Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My Dream: Chile - Coyhaique, Aysen, and the ferry to Chiloe

How is it that the country that first captured my imagination - the origin of my desire to make this journey - has largely gone neglected?

I remarked to Kaitlin, and I'm sure in this blog as well, that after completing the circuit in Torres del Paine I felt "fulfilled" and that everything else this trip had to offer would be "bonus." I think this mentality is partly to blame for my absence the past month - though I still don't think I was wrong to feel this way.

More so, this mentality breed a more severe consequence - naivety. Having not only survived, but thrived, in one of the largest urban centers in the world..and then repeating the feat in the most severe trekking experience of my life - I started to let my head inflate and carry me north - ignoring my analytical impulses both internally and externally.

But after a few pitfalls, I am back down to earth and giving my experiences their deserved consideration.


After a twenty-four hour bus journey that took us first south to Punta Arenas and then north into Argentina, again through the Patagonia almost 1,000km, crossing the Andes back into Chile, through the idlyic country-side, down into the valley - we arrived in Coyhaique - "Koy-Yiy-K."

We romanticized about making our way to nearby rustic hot springs - only to learn that one had been closed due to landslides and the other situated on private land only open for cruiseships...

So we drank cafe cortado at Cafe Konken, talking to the owner about Coyhaique and fly-fishing. So we visited the wool market and picked up various items to keep our limbs warm. So we planned our travel north to Chiloe (a thirty-six hour ferry from Puerto Chacabuco to Quellon on Isle Chiloe). So we decided to to camp in Parque Nacional Coyhaique to pass the time until heading to Puerto Aysen (and then Chacabuco).

Parque Nacional Coyhaique was a modest park. Situated mainly for day-trippers from the town with persistent views of the valley:

We spent about three days in the park, lounging in the dry - windless - paradise. Every now and then venturing out of the tent to take a walk and speak spanish.

Approaching the summit we strolled through what seemed to be an illustrated forest of contorted trees and old man's beard..

Eventually making it to the snowy top with little to see in addition to the ever present Coyhaique valley - still, good exercise and a decent vista.

After making the peak, we decided to make our way an hour west to Puerto Aysen. So we thumbed a commuter who barreled through the winding valley highway - passing minibuses on blind curves as he told us about the massive roadside shrine to all the people who died making the commute during the icy winter. GREAT! If not for the lush green mountains riddled with massive waterfalls - I would have been terrified the entire time..

A rather poor example, but still..

Puerto Aysen

There are two ways to spell Aysen: A-y-s-e-n and A-i-s-e-n

I still have no idea which is correct..if there is a correct spelling. It was spelled both ways on signs in the town and I have gone with aYsen, solely because it was the first way I saw it spelled. Seemingly insignificant bit of information, but I think quite significant after interacting with the people.

There is a regional rivalry, though "perception" is probably a better word, since people from Aysen don't seem to participate in the fray. Suffice it to say, people from Coyhaique see Puerto Aysen as a bit of a wasteland. The "people over there" are lazy, incompetent in business, etc...

It is true that shops keep even shorter/stranger hours than any place we have been in South America.. there was a sign in the window of a pescaderia: "No fish this week." ..and so on..

..but from our experience the cause of this effect is hardly deplorable - in fact, the opposite.

Hospedaje San-ly

We settled in Aysen at one of only a handful of hospedajes: San-ly

I have debated with myself how to describe this four day experience since we left and a month later - I'm still not quite sure how to put it properly.

The truth is, it was hard to leave them. Nearly all four days in Aysen where covered in rain, but as we stayed in doors with Marlin, her husband Francisco, and her grandson (also Francisco) - we were warm and dry through their hospitality.

We were constantly fed, without a single word about money - taken to their farm in the country side for mate with herbs from their garden - shared an evening of music and guitar lessons.. Given the space to relax, but the attention of genuine interest.

By Aysen standards (and most other standards), Francisco and Marlin are quite well to do. Yet, they have only one vehicle (a little Suzuki mini-truck) for the farm. They could both have their own, but they only need one. They have hundreds of hectares of farmland, but a very modest house with only the basic amenities.

They were a, thriving example of the principles Kaitlin and I hold - without trying to make a political statement, just being "normal" good people.

Of course, we did venture out of hospedaje San-ly:

For one month in every twelve, the people of Aysen organize concerts and other sorts of entertainment/music in celebration of their founding. We happened to be in Aysen during this month and were able to take in a regional group playing folk music.

Another day, we spent a few hours wandering along the highway trying to find the trailhead for a trek that would take us seven kilometers into the hills to a petrified forest. After being completely soaked through by the persistent drizzle we finally found the trailhead. Though it was immediately evident that we would not be able to continue. The combination of nearly constant rain in the region, plus horse traffic on the trail made it a sloppy mucky mess that would have been absolute torture there and back.

So we turned back towards town, but since we weren't quite ready to call it a day - we stopped by the Sanctuario that we had been told of earlier.

Sanctuario San Sebastian:

Quite an eerie thing to come up to a place with candles burning, but no one present. Made even more unnerving by the personalized sentiments/prayers/monuments left by relatives of the deceased. White wax hanging over soggy table clothes. All quite but for the pitter-patter of the drizzle making it's way through the canopy and the sporadic honking of commuters paying their respects. A bewildering space.

The Ferry to Chiloe

I have only just realized that in the chaos of the last month - somehow the pictures from the ferry have not survived. Hard for me to accept, since I had been so adamant about finding a way to make a portion of this trip aquatic.

But what can be done?

Puerto Chacabuco is an even smaller settlement than Aysen, existing solely as a port for goods and the occasional cruiseship that fills up the regions only bonafide hotel. A fifteen minute minibus took us straight from the main road in Aysen to our boat.

I can say about the ferry that it was more or less what I expected it to be. Thirty-six hours on a boat weaving through hundreds of kilometers of archipelagos. Rain, clouds, glaciers, fog, water, constant chugging of the engine, trapped children entertaining themselves at the expense of my sanity...and so on. We pulled into several forgotten fishing villages where people hop in a boat to visit their neighbors where there are no roads..

In one of these small ports we entered there was commotion outside. So everyone went outside to see what was going on. And there coming across the side of the ferry were four orcas. I have no education in marine animal behavior, but it seemed to me these whales were indifferent to our presence, just as the locals in their boats gave hardly a glance in their direction. Just a jolly group out for a stroll in the bay, breaching here and there, allowing the humans to struggle with their zooms and curse the fact that we were moving in opposite directions. I just smiled.

That was my dream. The frozen forgotten island kingdoms. Where weather reigns and humans are rarely more than visitors.

But we did eventually approach Isle Chiloe..and other feelings over took me. More so the fact of clear skies and a decidedly warmer breeze. What I took as a good omen for our trip north through the mystical island and ultimately - our month farming with locals.

But that is something totally separate..

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