South America 2011-2012: Castro & Ancud, Chiloé, Chile


In Chaiten I've arrived at the ferry promptly enough - the bus ride terminates there - only to find that I need to walk back into town. Evidently I need to get a TICKET - they don't sell them at the boat. Crud. Fortunately, though, a disheveled man with a van offers to take me back that way almost immediately: Yay! I'm happy to avoid the five minute walk, of course, even if I'm soon equally suspicious of his behavior to some extent. He talks nervously both in Spanish and English, with an oddly American accent of indeterminate origin that doesn't bely his Spanish surname. This I receive when we shake hands in my "new" way of offering a bent arm and doing the palm-clasp thingie. I'm still off shaking hands with my complaining elbow, maybe forever at this rate (and I now rate my elbow as 73.46% healed, precisely).

Anyway, it's entirely possible that my benefactor's twitchy manner comes from his noting my instrument. Right away he asks if I play jazz, to which I naturally answer yes (this doesn't require saying how WELL I do so, thankfully). That answer sends him off onto the topic, quickly expanding to a relating of all the instruments he plays. In moments he gets to a matter probably closer to the matter, of how he plays with whomever and whenever he can in this lonely outpost. I get it now - this man is living on a musical island! I sympathize, too, thinking that it might well BE me that delivers his next opportunity, if I don't get a ticket. But I really hope that's not the case. Not that playing some tunes with him sounds unfavorable - it doesn't at all - I don't want to get stuck in Chaiten waiting for the NEXT weekly ferry to Castro or even the one to Quellon in two days more.

THAT sudden synopsis of my situation is because all of the folks I've chatted previously with about the town are apparently right: There just ain't much seemingly there. Plus, it's rainy and cold. Perhaps of most significance, it IS the case that half the town is still washed away - literally - from what occurred on that fateful second day of March, 2008: A tragedy ensued when the nearby volcano XXX rumbled and spewed. This caused the river formerly running BY Chaiten to change its path to go THROUGH it. Not good. Even today the debris is plentiful, with one entire side of the town a shuttered and crumbled mess. Houses alone or in rows sit perched amidst a mayhem of mud and rock. The talk is that Chaiten's rebuilding, bringing promise one should think, but I sincerely hope that it's not again on the river's plain. I rather highly doubt that to be the case when such land can likely be now gotten cheap. All that looks to take a lot of time whichever way it's to be done. Thus it is that I thankfully get my ticket, actually just beating the office's "super strict" closing hour by only a few minutes.

After walking back to the ferry, I meet up with my brief inquisitor from the early morning again. This is the spritely Maité from Bs.As. I find that she's befriended an Italian in the meantime; for my part, I've immediately re-friend two Argentine cyclists last seen in Trevelin (one of whom I briefly glimpsed passing through Fu'-town). This'll be our merry group on the ferry, then, as we share the necessary food and maté required for us to survive the "ordeal" of a five hour crossing to reach Chiloé at Castro. This works perfectly: Outside of smooth seas and playing my trumpet in the one spot in the ship's rear without wind (yet WITH great acoustics), and in spite of a couple of weak movies (the atrocious blood-fest called Troy and something involving a couple boys, a love interest, sailing, and even - briefly - Kim Basinger), we pull into port. This comes only after finally passing a cluster of islands that could almost pass for the San Juans that lie so near and dear to Seattle.

It's raining in Castro as we disembark, of course, that reality as well-known to this island and its lesser cousins in the vicinity: I can't help but be reminded of taking many a ferry with a similar exit in Seattle. It certainly FEELS similar enough, from the gloom and drizzle to the temperature and sogginess. Our party thus dons rain gear prior to making our way through the wet, literally riverine and uphill streets which will deposit us at the main plaza. There we receive some tourist information before all heading our separate ways. My companions have all opted for camping, which is certainly way cheaper, but with the wetness I'm for once glad that I have no tent. Instead I've got a reservation at a palafito (stilt house on the water) all of five minutes away. Sure, it's the most expensive hostel I've ever stayed at in South America (13000CP, about $27), but I'll cheerfully TAKE it with the rain.

