It was decades

ago, in the pages of some long-for­got­ten mag­a­zine, that I first learned about Tor­res del Paine Na­tional Park, whose cloud-wreathed moun­tains rise dra­mat­i­cally above the Patag­o­nian steppe. Naively, I fig­ured the name trans­lated as “Tow­ers of Pain”— the sharpedged peaks cer­tainly looked as though they would be painful to climb. And in my youth­ful imag­i­na­tion I be­gan to think of them as the Misty Moun­tains of The Lord of the Rings, a myth­i­cal, far-off high­land where mag­i­cal things were bound to hap­pen. I promised my­self that some­day I would ven­ture to the south­ern reaches of Chile to see them.

Flash for­ward 30-odd years, and I’m touch­ing down at the in­ter­na­tional air­port in San­ti­ago, a city I last vis­ited in1999 while re­search­ing a book about the Pan-Amer­i­can High­way. The in­ter­ven­ing years have seen the Chilean cap­i­tal change al­most be­yond recog­ni­tion. Back then, San­ti­ago couldn’t hold a can­dle to Rio or Buenos Aires; it was a drab, melan­choly place that served mainly as a jump­ing-off point for jour­neys to the coun­try’s more com­pelling at­trac­tions—the Ata­cama Desert, say, or the wilds of Patag­o­nia. “At the end of the world” is how au­thor Is­abel Al­lende once de­scribed the city of her youth. But all of a sud­den San­ti­ago has grown up, tak­ing on a swag­ger and so­phis­ti­ca­tion that was never there be­fore. To­day, the sprawl­ing me­trop­o­lis of six mil­lion people feels very much at the cen­ter of the uni­verse.

It was the down­fall of the Pinochet regime in1990 that set San­ti­ago on its cur­rent course. Though it took a good decade for the city to emerge from the dark ages, when it did, there was no turn­ing back. With 48 hours to kill be­fore start­ing off for Chile’s deep south, I ex­plore San­ti­ago by foot and bike. Nearly every­where I go there is some­thing new, such as the 300-me­ter-tall Gran Torre San­ti­ago, the tallest build­ing in Latin Amer­ica, which rises from a neigh­bor­hood of other new sky­scrapers that lo­cals have dubbed “San­hat­tan.”

More es­tab­lished parts of the city have changed as well. The hulk­ing con­crete head­quar­ters of Pinochet’s mil­i­tary junta has been trans­formed into the flam­boy­ant Cen­tro Cul­tural Gabriela Mis­tral, named af­ter Chile’s first No­bel lau­re­ate. The won­der­ful Art Nou­veau man­sions of the cap­i­tal’s older districts, ig­nored for so long, are be­ing re­cast as trendy restaurants, jazz bars, salsa clubs, and art gal­leries. And the once-di­lap­i­dated Mer­cado Cen­tral, with its Vic­to­rian-era cast-iron roof, has mor­phed into an oa­sis of gourmet din­ing, in par­tic­u­lar the seafood that Chileans cher­ish.

“The changes have been dra­matic,” Amer­i­can writer and long­time San­ti­ago res­i­dent Kristina Schreck tells me over din­ner in the court­yard of The Aubrey, a15-room ho­tel that in­hab­its one of those re­cently re­stored man­sions in the bo­hemian Bellav­ista district. “San­ti­ago


once felt stuck in time and worn out, which of course was the hang­over pe­riod fol­low­ing the dic­ta­tor­ship. But to­day the city is alive and vi­brant. It’s wo­ken up in a frenzy.”

DE­SPITE ITS NEW AL­LURES, SAN­TI­AGO can only hold me for so long. Soon I’m on a morn­ing flight to Puerto Montt in the Lake District, a re­gion of snow-frosted An­dean peaks and deep-blue lakes that marks the north­ern ex­treme of Patag­o­nia in both Chile and Ar­gentina. Founded by-19th-century Ger­man set­tlers, the sea­side burg’s older precincts ex­ude a by­gone Euro­pean vibe, with gin­ger­bread-style houses and shin­gled churches perched on hill­sides above a har­bor chock­ablock with fish­ing boats. I rent a small pickup truck and drive it onto a ferry headed for Chiloé, the largest of Chile’s south­ern is­lands and an­other place that I had long wanted to visit.

The short pas­sage across the Cha­cao Chan­nel of­fers a les­son in flu­vial dy­nam­ics. Wa­ter flow­ing be­tween the Gulf of An­cud and the open Pa­cific cre­ates mas­sive tides, which in turn gen­er­ate a river­like cur­rent and two-me­ter waves. I’m sur­prised to see a cou­ple of sea lions surf­ing.

