Return to Patagonia
Today, we return to Patagonia. We’re still on the road from the Balmaceda airport to Puerto Chacabuco, the main port for Chile’s Region of Aysén. Day 1, continued.
We’ve just crossed a river named for Frigate Captain Enrique Simpson Baeza, a British-Chilean naval officer and explorer who mapped the archipelagoes and fiords of Aysén aboard his corvette ((type of ship, not a car ?), the Chacabuco, in the 1870’s. Ah-ha, so the port’s named for the ship, which was no doubt named for the site of the famous battle in the War for Independence, which was named for… And so on.
Among his many feats, Simpson re-discovered the San Rafael Lagoon, where we’ll visit tomorrow. And apparently, he disembarked often enough to blaze some trails on land too.
Paths in the Wilderness
Our guide, Tamara, points out a towering rock formation to our left known as the English Cake. Captain Simpson must have longed for home and a puffy Christmas fruitcake when he named it.
Almost across the road, a double waterfall called the Bridal Veil (or the Virgin’s Veil) drops 100+ feet. “You know what they say about women who take a dip here?” Tamara asks. I’ll share the legend another day.
She moves on to talk more about her passion: the native species of Patagonia. I’m intrigued too, so I listen closely, even though I can’t write it down. We learn about different kinds of Patagonian blueberries through gorgeous photography.
I’m familiar with maqui. It also grows in summer abundance farther north and stained more than one set of my children’s clothes beyond redemption when they were growing up.
But other unusual berry species abound in the old-growth wilderness here. Calafates, round, intense purple berries on a thorny stem, contain killer antioxidants and prevent insulin resistance and obesity.
Another super fruit, michay, looks similar but has a dark green thorny leaf like holly. Okay, I think, holly with edible purple berries. Patagonia may someday become a world reserve for medicinal-plant research.
The local saying goes (and I’ll tell you this one), “He who eats calafate will return to Patagonia.” Instead of the forbidden fruit—a Door of No Return—it’s a…
Door of Sure Return
Suddenly I’m inspired to eat calafate while I’m here! Tamara suggests we use our welcome drink ticket to ask for a glass of something made with calafate.
At a traffic circle, we bypass the old port of Puerto Aysén, which needs continual dredging since the 1960 earthquake and now defers to Chacabuco.
A few miles more brings us to Chacabuco itself, where the Hotel Loberías del Sur, hovering over the harbor, is probably the principal building in the town. I’m surprised at the size of the imposing wooden edifice which stretches in connected sections along at least a couple of blocks.
While we check in, I watch hotel employees set up a Christmas tree near the main entrance, between two lounge-around-the-fireplace areas. I assume the tree’s the final item on their decorating agenda since the front desk is already garlanded and a gilded nativity set adorns one hearth.
Assigned Room 111, we trundle just past the desk. The door is heavy cherrywood, shaped like a half-barrel, and the room flashes snow-white and virgin-forest. But we’re starving and, for now, stay only long enough to roll the drapes back, revealing a view of the green hill and the port at the rear of the hotel, and register a creamy marble counter in the bath. I wonder if the marble is local—no lack of stone to be quarried in this area.
We head to the Cafetería Arrayán—another native tree—and enjoy lattes and sandwiches at a harborside table. My husband has a club and I choose a barros luco, Chilean steak-and-cheese. It’s very, very good, of course—crisp fries and gooey yellow cheese—but considerably overpriced. Maybe we should have checked out the town first, but it’s too late now…
Then, while my husband naps, I unpack and decide to sit in front of the window scenery as I review my notes for tomorrow. But instead of relaxing, I whack a toe on the desk’s support bar and hop around the room, stifling my shrieks. It’s already showing bruised.
Later, as we again traipse through the lobby on our way out the hotel’s front door, I catch the headline of a local newspaper: 2 Dead Bodies Found in a Deserted Bus in Coyhaique. Now that’s story fodder, for sure. I wonder if it’s murder, suicide, accident, collateral damage from Chile’s recent social upheaval? No doubt about it, truth is stranger than fiction.
Across the street, we pause on an oceanfront green to take a photo of the hotel. I turn around too quickly, trip over a guide wire, and topple like a brick. It knocks the wind out of me, scares me. As my husband lifts me up, I take stock of my injuries. Is this odyssey over before it’s begun?
But no, no broken bones. My head and face are unscathed. Most of the left side of this sexagenarian body feels mashed, though, and I will probably groan for a week, but I’ll survive. I hope.
We continue our exploration of the port town of Chacabuco. Right away, we find a Mom-and-Pop kitchen where we could’ve got a home-cooked meal for a couple of dollars earlier. Maybe next time, if there is a next time…a return to Patagonia.
I limp on, ignoring my roiling stomach. There’s a fishery, its telltale reek on the breeze, and a lovely park in the center of town. Not a lot of businesses. It reminds us, on a larger scale, of Dalcahue, Chiloé Island, where we lived for 8 years.
Back to Loberías
We return to the hotel earlier than planned and hobble upstairs to redeem our drink tickets. To my huge disappointment, they don’t have calafate! The young server offers maqui instead, but I’m in a mood. I opt for frothy pineapple juice—how boring is that? At least, my husband goes with the more exotic chirimoya fruit.
Then we check out the games room and one of the hotel’s string of towers. Finally, after 8 o’clock, the restaurant’s evening buffet opens. A glimpse of the salad bar—a soccer-ball-sized bowl of salmon ceviche, a wooden slab of jamón serrano wrapped around asparagus spears—and my stomach at once feels less shaken and more settled.
And it’s all wonderful…from the merluza fish with shrimp sauce and roast beef to the international array of desserts: yogurt pie, panna cotta drizzled with maracuyá sauce, and natilla, a pudding topped with citrus peel. That’s just what we eat. I can’t begin to sample it all.
Back in our room, the long whammy of a day is catching up with me again. I discover the deep wire cut above my ankle. Instead of Patagonian blueberries, a sour case of the Patagonian blues threatens… I’m half-tempted to call tomorrow’s trip off.
But I soak away my aches and pains in a hot bath, and we’re asleep by 10:30. The voyage to San Rafael gets underway early, and I wouldn’t dream of missing out.
I’m on the Calafate Trail, determined to return to Patagonia someday.
What a lovely and highly eventful trip. One you will not soon forget. But still . . . good thing you have it written down so later you can ponder over details that might escape you. Forge on, dear friend!!
It’s incredible the things you forget if you don’t write them down, isn’t it? That’s why I always keep a notebook in my purse. But those washboard roads…! They get worse too!