During the winter of five years ago, I hopped on Boston’s longitude of just over 70 degrees W and rode it south like a cowboy, crossing over the Equator where the winter had magically turned to summer and I eventually found myself in Chile. Months after that trip, I initiated my life’s most successful romance with Pam. Although humble and bashful, this dynamic lady was filled with wonderful surprises, one of them being a Magellan-like aptitude for travel. I often bored her with my joyful reports of Chile to the point she broke down and decided to return with me for two weeks. We arrived on Christmas day.
Our first stop was the town of San Pedro in the Atacama Desert, known as the driest place on Earth although it did not earn this title until five years ago. Before that point, before meeting Pam, my love life was known as the driest place on Earth.
The journey was a 24-hour, three-flight trek so our first day was like one long siesta. San Pedro survives on tourism so the town is kept in a cute, charming state. Many of the structures are built using a mud-based technology. The locals have an undoubtedly native look which is lovely considering how poorly so many of the native tribes have fared in this part of the world. Stray dogs loitered everywhere like meth heads and cats walked along the tops of walls, staring down condescendingly at passersby. At our casual rooftop restaurant, a little black cat with the most pathetic meow caused my better judgement to evacuate and soon I found myself feeding him next to our table.
The next morning we visited Valle de la Luna which repeatedly slapped us in the face with surreal desert, lunar-like landscapes. I half-expected to see Roger Moore confidently drive by on a moon rover with a film crew in tow as they shot a scene for Moonraker 2.
After parking our car at one of the various stops in the park, we walked for about 30 minutes, absorbing an unforgiving desert sun. The path ended at a stunning narrow view point where one could take a dramatic photo. With an inspiring disregard for tourism etiquette, a couple sat in the perfect photo spot for several minutes, not allowing Pam and I to capture the bleak and beautiful landscape without human presence. It was bordering hysterical as they looked right at me as I attempted to gather a pristine image.
We drove south through San Pedro and to the Laguna Cejar situated in the massive salt flat of Salar de Atacama where, for $20, one could have the unique pleasure of swimming in a very salty little puddle. Once dry and out of the small laguna, everyone looked like a high-sodium potato chip. After being sunbaked for a few minutes, bathing suits became crustier than an old poor Republican.
The following day we drove southeast on Route 25 for an hour and a half. With an elevation of almost 4000 meters (San Pedro is around 2400 meters), the air was cool and welcomed. The main attractions here are a salt flat by the name of Salar de Talar and judging from the photo below, Pam’s hair.
Clearly Chileans in these parts either don’t drink liquids or have five-liter bladders as there was no toilet to be found in this bare but special area, causing us to pee behind a boulder like a desert fox.
On our return, we visited Laguna Miscanti and Meñique and lunched with a friendly Dutch-Slovenian couple in the small town of Socaire. The Slovenian woman was kind enough to give us background information on our current First Lady that I did not know proving once again that the average European citizen knows more about the US than the average American. I was just impressed with myself for knowing that Slovenia doesn’t border Scotland.
On our way back to San Pedro, we stopped in the town of Toconao for a visit of Valle de Jere where we viewed ancient rock drawings and walked along a small canyon river. At one point, I managed to awkwardly bathe in the river’s shallow waters. Ever the concerned scientist, Pam noticed the laughable amount of animal droppings all along the river shore and immediately grew concerned over the possible presence of parasites in the water. To make her feel better, a deal was struck that I would keep my head above water.
At the hotel that night, we relaxed outside behind the dining area. I smoked a fine cigar given to me by my thoughtful landlord. Pam looked for the Milkyway as she did every night in Atacama. We then ended up talking to a jovial couple from São Paulo, Brazil, Bea and Denis. When the two spoke alone, Bea laughed to the point I kept thinking I had a juggling mouse on my head that I did not know about.
The next day, we drove north to take in the handsome lands around Guatin and to Machuca where hundreds of flamingoes stood in the water of a laguna. We drove back into town along a dodgy, tire-destroying road and then northwest to Yerbas Buenas where we encountered more stone/cave drawings. Perhaps my drawings are not better than these 2500-year old renderings but mine are a hell of a lot funnier. I’m sorry but a picture of a stick figure standing next to a llama doesn’t bring the laughs.
