Chile by Land by Sea
Journey from the snowcapped volcanoes and gingerbread villages of Chile's southern lake country all the way down to Patagonia's wild Torres del Paine National Park.
That Chile makes a kind of California Australisan antipodal version of my home stateI had heard often enough. The comparison, I'd always thought, had mainly to do with climate. Chile, like California, has good grape weather. In winter, North American supermarkets fill with those "red flame" grapes of Chilean summer. But climate, in truth, is just the beginning. This February, arriving in Puerto Montt, gateway to la región de los lagosChile's celebrated southern lake districtI was unprepared for the echoes of home that resounded on all sides. I had entered some sort of parallel universe.
California is long, and so is Chile. The heart of California is a great central valley between a coast range to the west and a cordillera to the east. So it is in Chile. California is desert at one end and humid forest at the other. Chile is the same. California boasts the redwood, tallest of all trees and among the longest lived. Chile boasts the alerce, a conifer remarkably similar in look and age and grandeur. Above the mountains of California, on a nine-foot wingspan, soars the endangered California condor. Above the mountains of Chile soars the Andean condor. Into California's coastal waters, folding up to become a spear, the brown pelican dives beaklong. Into the coastal waters of Chile dives the Peruvian pelican, a nearly indistinguishable subspecies. California is divided lengthwise by a highway called Route 5. Chile is divided lengthwise by a highway called Ruta 5.
But a parallel universe is not an identical universe. Scarcely five minutes down the road from the airport, I encountered the first big anomaly in parallel structure, and I had to brake for it: a horse and wagon trotting down the middle of the pavement. This wagon, stacked with firewood, might have been a California scene from a century ago. If not an anomaly in parallel structure, it was a warp in time.
And so it went in Chile. A kind of déjà vu greeted me everywhere as I traveled around the lake district, then a thousand miles down the coast to Patagonia's Torres del Paine National Park. This was, for me, the joy of travel in the country. The fun in any parallel universe is in the ceaseless, reverberant interplay of similarities and differences.
One morning I stood at my window in the Colonos del Sur Hotel in Puerto Varas, a resort town on Lake Llanquihue, a short drive north of Puerto Montt. The mists had burned off the lake, and there across the water was the perfect, snowcapped cone of the volcano Osorno. Fuji, I thought. I am told that every Japanese visitor, at the apparition of the mountain, cries out that sacred name. Osorno marks the spot where a Japanese parallel universe pokes through the fabric of Chile.
There is an alternate universe for Germans here as well. The lake district was settled by Germans in the mid-1800s, and the descendants of those settlers are proud of their heritage. German language and culture has faded a bit in the past century, inevitably, but a regionalism called Laguna Deutsch, "Lake German"a combination of German and Spanishstill thrives, and large numbers of vacationers from the fatherland are drawn here. Lake Llanquihue, with its lakeshore towns of Puerto Varas and Frutillar, is at the center of Germanic Chile. A chalet-style architecture predominates, with planter boxes blooming on the balconies. A Bierstube stands here, a Gästehaus there, and Teutonic still lifes of dead game adorn the hotel walls.
One night I was studying the menu at the Cabañas del Lago Hotel, in Puerto Varas, deciding between Kaiser cutlet, tongue amandine, and Kassler pork chop with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes, when it dawned on me that all the surrounding conversations were in German. I was the only Ausländer there. At breakfast the next morning, I was startled awake by "The Ride of Valkyries" thundering over the Muzak. I laughed at first, then fell into the spirit. A dose of Wagner is actually a fine, rousing way to begin the day. It eliminates the need for coffee.
Getting a jump start is a good idea in the lake region. There is unsurpassed trout fishing to be done, and fine biking, sailing, waterskiing, windsurfing, and horseback riding.
There is volcano-watching at the resorts along Lake Villarrica, its calm surface reflecting the fitful smoldering of the snowcapped Villarrica Volcano. There are guided climbs of Osorno, if you are comfortable with crampons and ice axe, and climbs of lesser volcanoes if you are not. There is more passive adventure, like soaking in baths fed by the termas, or hot springs, of Termas de Puyehue, or in the springs of the remote Termas de Callao, hidden behind Puntiagu-do Volcano near the wonderfully namedor unnamedRío Sin Nombre. There is hiking through the montane forest of Puyehue National Park, and trekking through the giant alerces of Alerce Andino National Park, and white-water rafting in Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park.
