The City of Heroes
I'm traveling south from Santiago to Rancagua.
Rancagua is prominent in Chilean history as the site of the Disaster of Rancagua in 1814, a serious defeat in the Chilean War of Independence.
Chilean forces fighting for independence from Spain were defeated in a two-day battle in Rancagua, and the Chilean leaders were forced to flee into Argentina. That led to the brutal Reconquista, the Reconquest by Spain. The Spanish royalist forces captured Santiago and established harsh rule over the country.
Now Rancagua is known as The City of Heroes. Figures defeated in the Battle of Rancagua returned from exile to lead the patriots to Chilean independence.
Rancagua is also the City of Agriculture and the City of Copper. The agricultural products of the Central Valley are collected here before being exported through the ports of San Antonio and Valparaíso. And, the world's largest underground copper mine is nearby.
Today you can reach Rancagua with a short train ride south from Santiago through the Central Valley, where much of Chile's famous wine is produced. ¡Vino tinto!
The name Rancagua seems to come from the Mapuche or Mapudungún word Rangkawe, meaning "place of ranca", a place where the herbaceous plant Lasthenia kunthii was plentiful.
Indigenous people had lived here for ages. The Mapudungun-speaking people had built the nearby pucará or hilltop fortress at Cerro La Compañiá, and a rope-and-wicker suspension bridge over the Cachapoal river. The fortress and bridge were used by the Inca Empire's expeditions to their southernmost outposts. These pucará, an Aymara and Quechua term, became a dominant design during the Late Intermediate Period of about 1000-1430 CE, before the arrival of the Spanish.
The Spanish founded a settlement here in the 1500s. In 1743 they formally organized it under the name of Villa Santa Cruz de Triana. It immediately reverted to the earlier native name.
Today Rancagua is the capital of the provincia of Cachapoal and the larger región of General Liberator Bernardo O'Higgins.
I was traveling to Rancagua, and continuing on to Talca and Constitución, because they seemed interesting. And a little simply because those places had largely disappeared from some guidebooks.
Lonely Planet in the late 1990s seems to have been written by an anthropologist or historian who had lived in Chile for several years. There's very little on the basic lodging it mentions, leaving much more space for descriptions of what you will see and experience, and who you will meet.
By the late 2000s, there still was reasonable detail on Rancagua and Talca and Constitución.
But by the late 2010s, Talca was mentioned briefly, but with no explanation of its history or suggestion of anything to see or do. Rancagua and Constitución weren't mentioned at all! Much of the content was dedicated to spas and ski lodges and resorts.
I bought the latest edition at the local bookstore so I had details on current transportation options. But then I went to the local library to consult editions from 1999 and 2009.
To Santiago's Estación Central
It's time to start south! I'll take Santiago's great Metro system to Santiago's Estación Alameda, unofficially known as Estación Central.
The Santiago Metro, which carries around 2.5 million passengers every day, has been named the best system in the Americas.
I'm in Los Héroes station waiting for a train. Yes, it's named for the heroes of the War of Independence.
Rubber tires make for a relatively quiet and smooth ride. The trains are based on the units used on the Paris Métro and Mexico City Metro.
Uh-oh, I've taken the wrong exit from the subway station. I'm across the broad Avienda Libertador General Bernardo O'Higgins from Estación Central. But there's a nice view of the snow-covered Andes in the background, not far to the east of the city.
I'll go back underground, through the pedestrian passageway, and come up next to the station.
Gustave Eiffel designed the building in 1897, and it was constructed by the French firm Schneider of Le Creusot.
I'll take the Metrotrén Rancagua service, which has frequent departures and gets me there in about an hour.
Metrotrén is a suburban train service operated by Tren Central, a subsidiary of Empresa de los Ferrocarriles del Estado or EFE, the State Railways Company.
You pay for Metrotrén with the TrenCentral card, which you touch to the turnstiles to enter and exit the platform. An empty card costs C$ 1300, and then an adult fare from Santiago to Rancagua costs C$ 2200-2400 depending on time of day and day of the week.
Lots of iron, this is an Eiffel design.
Metrotrén uses UT-440 rolling stock. These units began to be delivered in 1975.
The UT-440 is a self-propelled train with three cars. Only one of the cars is motorized, and there is a driving cabin at each end.
They pull 1160 kW off the overhead 3000 VDC line, yielding a maximum speed of 140 km/h. There's a 290 kW motor for each of the four powered axles in the motorized car.
Below is a X'Trapolis Modular, a newer model built by Alstom and used on the short line to Nos. These have 4 traction motors of 320 kW each, for 1280 kW total.