Be­fore long I’ve dis­em­barked at the north­ern end of Chiloé for the drive along the is­land’s east coast. Half­way down I board an­other ferry for the two-minute cross­ing to a lively fish­ing vil­lage called Achao. A Fri­day af­ter­noon mar­ket is in full swing along the wa­ter­front: farm­ers hawk­ing ap­ples and pota­toes; fish­er­man ped­dling sal­mon, crab, and mus­sels; crafts­peo­ple of­fer­ing bas­kets and sweaters. An­dean pan-flute mu­sic pours out of a sec­ond-story win­dow, and every­where is the chat­ter of Chilote Span­ish, slow-flow­ing and pep­pered with na­tive Ma­puche words.

I find a room in a fish­er­men’s hos­tel and stum­ble down to the beach. Af­ter weeks of rain, the skies have fi­nally cleared and Achao’s res­i­dents are sun­ning them­selves along the seawall and pic­nick­ing on the sand. The wa­ter is so cold it could drop a fever in an in­stant, but that doesn’t stop the lo­cal boys from strip­ping down to their skivvies for a dip in the sea.

From the beach I spot an im­pos­ing steeple and go to in­ves­ti­gate. Fash­ioned from huge beams and del­i­cate wooden shin­gles, Chilote churches are justly fa­mous. But none is finer than Achao’s Santa María de Loreto, con­se­crated by Je­suits in 1730 and now the old­est sur­viv­ing wooden church in Chile. The al­tar flaunts funky blue-and-white

folk art de­signs, and if you get down on your hands and knees, as I do, you can see the wooden pegs that hold the floor­boards and col­umns in place. Santa María is both a su­perb ex­am­ple of the lo­cal cultura de madera (wood­work­ing cul­ture) and a shrine to the great hard­wood trees— alerce, coigue, Chilean cy­press—that were once abun­dant in these is­lands, but are now scarce.

Across the plaza at the city hall, I find Ramón Yáñez, the area’s chief cul­tural at­taché. By now it is late af­ter­noon and my ar­rival pre­sents Yáñez with a per­fect ex­cuse to for­sake a stuffy of­fice in fa­vor of his wa­ter­front house. Tak­ing pride of place in his liv­ing room is a fas­tid­i­ously pol­ished ac­cor­dion on which he com­poses folk mu­sic. But he’s also an avid stu­dent of Chilote folk­lore, and it isn’t long be­fore our con­ver­sa­tion veers to­ward the su­per­nat­u­ral.

“Myths and leg­ends are very much a part of what makes these is­lands spe­cial,” Yáñez tells me. Most of the sto­ries cen­ter on ter­ri­fy­ing crea­tures: fly­ing shedev­ils ( volado­ras) that achieve im­mor­tal­ity by de­vour­ing their own bow­els; feath­ered rep­tiles ( basilis­cos) that feed on hu­man phlegm; hairy, tree-dwelling ogres ( trau­cos) that can kill you with a sin­gle glance. Yáñez says this in­cred­i­bly rich and dis­tinc­tive tra­di­tion de­rives from cen­turies of cul­tural and ge­o­graphic isolation. “Even un­til the1970s, maybe even


the ’80s, most Chilotes be­lieved in these sto­ries,” Yáñez adds. “But not so much any­more.” Does he? Yáñez shrugs. “There is a leg­end here about a ghost ship called the Caleuche, which col­lects the souls of the drowned. I don’t be­lieve this, but twice on overnight jour­neys to our more se­cluded is­lands, I spotted a mys­te­ri­ous ship that crept up be­hind us, then dis­ap­peared. All I know is, I saw some­thing with my own eyes. It cre­ates doubt.”

BY THE END OF MY FIRST WEEK in Chile I’ve worked my way down to Quel­lón, a hard­scrab­ble port at the south­ern tip of Chiloé and the north­ern ter­mi­nus for fer­ries head­ing across the Gulf of Cor­co­v­ado into the even more re­mote Chonos Ar­chi­pel­ago. My ride is a bright-or­ange ves­sel called the MVAle­jan­d­rina, which will take me to places along the Patag­o­nian coast that are ac­ces­si­ble only by boat or sea­plane. We set off around mid­night, chug­ging qui­etly past the Isla Cailín, site of a 16th-century Je­suit mis­sion that Span­ish colo­nials once called “the world’s outer limit of Chris­tian­ity.” Be­yond, on the south­ern side of the gulf, is a re­gion of wild is­lands and fjords that was never tamed by the con­quis­ta­dors, or any­one else. The very place we are head­ing.

