Saturday, November 18

This morning we have a 10:30 flight from Puerto Montt to our southernmost destination, Punta Arenas (literally “Sandy Point”), on the Strait of Magellan. To get to the airport we have to ride the bus a half hour to get to the ferry, then the half-hour ferry ride back to the mainland, and another hour after that. So we had 6:00 breakfast, 6:30 “bags out,” and 7:00 departure. So I got up at 5:00, did all my morning stuff, had breakfast, and now it’s 6:30, so I thought I’d get a head start on recapping the last day and a half. (I’ll continue on the plane.)

Thursday, November 16

Pargua, in addition to being our “Day in the Life” locale, is where the ferry to Chiloé sails from. So after we left the Andrade family, we were quickly on board the ferry. We arrived at a small settlement called Chacao, on the northeastern tip of the island, and we had a little time to explore there before continuing to Ancud, on northwestern Chiloé.

Black necked swans in a tidal pool at Chacao
Black necked swans in a tidal pool at Chacao

Chiloé is the largest island by far in the Chiloé Archipelago and one of the largest islands in South America. It is a little smaller than Puerto Rico, about the size of Corsica or Crete. The island was devastated by the massive earthquake in May 1960 (which also moved it four feet closer to the continent). What survived is made of wood, which is more flexible than concrete and more capable of withstanding shaking. There are some newer concrete buildings; Pilar mentioned that these will likely not survive the next major quake. And in addition to the risk from earthquakes themselves, tsunamis also pose a significant threat. Our hotel is up on a bluff, high enough so that if we have one while we’re here, we should be okay.

The name of the island, by the way, is unrelated to the name of the country. Chile comes from an Incan word meaning “the end.” Chiloé is Mapuche for “the place of the gulls.”

Our hotel is in Ancud (and is called the Hotel Ancud), but from the little time I had to walk around, there isn’t much else of interest. Our hotel (which is built almost entirely of wood) is built on top of a fort that was built by the Spanish. The fort consists of a rampart and some cannons.

Friday, November 17

After breakfast at the hotel (If you ever stay here, I hope you like your scrambled eggs runny), we climbed in the bus and drove about an hour and a half to the largest city on the island, Castro.

During the drive Pilar gave us an interesting history lesson about the history of human migration to the Americas. I slept through a lot of it, but what I heard I enjoyed. In a nutshell, theories have long held that humans first came to the Americas through Asia and across the land bridge at what is now the Bering Strait. From there they moved south through North and Central America and finally into South America. But recent theories now suggest that humans were in South

America earlier than was previously thought, and that they came by boat from Polynesia. Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition proved that this is possible, but not that it is true. The fossil of Luzia Woman that was found in Brazil in 1975 has more features in common with aboriginals of Australia. But theories are just that.

In Castro we visited four main sites.

Plaza des Armes

The main square of Castro has an adjacent wooden church, one of many scattered all over the island. It also has a pay toilet and some surrounding shops.

Wooden church of San Francisco in Castro.
Wooden church of San Francisco in Castro. Wood is much more capable of withstanding earthquakes.

Palafitos

These wooden houses built on stilts in the water are one of the main attractions of Castro. They were slums, but many of them have been renovated and converted to B&Bs and charming homes. One was even a gym. Others are still in poor condition. All survived the 1960 earthquake and tsunami, but if there is another one, a recent law will prevent owners from rebuilding. And because they are on the lowest point in the city, right on the water, tourists who stay there are not going to survive the next tsunami either.

Palafitos in Castro
Palafitos in Castro
Palafitos
More Palafitos that have been renovated and gentrified.

Pilar called a friend of hers who lives in one of the Palafitos, a fellow tour guide, and we had the opportunity to visit and see the inside. It was a very humble abode, with low ceilings. The oven was wood-burning, but the tour guide’s wife was proud of her new gas range. In the back was an open-air extension over the water. He told us he built that after buying the house 27 years ago. He also showed us a piece of wood from one of the old stilts, rotted and eaten by underwater worms. And he said the piers have to be replaced every ten years.