Vicente Pérez Rosales was the first national park established in Chile. The park's centerpiece is Lake Todos Los Santos, sometimes called Lago Esmeralda for the blue-green of its glacial waters. If any experience summarizes the lake region, it is the cruise up Todos Los Santos to the frontier village of Peulla, on the Argentine border. Passengers leave Puerto Varas by bus in the morning, traveling eastward along the shore of Lake Llanquihue, pausing at antique shingled churches and other vestiges of German influence. Leaving Llanquihue, the pavement turns to gravel and the road passes close under the ice-capped crown of Osorno. Crossing an isthmus, it ends in the ersatz alpine village of Petrohué, on the western shore of Todos Los Santos, from which the ferry pushes off into that beautiful freshwater fjord. From the stern rail, Osorno discloses the backside of itselfstill a perfect cone. To the north, the grim volcanic snag of Puntiagudo appears, and finally the dazzling glaciers and rocky summit of Mount Tronador, the "Thunderer," the largest volcano in the lake region.
Chile's nearly endless coastline stretches more than half the length of South America, some 2,700 miles. The slender nation accounts, all by itself, for the continent's entire Pacific Southwest. Chile's real affinity, I came to realize, is not just to California, but to the whole of our Pacific Northwest as well. Here again the convergence is eerie. Chile's giant island of Chiloéimmediately southwest of Puerto Montt across the Gulf of Ancudis the southern analogue of Vancouver Island, comparable both in shape and in the rainy climate.
Chiloé, which means "Land of Seagulls" in the local Indian tongue, is one of those islands that time forgot. In its isolation from the mainland, Chiloé has evolved its own idiosyncratic culture and way of life. "They are an humble, quiet, industrious set of men," Charles Darwin wrote of the inhabitants, the Chilotes. This continues to be true. Chilotes no longer dress in the woolen garments, dyed dark blue with indigo, that Darwin observed on his 1834 visit here, but an old-fashioned industriousness persists. Chilote farmers are dependent still on oxcarts. Chilote fishermen go to sea in small wooden boats that they make themselves. The island is famous for its scores of wooden churches, each isolated village having built its own.
What most distinguishes Chiloé is the fecundity of the island's waters and the intimacy of Chilotes with the sea. In the capital of Castro, midway down the east coast, I wandered through tidal neighborhoods of palafitos, shoreline houses on stilts. It would be impossible to reside any closer to the water. The palafito walls are covered with handmade shingles, each owner adding his own identifying notch or curve to each row's bottom edge. The houses all stray from the rectilinear, with rooflines convex or concave, rows of shingles wandering drunkenly. Chiloé is an island of big tides, and the stilts supporting the palafitos are tall.
From the parapet of Fort San Antonio, which guards the harbor of Chiloé's northern town of Ancud, I looked out on the bay. Directly under the fortress guns, an old woman with a huge sack was picking rockweed off the intertidal stones. (Sun-dried, her algae would be sold as soup base.) A family bearing poles with iron forks at the tip walked the shoreline in search of fish. Off a rocky point to the north, two men in black wet suits and snorkels were diving for shellfish. Out on the bay several yellow-hulled fishing boats drifted, crewedmy binoculars revealed-by more men in black wet suits. Pelicans were wheeling and diving, olivaceous cormorants plunging, the fins of dolphins cutting the surface. Everywhere I looked, humans or sea creatures were fishing or foraging. In this age of dying fisheries, Chiloé has yet to hear the bad news.
Chiloé National Park lies on the island's Pacific coast, at the end of a gravel road that crosses the island from Chonchi to Cucao. From park headquarters, I crossed a savanna of ferns and nalca, a plant with gigantic leaves the size of umbrellas, and entered el tepual, a forest dominated by the tepú tree. A self-guided trail meandered through those wet, lovely, elfin, nearly impenetrable woods. The tepú trunks were retorcidas y caprichosas, as one trailside sign observedtwisted and capricious. The trail was a corduroy path, pretty to look at but slow underfoot; just the sort of highway elves might have built to discourage pursuit by normal-size boots.
Backtracking across the savanna, I headed for the ocean, taking the beach trail through a low coastal forest of pinkish-trunked arrayÿn trees and magellanic fuchsias with red flowers. The forest ended, the trail coming out onto an old beach ridge overgrown by yellow-blooming bush lupine. The spikes of yellow flowers stopped me in my tracks. Bush lupine of this unusual color is the most characteristic plant of the hind-dune community along my California coast. Until now, nothing in this afternoon's walk had been remotely familiar, but suddenly I was home again. Before me, reproduced in nearly perfect detail, was the Great Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore, just north of San Francisco.
