Is this Patagonian journey going to turn out as wonderful as I imagine? That’s the question I’m asking myself as we sit in a seedy bus station, waiting to start our long-awaited trip to the bottom of the world.
It all began more than 35 years ago when older friends left their three daughters with us one summer (January) while they cruised to the glacier at San Rafael Lagoon. I put the holiday dream on my bucket list, never suspecting we’d get this close to kicking the bucket before it came true ?.
Even now, it seems unreal. And crazy, considering we’re smack-dab in the middle of end-of-the-year ministries and activities. But we set the date back in September, hoping for better weather and a clear calendar—and so here we are.
“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us.” –Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
It’s a little after midnight on a weekday night, December 6. As it happens, we couldn’t find a flight that would get us to Santiago in time to make the connection we need to Balmaceda in Chile’s Region of Aysén. And since the October-November social crisis in Chile, spending the night in Santiago has become a challenge we’d rather avoid.
So…we’re taking a bus for the trip to the capital—and the last-minute decision means it’s not even a nice bus. A friend from the church drives us downtown, but we tell him to take us an hour early so he doesn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to do it.
Though Coquimbo is our home at present, I admit its bus terminal is a pretty sleazy place. A man—either high or homeless—plops down on the bench beside me several times, and although I’ve lived in these circumstances long enough to pretend a certain immunity, suddenly I’m glad I’m not here waiting alone.
But we admire the lonely Christmas tree as the hour passes, and I pinch myself. Are we really, finally, on our way to northern Patagonia, at the bottom of the world?
It’s time to board the bus. We are en route the five hours south to Santiago. Deep breath. We’ve had so much going on that I haven’t dared to over-anticipate, but the moment’s arrived. No turning back now.
On Our Way
This leg of the journey is uneventful. We start to wind down—or wind up. At dawn in Santiago’s terminal, we take a city transfer bus to the airport. The timing is perfect. It’s a good thing our bus from Coquimbo arrived a little early, since the transfer takes almost twice as long as we’d figured. But it’s more morning rush hour traffic than trouble in the streets, though I’ve never seen so much graffiti and garbage, even for Santiago. We’re glad not to be sticking around here long.
After we pass airport security, we pause for breakfast. McDonald’s here is mutating: it’s the first time I’ve ever had an Egg McMuffin in Chile. Chilean version, of course, but still…it’s close enough.
Our two-hour nonstop flight to Balmaceda is so quiet that I begin to wonder if I have built up so much hype in my mind that no reality can begin to fulfill.
We are two very different people, my husband and I. He watches movies or naps, as is the case this morning, while I read. Then later, while he does e-Sudoku and keeps a watchful eye on the engines out the window, I pull a spiral notebook from my bag and jot down a list of details I need to check out while we’re in Patagonia.
Perhaps I should people-watch. Instead I look around to find that someone’s watching me. The little girl seated in front of me is concerned. “Your hair’s messed up,” she says. And so it is, bus bed-head or a plane snooze, I don’t know?
The Windy City
As soon as we collect our luggage at the Balmaceda airport, we are met by Tamara, who will be our guide for the two-hour transfer to Loberías del Sur, the coastal hotel in Puerto Chacabuco where we’ll be sleeping the next two nights. She’s young in our eyes, probably 20-something in a wool hat and ponytail.
Tamara sends us to the bathroom while she and the van driver, Héctor, load our hefty cases. I’m a little embarrassed about all that luggage, but we packed for four seasons down here. (We know what we’re getting into.)
All aboard the van (three other passengers, older ladies), we get underway. I note that the airport buildings all sport Christmas-red metal roofs. Balmaceda as a town is just a smattering of houses—it grew up merely to host Coyhaique’s airport because the regional capital’s winds and fog make it notoriously undependable for flights.
Even so, Balmaceda itself (50-60 kilometers to the southeast of Coyhaique) carries the nickname, “Queen of the Winds.” No wonder everyone seems to wear a hat squashed on their head—it’s the only way they can keep the hair out of their eyes and mouths!
Tamara tells us that Balmaceda is very close to the Argentine border. It looks like the steppes of the Argentine Patagonia too, only flanked with snow-capped mountains. We pass a river flocked with pink flamingoes and a tantalizing sign touting the road to Huemul Crossing. I wonder if we’ll have the chance to come back this way and explore.