The artisanal market

The market consisted of a lot of shops selling woolen items in particular, plus the usual assortment of tacky souvenirs.

The fish and produce market

Here we had lunch and wandered among the stalls. It’s housed in a new, modern building. Some interesting fish for sale, including salmon, hake, conger eel, and others I didn’t recognize, plus a lot of shellfish: clams, oysters, razor clams, and some squid-like thing. There were plenty of other strange items, such as stalks of something related to rhubarb only much bigger, dried seaweed in bundles that looked like big tangles of rawhide dog chews, and plenty of more “normal” fruits. They also had something Pilar called a Chiloé bagel. They were round with a hole in the middle, but much more hole than bread. It looked like it might be pretzel-like. I bought some; they turned out to be slightly sweet and the flavor reminded me of egg kichel, a Passover cookie, only denser.

Upstairs at the market were the cocinerias, eateries with a lot of traditional items. Pilar walked us through and explained the menu items. I got something that was essentially a potato pancake stuffed with pork rind. This pork rind, though, is nothing like what you get in bags at US truck stops. It was kind of a cross between bacon and sausage. It was so good it is probably illegal in the US.

Incidentally, in Chilean grocery stores, all packaged food that is not good for you comes with warnings in big black labels. I took a picture of a package of cookies the other day:

It's bad for you!
It’s bad for you!

High in calories, high in sugar, high in saturated fat. After Pilar told us about these warnings, I told her I was angry at her for making me health conscious at the grocery store. But I guess I made up for it by eating that pork rind.

We drove back to Ancud after lunch, had a short break, and then headed by bus along the west side of the island. The landscape on the left side of the bus consisted of lovely wooded hills and meadows with grazing cattle and sheep. On the right side the coast reminded me of Oregon or California, with rocks and cliffs.

Pasture and rolling hills

coastline

After thirty minutes or so we arrived at the beach where we donned life jackets and rode big wheeled carts into an open boat.

Riding to the boat

We headed to three tiny islets just off shore to the only place in the world where two different species of penguins share the same breeding ground. In addition to the Magellanic and Humboldt penguins, we saw various species of seabirds: ducks, geese, cormorants, a blue-footed pelican (which was sitting so we couldn’t see the blue feet), and of course a zillion of the gulls that gave the island its name.

The Magellanic penguins migrate here from southernmost Chile (where we are heading today) to breed. Later in summer they will return south. The Humboldt penguins, which are far fewer, migrate from the Atacama desert in the north.

If I just say the cost of the entire trip was worth it for the opportunity to see these penguins, that might begin to express the wonderment and thrill. Those of us who live in the northern hemisphere have to travel a long way to see penguins in their natural habitat.

I took over a hundred pictures, but the boat was bobbing so much in the waves that it was hard to get good ones, and I only managed to get a handful that were in focus (or that even had a penguin in the picture at all). And I kept reminding myself that this was something not to be viewed with my camera, so a few times I managed to put the camera down and just be there to see it.

We got to watch a couple of fellows struggle to climb out of the water up the kelp at the edge of the islet, only to keep slipping back down again. We watched them walk on trails up to the top of the islet where their nesting grounds are located. Sometimes in groups, sometimes one little guy by itself. We’ve all seen movies of penguins, but here they were without the cute narration ascribing human emotions to them, just being penguins.

Magellanic penguins
Magellanic penguins. They have darker coats than the Humboldt penguins and white stripes on the neck. They are far more plentiful than the Humboldts.
Humboldt penguin
Humboldt penguin. Grey coat and continuous band of white from the breast to the head.
Magellanic and Humboldt penguins
Magellanic and Humboldt penguins together. Can you tell which is which?
Penguins
Three Magellanic penguins and one shy Humboldt
Blue-footed booby
Pilar said this is a blue-footed booby, and I have no reason to doubt her, but it would have been nice to see the white feet.
American oystercatcher
American oystercatcher
Marching penguins
They actually do march up to the top of the island where the nests are.

