Monday, February 16, 2009

Ventisquiero Valley by horseback - Part 2

February 12-14, 2009
We set out early the next morning for a long day of riding west into the Ventisquiero Valley, passing through Primer Corral. Sra. Cuco called ahead on the radio to tell the next farm when to expect us. We met some folks on the trail who assured us we were expected around 5pm. The small wooden structure ahead marks the spot where a man was murdered by another over a woman.

We passed through few farms, including Rincón Bonito, owned by Douglas Tompkins of Pumalin Park. His park administrator lives there with a landing strip, water generated turbine for electricity and a satellite receiver dish. Here is a photo from the Pumalin website that first got me interested in this area.

We made good time and arrived early to the next farm west, after six hours in the saddle. This is as far into the valley as one can expect lodging and meals. The farm beyond this one does not receive visitors and has been known to refuse to let people pass through.

Señora Bernadita gave us a warm welcome with coffee and kuchen. The farm is called Vertiente (Spring Farm) and it is a spring in the mountain which provides water for the house. It is delicious. We are surrounded by steep mountains. The nearby glacier is rapidly diminishing. Two rivers fall down the mountain.

We are now two days by horse from the nearest gravel road. The Pacific Ocean is not much farther to the west, but the mountains are not passable by ordinary humans and horses. The valley ends up high in a glacier with icebergs in a lake. Few have been there. We are also not far from the Argentine border. Here is a functional horse cart with rubber tires.

Señora Bernardita was widowed two years ago and her seven children all live away from the farm. She has adapted to a solitary life here and says she is content. She has neighbors and occasionally enjoys working for Mr. Tompkins in the garden. She also sells her fruit preserves to the farm there. Everyone here speaks well of Tompkins, a controversial figure in Chile these days.

Here she poses with visiting son Omar, his wife and daughter, all lovely people who smile and laugh often. They enjoy each other. The young family lives not far away in Cochamó, but they can visit only once each year in the summer.

It's almost time to say farewell to my companion of the last four days. I really bond with such an animal after it has taken me up and down steep trails and across long valleys.

This is the end of another adventure in Chile, a great place to visit. I will return to Puerto Montt for a few days to do laundry and rest up for the trip home. After visiting most of Chilean Patagonia over the past few years, the Río Puelo and Llanada Grande area remains my favorite. There are still remote valleys to explore here. I will return.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ventisquiero Valley by horseback - Part 1

February 10-11, 2009
I met Redd at the B&B one morning in Puerto Montt and we began talking about the possibility of a horseback ride in the Andes mountains. A phone call to Señora Blanca in Llanada Grande confirmed that she could find us a place to stay and arrange for horses and a guide to take us where we wanted. So we took the 8am bus along the Reloncaví fjord to the town of Río Puelo and up the river of the same name until the road stopped at Lake Tagua Tagua.

Next was a ferry ride across the lake to meet with another bus which took us up the Puelo River for another two hours to Llanada Grande. The road was built only in 2001 and is still under construction farther up.

I had been up this way three years ago when I visited the Gallardo family at their farm at Lago Azul.

Arriving in Llanada Grande later that afternoon, we found our lodging for the night and then visited Sra. Blanca who introduced us to Toribio who would be our guide. I had seen photos of the Ventisquiero Valley and always wanted to visit there. We agreed on a price, the Señora made some calls by radio to some farming families and all was set.

Toribio met us the next morning with horses and we set out for the adventure. For a while we followed the gravel road to its end at Puerto Urrutia. Chileans are experts at road building in Patagonia. Here we ride through the solid rock passage blasted out of the mountain.

What a lovely valley. The land was originally forest, so it has taken tremendous effort to clear it and make these pastures.

Soon we were off the gravel and on a dusty horse trail high above the Puelo River, one of the most beautiful rivers I have seen anywhere. It is a popular destination for fly fisherpeople from all over the world.

Four hours of riding brought us to our first stop, at the farm of Don Segundo and Sra. Cuco. They were expecting us and lunch was ready. We had already met their son Camilo on the bus yesterday as he was returning with the local soccer team. They played on the island of Chiloé. It was a draw. They have a beautiful farm with livestock and other farm animals. The house is simple and typical of the area. We stayed here for the night.

They have a beautiful waterfall on their property. After lunch I just laid down on the grass and took a nap in the warm sun. It was heaven.

Next: Part 2 and the Ventisquiero Valley

Saturday, February 7, 2009


February 7, 2009
February is a midsummer time in Chile when each village and town has a Festival costumbrista, a weekend of celebration of typical Chilean life in the country. It usually takes place in an empty pasture or fairground area, and consists of selling traditional foods and playing and dancing traditional music. Every weekend in January and February there are festivals throughout the country.

I took a bus out of Puerto Montt to the south along the waterfront. In an hour the bus let me off in Ilque, not a village, but rather an area where people live on small farms. The people here share the festival with neighbors in Huelmo, and each year they trade locations between the two communities.

I arrived much too early for the festivities, so took a walk down the road for two hours. The first photo above is of a lake filled with birds creating quite a lot of shrieking. They are mostly gulls, plus some bandurrias (ibis) and a solitary white egret. They all seemed quite happy with this lake. Further down the road I had a choice to make. A playa (beach) always sounds good to me. Of course it was a couple of miles away. Fortunately I had no other schedule today.

