On Day 5 of our Return to Chiloé trip, we’re so far from civilization that we have practically no cell phone coverage and we had to bring cash to pay for our lodging at the Palafito Cucao. Since we plan to stay two nights here, we decide to forget the world today and just get lost …in a good way, of course.
“The only people who ever get anyplace interesting are the people who get lost.” –Henry David Thoreau
Last evening we did a quick bump through the village of Cucao, crossed the rather impressive suspension bridge, and arrived just outside the entrance to Cucao National Park. Now, we take a leisurely morning. In the rustic dining room of the hostel—all wood and natural materials—the cook serves us café con leche, a paila (double-handled pan) of hot scrambled eggs, and of course, homemade bread. She turns out to be a Huilliche (native Chilote) woman. Though reserved as most Chilotes, over breakfast she willingly answers our questions about her “tribal” leadership and life in the area.
I’m reminded that the environs of Cucao play an important role throughout The Seagull Operation (First Mate’s Log #2), as the site of a major skirmish of the “insurrection” I portrayed in that book. Little did I imagine when I wrote it that such a situation would spring to all-too-real life a few years later in the current quasi-civil war of Chile’s Araucanía Region.
West Side Story
By far, the great majority of the scattered islands and island groups of the Archipelago of Chiloé lie off the eastern coast of the Big Island. We spent most of our eight years in Chiloé in and around the rickety roads and stormy seas of that more populated east side.
The west side’s another story. It’s bleak, desolate, and remote enough to get lost in. Or certainly used to be. As we rumble back across the bridge to again view the tiny hamlet that appears in The Seahorse Patrol (FML #1) and Swan Song, I can’t help remembering my first visit here in April (mid-fall) of 1987. Thirty years have produced a lot of changes.
For one thing, no village to speak of existed in those days. At least, that I noticed, though there must have been a smattering of homes because the site is ancient. The military government had created and marked out the national park in 1982, but the area was still perfectly primeval and unknown.
“Getting lost is just another way of saying ‘going exploring.’” –Justina Chen
It took a well-read tourist or a keen back-to-nature type to hear about Cucao in those early years. Which I guess our visiting friends were. They wanted to go, so we packed up the children and headed out on an expedition.
We had only a small, capped pick-up. I don’t know how our guests stood the three-hour drive from Dalcahue, freezing in the unlined truck bed, rattling along that pot-holed dirt road. It seemed like torture to me, a wet, miserable day grinding through highland hedges that hovered and menaced like dark giants over the road.
When we finally arrived at our destination on the west coast, it was late afternoon…
On the Wild Side
We slogged through foggy woods to the shore. But the day’s thin light had nearly seeped into the horizon by the time we reached the Pacific. All I remember is cold and clammy blackness, and it’s a miracle we didn’t get lost on the hike back. No wonder we scurried home to hot soup and fireside.
“Getting lost is not a waste of time.” –Jack Johnson
That year, I’d just started dreaming and drawing the bones of my first book, Destiny at Dolphin Bay. Apparently, the trip to Cucao at that point didn’t strike me enough to make it into the first trilogy.
However, in the summer of 1995, we visited again—and again with family and friends. And this time I fell under the spell of Cucao’s mysterious allure. The wilderness park of coastal dunes, Valdivian rainforest, swamps and peat bogs, had become the cool place to go for local students in the 1990’s. They blazed the trails on weekend camp-outs.
We barbecued on a wide strip of marshy riverbank where dozens of other visitors were also making rustic picnics. Then we walked again to the shore, tramping through powdery, ankle-deep sand that coated our shoes with dust. At the edge of the ocean, on a long tidal flat, we adults snoozed among the dunes while the five kids roamed the shell-studded beach. They picked up bags of clamshells which they sold as souvenirs for months to come in our more northern inland city.
“Some beautiful paths can’t be discovered without getting lost.” –Erol Ozan
The tale sounds humble in the retelling. But the enchanting, light-filled spot so captured the imagination of one of my daughters that she painted it from a photo some years later.