The tracks are wide. The Chilean passenger rail lines are 1,676 mm gauge, or 5 ft 6 in. This is the widest gauge in regular passenger use in the world. It's commonly called "Indian Gauge" as it's used in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka; in Argentina and Chile; and on the BART or Bay Area Rapid Transit system in the San Francisco Bay area.
The Iberian-gauge railways servicing Spain and Portugal have a track gauge of 1,668 mm, just 8 mm narrower. It's close enough that Iberian rolling stock can be used in Chile without modification.
South to Rancagua
Here we go! The train is roomy and comfortable inside.
It's 81.8 kilometers from Estación Alameda to Estación Rancagua.
If you're from the U.S., this line is reminiscent of MARC between Washington D.C. and Baltimore.
Well, at least in terms of rolling stock and schedule and length. But we're not in Maryland suburbs of paranoia and fear. We're traveling through the Central Valley of Chile with the Andes paralleling the line to our east.
The Cachapoal Valley or Rancagua Basin is about 60 kilometers north to south and 25 kilometers east to west, crossed by the Cachapoal and the Claro de Rengo rivers. The rich soil is the result of glacial erosion of volcanic minerals.
Those volcanos were caused by plate tectonics. Chile lies along the boundary where the Nazca Plate subducts or irregularly moves under the South American Plate. That motion creates the Andes and coastal mountain chains. It also creates the Atacama Trench, or the Peru–Chile Trench, which reaches a depth of over 8,000 meters just off the western coast of South America. The irregularity causes the frequent severe earthquakes. The MW 9.5 earthquake near Valdivia in 1960 was the strongest earthquake ever recorded.At the north end of the Pan-American Highway
Below we see that the rail line runs parallel to Highway 5, which runs for 3,364 kilometers from as far south as you can practically build a highway in Chile to the northern tip of Chile and the border with Peru. Highway 5 is part of the Pan-American Highway, which almost completely links the southern tip of South America to the Arctic Ocean coast.
The Cordillera de Los Andes reaches its highest altitudes along the east side of this basin between Aconcagua and Pico del Barroso, with summits over 5,500 meters above sea level.
Valle del Cachapoal is a Chilean designation of origin for wines. The vineyards here occupy some 9,380 hectares.
The most widely planted varieties here are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Carménère. The vines occupy about 80% of the planted area in the valley.
I had planned to ask for vino roja or "red wine". I quickly learned that the local specialty is properly called vino tinto, effectively "dark wine".
"Red" might mean just vaguely red-ish, pink, rosé even, while tinto means the dark red wine of Chile. Here is some vino tinto with a seafood stew.
The Rancagua Basin lies between the Cordillera de los Andes and the Cordillera de la Costa.
Above, we're looking to the west over large vineyards toward the Coastal range, where the mountain valleys produce micro-climates.
Below, we're looking east over more large vineyards toward the Andes.
Arrival in Rancagua
We have soon arrived at Estación Rancagua. This is a busy station. The Rancagüinos use this to travel to other cities through the Central Valley, and to Santiago. The Metrotrén service between Rancagua and Santiago is one of the most-used in the national railway system. In 2000 it transported a little over 3.5 million passengers.
Murals depicting the Battle of Rancagua fill the station.
Two state railway road-rail trucks are parked in front of the station, ready to go.
Below, I have turned back to look at the station entrance.
The snow-capped Andes are visible beyond the palm trees.
To Hostal RancaguaHostal Rancagua at Booking.com
I'll go straight to Hostal Rancagua, get checked in, and leave my stuff.
It's this entire compound enclosed within an outer wall. My room is toward the back, near that second telephone pole.
Things are quiet here. It's early July, mid-winter. I was here at this unusual time to see the solar eclipse.
The temperature gets down below freezing at night, and rises to just a degree or two above freezing during the day. Like most budget places in Chile, there isn't much heat. None at all that I noticed here in the rear wing of the hostal. But there's plenty of warm blankets.
First Walk Around Rancagua
I'll walk back down toward the center, then west on Calle Brasil. The street sides of the sidewalks are lined with booths.
The sidewalk itself is a passageway between the booths and the businesses in buildings.
Even in mid-winter, most shop fronts are wide open. Of course, if you're refrigerating meat, that helps.
A few stores have thick plastic curtains to keep the slightly warmer air inside.
Like other places in Chile — La Serena, Talca — I noticed a lot of auto repair garages and auto parts shops
This place has "Over 10,000 spare parts for all the brands", including several brands I had never heard of!
