PORT TOWNS AND PAMPAS
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
THE FERRY SETS 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”
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 ROAD TO THE MOUNTAINS RUNS ACROSS VAST DUN-COLORED PLAINS— THE FABLED PAMPAS—BROKEN ONLY BY THE OCCASIONAL WINDMILL OR A KNOT OF SHEEP HUDDLED AGAINST THE UNRELENTING WIND
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.
AT ESTANCIA CERROGUIDO, IGO HORSE BACK RIDING WITH A COUPLE OF GAUCHOS, GALLOPING ACROSS THE PAMPAS FOR AN HOUR AND THEN JOINING THEM FOR ROAST LAMB STRAIGHT OFF THE SPIT
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.
TICKET TO RIDE
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.