On our last day in Atacama, we drove back to the airport at Calama and flew to Santiago and then on to Puerto Montt in the Lake District. On the second flight, I was able to easily pick out all of the places I visited in the Lagos area in 2015 in addition to what looked like a wild fire feeding on a large area of brush on the side of a small mountain. On the first flight down, an amiable Chilean man sat next to us in the window seat. Right before takeoff, he face-timed his male partner and arranged his phone so he could see his partner’s face and his partner could see out the window as the plane took off. It was so sweet but the partner’s expression spoke of no joy or interest in the event. He looked at his phone with no discernable expression while drably smoking a cigarette and drinking out of a water bottle. On the other end, in the plane with us, the man was giddy with the concept of this shared takeoff.
Being bold, risk-seeking American tourists, we spent our one night in Puerto Montt at a Holiday Inn Express. That evening and the following evening, I dealt with stupid travel logistics on the phone and email: ferry questions, credit card limits, car rental insurance. I was tired so these pesky items irritated me and a crust formed on my exterior. I felt like my dad. I don’t know how my parents dealt with travel irritations (or any kind of irritation) and six kids; they should be immortalized in some parenting hall of fame for that feat alone. There were years that eight of us squashed ourselves and our belongings into a station wagon and drove two to three days down to Florida in the middle of the summer. Suicidal.
The next morning we ate on the 11th floor of the hotel and enjoyed a larger version of our bedroom’s view. For a boring hotel choice, the view of the bay area was full of flavor. An old Chilean man approached Pam and asked if she was Chinese. Pam said no. The old man said his wife is Chinese. He then filled the mildly awkward conversation gap by telling us to try the fresh cherries.
We checked out and drove south to the small seaside town of Hornopiren which loosely translates to “horny pyro”. The main road we travelled, Ruta 7 known as the Carretera Austral was mainly paved but alternated with sections of gravel. Reaching points of interest would require some driving on rough roads. In a gas station, I saw a couple of white dudes driving some over-the-top extreme 4X4 vehicles. I chuckled to myself as I knew there would also be locals traversing the same rough roads at a faster pace in 20-year old sedan shitboxes.
After lunch and checking into our “cabaña”, we roamed around the town like one of the innumerable stray dogs. Most of the dogs were friendly but the ones that seemed to be associated with certain properties barked angrily at us. I was tempted to remind these dogs it was my and Pam’s third wedding anniversary and that they would do well to exercise some kindness.
Below is a video of me in Hornopiren using an outdoor elliptical machine while smoking a cigar and wearing a tiny 25-year old backpack:
The following morning we boarded a ferry bound for Caleta Gonzalo. It lasted four and a half hours and was always flanked on one or two sides by forest-covered mountains that seemed to rise out of the water, leaving no impressions of foothills. In the background of these green hairy mountains, their taller snow-covered siblings stood imposingly, giving the scenery the feel of a family photo.
On our way to the hotel, we hiked up a steep trail along a series of waterfalls. Closer to Chaiten, we began to notice huge areas of dead trees. Wondering what the cause of these enormous, intermittent patches of wooded death, I suddenly remembered that this was all due to the eruption of Chaiten Volcano after a 9000-year nap.
Other than some grey lifeless forests here and there, everything else was green and pristine with only a small town or settlement every so often. The amount of traffic on the roads was minimal. This preferably low presence of humanity was most likely due to the difficulty of arriving here. Long and/or multiple ferry rides were required which kept numbers down. I did spot a grass airstrip where wealthy vacationers probably flew in on a Cessna plane to stay at an all-inclusive luxury fishing lodge for $7000/week.
Our place, Cabañas Yelcho en la Patagonia, was not of this caliber but it was nice enough. The hotel and cabins were on the shore of the 20-mile long Yelcho Lake. That night we were massaged by a decadent five-course, New Year’s Eve meal special that was more refined than a French aristocrat.
