Thursday, January 14, 2010

Chile, Day 18

The dogs were fairly quiet last night. Just a couple of “soft bursts” of barking at around 1:30 and 4 a.m., but nothing too irritating. Since I’d arranged to take another tour today, I had to wake up at 7:30, shower, eat, and prep what few things I’d need for eight hours away from the hostel. My guide, Juan Pablo, arrived at around 9, and an American tourist joined us since he wasn’t able to make his way to Mechuque today. All through the morning Juan Pablo regaled us with various stories from Chiloe's rich mythology, which is one of the most fascinating things about this region.

We started off driving south from Castro to Chonchi, a small town most famous for its old pirating history, former cypress forests, and a 19th-century church called Iglesia San Carlos de Borroneo – yet another of Chiloe’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The church stands at one of the highest points in Chonchi, and right across the Plaza de Armas, so you can see it from virtually the entire town as you walk through it. The church was typical of others that I’ve seen in Chiloe, though I really liked the long blue roof here, which was like an inverted boat hull, painted with stars and moons.

The church had been damaged during the 1960 Valdivia earthquake – registering at 9.5 on the Richter scale, it was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded – and on one side of the building one found beams supporting the church in the event that another earthquake should strike. And major earthquakes, I was told, hit Chile approximately every 20 years.

From here we walked a few blocks down the main avenue of town to see some of its unique wooden houses. Some of them are not merely weathered, but seem on the verge of collapse, and I felt like I needed to walk very quietly past them so that they wouldn’t topple over from the minute reverberations of my steps.

At the end of the road we came to an algae-covered beach with a few boats stranded in low tide. There were no people outside here, and all we could hear was the lapping of water and the cries of seabirds overhead.

Juan Pablo picked us up beside the beach and we proceeded inland a bit to a small, mist-enshrouded town called Huilinco. There’s almost nothing here, yet I could have stayed much longer than we did. Lake Huilinco is here, and several houses dotted the snaking shore.

We walked to the end of a dilapidated wooden pier and looked out over the black water of the completely undisturbed lake. Juan Pablo told us that he always saw a kingfisher here whenever he visited the town, but as we walked out we only saw a young hawk on top of a house. However, coming back from the pier the hawk was gone and two kingfishers had taken its place.

We walked through the town another two hundred meters to an old church, across from which spread a cemetery that Juan Pablo guessed was nearly four hundred years old.

The cemetery contained a number of old wooden gravestones, and also miniature wooden houses build exactly like those found in much of Chiloe. There was quite a bit of space inside them, and they were typically filled with flowers and various family photos.

After that it was time to go to the Parque Nacional Chiloe, which covers well over 400 square miles along the Pacific coast. There are a number of indigenous Mapuche communities living in and around the park, and wildlife – birdlife especially – is abundant here. We spent our time in the southern part of the park called Chanquín, which boasts a number of excellent hiking trails as well as easy access – minus the mud – to a long, clam shell-strewn beach.

The hike followed a trail consisting of smooth boards and level logs, and went from marshy fields to thick tepú forests, which were filled with birds and birdsong as well as a wide variety of ferns. (Amazingly, the park contains 80% of the world’s total number of fern varieties.)

The forest was incredibly thick in places, and because the tepú tree grows horizontally as well as vertically, one often finds faux forest floors; if you were to step off the trail onto what appeared to be forest floor, chances are you’d fall through it five or six feet to the real forest floor below (and climb back up with leeches attached to your body).

There were all kinds of interesting plants: calafate berries (which we picked and ate), tons of fiddlehead ferns, something called cow-rib ferns that looked very much like cow ribs, and small plants growing alongside a stream that attract, catch, and then eat mosquitoes.

The bottom part of a nalca plant.

There was even a tree that was very cold to the touch; if you stood touching a different tree with one hand, then reached out and touched this cold tree with another hand, the difference was immediately noticeable. It was as cold as the inside of a refrigerator.

At the end of the hike, which actually looped around to the beginning of the trail, we marched through a wetland area and then climbed over dunes to get to the beach.

There wasn’t anything terribly special about the beach, though we did find several interesting fishing apparatuses. These were wooden posts pushed deep into the sand where the waves hit the shore. Lines with fishing nets at the end were tied to each one, and the nets secured in the water with anchors. At some later point the fishermen would pull the anchor up and draw in their nets, which, if they were lucky, would be full of sea bass.

We stayed here for about half an hour, until around 2:30 p.m., and then decided to go have lunch. (On the way back to Juan Pablo's truck, we picked wild strawberries and ate them to tide us over. They were incredible.) Juan Pablo took us to a place called Parador Darwin – a hostel as well as a restaurant – owned by a Mapuche man and his German wife.

The setting here is absolutely perfect, which is why we chose to eat at picnic tables on the lawn.

Across the road is a river, and then a spit of deep green pastureland on which sheep and horses graze, and then the sea beyond that.

I ordered chili con carne, which came sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and set on a bed of rice, which was pretty decent.

As we waited for our food, we were served homemade bread and eight different kinds of spreads for us to try – bread is often given with meals in Chiloe, and salsa-like spreads are commonly eaten with it. Each spread came in its own individual seashell, and included mayonnaise and garlic; pureed garlic; pesto; pickled onion slivers; yoghurt, dill, and cucumbers; red chili sauce; and two types of seaweed.

To me, this was the best part of the meal – and the meal was pretty good. We piled through all of this, and since Parador Darwin is famous for its kuchen conchoyoyu (I might have misspelled that) – it’s made with chocolate and algae – of course I had to order a piece. It was quite good, though the chocolate was very mild, and the only thing missing was a heaping cup of coffee, which I haven’t had in two days.

We came back to Castro after that. I asked Juan Pablo for a recommendation of an author from Chiloe who might have been translated into English, and he gave me the name Francisco Coloane. When we came back to town he dropped me off at a bookstore, but this place, and another bookstore up the street, only carried his works in Spanish. There was a free museum next door to the first bookstore I tried (Museo Regional de Castro), and I went inside and had a look around. The most interesting thing to me were a series of black-and-white photographs of Castro after the Valdivia earthquake hit, though there were other things of interest as well. However, everything was in Spanish and it was hard for me to follow.

And when it came time for dinner, I decided to go light and do it on my own. I went to four fruterias and mini-mercados and bought a dinner of bread, yoghurt, a banana, a peach, and a bag of black cherries. I think this will be more than enough until tomorrow.

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  1. Sounds like a wonderful adventure. I enjoyed the photos.

  2. Marie: Thank you! Yes, Chiloe has been the highlight of my trip to Chile. I'm glad you enjoyed the photos and I appreciate your comment!