These are more reminders that Chile has a long Pacific coastline, and that China is an economic power.
To Plaza de los Héroes
I'll return to where Calle Brasil crosses the major north-south San Martin, and continues east while changing to the pedestrian-only Paseo Indepencia.
Here's a local stray dog basking in the sun outside the Banco de Chile, dressed in a Chilean dog vest provided by kind locals.
There's a 4-story Paris department store near the center.
Plaza de los Héroes
The first cathedral was built here in 1550.
The current structure was damaged in the earthquake of February 27, 2010. Restoration started in August 2010, and the cathedral reopened in April 2011.
The Provincial Government of Cachapoal building is on the southeast side of the Plaza de los Héroes. It was originally built in 1887-1889 in the then-standard Neoclassical style. It was then completely remodeled in 1926-30 in the Spanish Renaissance style.
President Salvador Allende gave an address here in the plaza on July 11, 1971, announcing a constitutional reform that nationalized copper mines. That sealed his fate, as the U.S. considered all minerals beneath Chile to be U.S. property. The U.S.-backed coup d'état in 1973 overthrew the democratically elected government, and put General Augusto Pinochet in power.
Pinochet imprisoned up to 80,000 people, tortured tens of thousands, and executed from 1,200 to 3,200 victims. Current government estimates favor the high ends of the ranges, or even higher.
The plaque at the corner explains that the provincial government building was a site of detention and torture from 1973 to 1990.
SITIO DE MEMORIA
GOBERNACIÓN PROVINCIAL DE CACHAPOAL
En homenaje a las mujeres y hombres que fueron victímas del terrorismo de stado durante la dictadura cívico militar entre los años 1973 y 1990.
Este recinta fue ocupado como lugar de detención y tortura.
Testimonio de violacions de Derechos Humanos.
Rancagua, Septiembre 2017
PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT OF CACHAPOAL
In tribute to the women and men who were victims of state terrorism during the military civil dictatorship between 1973 and 1990. This precinct was occupied as a place of detention and torture.
Testimony of human rights violations.
Rancagua, September 2017
The Provincial Government building was made a National Monument in 1994.
Guided by the "Chicago Boys", a group of Chilean economists who had studied under Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger, Pinochet imposed changes that led to a dramatic increase in economic inequality and the 1982 economic crisis, which was Chile's worst since the Great Depression. Meanwhile, Pinochet himself made a fortune through real estate deals, embezzlement, tax fraud, and possibly commissions on arms deals, hiding his fortune in dozens of secret bank accounts overseas.
Pinochet was voted out of office in a referendum in 1989 and relinquished power in 1990.
The Chilean War of Independence Begins
The Plaza de los Héroes de Rancagua is the most important square in the city. This was where the Battle of Rancagua took place.
The Chilean War of Independence was a long struggle, events in 1808 led directly to it. When did the war finally end? Depending on your interpretation, some time between 1821 and 1844. The royalist forces were defeated in 1821. But it wasn't until 1826 that the last Spanish troops surrendered and the Chiloé Archipelago was incorporated into the Republic of Chile. At that point Chile felt free, and operated as a free country. But it wasn't until 1844 that Spain finally formally recognized Chilean independence and established full diplomatic relations.
Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain in the spring of 1808. In July of that year, he put his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the Spanish throne. Meanwhile, a capable and respected Spanish Royal Governor in Chile had suddenly died, and the position was seized by the military commander, Brigadier Francisco Garcia Carrasco. He was crude and authoritarian, and quickly alienated the criollos or locally-born Spanish elites.
What started as a political movement by these locally-born elites grew into a full civil war.
Governor Carrasco got tangled up in the Scorpion scandal of 1809, involving smuggling, murder and other crimes, and politics.
Carrasco was forced out, and the next most senior military figure was Count Mateo de Toro Zambrano. He was 82 years old when he was appointed. When the local people pressured him to form a junta, he quickly surrendered power. Thus the First Junta was formed.
The forming political parties were all against independence from Spain. They differed only in their desired degree of political autonomy. The group that wanted the most autonomy got their man in power, Juan Martinez de Rozas.
Then José Miguel Carrera returned to Chile from Spain, where he had been in the Peninsular War against Napoleon's forces. But, as everyone soon discovered, he hadn't learned much. There were two coups in late 1811, and then Carrera seized power and established a dictatorship. Prominent members of his government included his brothers Juan José and Luis, and Bernardo O'Higgins.