All too soon we returned to the beach, got carted back to shore in the wheeled carts, and went to to a restaurant overlooking the ocean for dinner of hake. I have to say that most of my least favorite meals have been the group ones. I’d much prefer to wander off to find meals on my own at places where tourists don’t go.

Chiloé was a mixed bag for me. It was an interesting place, pretty in some areas, but certainly not spectacular at the level of what we saw closer to the Andes.

The penguins, of course, made it more than worth visiting. But also, it was fascinating to go to a place that gets very few foreign tourists, where almost no one speaks English, and where we got to see a different side of this wonderful country.

Thursday, November 16

Today was not about seeing beautiful scenery or learning about history or politics or economics or geology.

Today was about people.

Specifically, today was about the people of Pargua, a community of about 800 on the north shore of the Chacao Channel separating Chiloé Island from the Chilean mainland. We spent a good part of the day in Pargua.

First we visited Sol del Pacifica school. OAT supports this school through the Grand Circle Foundation. Ten students attend, and there are two full-time teachers. In addition, they have an English teacher who comes one day each week, and our visit happened to coincide with hers.

Escuela Sol del Pacifica
Escuela Sol del Pacifica

The children were delightful. They came out to meet our bus and escorted us into the school. We went to the small lunch room, where we had tea and cookies made by the children’s parents. There we had a chance to talk with the English teacher about her work and her life as a teacher who visits a different school each day.

Then the children came and brought us to their classroom, where they showed us variously some of the things they are working on and answered our questions as well as possible in our broken Spanish and their broken English.

Finally the children gathered so we could take a picture of them, and after we all took our pictures I asked them if they could sing a song. (The music teacher in my past couldn’t help making an appearance.) The English teacher led them in a song — well more like a group chant or a dance. Then they asked us to sing a song, and I suggested “Head, Shoulders, Knee and Toes.” Surprisingly, only a few of us in the group knew the song, but we did it, and they we asked them to do it with us.

From there we went to what Pilar called a kindergarten but was more like a pre-school. There were about eight kids. As soon as I walked in a boy named Javier showed me a picture of una araña (a spider) in a book. I asked him if he was afraid of spiders (¿Tienes miedo?) and he said no. Then I pulled out my phone and asked him to be in a picture with me, and when he saw his face in the phone, I got the most delighted smile.

Me and Javier
Me and Javier

I got to talk with several of the other children, one of whom was playing a toy xylophone incessantly. Others were drawing pictures. I just wanted to spend all day with them, but we had to leave too soon.

Our next stop was at the home of the Andrade family. We met two of the Andrade children (cousins actually) at Sol del Pacifico. At their home we assembled in the quincho. This is a kind of large shed used for family gatherings on special occasions. (At the Haneck ranch a few days ago we also enjoyed our meal in their quincho.)

First we went out back and watched them prepare the curanto. They burn wood to heat rocks; then they remove the wood and use the rocks as the heat source for cooking. On top of the rocks they put a layer of mussels, then added potatoes, sausage, chicken, and a bread dough made from potatoes and flour. Then they cover the whole thing with branches of myrtle and a large sheet of polyurethane, and weigh it down with rocks and logs. It cooks like that for an hour.

Preparing the curanto. The building in back is the quincho.
Preparing the curanto. The building in back is the quincho.

While it was cooking, we went back into the quincho, and had a toast with cola de mono, a holiday drink that more or less resembled Bailey’s.

After they where we got introductions from three generations of the Andrade family, and then we introduced ourselves to them. Then we helped them prepare the rest of the lunch. I was part of a team that helped Aunt Gladys make more of the potato bread, which we then fried. Others chopped ingredients for pebre, a salsa kind of like pico de gallo. Others helped set the table.

Cooking on the wood stove in the quincho
Cooking on the wood stove in the quincho

Soon the curanto was ready, and they brought everything in and we ate lunch. It was all delicious!

After lunch they showed us some of the handiwork they do. A few of the women showed us how they spin wool into yarn and displayed various knitted crafts they made. Aunt Gladys put some onion peels into boiling water and used it to dye some of the thread.

Aunt Gladys spins wool into yarn.
Aunt Gladys spins wool into yarn.

