! After 6 months in Chile Carine was ready to get back to the warm waters of Maui. The girls loved their school so much and I was so enjoying those endless point breaks and tasty red wine that we could have stayed a bit longer but the call of “El nino” was already in the air… The greatest winter of all time was on its way! On Maui, the word was on everybody’s lips and Felipe had already ordered so many guns that there was no way he and his family were going anywhere soon. He had already found another house for the next 6 months and was frothing like a grommet to hit the water for the next session. His enthusiasm had become legendary on the North Shore of Maui as he did not miss a single windsurf or surf session in 6 months! As I write this article, 6 months later, Felipe and his family have been back to Chile for a month or so. The best winter ever is coming to an end here on Maui and Felipe still has a hard time acknowledging there is a place on earth with conditions that gets close to Chile. I can hear him from here asking:
“And what about the wine Manu? Do you think it is better in Hawaii?"