Chiloé Island marks the gateway to an inside passage bounded to the west by a maze of glaciated islands, to the east by a labyrinth of fjords. This maze, beginning with the Chonos Archipelago, leads to Torres del Paine National Parkin the opinion of many, the most beautiful national park on earth. Torres del Paine was declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1978.
From Puerto Montt I embarked on a Navimag Company ship southward through the Chonos Archipelago. The ship, Puerto Eden, was a freighter of 3,500 tons, with accommodations for 200 passengers. The majority of my shipmates were youngish Europeans and Chileans, with a scattering of Canadians, Aussies, and Americans, mostly low-budget travelers seeing Chile by backpack. Some of us were bound for southern Patagonia and its scenic climax in the extraordinary pinnacles of Torres del Paine. Some would go on to Tierra del Fuego.
The vessel's food was institutional but adequate. The cheapest passage was in dormitories in the bowels of the ship, berths stacked four bunks high and looking like something from Two Years Before the Mast. Above decks were a number of four-passenger cabins with shared baths, and just under the bridge one almost elegant stateroom with a wide view forward across the bow. I visited shipmates in all sorts of accommodation, and I can testify that the young, Chile-on-a-shoestring travelers in steerage had the best time of all, hands down.
For four days the ship unraveled the maze of the Chonos Archipelago and the wild coastline beyond. In gray weather, the mountainous islands and peninsulas receded in diminishing halftones. In full sun, they brightened to a muted green and glinted everywhere with waterfalls. A voyager accustomed to northern fjords, on first seeing the distant green of the archipelago, assumes that these forests must be coniferous, then is surprised, with the first close pass, to discover that the trees are broad-leafed. Stressed by driving winds and hard rains, the recently glaciated land here has not developed much botanical diversity. The archipelago is covered largely by two or three species of false beech.
One day an announcement by the captain sent us all to starboard to watch our first small iceberg slide by, translucent blue, sculpted into a whimsical shape never to be duplicated again. Another day a southern sea lion, surfing away on the bow wave, brought everyone to port. We saw dolphins in the straits, and occasionally the blows of whales. Watching one diving whale through my binoculars, I saw the unmistakable hump of a humpback, then the piebald flukes.
We saw penguins, and the handsome white-breasted cormorants called Magellan shags, and pale ducks drifting in the kelp forest that grew thickly in the narrower passages. At the northern end of the Chonos, the black-browed albatross was the most common seabird, skimming by us on its eight-foot wing-span. As we proceeded south, the albatross gave way to a cousin, the southern giant petrel. Where the albatrosses had been indifferent to the ship, the giant petrels seemed drawn to it, and sometimes they followed us for hours, sailing along effortlessly in the wind shadow at the stern.
When we disembarked at Puerto Natales, gateway to Torres del Paine, I looked back at the ship with affection and gratitude. It was a joy to have learned the lesson the Puerto Eden taught: that there is still room on earth for such a huge, wild archipelago.
My introduction to Torres del Paine came in the van of a guide named Eduardo Scott, a 75-year-old resident of Puerto Natales who speaks fluent but rusty English. Eduardo's mother was a Falkland Islander of English descent, his father an expatriate Englishman who fled Britain to escape the First World War. Eduardo grew up under the Southern Cross, a horsebreaker, sheepman, boxer, soldier, oil-field worker, and now innkeeper and guide.
"Zorro," he said, as he drove us, his three American clients, through the Patagonian rangeland that buffers the park, 90 miles north of Puerto Natales. He pointed to an erect bushy tail trotting off into the grass. "Fox," he translated, after a moment's pause to dredge up that name.
The gravel road traveled through a vast, rolling country where the last of the pampas buckles into hilliness as it meets the last of the Andes. It is a land of big vistas and small trees. We passed Herefords in wonderful condition. Like all the cattle I had seen in Chile, they looked fat and content and freshly washed, somehow.
Flocks of upland geese grazed in the grassland, and ibises flushed from the marshy places. The niche of the raven here was filled by a raptor, the caracara, which hung out in the vicinity of roadkills. We passed a condor perched in the company of four caracaras. When we stopped to look, the great bird labored into the air, followed by its caracara retinue.
Entering the 600,000-acre park, we passed small groups of foraging ñandús, or rheas. Eduardo had paced these American ostriches at 45 miles per hour, he claimed, but advised against it. The huge, sprinting, three-toed feet can fling stones backward and break your windshield. We passed herds of guanacos. "I brought them up many times," Eduardo said of these graceful American camels. "They make good companions." The guanacos had a snagged-sweater look, the belly wool unraveled, as if each animal had jumped a barbed-wire fence that was too high for it. Occasionally, as the herds interacted, ears would go back angrily. Two males faced off. They hooked necks in combat, and commenced what Eduardo called "spitting," though it seemed to me the spray came more from the nose. Each burst was brightly backlit by the sunthe sneeze as offensive weapon.
