LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 82
Pags. 54 al 71
By: Soledad Gil
Photos: Federico Quintana
FROM CHILOE TO BAHIA MALA
Lake dwellings, tiled roofs, ferry boats, mussels and fjords. We're on the other side! At first the Chilean Patagonia seems so plainly maritime. But then there is more, suddenly there are cows, signposts and grass.
The first impression, on crossing the Puyehue, is of an economically productive region. There are also small hotels, character and colour, but you can tell that Mondays are not the same as Sundays here.
We have very little information on the place, just a photograph of Chiloe that shows a wooden house with a red tiled roof and a smoking chimney while a cloud envelops the dark waters: Or was it perhaps raining? We decide to let the place speak for itself. In the meantime, in Osorno we managed to miss the right exit, there being so many bridges and so many routes crisscrossing. We end up paying the toll twice but finally find the road to the Llanquihue. After 53km we are delighted to arrive to Puerto Octay as it is our first contact with a village.
The guide suggests we visit the museo del Colono, (Settlers' Museum) but we are more inclined to visit the German cemetery. For no other reason than the view! The best of the Osorno. I can't help thinking that this is a pretty privileged spot to be buried, with the view to the blue, blue lake and the triangular silhouette of the volcano with its snowy peak.
We continue to Frutillar bajo, a small village of German inspiration that spreads at the foot of the Llanquihue and has the same stunning views of the Osorno. It is a tiny village, barely ten streets and very pretty. The locals are proud of it and keen to keep it that way. It would be lovely to be able to stay at one of the picturesque hotels or event stop for a cup of tea and enjoy a walk on the coast. However we must move on. We are spending the night at Puerto Montt.
We don't know exactly where we will stay the night, all we know is that we don't want a big, impersonal hotel. The city is full of clumps of little houses hanging off the sides of the mountains overlooking the crashing waves.
We are on the Pacific coast! We want to see it and eat the wonderful seafood as well. We drive around the centre but it is only when we get sidetracked to a residential neighbourhood that we come across VientoSur.
Exactly what we were looking for, with its pastel colours, terrace and a lovely restaurant where they look after us and feed us well. The following day after a hearty breakfast, we set out towards Angelmó, the famous market of Puerto Montt. It was all we had hoped for and more.
We saw the "piures", the typical red Chilean shellfish, hanging dry and sewn into long necklaces, the classic "curanto", a stew of seafood and meat and seafood soups that sell like cakes, conger eels and clams...
There are also the handicraft stalls, colourful knitted sweaters, wooden puppets and miniature sailboats. Genuine local colour. We take dozens of shots while the stallholders take no notice and carry on with their work.
Before taking the ferry to Chiloe, we potter around Chinquihue, to soak up the combined maritime and urban atmosphere so particular to Puerto Montt. We find another area with hotels and restaurants that looks quite nice. We visit a couple of places and then find ourselves at Pargua, from where the ferry leaves to Chacao on the Chilo en islands.
The ferries run every ten minutes, from 6am to midnight and then every half hour from midnight to 6am. The crossing takes 30 minutes and we each paid $6.500.
We disembark with knots in our stomachs. We don't have much time available for the trip and want to see everything that the Chiloé region had to offer - Ancud, Castro, Quemchi, Chonchi, Quellón. And there is still much more.
We reach Ancud sooner than we thought, as it is only 27 kilometres and the island is after all 180 kilometres long in total. It is the second largest in South America, after Tierra de Fuego.
We visit the handicraft market, but are more interested in seeing the Polvorín del Fuerte San Antonio, built in 1770. Our guide tells us that the Spanish flag flew over the garrison here, on 19 January 1826, for the last time in Chile. Six days later the final Spanish flag in South America was lowered at El Callao in Peru. Chiloé certainly has its history.
The Jesuits arrived at Castro in 1608 and evangelical work was extremely successful. So Successful in fact that a visit to all Chiloé's churches, more than 150 of them, would require a separate visit. Clearly not all of them date back to that period. But there are ones, like the one at Achao, and many others whose construction had begun but were unfinished at the time of the expulsion of the Order from South America in 1767.