Ex­posed to the hardy swells of the open Pa­cific, the pas­sage across the gulf is rough, send­ing more than one pas­sen­ger dash­ing for the lava­tory. It’s still dark when we en­ter calm wa­ter in the lee of Isla As­cen­sión, and soon we’re moored off Melinka, the first of nine tiny ports the Ale­jan­d­rina vis­its on her south­ward run.

Melinka is the re­gion’s old­est Euro­pean set­tle­ment, founded in 1869 by a Lithua­nian émi­gré who named it af­ter his wife. It’s still hardly more than a fron­tier town. Leav­ing the warmth of my cabin, I scurry ashore for a look­see. None of the wa­ter­front shops are open at this wee hour, but plenty of people have gath­ered to greet the ferry. I ask one of them, a lo­cal mer­chant, what people do here other than fish. “Drink!” he laughs.

Be­yond Melinka, the ferry runs a zigzag course through a group of is­lands marked be­guil­ingly on my map as Peli­groso Man­zana, or “Dan­ger­ous Ap­ples.” Mist hovers like spi­der­webs across the coves, and for­est crowds the shore against a back­drop of snow-capped vol­ca­noes on the main­land. Here and there are se­cluded ports of call, some so tiny you have to won­der why they even have a ferry ser­vice.

My third and last day on the ferry be­gins with a steel-gray dawn. Dense fog chokes the chan­nel be­tween the main­land and heav­ily wooded Isla Mag­dalena, a breed­ing ground for seabirds and Mag­el­lanic pen­guins. Most of the is­land is pro­tected within the con­fines of a na­tional re­serve, a park that’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to visit ow­ing to its lack of fa­cil­i­ties. There are no lodges, no camp­grounds, no hik­ing trails, no per­ma­nently sta­tioned rangers. But there is one ul­tra-re­mote set­tle­ment— Puerto Gaviota.


To my sur­prise, the men lin­ger­ing around the town’s ferry land­ing have an al­most pi­rat­i­cal ap­pear­ance, with enough long hair, tat­toos, and body pierc­ings to out­fit the crew of the Black Pearl— or per­haps even the Caleuche. A metalworker named Roberto Vadim, whom I meet build­ing a new gym­na­sium and com­mu­nity cen­ter next to Gaviota’s only church, helps ex­plain why the port has such a raff­ish air. “The first people who came here in the’80s were po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dents try­ing to get away from Pinochet,” he tells me. “Or people run­ning away from some­thing else. Not crim­i­nals so much, but people do­ing things that the govern­ment or reg­u­lar so­ci­ety didn’t ap­prove of.”

They were self-im­posed ex­iles, carv­ing their own se­cret gu­lag out of the Patag­o­nian wilder­ness. They were also squat­ters on na­tional park land. When­ever park rangers—or Pinochet’s se­cret po­lice—came to ex­pel them, they fled into the woods and hid un­til the coast was quite lit­er­ally clear. “The only per­son who would help them,” Vadim continues, “was an Ital­ian priest named An­to­nio Ronchi, who gave them com­mu­nion, who mar­ried them and buried them when no­body else would. He also came with food, clothes, and build­ing sup­plies.”

Fa­ther Ronchi was also in­stru­men­tal in con­vinc­ing na­tional park au­thor­i­ties to let the res­i­dents re­main on Isla Mag­dalena af­ter Pinochet was ousted. In fact, it wasn’t un­til 2000—just a few years af­ter the priest passed away—that Gaviota re­ceived full le­gal sta­tus. Yet in death, Fa­ther Ronchi has evolved into some­thing of a su­per­nat­u­ral fig­ure, a leg­end on par with the witches and ogres of Chiloe. Gaviotans tell tales about how he would sud­denly ap­pear with badly needed food and sup­plies in a tiny boat in the mid­dle of a fe­ro­cious storm. There was no way to ex­plain his abil­ity to sur­vive both bl­iz­zards and the se­cret po­lice—other than by magic.