Then I saw this cara-cara (carancho), a carrion-eating bird. He honored me with a quiet pose on a fence post. This cow and two calves were spending the lunch hour quietly chewing, unfazed by my presence. This is a beautiful pastoral area and the kind of countryside I can walk in for hours.

I soon came to the the shore near Huelmo, a community of small farmers and summer houses, one of the most picturesque areas I have seen along the coast. Here people are unloading sacks, probably grain or flour, from the delivery boat. Some people are camping along the beach. The day is mild and beautiful.

Fortunately a small bus passed by and I didn't have to retrace the few miles I had walked. I got off in Ilque again just as the party was getting started. After the playing of the national anthem, the mayor of Puerto Montt, Rabindranath Quinteros, gives the opening welcome speech, giving praise to the people of the area for their efforts in promoting progress and solidarity.

Next, these young teenagers in traditional costume dance a few cuecas, the national dance of Chile.

These women are preparing empanadas de carne, meat pies filled with beef, raisens and egg. They are a nice, though filling, appetizer while the lamb is cooking on the barbeque.

The asado al palo is almost ready. This is the most Chilean food in the south, lamb cooked over a fire on an iron skewer. I got in line early for mine, a big hunk of lamb served with potato, tomato and cucumber. A liter of chicha de manzana quenched my thirst. I was glad it hadn't fermented yet. I was thirsty. It was sold in recycled plastic Coke bottles. It is a hard apple cider, fresh from the farm.

Here are the folks in the desert booth serving lemon pie and kuchen, the typical German pastry. You don't have to be of German descent to be an expert kuchen cook.

Meanwhile, the curanto is being prepared, the traditional indigenous method of cooking. A fire is built in a hole in the ground. When the fire burns down and hot stones are placed, the first level is a bushel of mussels, which will provide the steam to cook everything else place on top. Then a cover of ferns is placed, and then they place chicken, sausage, and two kinds of potato bread. More ferns cover all, then sod is placed and it is sealed with plastic. It will all be ready in an hour. I passed on this one.

Very satisfied with food and sun, I said goodbye to the family I had shared a table with, took the afternoon bus back to town and had a cup of tea for dinner. Another wonderful day in southern Chile.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Isla Magdalena

February 4, 2009
One of the tourist attractions in the Straits of Magellan near Punta Arenas is to visit the Magellanic penguin colony on Magdalena Island. (For anyone doing this tour, buy your ticket at the Comapa building near the Plaza. They offer a 4pm tour for about 60% of what you would pay for the 7am tour at another agency.)

The boat leaves from Tres Puentes and takes two hours to reach the island. Dolphins are often seen romping around the boat. Clouds are always dramatic and colorful, as they are anywhere in the southern latitudes.

Magdalena Island is 25 miles from Punta Arenas and consists of only a few acres of soft earth that penguins love to burrow into for their nests. It is probably only about 200 feet in elevation. It is topped with a lighthouse built in 1902. The light is mechanized but the building houses park rangers who keep watch over the penguin reserve.

A trail marked with a rope indicates where the tourists should not wander in the colony. Unfortunately the penguins don't follow the rules and regularly cross back and forth. One bird who seemed to have just lost a chick became a bit aggressive with one tourist and tried to bite her leg. Most of us just tried to stay clear.

We were told that this small island is home to 170,000 penguins. Ask me some day what that smells like! The entire island is covered with the birds.

The Magellanic penguin makes their next in the ground, normally laying two eggs. Today the chicks or pichones are approaching full size. We watched the females regurgitating to feed the young.

Gulls and Skua are the garbage cleaners on the island. During nesting periods they try to steal eggs. In this season they feed on weak penguins that died. These birds also nest on the island.

One hour on the island is enough to get a good idea of the Magellanic penguin. Here we head home and watch another spectacular Magellanic sunset.

Punta Arenas, Chile

Though I often prefer the Chilean and Argentine countryside, Punta Arenas is a lovely city to visit and spend a few days. Most tourists hurry from their cruise ship or the airport and quickly head north to Puerto Natales and the breathtaking Torres del Paine National Park, or south to Tierra del Fuego or Antarctica, I enjoy hanging out here. Besides, I have enjoyed visiting those place (though not Antarctica).

My first visit here was a short one in 1965 as a Peace Corps volunteer on vacation with few pesos in his pocket.

Here is the same view of downtown in 2009.

These guys are talented folkloristas and played cuecas at midday in the Plaza.
They were very entertaining. Several locals, young and old, spontaneously responded by dancing to this most Chilean music.

Bories Street next to the Plaza in 1965.

The same scene in 2009.

Here is my favorite bed & breakfast in town, and I recommend it highly. Dinka's House is a short distance from downtown and just a few blocks from the Strait. It is quiet and very reasonably priced. Señora Dinka is a second generation Croatian, one of many people in the area descended from immigrants attracted to the sheep industry in the early 20th century. I never understood why she picked this name, as hardly anyone speaks English. A stay at Dinka's is worth it if only to taste her delicious homemade rhubarb jam at breakfast. She is an animated and joyful hostess.