The following day Pam and I entered the beautiful national park known as Parque Pumalin. This park was initially purchased by one of the founders and owners of both The North Face and Esprit clothing companies, Douglas Tompkins. He and his wife at one time, with the help of other investors, owned more than two million acres in Chile and Argentina, making the Tompkins one the largest private landowners in the world. This land was eventually given to the Chilean government which boosted their national park holdings by 40%.
We embarked on a six-mile hike that took us up to a worthy viewpoint and back down to one of the nicest, most glorious campsites I have ever seen. On our walk, we saw a pair of Magellanic woodpeckers. They were large boisterous creatures looking like a more powerful version of the Pileated woodpecker. Further on, Pam pointed at a tree and yelled, “CAT!”. Eight feet high in a tree was the cutest black animal that had the appearance of a stocky black cat. It stared at us briefly, quickly descended the tree and ran off.
Thinking it may have been a cub of a dangerous, large, wild cat, I armed myself with two rotting sticks before I found one that gave me at least a snowball’s chance in late March of defending ourselves. Pam elected to arm herself with a smaller stick and a rock. She looked ferocious.
We were not attacked and later discovered the creature we encountered was a small, endangered wild cat known as a kodkod or güiña. Locals and guides were surprised that we saw one since they are elusive and seldom seen. A guide we met a couple days later said he’s never seen one of these shy cats his entire life. I do love it when I’m awesome without even trying.
Back at the hotel, I jumped in the lake. The water was absurdly fresh and pure, like I was swimming in a huge bowl of smartwater. Strong winds blew in from the north. As I stood on shore, two girls left their parent’s beach blanket and approached me while I stood on the shore. They interrogated me about the two yellow kayaks nearby. I told them that they could use them. They continued to grill me with questions but I had difficulty understanding their rapid Spanish. Finally they felt comfortable that any potential liability issues they could possibly take on through their vague kayak borrowing/theft had been passed on to me.
They adorably dragged the little yellow boats to the water’s edge, boarded their craft and struggled to make if off the shore due to the wind, giving the appearance of paddling on a treadmill. I kept a quasi-vigilant eye on them due to the potentially dangerous conditions and the fact that their parents were incredibly busy not giving a shit about their children’s wellbeing. The youngest one gave up and brought the boat back to shore while the adolescent girl plowed her way into the water and around a rock jetty. Normally a safe maneuver, it was made dicey by the fierce wind. I continued to look at her and then her parents who seemed more at ease with this event than Don Draper would be after a few Old Fashioned’s. It dawned on me that these were 1970’s parents. As long as there were no adolescent-eating sharks in the water, they were quite fine leaving these mini ladies to their poor judgement.
The next morning we headed south and stopped at a path that lead us an hour’s walk to a glacier. As impressive as it was, we soon discovered that it had receded 200 meters or more in the past 20 years or the same pace as my hairline. I’m guessing part of this reduction was due to climate change but it was also possibly a result of tourists illegally climbing up to touch the glacier, thereby compromising the ground underneath it. A couple years ago, six or seven tourists were killed when they climbed up to the glacier and part of it cracked off and crushed them.
We returned to the car and carried on to the charming town of Futaleufu, six miles west of Argentina. On our way we passed through what could only be described as a valley of death. For several miles, along the banks of the Rio Burritos, a zone of dead trees and eroded soil stretched up to a half mile on either side. Further down, this natural disaster clipped the top of the village of Santa Lucia but seemed to spare most of it by then heading southwest.
Later in the day someone informed me of the cause of this. An enormous piece of glacier fell down into a lake below. Unfortunately, the banks of this lake had been compromised by heavy recent rains and soon the Rio Burritos River valley found itself in a full-on mudslide that devastated a massive section of land. Remembering how the northern part of Santa Lucia had been chewed to bits, I asked how bad the loss of life was. I was told that, by the grace of God, this disaster happened on an election day which meant that the school that was wiped out by the mudslide was empty that day. That said, about fifteen people did lose their lives in the disaster.
Of the small towns we had passed through in the past few days, Futaleufu was the nicest. Still not immune to the abandoned homeowner and municipal projects here and there, it seemed to have the greatest identity thus far. In fact, the style of the buildings reminded me more of the ones I saw five years ago on the other side of the Andes in Argentina. I assume this is explained by the close proximity of Argentina.
