Making Tracks in Chilean Patagonia

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Travel in Patagonia. The Paine River flowing from the Nordenskjöld Lake towards the Salto Grande iwaterfall within the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Flickr/Jon Mould
The Paine River flows from Nordenskjöld Lake towards Salto Grande in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Flickr/Jon Mould

When friends asked, “Why Patagonia?” my reply was much the same as Lady Florence Dixon, who ventured to this beautiful part of southern Chile on horseback in 1880.

“Scenes of infinite beauty and grandeur might be lying hidden in the silent solitude of the mountains bound by the barren plains of the Pampas,” she wrote.

Travel to Patagonia

I had no real notion of the wonders that would present themselves on the journey to the southern tip of Chile when I set my sights on Patagonia, yet when I began to research, images of the sun-flamed tower of Torres del Paine fired my imagination.

I would surely find Puerto Varas nestled in the ring of fire on the banks of Lake Llanquihue (pronounced yan key way) in the middle of the Andes range spectacular, and Chiloe, the largest island in an archipelago off the coast of Chile that had evolved in isolation from the strife of the mainland, home to very cute penguins, delightful.

There would be Punta Arenas, the gateway to southern Patagonia on the Straits of Magellan, steeped in the history of explorers tucked into calm waters to avoid the ferocious storms rising where the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean collide. Grandeur, history, beauty, cuteness—Why not Patagonia?

Dining on Curanto in Chile. Photo by Linda Ballou
Curanto is a traditional meal in Chile and Argentina. Meat and vegetables are cooked on a bed of hot rocks in a hole about 1.5 meter deep. Photo by Linda Ballou

From Argentina to Chile

Oversea Adventure Travel orchestrated my journey from Argentina across the snow-tipped Andes and delivered our group to the border of Chile where the forest thickens and ferns the size of elephant ears fan the two-lane highway.

As we dipped down toward the coast, the landscape turned pastoral with dairy cows in meadows powdered yellow with asters. We stopped at one of the farms for a traditional meal called a curanto (translated “hot rocks”).

Glowing coals in a pit are covered with a bed of rocks upon which mussels, clams, chicken, and sausages are placed. Next was a layer of potato patties (a staple in the Chilean diet) followed by a final layer of ferns. The mixture is left to steam for about an hour. This repast was served with fresh fruits, greens, and pico de gallo.

We could see the volcanoes from the banks of Puerto Varas. Photo by Linda Ballou
We could see Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes from the village of Puerto Varas in Chile. Photo by Linda Ballou

Puerto Varas

We spent the night in Puerto Varas, a charming village on the banks of the largest lake in Chile, from which we could see both Osorno and Calbuco volcanoes resting on the horizon. Our mission the next day was to hike the flank of Orsorno.

We drove around the ocean-blue lake beneath puffy white clouds framed in the glistening snow-frosted peaks of the Andes. A narrow track up switchbacks lined with mounds of cheery yellow Scotch Broom and spikes of magenta foxglove took us to a ski hut and the trailhead.

The footpath of crumbled lava was slippery and required focus and sure-footedness through a lunar landscape that lead to a head-spinning vista. With two snow-capped volcanoes behind me, a green, glacier-carved valley with a silver river snaking through it below, and the dazzling blue eye of Llanquihue dead ahead, I felt I was as close to God as I ever would be.

San Franciso Church In Castro
San Francisco Church in Castro, the largest city on the island.

Island of Chiloe

A 30-minute ferry ride landed us on the island of Chiloe, a soggy affair that gets 300 days of rain each year. Our welcoming committee was a pair of black necked swans with a trio of cygnets trailing behind.

In Castro, the largest city on the island, the San Francisco church is a UNESCO World Heritage site built entirely of wood and painted bright yellow to offset the gloom of rainy days. Carvings inside the church show how the mythology of the island’s people was integrated into the teachings of the Jesuits.

The Brujo was a handy hit man called upon to kill an enemy anonymously. Trauco was a deformed dwarf who lived in the forest that women found irresistible. Inconvenient pregnancies were easily explained away by an encounter with Trauco.

Punihuil Wildlife Sanctuary is rich with wildlife. Flickr/Michele Vascellari
Punihuil Wildlife Sanctuary is rich with wildlife, including pengiuns. Flickr/Michele Vascellari

Punihuil Wildlife Sanctuary

After a lunch of delicious seafood soup with all manner of shellfish laced with seaweed we were off to see the penguins. Our driver careened through lush emerald pastureland to the Punihuil Wildlife Sanctuary on the Pacific side of the island where Magellanic and Humboldt penguins, sea otters, sea lions, and sea birds reside.

We boarded a skiff and circled the sea stacks where hundreds of the flightless birds breed and find shelter from predators like sea lions who attack the chicks and gulls who steal their eggs. Chiloe’s catch-phrase is “No rain – No rainbow.” We were blessed with both on this spectacular day of bird watching.

Vast tracks of undeveloped lands and waterways lie between Chiloe and Punta Arenas. In May 2017, the country voted to add 11 million acres to the national parks. The movement was spearheaded by Douglas Tomkins and is wife Kristine who donated 1 million privately owned acres in Parque Pumalin to the Chilean government.

The plan is underway with its goal to create a “Route of Parks” modeled after the National parks in the U.S. with good roads that follow natural curves in the land and many viewing pullouts. Presently, private outfitters take adventurers into the park for river rafting, horseback riding, and fishing expeditions.

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