The more interesting thing about the palafito is that it sits on a body of water that drastically changes with the tides. The palafitos perch alternately above water or mud; the boats anchored in the area float or lean to one side when the water ebbs away. There is something always so curious about boats out of water, I find, their keels and underbelly exposed in a way that really should never be. It is a helplessness, a nakedness, that makes seem quite sad and pitiful to me.

I meanwhile realize that rain might become the DEFINING feature of my stay in Chiloé, at the rate it seems to be going and is forecast to remain. Hmm. Moreover, if I combine that with the more reserved personality of the Chileans - especially after such a great time with the gregarious Argentines - I quickly perceive that I might have a tough time finding a buena honda (good vibe - an expression very used throughout Latin America) on this latest (and likely last) Chilean go-round. Will it be Puerto Varas all over again, a succession of touristy wanderings lacking that "thing" that makes me want to stay long? Hmm. I nevertheless commit to a few nights in Castro - and likely several more in Ancud - to give it a go. We'll see, I allow. I then next head out for numerous ATM rejections, ending with a surprising success on the fifth or eighth try - I lose track - before finding some seafood. Well, THAT's one thing that will NOT fail me in Chiloé (or Chile in general), I resolve.

And it doesn't, especially not with the homemade bread and sauces that come with this first meal. They take similar advantage of using prodigious amounts of the famous Chilote garlic, a tooth of which is the size of many a bulb of the wonderous stuff back home. Indeed, this island is certainly famous enough for that and much more in the way of cuisine, I find... like the very next day. That's when I decide to walk the several kilometers down to Nercon along the main highway. Of only two lanes, it is surprisingly the very one that passes through all of Chile and onward. Up north it's known the Pan-American, and it continues all the way through to Seattle and Alaska). Of more immediate and local interest, I hear that's there's supposedly a feria down Nercon way - plus a church.

Yeah, a church. It's that which is equally as famous as the seafood and wool products of the island. It takes no time to discover that where one finds one of this trio, the others are likely to be just around the corner. As far as the churches go, however, I'm rather non-plussed. They indeed are ancient-ish structures completely constructed of wood, as advertised, and they verily include some nice woodwork of large planks of the kind that likely can no longer be legally milled. But they're still just a bunch of the same essential structures found in the rest of the entire "Christian world". Zzz. I vow to look inside at least SOME of them for what might be of note, but mostly I only find myself noting that the rotting hulks are getting the restoration they deserve. No, I'm not a fan of churches, but I do respect architecture and their impact on the landscape. So it goes. And I go in and out of the building rather quickly.

The fair, meanwhile, trudges on in the light rain. There is the promised seafood galore, plus it's all available with a backdrop of folkloric music to eat and drink to. There are many offerings of big plates of curanto, the seafood grabbag that is the local specialty, plus fish, lamb and cakes of Germanic inspriration. I opt for the pork bread out of curiosity, then buy a spiced jar of Chilote garlic. This last item will serve well for the plate I soon order of fish (salmon), potatoes (the island is famous for its many potato varieties), and tomatoes. This all comes my way courtesy of a squad of bomberos (firemen) as I watch some bread being made. THAT's curiously done in the odd-yet-traditional way that is essentially a wrap-around of a rolling pin over an open fire. There's ALWAYS another way to make bread, it seems.

Of far more interest is the conversation I have with the local man standing to my right, drinking his chicha liquor in the late morning mix of sun and drizzle. I mostly can't get over the fact that he looks an awful lot like a famous Native American actor from many a Hollywood flick (think of the chief dude who befriends Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves), but I somehow manage to get past that to allow for a nice exchange sans autographs and "You look like...." Most of our chat focuses on the local indigenous history, which makes sense: He's Mapuche, and shortly claims that nowadays all of the island's locals are of a Chilote-Mapuche mix.

