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Perils of Polly: A funny thing happened on the way to the penguins...

Posted: June 18, 2012 - 8:52am
On the way to see the Humboldt penguins of Los Choros, Polly and Sue camped in front of a cantina when the dark came too early.  Polly Crawford
Polly Crawford
On the way to see the Humboldt penguins of Los Choros, Polly and Sue camped in front of a cantina when the dark came too early.

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also has written a series of "Peril" columns about Australia, Asia, and Central America. Her perils continue in Argentina and Chile.

My sister and I woke up to more rain. We were in what was supposed to be the most beautiful part of accessible Chile -- the Lake District with its turquoise lakes and perfectly formed volcanoes, and we couldn't see a thing.

We left our nice and most expensive campground yet and headed back to the Pan American Highway and north. The idea was that surely the rain would stop as we went north. We turned off the highway again and headed toward what Lonely Planet described as beautiful and extremely touristy -- the town of Pucon.

Our idea, even though it was fairly early in the day, was to get a campground and then head out to see what this famous part of Chile has to offer, even in the rain.

In the downpour, we turned into a campground on a foggy lake. I hopped out of the car and dashed to the reception porch. I could see the campground was pretty much empty, with nothing but open picnic tables at each site. I'm sure there were bathrooms and showers around somewhere.

"How much for one night?" I said in Spanish. He answered me in English. Yea! But his answer floored me: 32,000 pesos. Had I heard right? The calculator in my brain began overheating. "That's 64 US dollars," I said in disbelief.

He nodded. "Yes, that would be about right."

I pressed. "That'd be $64 for a picnic table."

"Yes, and we have showers."

"And your campground is empty."

"Yes."

"Would you consider giving a discount?"

"No."

I took a deep breath. "Well then, are there any more campgrounds around here?"

"Yes." He pointed to his left. "That one is a couple pesos cheaper." He pointed to his right. "That one is more expensive."

"Have you heard the weather report?"

"Yes. It's supposed to rain for the next four days."

I shook my head and dashed back to the car and turned to my sister. "I don't think so! $64 to spend the night in the rain where we can't see anything?"

She agreed, so after grocery shopping and finding our only peanut butter of the trip, we left the Lake District and headed north. It was an either/or decision. No one believed we'd be able to hit Tierra del Fuego, the northern Atacama Desert, and Iguazu Falls all in one trip. If we stayed in the Lake District, that would be true. But now we weren't.

The PanAmerican Highway is a four-lane paved road. After the terrible miles of the Patagonia, we really began to push the kilometers under our tires. We also pushed a lot of pesos at the toll booths. We spent more than $50 in tolls driving the length of Chile. We drove into the night and stopped at a service station for sleep where the rain had finally stopped, then pressed on into Santiago the next day.

Neither of us like cities, so I gripped the steering wheel, read signs, and tried my best to zip through. We knew Santiago had some kind of regulation on who could drive in the city and when according to license plate numbers, and we saw some flashing signs that I couldn't read fast enough. We also saw cameras taping our every more. Were we legal? We had no idea. We just kept driving.

Soon we lost our trees and the land became drier and drier. We were pushing dusk so stopped at La Serena to find out about campgrounds and Los Choros, where there are Humboldt penguins. The tourist place couldn't tell us about campgrounds, but did say Los Choros was closed because of bad weather.

We shrugged and left, disappointed. We'd left the Lake District in trade for the Humboldt penguins. Now we'd get neither.

When we gassed up, a man overheard my questions to the attendant and said we had to stay until the weather cleared and see the penguins. It was worth it. He said it should be good by the day after tomorrow.

We left La Serena with the dark was closing in when we got to the turn-off to Los Choros. I pulled off the road and looked at my sister. It'd be about 50 miles of gravel road. We agreed. Let's do it.

Fog was beginning to get thick, and darkness in northern Chile hits earlier. We pointed our Kangoo down the curvy and steep gravel road and gripped the steering wheel. We only saw one other vehicle.

We finally shooed a couple of donkeys out of the way in front of us and pulled into a sleeping village in the dark. The second building was a cantina with a light on. I hopped out of the car and asked if we could park right there for the night. We didn't want to explore the way to the beach in the dark. He nodded exuberantly and then closed his shop.

We ate peanut butter and jelly for the first time, and then went to sleep wondering if the ocean was going to calm down enough for us to see penguins.

Perils of Polly will return to the Recreation page Friday.

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