IT contributor Emily Haile is just back from a trip to Chile, where things are crooked and steeped in the past.
They say if you eat the calafate berrycalafate berry, you’ll return to Patagonia. They taste like blueberries, only better, and they grow like weeds in summer. The Chileans love the calafate — it inspires them to culinary greatness in the form of calafate-flavored marmalade, and even beer.
At the Remota Hotel, the calafate ice cream is included, as is everything else, from the guided excursions to the wine with dinner at sunset, overlooking Last Hope Fjord. Located in Puerto Natales, about 150 miles of flat steppe north of Punta Arenas, the hotel is aptly named. Designed to be in harmony with the wild landscape, Remota resembles a traditional grass-roofed barn. The rooms are rustically wallpapered with long, knotted strips of locally-sourced lenga wood and the bay windows appear artfully crooked from a distance. Even this has a purpose: “Everything is asymmetrical in Patagonia,” my guide, Matias del Sol tells me. From the trees, which remind me of a lady’s hair as she’s riding on the back of a motorcycle, to the tin houses which are patched year after year of snow, sun and punishing wind. This is my base for three nights while exploring the vast Patagonian steppe. Torres del Paine National Park is a two-hour drive from the hotel, and I hiked here amid jewel-toned lakes, and the ever-present granite towers. The park’s beauty is unparalleled, but there are also places worth exploring in and around Puerto Natales.
Like many travelers to South America, I read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia before my journey (it’s reviewed in Traveler’s Ultimate Travel LibraryTraveler’s Ultimate Travel Library).
He describes one of the more salient memories of his childhood: “In my grandmother’s dining room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet, a piece of skin.” Though family lore deemed it a piece of a brontosaurus, the relic was in fact the preserved skin of a milodon, or giant sloth, discovered by an ancestor of his in a cave. The skin had a mythic quality. It smelled like history. “Never in my life have I wanted anything as I wanted that piece of skin,” Chatwin wrote. As you read it, you can’t help wanting to go in search of that very piece of skin, to grasp the extinct giant in your palm.
The milodon was a fierce-looking vegetarian creature that resembled a bear with a tail.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The experts estimate it’s been extinct for about 10,000 years, along with its contemporary, the sabertooth. A short ride from the hotel, Matias takes a group of us trekking up a mountain, around a condor’s nest, past calafate bushes, windswept trees and orange lichens. We happen upon a family of Chilean woodpeckers, the male sporting a magnificent red mohawk. Several hours later, after teasing one another that the bones we’ve seen strewn along the path are the remains of yesterday’s hikers, we approach the Milodon Cave, now a Chilean natural monument. My first impression is that it’s huge – it’s about as wide as a football field and deep enough to create echoes. At the entrance, there’s a schmaltzy statue of the milodon that’s too tempting not to get your picture with. But once inside, the cave is cool, the hair on my neck stands up, and I see the giant pits where the creature was excavated. A gray fox paces nearby, undaunted by visitors, his burrow in a low overhang of rock. As make our way around the cave, Matias asks me if I’d like to see a milodon hair. “Never in my life have I wanted anything as I wanted that piece of hair,” I think to myself. He crouches down on the sandy earth and emerges almost immediately with a long, coarse white hair. I twirl it between my fingers. I brush it against my cheek. If you kneel down and look at the ground sideways and it catches the light just right, the entire cave seems to be sprouting milodon hairs. I tuck the hair into my inside pocket, my companions snickering.
Back in the sunlight, I eat a big handful of berries and later, in town, I buy a year’s supply of calafate marmalade.
Photo: marigjefloris via Flickr