Next we move on to covering the basic lessons of the general slaughter of his and other peoples throughout the Americas. We both agree on how, at the very least, our current dominant cultures should respect this tragedy. Then we turn to gabbing on some more about the food all about us. Indeed, it's too bad that it's not late enough in the day for me to drink as well - things might've even have gotten MORE interesting (as they tend to with liquor) - but I'm regardless very happy to have a nice long, open yap of this nature. Sure beats poking my nose in more churches.

Later in the day, after returning to Castro from Nercon, comes a happy surprise: Apparently my Italian friends from Piacenza are on the island. Even better, they have a car! Hooray! In a flurry of email contacts, we finally manage to meet for dinner at the local pub serving Kunstmann. That's appropriate enough - we met in Valdivia, after all. And that's in spite of what comes next, which quickly threatens to spoil the entire evening: we have run headlong into a Chilean eco-Nazi... and he's taking no prisoners. Yes, our grateful reunion has stumbled literally into an attack. Worse for me, I'm the target of most of it - being American and all. Not fucking again! Didn't we FINALLY get free of Bush?!? Isn't the rest of the world on the way to becoming as sadly obese as well?

It doesn't start that way, of course, our new friend at the next table merely seeming to try and join our trio in our cheers of "Salud!" to one another. But in moments he's managed to interject himself into our conversation completely, taking it over and wasting no time in wagging his finger and raising his voice while looking firmly and only in my direction: "You guys are consuming the planet! You're going to take all our water! You.. You... You... !" In our astonishment, to be fair, we're guilty of letting him get away with this tirade. But finally I decide to take some action, trying to hopefully cut him off with the neutral words of "No me conoces, amigo..." Then I do so louder, only bringing more of the same from our (my) assailant. Eventually Silvio starts to slide his body ever more over to block the view of this miscreant with a mission.

This scenario manages to recur over the next hour or two, with repetitions that are just mere variations on the theme and style of attack. In each volley, our aggressor first looks for any in to put himself into our conversation. Often he tries to cheer us by raising his glass, or seeks a way to enter our otherwise good cheer from an overheard comment about our day. He even offers a bag of drieds plums to Mila, but only half-jokingly adds that she is to give me none. Then he repeats the demand in greater earnest. Yes, we GET your point, asshole!

Anyway, apparently I'm the stand-in for 300 million people. The worst part, however, is that I actually agree with the general point of his accusations. Americans ARE the worst polluters and consumers in the world, a recurring theme in conversations I've had with my countrymen for over, like, a zillion years. My only wonder is why he's attacking ME when I say as much. To this he replies that we are all one people, and we have to talk about this stuff. This is indeed true as well - but I generally take the concept of "talking" to come more in the form of a dialogue, minus the shouting and finger-wagging from which he seems incapable of refraining.

So continues our merry evening of reunion, in any event, reduced to a series of attempts by this man to repeatedly do anything possible to catch an eye and our attention before launching into a tirade. It eventually even gets to the point that a bartender comes over to his table a few times and looks over to me meaningfully. To this I just sigh and indicate to let him be as a nutjob. Which he does with aplomb, of course, eventually proving it the case by standing up and dancing somehow in our direction as the evening wears on. By now my Italian friends and I have closed off our conversation completely to him, allowing no possibility of entry. Whatever the merit of his criticisms, he's now been reduced to a very expressive gyrating fool, ludicrously showing gusto to whatever song is playing to attract attention - but he'll get no more of our time. Cheers!

Fortunately, however, I'll get more of my friends without such an interjection. We meet the next day to enjoy the fruits of their fine automobile, for instance: It's not long after breakfast that we find ourselvess rolling out to the towns Chonchi and then Quellen and even Cucao beyond. Yep, nothing but more churches, wool, seafood, and rolling countryside... but all is good with such company. The bonus for me personally is that this is saving gobs of time that would have been spent with local buses and their odd schedules. Cheers to that!

My friends all the while are both jokingly and assiduously checking off each of these latest examples of churches. They have a "list" they must have gotten from a tourism office, something of a lodestone to tour the island they figure. Being from Italy this is probably beyond passé, naturally, so it isn't too long before we decide to take on a better Italian tradition: We stop for yet another coffee while en route to the national park of Chiloé found at Cucao.