Spain's Viceroy of Peru became nervous, and sent troops to land at Concepción and march north to take Santiago. They were welcomed at Concepción, but failed to capture Santiago despite Carrera's military incompetence. The increasingly pro-independence movement had luckily avoided defeat, but Carrera's poor performance led to O'Higgins taking ultimate control of pro-independence forces.
Bernardo O'Higgins was the illegitimate son of a Spanish military officer from County Sligo, Ireland. His father, who became Governor of Chile and later Viceroy of Peru, supported him financially, but the two never met. Bernardo was sent to Lima at age 15 for education, then to London at 17. Back in Chile, after the death of his father, he became involved in politics.
In 1813, when the Viceroy of Peru sent his unsuccessful expedition, O'Higgins led a militia in the defense under the command of Carrera. He gave one of his famous orders then:
Lads! Live with honor, or die with glory! He who is brave, follow me!
O'Higgins' forces continued to hunt down the Royalist forces, and the First Junta in Santiago reassigned command of the army from Carrera, who had mostly retreated, to O'Higgins. Carrera kept retreating, until he was captured and imprisoned by the Royalists.
Carrera was released, and he overthrew the First Junta in a coup in July 1814. Carrera and O'Higgins were now fighting each other.
Then the Viceroy of Peru sent a much larger expedition to land at Concepción. They marched inland and captured Chillán, and prepared to march north through the Central Valley to Santiago. O'Higgins and Carrera decided to quit fighting each other, join their armies, and fight the Royalist forces.
The Disaster of Rancagua
O'Higgins planned to defend Rancagua, while Carrera insisted on making a stand at a pass close to Santiago.
The Spanish Royalist troops included the Talaveras, an elite force of experienced veterans from the Napoleanic Wars in Europe. O'Higgins was outnumbered, and short on supplies. Reinforcements and supplies from Carrera never appeared.
The Royalist forces arrived on October 1, 1814, and the battle lasted through the next day. On the evening of the first day, the Spanish army set the town on fire. More and more of the Chilean troops were being killed.
The surviving Chilean troops fled into the countryside. O'Higgins led a small group of his men out through the Spanish lines, with another famous order:
Those who can ride, ride! We will break through the enemy!
The Spanish seized Santiago and began the brutal Reconquista or Re-conquest of Chile. The Viceroy of Peru named the victorious Royalist commander as Governor of Peru, and his government began a program of political persecution. Members of the First Junta and other patriots were exiled to the Juan Fernández Islands. These are famous for being where the sailor Alexander Selkirk was marooned, inspiring Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.
O'Higgins and Carrera had both ended up in Argentina, along with other Chilean survivors. They were in the Andean province of Mendoza, where the governor belonged to the Logia Lautaro, the same pro-independence secret society to which O'Higgins belonged.
Over the following years in that Andean province of Argentina, O'Higgins with his Logia Lautaro connection became more influential, as Carrera faded.
Meanwhile, O'Higgins and the Mendoza province governor were organizing an army to cross the Andes and capture Santiago. They sent the lawyer Manual Rodríguez ahead to mount a guerrila campaign. Among other exploits, Rodríguez disguised himself as a beggar to reconnoiter the city, and managed to get the Spanish Governor to give him alms.
The Army of the Andes, and Independence
The Army of the Andes was ready in early 1817, part-way into O'Higgins' third year in exile. They crossed the Andes and encountered Royalist forces on the plain of Chacabuco, north of Santiago.
The Battle of Chacabuco on February 12, 1817, was the decisive victory for the independence forces. They entered Santiago, and Bernardo O'Higgins was proclaimed Supreme Director, a position he would hold until 1823. In September 1817, on the third anniversary of the Disaster of Rancagua, O'Higgins formally declared independence for Chile.
There was now a new Viceroy in Peru, and he sent yet another expedition to Concepción. After some Royalist advances, they were decisively defeated by Chilean forces at the Battle of Maipú. The Royalists retreated to Concepción and never attempted another offensive against Santiago.
Then the Guerra a Muerte began, the period of Total War when Chilean forces launched actions against the mix of Royalists, natives, and outlaws who were taking advantage of the years of chaos to pillage the countryside. With that, Chilean independence was mostly guaranteed. But not all Chilean territory was controlled by the newly independent government in Santiago.
Valdivia and ChiloéCochrane's
O'Higgins placed the Scottish captain Lord Cochrane in charge of the new Chilean Navy as its admiral. Cochrane was the basis for characters like Horatio Hornblower, although the stories had to be scaled back to be believable. Cochrane's reality was outlandish.
