Moving toward the climax of our whirlwind tour of Chile’s Region of Aysén, we continue to follow in the steps of the Patagones, South America’s “Bigfoot” people. With rain threatening for today, I’m pretty sure we’ll be leaving muddy footprints everywhere we go.
But we awake to an almost-perfect, almost-summer morning at Mallín Colorado Lodge on the southwestern shore of Lake General Carrera. We have another early start, so the sun hasn’t yet cleared the Andes. The temperature is crisp, the sky pearly, and the clouds underlit with molten silver.
We skip along to the chalet’s sunroom for a picnic breakfast laid out for us in a woven basket. From comfy wing chairs, we soak up the early sunshine streaming through the bank of windows while we drink our café con leche. Then we savor the homemade bread, cheese, and jam while enjoying the books and local artwork.
However, this is our last relaxing moment of…
Our driver and two “girl guides” arrive with the van to pick us and our new friends, Verónica and Gabriel, up for the next leg of the trip. They’ve spent the night elsewhere, but even though Tamara’s family lives in a town not far away—by Patagonian standards—she hasn’t had time to go home.
I’m not looking forward to today, at least the first few hours of it, as we retrace the road back to Balmaceda. Though the sights enthrall, my bruised body tenses as we rumble along.
Today marks the Great Divide of our trip. Once we reach Balmaceda, we’ll leave the Loberías del Sur tour group and strike off on our own. Independence has its advantages and disadvantages, but we’re okay with that—we’re used to finding our way around rocky roads and muddy footprints.
“Blessed are the curious, for they shall have adventures.” –Lovelle Drachman
Our DIY adventure encompasses the final stretch of our journey in northern Patagonia. Tomorrow, on our last full day here, we plan on one more BIG highlight—the Hanging Glacier.
But first, we have to survive this teeth-jarring ride. On a bathroom break in Río Tranquilo, where we took a launch out to the Marble Caverns yesterday, we note the seething waves on the lake. The harbormaster has closed the port. If we’d planned this journey just one day differently, we would have missed one of the most special moments.
Much farther along, we pause again in Cerro Castillo for an early lunch of gigantic sandwiches. I deviate from the others’ italianos (which in Chile means any meat on a bun topped with tomato and avocado) and choose a chacarero. This sliced-beef-and-green-beans concoction turns up with too much ají pepper and no mayo. I palm most of it off on my husband.
Back to the Beginning
The next part of the road is paved, and what seemed so atrocious yesterday now feels like a silken superhighway. Depends on what you’re used to, no? On arrival at the Balmaceda airport, we bid our tour friends good-bye, pick up our rental—a gray Nissan X-Trail SUV—and head out in the same direction we started on days ago.
First, we stop for gas in the regional capital of Coyhaique. This takes longer than anticipated when the two Haitian immigrants who pump for us express amazement at my husband’s Spanish (better than theirs!) and then engage him in a conversation about the Bible. Opportunities to touch people arise in the strangest places.
“In our faith we follow in someone’s steps… We leave footprints to guide others. It’s the principle of discipleship.” –Max Lucado
Then we drive into the town of Puerto Aysén, which we bypassed on the way to Chacabuco earlier. Aysén is the bigger burg and older port, though it docks only small craft since the harbor started filling up with debris decades ago.
However, it’s still where the head naval honcho makes home base. After we locate the Marine Governor’s headquarters—an official-looking complex at the end of a cul-de-sac—we meander around to get a feel for the city center since Puerto Aysén features as a frequent weekend escape for the character Coni Belmar in my Swan Island Secrets series.
The scenic town feels reminiscent of Castro, Chiloé. Lots of varnished wood, high-pitched roofs and gables, and overhanging second stories. Chile’s best-known native tree, the Araucanian pine or monkey puzzle, thrives in many yards. The Firefighters’ Casino might offer an occasional get-away meal for Coni, who like many of us, has had plenty of muddy footprints squash and stain her heart.
North on the Southern Highway
But she takes baby steps of faith and follows footprints of discipleship, her life is transformed to a joyful journey. I think of Moses blessing the Israelite tribe of Asher: “…let him bathe his feet in oil…and your strength will equal your days” (Dt. 33:24-25).
Oil in Scripture often symbolizes the joy of the Lord and the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Don’t we all need to wash our feet and dip our toes in more oil than mud?