For a change in Chile, the coffee is excellent. So, too, is the view of the grand lake XXXX. This lake is apparently so good to be true that it has a different name for each end. I kid thee not. Less swimmingly, however, goes our attempt to restart the car after coffee and kuchen has found in our bellies a new home. Not a peep. Pushing it doesn't work, either, so Mila and I soon find ourselves walking about the small town of LLLLL to find a mechanic. Oh yeah - it's raining again.

We bumble about knocking at a few doors, then eventually enlist the help of a few local children kicking a soccer ball around. They finally lead us a friendly man, one who is lacking the generally-assumed necessity of teeth. But he pleasantly agrees to help us out: We are shortly opening the hoods of our respective vehicles, our new friend with his cables in hand. When those are found to be lacking the necessary attaching device of a clamp, our benefactor merely shrugs his shoulders for only a moment... before using his fingers to press on the terminal and thus potentially use his body as the required conduit to allow the vehicle to kick to life. It works: DONE, Chiloé style!

Off we continue, then, to the great park. The only trick is that we now have to keep the engine running at all costs; We're now even more remotely located from "civilization". For the most part this is fine, fortunately, as we amble through low terrain that is getting a pleasant drenching from above. We really are quite okay with not venturing out into the muck all that much. From this rolling vantage point of cover, for example, we capably admire some of the large leaves used in covering the smoking hole needed to cook curanto. We say HI to some cows, too, then we take some shots of the requisite church - replete with pigs slowly making work of its foundation. We even wolf down a number of deliciously-seasoned seafood empanadas (machas) after briefly putting our car onto a windswept beach. On drones the motor all the while. Finally we make our way back to town satisfied of our grand day out in the countryside.

Come evening we retire to get ready for another day. It's decided that I'll be joining these two on their return to Ancud, where they'll drop off of the vehicle. But first we'll inspect the lovely woodwork found inside the main church of Castro. Then, after THOSE 10 minutes, we grab a second shockingly good coffee on the island (these are RARE discoveries in Chile, by the way, and doubly so for being out on the remote outpost that is Chiloé). These serve us perfectly, so we're now fortified for the hour-plus of driving necessary to get up to Ancud.

The uneventful swoop of a drive quickly puts us on Chiloe's north end, where we immediately decide on motoring a further 13-15km out of the town. This we do to head west, making for the village of Quetmahue. That's because, beside a bunch of churches, ALSO on the tourist "list" is to sample a huge plate of curanto. This we now do with a plate shared between the three of us. It's a huge pile of clams, mussels, a sausage and hunk of ham, plus a few varieties of potatoes - a perfect if odd capping to an extended outing with my friends.

Soon enough we are back in town, enduring more rain. My Italian connection now makes the decision to plow north to Santiago; they've got some ground to cover if they are to meet Mila's parents in Perú. Thus is nothing left for us but some more Kunstmann beer and a teary goodbye that lacks tears but none of the sentiment. At least we get no boozy and accusing interruptions to this wrenching moment of despedida. We'll meet again, we're all pretty sure. Still and all, though, and after four times meeting on this trip, they probably are due a rest from the likes of me!

Shortly enough I actually ensure that, even if that is not precisely the specific plan. I book a ticket for Costa Rica which obviates any possibility of our meeting further ahead in Argentina again. All this rain is leaving me more than anything with the firm desire to experience humid warmth, some jungle, and a beach before the trip is over. Then, that accomplished, I return to the more proximate task of settling into my latest marvelous hostel, Trece Lunas (thirteen moons, of which I shockingly never delve the backstory) in Ancud. In no time I've met a host of French women plus many Chilenos from all over the country. Soon some Mexicans join the mix as well, then the owner of the place is plying all of us with seafood from the kitchen's active stove and oven as the wine gets pouring. Yes, it looks like Ancud will be the antidote to staid Castro (minus my Italian connection) after all.