The centerpiece of Torres del Paine is the Paine Massif, the glacier-sculpted remnant of a granite batholith pushed up above the pampas more than ten million years ago. The massif is two-toned, its pinkish gray granite capped in places by several hundred feet of black slate. Las torres, the towers themselvesAmerican climbers would call them "needles," for their slendernessstand toward the massif's eastern end. Each tower is the same sort of sheer and impossible skyward leap of granite that one sees in Yosemite or Gates of the Arctic.
Returning to Puerto Natales after my tour with Eduardo, I rented a car the next day and set off on my own exploration of the park. A gravel road rims the southern flank of the massif, meandering through the oddly jumbled, hilly landscape that is the signature of glacierstailings left by the ice in carving the cordillera. The tundra-covered foothills, with their guanaco sentinels up high and their glacial lakes spread out below in different shades of green and blue, make a fine foreground for the massif.
The views are all of the sort that burn themselves into recollection. At the eastern end of the park, I watched pink flamingos and a flotilla of black-necked swans on the otherworldly blue of Laguna Azul, above which the towers of Paine rose to their impossible heights. At the park's western end, walking toward the icebergs of Lake Grey, I felt myself entering a Piranesi engraving. That old Italian master had a trick of inserting tiny human figures in his architectural studies to exaggerate the scale. Here wild nature seemed to be imitating his art. The two hikers gone before me were infinitessimal points of color in the vast, gray, gravel plain of the old lake bottom. The plain ended in the leaning towers and free-form statuary of a blue-white city of icebergs, which was dwarfed uplake by the terminus of Grey Glacier, source of the bergs, which was miniaturized, in its turn, by the stark new peaks that make the western rampart of the Paine Massif.
The trail to Lake Grey follows the crest of an old moraine. Retracing my steps through the biggest false beeches I had ever seena Piranesi sort of groveI was startled by a glint of green in a pair of birds racing through the canopy. They looked almost like parrots. Minutes later they flew back the other way, passing this time across the face of a hanging glacier on Paine Grande, and yes, they were parrots indeed. It seemed the wildest sort of juxtapositionparrots and glaciersbut that is Patagonia.
Torres del Paine, because it lies at one of the ends of the earth, receives an annual visitation that's roughly equal to the weekly visitation in a park like Yellowstone. The park often felt deserted. The landscape seemed to have swallowed up the backpackers who had sailed down with me on Puerto Eden. A fine trail-and-refugio (alpine hut) system loops around the entire Cordillera del Paine, and my acquaintances were dispersed along it. Hiking up the Ascencio Valley to the base of the towers, I did find what might have been called a concentration of campersa couple of dozen tents pitched in beech forest along a mile of the valley's streambut otherwise Torres del Paine offered nothing but elbow room.
There is one hotel and several hosterías in the park. The oldest establishment, Hostería Pehoe, stands on a small island in Lake Pehoe and is connected to the mainland by footbridge. The hostería's view of the Paine Massif is the finest view, I think, of any inn on earth. The most elegant place, the Explora-Hotel Salto Chico, stands downlake along Lake Pehoe, above the little falls called Salto Chico. The Explora's guests spend their days in excursions of varying degrees of difficulty, then return in the evening to bed linen from Barcelona, chinaware from England, wicker furniture from Chimbarongo, and to sauna, Jacuzzi, telephone, and fax. It's a wonderful place, I suppose, but I must admit to a prejudice against this kind of luxury in the wilderness. My backpacking friends, lighting their Svea and Primus stoves with cold fingers each morning, pitching their tents at night against the Patagonian rain and wind, would really know, afterward, that they had been in Patagonia.
I discovered a middle ground that worked for me. At the Pehoe campground I pitched my tarp, then drove to the Explora for an excellent dinner of congrio (conger eel) and good Chilean wine, and afterward drove home. Slipping under my tarp as the rain drummed its tautness, I found myself chortling wildlyfrom the sheer joy of nest-building, of falling back on my own resources. A skill I had learned as a boy in the Sierra Nevadaslinging a low tarpserved me fine in Patagonia, and I felt myself at home anyplace on earth. I believe it was my happiest moment in Chile.
Frequent contributor Kenneth Brower lives in Oakland, California.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.