Turn­ing up the long and gor­geous Aisén Fjord, theAle­jan­d­rina reaches main­land Patag­o­nia and the south­ern limit of its run. From Puerto Cha­cabuco it takes an hour by bus to reach Coi­haique, a city that lies in a green val­ley be­tween snow­capped sum­mits. This is one of the few places in south­ern Chile where you can cross the An­des into Ar­gentina on a good road … or hop on a flight to the end of the earth. COM­ING IN FOR the land­ing at Punta Are­nas, main­land South Amer­ica’s south­ern­most city, the plane dips low over the Strait of Mag­el­lan, so close that I can see white­caps tear­ing across the sto­ried wa­ter­way to­ward Tierra del Fuego. On the ground, gale-force winds nearly blow me over as I flee the tiny air­port ter­mi­nal.

The road from Punta Are­nas to the moun­tains runs across vast, windswept plains—the fa­bled pam­pas. It takes us through kilo­me­ter af­ter kilo­me­ter of dun-colored grass­lands bro­ken only by the oc­ca­sional wind­mill or a knot of sheep hud­dled against the un­re­lent­ing wind. Ev­ery so of­ten a sign points the way up a dirt road to a se­cluded es­tan­cia. Most of these es­tates re­main work­ing ranches, but a few now open their doors to trav­el­ers for day­time vis­its and overnight stays.

At Es­tan­cia Cerro Guido, I go horse­back rid­ing with a cou­ple of gau­chos, gal­lop­ing across the pam­pas for an hour and then join­ing them for a din­ner of roast lamb straight off the spit. Pa­tri­cio Var­caza, the older of the two, is deeply tanned with a weath­ered face etched by four decades of out­door life. “I’ve been rid­ing horses since I was six or seven years old,” he tells me. “Work­ing with horses and cows and sheep—it’s a hard life, yes. But when I started out, it was even more dif­fi­cult. Back then we did not have trucks or ra­dios. But even with these mod­ern things it’s still the same work. You need to move the an­i­mals in rain, wind, or snow, what­ever the weather.”

I ask him about his out­fit: the red beret, the green scarf, the sash around his waist. “It’s kind of like a black belt in karate,” he laughs. “A gau­cho must earn these three things by be­ing a good rider.” Var­caza earned his by rid­ing buck­ing bron­cos in lo­cal jineteadas (rodeos) and win­ning 50-kilo­me­ter en­durance races across the pam­pas. “The win­ner,” he ex­plains, “is not the fastest horse, but the one that’s in best con­di­tion at the end. The calmest horse is the cham­pion, not the first one across the fin­ish line.”

By night­fall I’ve checked in to Tierra Patag­o­nia, a new 40-room lodge on the edge of Tor­res del Paine Na­tional Park. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, curled up next to my win­dow, I watch the dawn break over the park’s epony­mous peaks. It doesn’t dis­ap­point. From a soft alpen­glow, the moun­tains slowly take on the blaz­ing gold of sun­rise and then the pur­ply­blue hue that gives the mas­sif its name— paine, it turns out, has noth­ing to do with phys­i­cal dis­com­fort; it means “blue” in the lan­guage of the Te­huelche, a no­madic people who once called this re­gion home.

Day­light also gives me a chance to ex­plore the lodge, a mo­saic of wood, glass, and stone de­signed by three of Chile’s leading ar­chi­tects. You hardly no­tice the low, elon­gated struc­ture when ap­proach­ing from the south, that’s how well it blends into the rolling pam­pas. Ev­ery­thing in­side the lodge, in­clud­ing its glassen­closed swim­ming pool, is de­signed to max-

SOUTH­ERN EX­PO­SURE A road en­ter­ing the town of An­cud on Chiloé Is­land, above. Right: A gua­naco in Tor­res del Paine Na­tional Park. Op­po­site: Chile’s south­ern coast is a maze of fjords, chan­nels, is­lands, and rugged penin­su­las.

NO PAINE, NO GAIN Above, from top: The Cuer­nos del Paine; a lone gau­cho rid­ing across the pam­pas to­ward Tor­res del Paine Na­tional Park. Op­po­site, from top: A Patag­o­nian panorama; co­ral-like throm­bo­lite for­ma­tions along the shore of Lake Sarmiento.


A gau­cho’s spur, left. Be­low: Tak­ing in the views from Tierra Patag­o­nia, a low-slung lodge of un­du­lat­ing beech wood and glass in Tor­res del Paine Na­tional Park. Op­po­site: A ranch hand at one

of the park’s es­tan­cias.

SUM­MIT MEET­ING Hik­ers en route to the name­sake tow­ers of the Tor­res del Paine mas­sif, left. Above: The view across Lake Sarmiento from one of the 40 wood-pan­eled rooms at Tierra Patag­o­nia.

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