Yeah, you just never know with these things and yes, my first night in Ancud turns into a marvelous train wreck. Better: As the drinking turns to earnest levels, I'm asked to break out the trumpet. Then the singing gets under way. Later calls for "Improvisation!" (to WHAT is not hinted) lead to various versions of latin classics. Then a chilena starts belting out the tunes as well, earnestly bleating her heart out and getting more in tune with each note (she achieves some consistency in the end after all, surprisingly). There's dancing, a jealous break-up, and then my trumpet case is being mysteriously passed around for tips. Congratulations go to all and all around for a feast and blow-out well done, followed by more wine... and then more wine still. When even that liquid supply finally ekes itself out seemingly without recourse, the owner presents me with a bottle from his private stock. Ancud will work, indeed!

But not the next day, as getting to bed around 4 a.m. means sleeping away a good chunk of it. When more French women come by the hostel to pass the night, we start with the wine again - but (thankfully) nowhere near to the previous night's extent. All I can do to make a save of the DAYtime is a stroll along the waterfront at dusk. The theory is that it will burn off some of the wine, but that'd probably take a walk to the moon. Or all thirteen of them. I nevertheless take in the remains of an old Spanish fortress nearby, then the beach beyond it. All the while I enjoy the soft light of dusk, blinding snapping away a host of pictures that I'll likely have to almost completely erase for being out of focus and composition. (Indeed that is the case. Note to self #9975 to get a new camera relatively soon.)

That sloth of a day likely explains the huge walk of the next, anyway, when I convince a trio of fellow travelers from Chile and England that a curanto is just the thing... IF we are willing to walk all the way out to it to earn the feast. Fortunately they are game and we begin what begins to take the form of an epic journey - even if it probably is only about 14km. We stroll out of town, shortly opting for the beach route, then keep following the coast as far as we can. At the rate the young Chileans move, this might take an eternity I soon ralize - but so be it. What a beautiful day WITHOUT rain!

One reward we unexpectedly receive is a view of both Mt. Osorno and Mt. Calbuco in the northern distance, last seen when I was much closer in Puerto Varas. How cool is that? (Very!, damn it!) Eventually, however, we are forced to retake the main road for a spell. That's only to get around a large hill, fortunately, before realizing that we can regain the upcoming beach. THAT one will take us back to the targeted restaurant where I've only just dined all of two days prior, when I was with company of a more Italian flavor. Whatever: More shellfish, odd potato patties, and hunks of meat?

Yes, then more wine and chat back at the hostel, too. At this rate, it's frankly a good thing that I've arranged my flight at the end of the month to spur my movement onward to the north and home. I might never move on! Another evening of playing the trumpet ensues, now with a couple of musicians from Santiago in spells. This all comes while breaking in the latest clientelle to experience the hostel's buena onda. Another man from Santiago joins the crew - soon to be our minor plague - but two Mendocinas from Argentina and an energetic Basque-man, Haiser, quickly outweigh his goofiness. Of the latter, I'm guessing that this must be a banner year one way or the other in the Pais Vasco. At the rate of encounters I've been having with them on this trip, I'll soon have met have the entire country (and they DO wish it were a separate country).

So it seems, then, that Ancud should finally be rolled away, right?, a happy stay in a new hostel still with a sense of freshness and excitement about it. (That won't last - it can't, not after the staff has answered the same question 4347 times - but you never know.) The father and son who own and run the place keep moving the liquor and seafood along; my trumpet has found its welcome. The only question is why I should leave, really, but the still-weak weather and a flight from Chile effectively sum that one up. Yeah, if the welcome has not been too Seattle-like in its warm turn, certainly the climate has been with its cool breezes. As for the nearby penguins, or even the fabled Sunken Forest (from an old earthquake)? I'm guessing not...

... or not for much longer, I soon begin to think. Come morning I drink my prodigious amounts of coffee necessary to catch up on my writings and pictures, then ready myself for the return to the mainland until... yeah, I delay my exit for another day. Might as well pass Saturday night in the "big city" (as opposed to the small town ahead of me, Puerto Octay). So, after a week already of Chilote hospitality, I'm apparently joining my latest small group for a hike on the Sendero Chile (Chilean Trail): We're off to (maybe) see the penguins after all. Plus, our host Claudio has agreed to be our shuttle service.