Next, we hurry on north toward Puerto Cisnes and Puyuhuapi, where we plan to spend the night. This is the famous Carretera Austral (Southern Highway), and who would’ve imagined? It feels like driving along one of Maine’s glorious country lanes in high summer.
This road winds through the center of the region, between the Andes and the coastal mountains. Lupins spread purple carpets—speckled with some pink, yellow, and white—in the fields on both sides. Though the overcast afternoon spews a fine drizzle on the windshield and leaves muddy footprints on the SUV’s floormats every time we pause for pictures, it’s lovely.
We glimpse the Río Cisnes (Swan River) and the turn-off to the town of Puerto Cisnes, where I want to explore fully…tomorrow. But we’ve made a LONG drive today and just want to make fast, albeit muddy, tracks to our cabin for now.
But no such luck. The gentle road mutates into the roughest gravel we’ve ever traveled on. Yeah, I’ve said that every day so far ?, but seriously this is the worst. We stop for a photo of Condor Falls—which puts the Virgin’s Veil to shame—and skirt the edge of Queulat National Park, our destination for tomorrow.
Mud and Oil
Suddenly I’m horrified to realize we’ll have to climb this dreadful mountain pass three more times. Whether on the uphill slog or the downhill slide, we’ll inch along at a snail’s pace. No wonder the region’s car-rental businesses only deal in 4×4’s.
The road only worsens, if possible, as we grind through the pass. (Later we count 10 curves going up and 16 sharp switchbacks going down.) Just as I grumble about exhaustion and question how I can go on, we encounter a tractor-trailer mired on a corner, practically jackknifed.
Thankfully, we somehow manage to wiggle around it, unlike the vehicle in front of us. After that, I’m so happy I’m not a trucker that the rest of the trip slides by easy. I feel like God’s people in the wilderness, fed “…with oil from the flinty crag” (Dt. 32:13).
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…to bestow…the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” –Is. 61:1-3
Back at sea level, we trace the eastern shore of Ventisquero Sound to our left. The road now alternates between pavement and gravel, probably heftily subsidized by the opulent international hotel and spa on the opposite shore. We pass their private ferry dock and then the national park’s main entrance.
I’m mistaken about the location of our cabin, since I thought it was near here. But once civilization gives us back our GPS, we have no trouble finding the place—right in the center of the town of Puyuhuapi.
Good thing too, since it’s dusk now and too late for dinner at many cafes in this country village. Our hostess settles us in a quaint black-sided cabin, where she’s already built up a blaze in the Bosca stove, and recommends an open restaurant.
Snails and Joy
So we walk the few blocks to Flavors of My Land. The small family-run diner is locally sourced from their backyard garden, and we can still get in on the menu del día, almost always delicious in Chile. This town’s cuisine also finds its way into Coni’s story.
We unwind and dig into the piping sopaipillas and pebre (flat deep-fried biscuits with a fresh salsa) while we admire the colorful mural featuring three gaucho cowboys on horseback. Next comes the salad: chicken-and-pimento-filled tomatoes on curly lettuce. It’s amazing…until a baby snail creeps out of the lettuce across my husband’s plate. Talk about organic, muddy footprints.
Rather than spoiling the meal, it makes our day. I laugh until tears spring into my eyes. And we never breathe a word to the friendly chef.
“Take only memories, leave only footprints.” –Chief Seattle
Then there’s carne mechada (roast beef stuffed with carrots and sausage) and chaufán rice crowned with a nest of shredded fried potatoes. Unexpectedly, we both fall in love with the delectable dessert too—cream-of-wheat pudding with sliced apples and bishop’s (berry) sauce.
Rain and Joy
Later, as we stroll around Puyuhuapi, rain begins in earnest. The day’s Scotch mist turns into a steady sprinkle. But we don’t mind the muddy footprints and drippy jackets.
In fact, we’re enchanted, reminded of our old hometown in Chiloé Island. Maybe this bright night life never sparkled on Dalcahue’s plaza. And Dalcahue never saw a paved road until after we left.
But even here, only the main street boasts concrete cobblestones, the rest resemble mudslides and gravel pits. The harbor reflects fishing launches in its dark satin waters, and the new town quay evokes memories of sea salt and mussels and eucalyptus.
We linger in the damp evening much longer than we intend. I draw a deep breath, trusting that I can do tomorrow, because the joy of the Lord changes everything. May I leave BIG oily footprints.