Today… It’s our third trek back. Cucao National Park is now a popular ecotourist destination because of the amazing biodiversity of its nearly untouched Valdivian temperate rainforests and colonies of sea lions. We’re excited about getting lost on a forest adventure.
But first, lunch. We’ve seen a couple of hole-in-the-wall possibilities along the muddy roadside and stop at a picturesque place called El Fogón de Cucao. A fogón is a glorified firepit, but this one must be the most appealing we’ve ever encountered. It’s painted full-circle with murals depicting Chilote life and still decked out with flag garlands and red-white-and-blue streamers from the September 18th patriotic holiday of early spring.
The friendly woman who waits on us talks so much we wonder if she can be a true Chilote. But what could be more back-to-our-roots Chilote than boiled potatoes, smoked pork, and garden lettuce? Answer: Nothing!
“All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” –J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
While we eat, we glimpse across the road a large two-story house with several half-moon balconies. Despite the whimsical architecture, it looks like it grew up there by itself and belongs to the landscape. I know I’m going to incorporate it into a book someday.
And I determine to stay there on my next visit to Chiloé. I believe it’s called Darwin Stop, after the explorer/naturalist who visited Chiloé on his round-the-world voyage aboard the H. M. S. Beagle in the 1830’s. That detail, too, has made its way into my stories. You’ll discover it in Legacy of the Linnebrink Light, coming…soon, I hope!
First pause on our afternoon hike: the interpretive center run by CONAF rangers, Chile’s Forestry Service which now administers the national parks. We buy Chilote flora and fauna posters to display in our home for years to come. For now, they fit carefully into my husband’s backpack.
In a park this big and time this short, it’s impossible to reach the sea lion community on the islet Metalqui, the exquisite beach at Cole-Cole, or the Chepu River area in the north. We stick to getting lost on El Tepual Loop, which we’ve hiked before.
But this time, it seems longer and wider, with plenty of signposts and lookouts, as well as miles of boardwalk covered with fishing nets to safeguard against the slippery wood. None of that was here before, on this wilder, wetter side of Chiloé. The annual rainfall may average 3,000+ mm a year. Though it’s not pouring today, it’s overcast and damp. Typical weather for Chiloé. Home sweet home.
“It’s okay to get lost every once in a while, sometimes getting lost is how we find ourselves.” ―Robert Tew
Old-growth Valdivian temperate rainforests such as the one we’re wandering in are made up of perennial trees, shrubs, and climbing vines. They tend to form layered canopies with a dense undergrowth consisting of (for example): Fitzroya alerce (a cedar similar to the giant sequoia), Nothofagus (evergreen southern beech), arrayán (Chilean myrtle), quila (Chilean bamboo), nalca (Chilean rhubarb), numerous ferns and, of course, tepa. A tepual is a woods of tepa trees, a type of laurel.
By the Wayside
Along the way, we snap the forest photo I will later decide makes a tantalizing cover for the work-in-progress I call Joy Ride. Or maybe…I might use it sooner on upcoming release Pursuit of the Pudú Deer. I can’t help recalling Nicolás and Melissa’s hiking date here and their meeting with the Villegas family, who live past the CIDER sign. 😊
When we finally approach the shore, it tumbles on forever in dunes and beach scrub before meeting the slate-blue ocean. This I recognize as the setting of a pivotal scene in The Seahorse Patrol. For a place I’ve only visited a few times, it’s so familiar that I can’t get lost.
“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” –Miriam Adeney
Back at the hostel after our hike, my husband takes a nap. But I’m too lost in fascination with the rapidly changing sunset views from our window. I keep taking pictures but can’t capture the strange back-lit gloaming. Below our small balcony, the silver-blue inlet shimmers, speckled with the tips of cranberry-colored reeds. Across in the village, the church tower soars stark against a watercolor sky, now pink, now pewter.
Though we didn’t travel far today, it feels like we’ve visited a forgotten world… Lost in that good way where your heart rewinds to fleeting memories of old friends from far and near. We’ve revisited pieces of our past and found fragments of the future, too.
It’s dusk now. We’re running out of snacks, so tonight’s tea will be…well, not skimpy…but a little boring. And tomorrow, we’ll find our way back to the highway—and home.