The potholed road teems with construction crews—an indigenous species in cold climates—so the drive takes longer than we’re expecting. It’s not that we’ve never visited the area before either. We’ve been here on several previous occasions, but to work and minister, not to sightsee, really.
That’s a little like peering through a porthole window when the deck offers 360 degrees of spectacular scenery. You only catch a glimpse of all there is to see.
However, Tamara fills in the time with a smorgasbord of intriguing information. So much I can barely absorb it, let alone scribble it down. And the bumpy highway—so-called—joggles my hand so that I soon give up writing and just listen anyway.
We drive straight past Coyhaique on the new by-pass, inaugurated in 2016, while Tamara explains that two groups of aboriginal peoples inhabited in the Region of Aysén. The Pehuenches, who lived on the steppes and in the foothills of the Andes, hunted guanacos, a llama-like mountain animal. They were a tall, robust race—even the women averaged six feet—and the Spaniards called them Patagones (“Big Feet”).
A light goes on in my head. So that’s where the name Patagonia comes from. Linguistically, it makes perfect sense, but I have never put it together before.
The people of the coastal areas, the Chonos, of course lived off of fishing, plying their canoe-like boats, called dalcas, in the fiords and channels between the hundreds of islands. I’m not clear on the men’s task (driving, most likely), but it was their women who did the diving for shellfish. To keep warm(er), they plastered their bodies with thick sea-lion oil. (Talk about negative aromatherapy.)
Everywhere they went, the Chonos left their characteristic conchales, altar-like mounds of shells. Since they revered the sea, they never tossed the remains of their meals back into the ocean or burned them in trash heaps. Eventually, these people mixed with the Huilliches of Chiloé. I suspected that connection, since we used to live in the Chilote town of Dalcahue (“place of dalcas”).
Roadside fields are dotted with flocks of sheep and herds of grazing cattle—and to my amazement, crowded ditches and entire meadows of pink and purple lupins. Think Prince Edward Island dropped into a rugged setting, its rich red dirt turned to lead-faced crags.
I think the lupins add a dollop of color to the gray-green landscape. But when someone asks our mild young guide about them, Tamara leaps to the offensive. Yes, they are called chochas here. Some people like to use them in gastronomic inventions, but the locals consider them nothing but gaudy weeds—unwelcome intruders in this paradise of rare native species.
It turns out that Tamara herself is a loyal native of the region at the bottom of the world. She grew up in Cochrane, a remote town in the far south of Aysén, and studied nature tourism. After we navigate a tunnel chiseled through the coastal mountains in 1984 and switchback over a bridge, our guide shares some of her expertise on the subject of flora and fauna.
Strange New World
On this side of the mountains, we find ourselves in another world, at least another climate. It’s like I imagine Switzerland—ice-blue rivers, endless evergreen forests, dark mountains veined with snow.
Or, for the fantasy lovers, remember passing from the bleak horse-country of Rohan into the green mountain realm of Gondor…
The dense vegetation of this temperate rainforest resembles parts of Chiloé Island, so I have an edge in comprehension. For example, the trees with red flowers are notros. Oh, yeah, I remember…they lined the sidewalk of our street in Dalcahue. Better not to touch, the sap can cause a severe allergic reaction. I ask if the buttercup-yellow flowering bushes have thorns like a similar pervasive monster in Chiloé. No, Tamara says, these are different from those imported imposters.
But most of the forests here consist of three types of coihues: common, Magellanic, and Chilote. This wood’s used for everything in southern Chile. Some of the trees carry a type of ball that’s a parasite. Other lucky ones are gift-wrapped in ribbons of “God’s beard” or “old man’s beard.” Instead of sucking the trees’ life, this hanging moss collects nutrients.
So in some ways, this northern area of Patagonia feels a lot like familiar Chiloé. But these mountains! Am I at the bottom of the world or the top? It’s Chiloé on steroids. Everything’s bigger and bolder and beckons toward the next turn in the road.
“Grow old along with me–the best is yet to be…” –Robert Browning, Rabbi Ben Ezra
We haven’t even reached our hotel yet. Haven’t gone on a single tour or eaten a meal. And already the rock bottom of the world has scratched an itch at the bottom of my heart.