“Portillo crazy – that’s what they call it here”, said a new found friend at a tiny bar in Portillo Chile. A bunch of us, some new friends some old friends but now all friends, were sitting around a table, the center of which has a giant plate of meat and all of us were drinking a local beer. We had been taking runs all day and were currently the only folks in this local hangout, which would soon be filled with resort employees, laughter, good music and lots of dancing.
We are in Chile for an August snowboarding trip. For someone like me, not such a fan of the hot humid summers around here, finding snow in August and being able to ride on it in South America was a dream come true. When our new friend was describing Portillo crazy, he noted with exasperation that when things are getting frustrating around the resort, he works the registration desk there, there isn’t even a tree you can go sit under; there is no green and that certainly contributes to the Portillo crazy.
For someone like me who loves all things horticulture and feels lost without trees in close view, I could relate. Being so far away from living nature was certainly a new experience. I have snowboarded in various places, only once above tree-line, before this trip. But in all of those other places, eventually you ended up on a trail through the trees back down to the base. This was not the case in Chile. We were always above tree line and there were no plants to be found during our riding adventures. In fact, we were warned – if you see a bump in the snow, it is NOT a plant, it is a very sharp rock.
Where do you go when you’re above tree line? Anywhere you want! No groves of evergreens to dictate your path and skinny trails winding through forest groves to liven up or edit your runs, just wide open treeless expanses. I definitely like the tree-lined trails of my home East Coast mountains, enjoying the scenery as much as the run. This is like different riding all together and sometimes looks like a completely different planet. But, at the top of the lifts there were no trees to block the amazing views of the mountain range I was lucky enough to find myself on top of. This resulted in many minutes of gape-mouthed slow spinning just to take in the scenery at the top of each lift. It also meant that when the sun came out and graced the slopes with its warmth, everything was warmed, no trees causing shadows and cold icy patches, just soft lovely snow everywhere you went. Even when I rode above tree-line in Oregon, I could see trees below and eventually ended back in them. Where I was on snow in Chile, there were no trees, anywhere.
So why don’t plants grow above tree line? A combination of harsh conditions, lack of moisture and a short growing season between wintery weather makes it so only the most hardy species survive, think lichens.
But horticulturist will travel and so after a few days of snowboarding a friend and I ventured to the port city of Valparaiso and the coast town of Vina del Mar. Vina del Mar afforded us some views of a small sandy beach planted with a diverse landscape and some vertical plantings in the residential area. Known for its street art, there was also horticulture to be found in Valparaiso. Though it was winter there in the southern hemisphere, the mild climate allowed us glimpses of tropical plants. After an unbelievably easy navigation of the Santiago subway system, we even managed to find some planters filled with tropicals like bananas and bird of paradise in the Los Dominicos Handicraft Village in Santiago.
What we didn’t find in actual plant material, we found in paint. Valparaiso is known for its street art and it didn’t disappoint. The colors were enough to relieve your snow blindness from time spent above tree line. There seemed to be not one facade, one wall, one staircase, one shop that hadn’t been influenced by this street art. It was truly a magical place to spend time and explore. It was invigorating to be a part of the art, immersed in it as you turned each corner. The photos below are just of the horticulture related art I found, but you could find every theme imaginable there.
We found horticulture at the restaurants where we tried the local favorite – fried eel – finding ferns on our bottled water (sin gas).
We found horticulture in the architecture of the buildings.
And speaking of Portillo Crazy. I could not resist taking a picture of this person. Hard at work maintaining the grounds around the Fonck Museum of Archeology and History. Apparently not as concerned about hurting visitors with flying bits of stones and plants as they are here in the states, this gentleman proceeded to weedwack with abandon all around this Moai even as people came close to read signs and see this marvel up close. It was challenging to get this photo while dodging horticultural shrapnel. (You are probably wondering who was Portillo crazy – this person or me…good question.)
All of the horticulture wasn’t ornamental, of course. As we rode along the switchbacks and winding narrow roads we often were flanked on either side by seemingly unending vineyards of table grapes. These vineyards were of various ages, in various states of pruning and repair. We were not in the right region for the wine grapes, these were all table grapes. After seeing them in the grocery store all the time, it was interesting to see where they actually grow. Next time you are in the supermarket up here in winter, take a look and see just how much produce comes from the Chilean summer climate. We also saw cut flower production, citrus orchards and lots and lots of avocado trees.
I know I was glad to find some plants – flowering, painted, in glass, in containers during this trip to Chile. I can see how a couple weeks at a resort without any of these things could make one little stir crazy, especially if you are from the verdant and forested east coast of the US or even the parts of Chile at lower elevations. It takes some adjusting, but is so fascinating to examine and explore and that is what travel is all about right? Getting out of your comfort zone, experiencing something new, learning to appreciate what you have near you and learning to appreciate the amazing differences this planet has to offer.
Public Service Announcement: This trip to the coast was unplanned and spontaneous, as was the trip to the market in Santiago. As a horticulturist I am embarrassed to admit that I did not do my botanical garden research before heading to Chile. Since this was primarily a snowboarding trip, I focused my planning around that – not thinking we would have an opportunity to visit gardens and not quite understanding what winter would be like in the rest of the country. So while we were heading to the coast I asked our guide if there was a public garden in Chile, thinking that if it were close by we could stop in. Luckily I was traveling with another plant lover. Our guide said no, she didn’t believe there was a public garden or botanical garden anywhere in Chile. After we got home, my friend sent me a link to the Chilean National Botanical Garden which is located, you guessed it, in Vina del Mar. So close! I guess that gives me another reason to go back to this fantastic country besides the amazing view, wonderful people, great food and terrific riding! And lesson learned – regardless of the purpose of the trip bring a list of horticulture destinations along – just in case.