Chile, a whole different cup of tea (or mate) to Argentina. Tomás jokingly welcomed me to a land of cement-paved roads as we crossed the border at Futaleufú. Before I knew it, we were traversing up the mountainside on craggy cross-country tracks, through fog and rain in what I hoped was Tomás’ sturdy Mitsubishi. The landscape suddenly changed and the houses looked smaller, but perhaps that was just because they were set back against the ginormous Andes Mountains. The peaks were shrouded in snow and trees clung to the mountainside by their roots; you had to be hardy to survive the ferocious Patagonian climate.
The first town that we drove through was Santa Lucía, a place wounded by the catastrophic landslide several years ago. My Spanish is far from perfect and it was difficult with the Chilean accent, so when I first heard about what happened, it sounded like a really rather mythical event. A town resident was out on his horse one morning after a night of torrential rain when he saw masses of water tumbling down the mountainside. A glacier had in fact melted and left the town under water, along with five people dead and 15 disappeared. A newspaper article reads Chile: deadly mudslide destroys village. Santa Lucía fades into the fog and becomes a ‘remote’ village ‘near Chaitén’ in coastal Patagonia. But the Chilean flags blowing in the wind serve as a reminder that it rests in the nation’s memory.
We stopped outside the only shop and asked rather optimistically about a cashpoint. No cash point but some kids playing football outside very politely indicated us towards a place for coffee. It was a wooden house opposite the Church on the corner of the street. Someone’s kitchen had been converted into a makeshift service station and there was a table spread offering instant coffee, alfajores, torta frita and empanadas de manzana. I think the owners just made extras of whatever they were cooking that day and put on 5 o’clock tea. It was actually more like 9 o’clock and we had several hours more worth of driving before we were going to reach our destination.
Luis Felipe took over the steering wheel and María Carmen and I chilled out in the back listening to Brazilian jazz. The weather took a turn for the worst just as we started our ascent up a narrow country road. We could just about make out the dense jungle like vegetation, brimming with nalcas, or Chilean Rhubarb (Gunnera tinctoria) and I fell asleep to the sound of the windscreen wipers wiping and the raindrops beating down. I woke up just as we were coming into Puerto Cisnes. A couple of houses were lit up and I got a sense of the grid like town structure which was typical of the architecture in Chile (incidentally, Pinochet and his army of forced labour who constructed the Ruta 40 ran out of ideas for bridge names and settled on calling them ‘sin nombre’, no name). Anyway, this description does not do justice to the charm of Puerto Cisnes, which is a place rich with tradition and spirited, if not slightly eccentric residents.
My tourist promo of Puerto Cisnes begins here: it is home to excellent fish and the well-known Fiesta del Pescao Frito festival. The town have their own take on the Minga Chilota (Chilota being from Chiloé), which is a longstanding tradition whereby the community trade houses by lifting up the foundation, popping it on a tree trunk and rolling it to the said destination with the help of man and oxen power. The Minga Solidaria of Puerto Cisnes however transports the house by boat to the shoreline, from where the whole town joins together and pulls the house to the nominated town members’ place of residence. There was something rather comical about a house bobbing around the archipelago because it rained so much that it seemed as though the town had become accustomed to living their lives under water! We were staying in a very comfortable B&B, with a lenga powered wood stove to keep us warm. At breakfast one morning, a Rodeo show was playing on TV, which featured a couple of cowboys or huasos were tormenting a cow around a corral. María Carmen and I were commenting on the quite inhumane nature of the tradition when we realised we were staying with the Capitán of the Rodeo Club of Puerto Cisnes.
I remember drying off in restaurants after getting stuck in pouring rain and sampling some delicious fish including merlusa (hake), salmon, congrio (cusk-eel) and whitebait. We tried to arrange a boat trip to Puerto Gaviota (population 35) which is on the Magdalena Island but we did not have much luck convincing the tour guide to take us after the wind had picked up one morning. Instead we rambled through the Valdivian temperate forest, which was home to just about every type of moss, lichen and plant species under the sun. The vegetation flourishes from the rain blowing off the Pacific. I had never seen so many species of trees on one spot, from Arrayanes (Luma apiculata), which have a tremendous red bark, to Coihues (Nothofagus dombeyi), and the Ciprés de Guiateca (Pilgerodendron uviferum) which is a type of pine endemic to Chile.
On our last day we stopped for tea at a waterfront restaurant (followed by pisco sours back home). The others laughed at me for asking the waitress for a drop of cold milk for my English Breakfast tea. I didn’t really follow through on my refined tea drinking etiquette as I proceeded to fill my cup with two then three tea bags to make it stronger! The restaurant brought us freshly baked bread and a 1970s looking pink jelly tart. Luis Felipe had a go on the slightly out of tune clunky old piano and brought it to life with a beautiful virtuosic short melody which he knew off by heart.
It was slightly strange going back along the Ruta 40 to Futaleufú on the return journey. As we left our tucked away little coastal enclave, I was once again struck by the scenery as the fjords were replaced by towering mountains with waterfalls rushing down. We stopped off to visit the Ventisquero Colgante glacier and arrived at the most pristine blue lake, which we crossed by boat to arrive at the foot of the glacier. The sheer height of the glacier was incredible, I felt like an ant floating on a raft in Jurassic park as I gazed up at the surrounding mountains. The landscape taught me so much about Chile and its people.
We arrived in Futaleufú late that evening and I appreciated the buzz of the hostel after a long car journey. It was a spacious big wooden house set away from the town in the mountains. I woke up early that morning and looked out the window at the vast expanse of grassy plains. Then boom, out of nowhere the Andes sprung up.
I was lucky to just make it in time for the bus ride back to over the border to Esquel. Walking the 100 meter gap between the two border patrol offices was strange, like going back to a place which was not home, but somewhere which felt familiar and secure. I had missed the sound of merengue booming off the clay earth and I welcomed the midday heat after all the coastal rain. But I could almost hear the water rushing off the Ventisquero glacier on the bus ride back to Esquel, a new appetite for adventure had taken hold.