Finally it was time to go. I didn’t expect to have such a special day as part of my vacation, but it was a day I will never forget.

Tuesday, November 14

As the crow flies it’s only about 80 miles from Bariloche, Argentina, to Puerto Varas, Chile, but to drive around all the lakes took the better part of the day. And that was to our benefit, because we got some beautiful scenery all the way. It was remarkable how quickly the terrain transitioned from the high desert (aka steppe) to forest to mountains.

We exited Argentina after a few hours’ drive; then we drove for an hour more and crossed the actual border into Chile, but we didn’t arrive at Chilean customs and immigration until about an hour after that. Then after another hours we stopped for lunch at a dairy farm with a little restaurant, and adjacent to the restaurant was an antique car museum, consisting mostly of Studebakers. Not the museum we expected to find on a dairy farm in the Andes.

Studebakers on a Chilean dairy farm
Studebakers on a Chilean dairy farm

At the lunch stop we also switched buses and said good bye to Ezekiel, our fabulous local guide from Bariloche. He was the best guides so far. In addition to being very knowledgeable, he had a great smile. I admit I got a little crush on him. And there we also met our local guide for Chile. Her name is Pilar. Fede prepared us for her sharp sense of humor, and this is very true. She is a lot of fun and incredibly well versed in the history, economy, geography, and geology of this area.

Me and Ezekiel
Me and Ezekiel

We arrived in Puerto Varas at about 5:00, and Fede recommended a local restaurant and made a reservation for us there, giving us a few hours to explore the town. It’s a charming resort community on Lago Llanquihue, a glacial lake about the size of Lake Erie. Lots of shops, restaurants, and cafes. And right across the lake are two massive volcanoes: Osorno, which is perfectly shaped like a cone like Mt. Fuji (See the photo at the top of this post, which I took as we were approaching from the highway. Unfortunately, the mountain was mostly covered by clouds and fog for most of the rest of our visit.) and Calbaco, which looks more like Mt. Saint Helens after the side got blown off. (As it turns out, Pilar later told us about the geology of these mountains, and Calbaco and Saint Helens are the exact same type of volcano.) The few hours we had was plenty of time to explore, and we had a really good dinner and then to bed.

Lago Llanquihue and Osorno, viewed from Puerto Varas
Lago Llanquihue and Osorno, viewed from Puerto Varas

Wednesday, November 15

I actually took notes today!

At 9:00 a.m. we got on our bus and headed along the south shore of Lago Llanquihue (Llanquihue is Mapuche for “deep place” — the lake is 1,200 feet deep) toward the Osorno Volcano. The plan was to do a hike on the mountain. The road we drove on was built in 1952; before that, you had to take a boat to get to the other side of the lake.

Along the way Pilar gave us an economics lesson. Chileans are extremely fond, she told us, of money. Until the 1970s Chile was extremely poor, and their only economic driver was mining, especially for copper. Starting in the 1970s, a number of Chilean economists went to the University of Chicago to study under Milton Friedman. Known as the “Chicago Boys,” these economists came back to Chile and transformed the economy. There is a diversity of opinion about how much these economists really helped most Chilean people, but I won’t get into that. What is clear is that today Chile has the strongest economy in Latin America. They export wine to France, salmon to Norway, pasta to Italy, and kiwis to New Zealand. And though all their salmon is farmed (much of it in Lago Llanquihue), they have figured out to use every part of the fish. The eyes are a source of omega-3 supplements. Meat from the head goes into chowder. The eggs become salmon roe in Japanese sushi. They even produce “leather” products from the skin. And what’s left is used for fertilizer and commercial fish oil. Unfortunately, climate change is causing a real problem for their salmon farming industry because salmon cannot thrive in warmer water.

Pilar also gave us a geology lesson. The Andes are the youngest mountain range in the world. This region is also geologically very similar to the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest. Engineers from Seattle have come down here to learn about building techniques, because unlike the Pacific Northwest, where the last catastrophic earthquake occurred before any cities existed, Chile has had some major earthquakes in recent history, including the strongest in recorded history in May 1960. That earthquake called a giant tsunami, and Chilean scientists were thus the first to prove the relationship between eartquakes and tsunamis.