In 1820, Cochrane's bold attack on the fortifications at Valdivia captured that port city for Chile. Then he landed troops at northern Chiloé Island, conquering the last remaining Spanish stronghold in Chile.
Meanwhile, Carrera had been imprisoned to keep him out of Chilean affairs. Now he had escaped imprisonment, and was marching south to attack O'Higgins.
Supporters of O'Higgins captured Carrera and executed him in 1821.
Things Go Well For A While
O'Higgins was a successful leader, and his government functioned well. He established courts, colleges, hospitals, and libraries. He founded the Chilean Military Academy and the predecessor of today's Chilean Naval Academy. He created the Chilean Marine Corps.
But O'Higgins was moving too fast. His liberal reforms began to alienate powerful conservative political figures.
The large landowners resisted his radical ideas such as democracy and abolishing titles of nobility. Then O'Higgins offended the Bishop of Santiago. Having offended the aristocracy and the church, he now lost the support of the businessmen. The government went bankrupt, and then a strong earthquake struck.
A coup by the conservatives deposed O'Higgins in 1823, after six years of mostly successful rule. O'Higgins abdicated, and the junta made him governor of Concepción. But that didn't last. O'Higgins soon left Chile on a British ship out of Valparaiso.
Now every town seems to have an avenue named for the Liberator Bernardo O'Higgins. He's on the postage stamps, on the currency. This región, one of 16 making up Chile, is named for him.
I passed the Museo Regional de Rancagua and then got a late lunch.
Talca was once known as the "City of Antennas". It's about 80 kilometers from Santiago, on the fringe of television signals from the capital. The Rancagüinos built wire antennas, directional and thus more sensitive.
Antenna building became a competition through the 1970s, the antennas became a distinctive feature of the city as you passed by on Highway 5, the Pan-American Highway.
Then a repeater for the national television channel was installed here in 1988, and for other channels in 1990 and later. And now, of course, many homes are connected to cable or fibre, and have small satellite dishes.
Iglesia de La Merced is just off the north side of Plaza de los Héroes.
I was in a Spanish-speaking country, so I kept expecting the churches to be the super-elaborate Spanish Baroque style that you find in Mexico. But no.
Used Book Stores
Rancagua's economy is largely based on support for copper mining and agriculture. El Teniente, the largest underground copper mine in the world, is nearby. The state copper mining company Codelco describes it as having over 3,000 kilometers of underground drifts. A volcanic pipe has brought copper and other minerals toward the surface since the Pliocene era of 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago. The Vancouver-based company Amerigo produces both copper and molybdenum concentrates from the mine's tailings.
And then there are all the car repair garages and car parts stores. You get the idea that the city is going to be rather blue-collar.
You begin to notice that the numerous book stores have books by Neal deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, and Truman Capote.
Office-supply stores routinely offer microscopes and telescopes.
Well, this is a multi-university city. The University of O'Higgins was founded in 2015.
There are older public universities: University of Los Lagos, Universidad Arturo Prat, Metropolitan University of Educational Sciences, Technical University Federico Santa Maria, and Universidad de Valparaíso.
And, private universities: University of Aconcagua, University Republic, and University Santo Tomás.
Rancagua also has a range of professional institutes and technical training centers, including INACAP, AIEP Professional Institute, Professional Institute of Chile, and the Institute of Banking Studies Guillermo Subercaseaux.
There's a series of used book shops along Calle Estado, north of Plaza de los Héroes.
The Avienda Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins has a large copper rocket in the narrow park down its median. The local youth are working on their parkour moves.
The population of Rancagua is obviously different from that in Santiago. Here, there's a mix of European settlers with indigenous races.
This area is known as the huaso province after the Chilean cowboy, the huaso. Many linguists say that huaso and gaucho both derive from the Quechua waksha, meaning "poor" or "orphan".
Below is a huaso shop near Hostal Rancagua. The proprietor makes saddles and all sorts of other huaso gear from wood and leather.
It's soon time to move on south to Talca. I'm leaving Rancagua with a perfect record. I heard no English at all during my entire visit. But I got by. I wasn't so much el Hombre sin Nombre or the Man with no Name, but el Gringo sin Lingo, the Illiterate Foreigner.
TerraSur is the long distance service of EFE, the State Railways Company. It connects Santiago and Chillán, almost 400 kilometers apart. It's the fastest rail service in South America, running at speeds up to 150 km/h. There are three daily trains in each direction.
TerraSur uses the Spanish made EMU UTS-444 series equipment on the inter-city runs.
From here it's 167.5 kilometers on south to Talca.