Our hotel, Hotel Barranco, was a nice place with a pool and like most buildings in Chile, allowed you to hear almost everything transpiring in adjoining rooms. The following day, Pam and I were accidental audience members to a sex show happening below. It was as close (and pretty damn close) as I will ever come to being in a foursome and it made me never want to stay in a hotel again. I hoped these freaks at least had the decency to put some plastic down first.
That night we ate at a restaurant called Martin Pescador. It was commanded by a Chilean woman Tatiana and her husband Mitch who was from New Mexico. The food was art. I lost count of how many courses we consumed. We were so impressed that we returned the following night. When I asked Mitch what the menu would be the next day, he said he had no idea; they had to wait to see what fresh ingredients they could get their hands on and build from there. I asked for one of their handwritten menus and Mitch had his wife sign it. I promised it would be framed.
After two days, we retraced our steps and were soon again in Chaiten. On our way, we stopped by a lodge owned and operated by my sister’s college friend Lisa and her husband Franz. They in fact had three other lodges like this one spread out in northern Patagonia. Franz is originally from Holland and is an internationally renowned fly fisherman. Lisa is a top-shelf chef and business lady so the two have been able to build a business that attracts wealthy people from the US primarily for one week at a time.
I had not seen Lisa in probably 30 years and in that time she changed little. Energetic, alert, armed with a knowing smile, good at reading people, and a touch sassy; Lisa was as I remembered her when she stayed at our house when I was young and fantastic. She reminded me of the funny story of how when we all watched TV at night, my father and some of the rest of us would do sit-ups during commercial breaks. It was wonderful to be reminded of this glorious memory.
That night we stayed in a nice little guest house in the very unremarkable town of Chaiten. That said, the people were nice and so were the many stray dogs and cats that approached us in hopes we had a spare steak in our pocket. We ate at a simple restaurant with an outdoor fireplace whose hot coals were transferred into a nearby grill used to cook our food. The grill man told me his firewood was from nearby trees felled by the 2008 volcanic eruption. He pointed to the volcanic ash still found in the cracks and crevices in the wood. We finished our simple but effective fare. I shook hands with the stout owner/cook. Shaking his beefy hand was like trying to grab a muscular butt (not that I know anything about that).
In the middle of the night, I heard the sound of a peeing human so distinctly I found myself anticipating being caught in a golden shower without an umbrella. Again, the poor construction of the building and walls allowed sound to pass from the common bathroom into our room as if there were no walls. In fact, I think Chilean builders have found a way to design walls that somehow amplify the sound of one room into the next.
The following day we took ourselves and our car on a six-hour ferry to the island of Chiloe. Once on land we immediately headed north and boarded a 25-minute ferry back to the mainland. Another hour and a half took us to an unbelievably charming guest house just north of Puerto Octay called Zapato Amarillo. I stayed here five years ago and it was one of my favorite “hotel” experiences not just in Chile but in the world. The two or three acre property was well planned but felt more than natural. Five buildings that had a northern European look to them adorned the property in a complimentary manner.
Three of the buildings had long grass growing on the roof (on purpose) which I’m told is a Norwegian design and helped give the property the vibe of a Hobbit village. But more than these elements, more than the uncountable varieties of flowers and fruits growing or the curious birds that have decided to call this yard their home or the simple but comforting interiors or the Photoshop-perfect view of Osorno Volcano or anything else, it’s the owners that give Zapato Amarillo a level of soul rarely found in the hospitality industry.
Nadia is from Valparaiso, Chile and Armin hails from Switzerland. They met decades ago in Chile and opened their guest house around 1998. With the help of friends and family, they built practically everything found on the property themselves. Their story, their property, Nadia and Armin; it was all something out of a fairy tale.
I told them their prices were too low but they simply smiled and shrugged awkwardly. Although it was a lot of work, they relished in their business and in their lives. It was as if this place was a heavenly laboratory where they were allowed to experiment with their joyful, pure desires in any way they saw fit.
It was the perfect way to end the trip.