Interesting fact: by law, the media cannot use the word “earthquake” for anything below 6.5 on the Richter scale. These must be called “tremors.”

Chile has 2,300 volcanoes. Calbaco last erupted in 2015, and we saw evidence of that yesterday when we were crossing the Andes and today. These is still a lot of ash on the sides of the roads.

Aftermath of the eruption of Calbaco
After we crossed into Chile, we saw some landscapes like this, the aftermath of the April 2015 eruption of Calbaco.

When we got to Osorno, we were surprised to find fresh snow. We hiked anyway, but only about a quarter of a mile before we had to turn around because the footing was so difficult and slippery, and the wind was fierce. But it was really fun and exhilarating. Back in the ski lodge we enjoyed hot chocolate before getting back on the bus.

View from partway up Osorno
View from partway up Osorno
Hiking on Osorno
Hiking on Osorno
Another view from Osorno
Another view from Osorno

Our next stop was Petrohue (literally “misty place”). We walked through a beautiful temperate rain forest (again, a strong similarity with the Pacific Northwest: much of the vegetation here is the same as in the Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula).

The pictures speak for themselves.

Petrohue

Bamboo
Bamboo

Petrohue

Petrohue

Petrohue

Petrohue

Petrohue

Fun fact #2. In much of Patagonia, cattle are raised without much or any human contact, so they become more or less feral. When they want beef, they go hunting for cows.

Our next stop was at the mouth of the Petrohue River, where it meets the lake. Here we crossed the river on a little boat operated by Alex, who has a house on the other side. His family operates a restaurant out of their home. There we had lunch in a sunny room overlooking Osorno, and after lunch Alex and his wife Rosita and their daughter told us their story.

Alex, Rosita, and their elder daughter tell us about life in Petrohue
Alex, Rosita, and their elder daughter tell us about life in Petrohue

Alex grew up on that side of the river, and always thought of Osorno as his mountain. He started the story by telling us that it is no longer his. Once every few days he would cross the river to go into town, and then one day about 27 years ago he met Rosita, and he started crossing the river three or four times a day. He was a poor man and had nothing to offer her. So finally, he said, if you marry me and come back to live with me across the river, I will give you the volcano. So she did, and now it’s hers.

View of Osorno from Alex and Rosita's home
View of Osorno from Alex and Rosita’s home

Eventually they built the newer house, where we were having lunch. They didn’t get electricity on that side of the river until five years ago, but after they had their two daughters Rosita made Alex buy her a washing machine and hooked it up to a generator. She still cooks with a wood-burning stove.

When the volcano erupted in 2015, Alex sent Rosita and the girls away, but he stayed in the house. A big landslide destroyed the old house and their shed but spared the new house. We could see the rocks all around the house, maybe as close as 50 feet.

Alex and Rosita's house
At the right is the new house, where we ate lunch in the front room with the big windows All the rocks are the result of the 2015 landslide.

After lunch Alex took us back across the river, and then we returned to Puerto Varas. We reconvened in the bar for a lesson on how to make Pisco sours.

Then I went for a little walk, stopped at a food truck and got a sandwich for dinner, and relaxed.

What a great day!

I’m very excited about my next trip, which will take me to a new continent (my third after North America and Europe). I’m going to be spending four weeks visiting Argentina and Chile (with a brief jaunt into Brazil).

I decided to try a tour this time, and I have mixed feelings about it. I am sure there will be times when I miss the independence I have come to cherish when I travel, but I am also hoping that having all the arrangements being taken care of for me by someone else will make it less stressful. This trip also covers a lot of ground: in addition to my flights there and back, there are seven internal flights and some long travel days. There are also some cultural exchange activities that would be very difficult to organize on my own. It’s also a tour that is guaranteed to have no more than 16 participants. so that should make it much more pleasant than traveling with a large herd of tourists. I’m hoping all these elements outweigh the negatives of traveling with a group.
Continue reading “South America Bound!”