The architecture, wooden towers and tiled walls are well worth seeing and are iconic of the region, studied by professionals from all over the world.
Apparently there are not many examples of this type of construction from the 18th century. As we progress, reality around us diverges further from our expectations. Route 5, the main and only road across the island, is narrow and two-laned, but at least it is paved throughout. Large trucks rattle by and there are occasional service stations .... and the section from Ancud to Castro dates from 1781.
130.000 people live in Chiloé. I don't know what we expected to find. However, I cannot say that it has entirely lost its insular character, either in the interior or in the fishing villages. The latter are built largely of wood, each has its local handicraft market, its little hotels and a museum to reaffirm its identity, always linked to wood, handicrafts and the sea.
So, crossing the rolling countryside that never rises more than 1,000m above sea level, we reach Dalcahue. From here excursions depart for the island of Quinchao, one of the most heavily populated islands in the archipelago, and also to Achao, from where one can visit Llingua Island, a well known basket-making centre. Although we came to see the local market but had arrived on the wrong day - market days are variable- we decide to stay overnight in Dalcahue so that we can visit Castro the next day. There is not much time left.
A call to Transmarchilay confirms that there is only one sailing a week to Chaitén and that it leaves the following night. The dotted line on the map connecting Chaitén with Chonchi shows a ferry service that has not operated for eight years! Chonchi is a freight port. Time to update the maps, I would think.
We leave Dalcahue early the next morning and soon find ourselves looking at the stilt-houses at the entrance to the "chilota" capital.
Castro regained this title, lost to Ancud in 1788, only in 1982, and now bears it proudly.
We are stunned upon visiting the cathedral of San Francisco to see how this church hs been fully renovated from its wooden floor to its wooden walls and roof. Come to think of it you don't see many trees along the road.
The guide speaks about forestry work and the importance of wood in the regional economy. He also tells us about the Parque Nacional Chiloé, which can be accessed through the town of Cucao, one of the few towns on the west of the island. We have lunch in Años Luz, a bright yellow tin house that is a real find. The atmosphere is welcoming and the bar is made from the prow of a ship. We decide to visit Cucao that afternoon. But before we allow ourselves a little luxury, non-instant coffee. We are not devotees of the Nescafe culture in these parts.
Now we are ready for our adventure. We are keen to take on the 35 kilometres of dirt road with no traffic to worry about. We pass through Huillinco, another village of tiled houses, where we find Simón, a blond local personality doing pirouettes on the dock. Of German origin, he has lived in Chiloé since he was a young boy. Although not yet 15 he is the star turn of the village.
We take the road that borders the almost black waters of Lake Huillinco. The day is a little cloudy and there is an atmosphere of mystery in the air. After a stop at the Puquelahue cabins we arrive at Cucao. We find a few fishermen's boats, flowering myrtle, some cabins and various signs for the Parque Nacional.
Again, it is not what we expected, and better for that. I would never have thought that the Pacific coastline would be like this, without cliffs or rugged rocks. In some ways it reminds me of Valizas in Uruguay. Many times smaller and further from the beach, but the same colours and light quality. The vegetation is completely different.
There are dunes here but growing on them are things like pangues, nalcas or rhubarb, I don't know what they are, but they're so big that the cows can camouflage themselves hiding amongst their spiny, broad foliage. In truth, a strange place where we could happily stay for a while. But we have to reach Quellón in order to catch the ferry.
The journey to Chaitén takes almost seven hours. We sleep in the car, protected from the strong wind and bitter cold, and only venture out when the weather begins to clear. Well, in a manner of speaking because in Chaitén it rains. How it rains. We have sore backs and a craving for coffee, even if it is just Nescafe. But everyone is still asleep, it is still early and we decide to push on.
Finally here are the mountains that we had imagined.
Greenery, clouds, rain and mountains, the ideal combination for a southern highway. There is also evidence of forestry work and some burnt land, but the green dominates the scenery. A fallen tree is a documentary for the National Geographic, inhabited as it is with hundreds of different tiny insects, microscopic plants, lichens and mosses, and there are hundreds and thousands of them.
In Villa Santa Lucia we find a welcoming soul who is prepared to open his doors so that we can have a coffee. Buen día.
We re-fuel the car in La Junta and begin our most southerly stage of the journey, to the cabins at El Pangue, the little treasure run by Heidi Barentin and Ramiro Calvo on the banks of Lake Risopatrón. If Rossana Acquasanta had not told me about it, I would never have come; and what I would have missed! Just so that you know:
El YUNGUE AND BAHIA BLANCA.
- The jetty on the lake, jutting out just where two mountains form a V and with the most perfect, unmissable views.
- The comfort of the cabins all well distributed in the parkland, suitable for taking walks, practicing fly casting in the pond or playing with the cats, dogs, pigs, llamas and other farm animals the Calvo family keep in the garden.
- The outdoor Jacuzzis where I would have stayed until shriveling up completely.
- The 3km jungle path with the most wonderful green foliage ever seen.
- Heidi and Ramiro's charming personality.
- To sum it up, the great cuisine and lovely surroundings including the Rivers Palena, Figueroa, Rosselot and Ventisquero.
This time it's Federico Quintana who gives us a great tip. His Belgian friend, Hubert Grosse is about to open some luxury cabins in Bahia Mala, south of Raul Marin Balmaceda's pedestrian village. I look at the map. How are we to get there? By water, naturally, he responded. I cannot even begin to picture Bahia Mala, right across from the Isla Refugio, near the Guaitecas archipelago.
That evening, Juan Carlos, the administrator of Lago Yungue, the other property belonging to the Belgian group, Burco, on the Palena river, tells us stories of his childhood in the region. I listen intently to the stories of divers risking their lives to catch "locos", of the cypress wood of the Guaitecas, of the wizards that live on Repollal Island. He tells us of the sea lions, the albatross and dolphins. I am fascinated. They say that one cannot dream about something of which one has no previous concept. And for me, until then, that bit of the world was a complete mystery. But life is full of surprises.
The following day, the view of the Palena River from my room in the Yungue wins me over completely. It is a bit misty out there and the prospect of the 45 minute sail downstream, plus the 45 minutes at sea, seems somewhat daunting. But I refuse to back out now.
Our reduced baggage is hauled to the launch by a team of oxen. We cross the Palena and continue by 4x4 on the road, still under construction, to Raul Marin.
A boat awaits us there for our adventure, an adventure not suitable for delicate constitutions. If the sea is rough or choppy, you can be sure it will rock accordingly. The name of our destination, Bahia Mala (which could be translated as Wicked Bay, not that I wish to sound intimidating) is pretty close to the reality. The weather conditions are usually not very good; some even say it rains 300 days a year.
Nevertheless, as soon as I set eyes on the cabins and a couple of playful dolphins on the coast, my spirits soar. The overcast sky and dark jungle do not allow us to see very far. Hubert tells us of islands and places that we cannot make out in the mist. But the following day, like a miracle, the sun comes out and suddenly the name "wicked bay" seems so unfair to this benign and peaceful spot.
Pebble beaches and a calm and "pacific" (at last) sea, pony treks to the Melimoyu volcano glacier, which can also be seen on a clear day.
Under those conditions the trip to Raul Marin Balmaceda, the town of 400 inhabitants only 45 minutes from Bahia Mala, is a contrasting experience to the previous day's. I feel l am a combination of Cousteau and Columbus, sailing between small islets where sea elephants and sea birds are resting, while playful dolphins swim beside our boat.
We have lunch at a restaurant in Raul Marin, where we are not expected. It would appear that it is not often that visitors disembark here.
We took some photographs of the jetty and started heading back to el Yungue. The next day, with the truck well loaded and on firm land, we bade our farewells to the Palena and hit the long road home.