Thus do we rumble out to Puñahuil in the hostel's somewhat beaten van, stopping at the shore where a small host of open boats await to take us to view the penguins up close. This is not what we select, however, not when we can see the penguins from the shore just fine - and free! Well, sort of. But 6000CP to get into a boat to cross a mere 10m separating the island from us, then only to stop and sit gaping in the boat just a little bit closer, doesn't seem worth the effort.

Instead we stroll along the kelp-laden sands, only before scrambling over rocks by numerous clear tidepools to get a better look. Yep, there the tuxedoed birds are - and I'm sure happy I've seen them before. They're close at hand, true, but not THAT close. Guess the boat is a necessity after all. Although there are perhaps one hundred of them, we fortunately soon find the ocean's tidings more interesting, anyway.

Next we are making our way to the famous trail to follow the coast for a bit. We are rewarded with beautiful rock formations just offshore, take in odd plants to marvel at if only for a little, then ramble past uncountable pretty stones, shells, and algae beyond the odd bit of wildlife. The latter consists mostly of cows and dogs, yes, but there are bees, too! I'm just ecstatic that there are no tabanos. (I also find out that the so-called orange-tinged Chilean tabano in Argentina has no such like appellation in Chile with regards to Argentina. Doesn't seem quite fair, does it?)

Okay, really this hike is just about the company. Right? That explains, anyway, why I lag behind with the beautiful Mariana, more than just perhaps, as we chat our way along. Mostly the focus stays on music: I keep changing the tunes on my iPod for her to listen to, gems I love to promote running from Blue Mitchell to Esquivel to Bobby McFerrin's finer points. I figure that this bonafide subterfuge is a pleasant means to marvel in her clear green eyes while making our way to the regrouping somewhere up ahead.

THAT takes the form of a shared lunch on the beach, where we generally proffer whatever we all have managed to squirrel away in our daypacks. Mate follows, of course - we ARE in the presence of Argentines - before we loop back to the original stretch of coast. There we surprisingly note that we've somehow used up almost the entire day. Well, we DID see ONE penguin up close, anyway - rotting away in the surf, its entrails ripped out by god-knows-what. That'll do as we gulp down some last (and typically massive) Chilean empanadas. These come in the form of the usual suspects of cheese, shellfish, and beef with exactly one boiled egg and exactly one olive (with pit, careful!) inside.

Back at the hostel we settle in for a final hurrah which turns out to be more lowkey than expected. We first take in the movie Nostalgia De La Luz, an interesting documentary focused on the Atacama while (somehow!) relating its stark reality to the doings of the Pinochet regime. Then we put together a dinner which ultimately only serves as an excuse to move on to a "drinking game" to pass away some hours. It doesn't earn that title in the least, at least not as it is typlically implied. It turns out (and thankfully so) that it is an interesting play on patterns that everyone has to pick up on in rounds. It's frustratingly good, but I'm not the most adept at it to my surprise (I consider recognizing patterns something of a personal - if odd - strength of mine).

Meanwhile our odd friend from Santiago, unfortunately, insists that this MUST be the typical drinking game as experienced by 20-year-olds. He's been boozing it up in the main square as we watched the movie (at Ancud's week-long open air cinema festival); now he's continuing with his chosen theme and picking up his pace during our game. Soon it's all we can do to keep his hands off poor Mariana (she defends herself ably) when not trying to keep him focused on the concept of the game. His habit of blabbing away the clues to the mysteries of the patterns, when not blatantly asking for the answer in not so many words, has all of us about ready to clobber him before long. Sigh. Up until now we've already put up with his odd proseletizing about his diet, accompanied by his energy-purity babble - and let's not even mention his lunchtime yoga pose at the beach. But we soldier on, don't we?

Yes, we do. Or at least my friends will have to. I'm headed north. THEY are all moving on to Castro with this bozo in unfortunate tow. But there's strength in numbers, undoubtedly, and I suspect that I'll possibly bump into Mariana again up ahead in Mendoza or Haiser in Bilbao, Spain. That'll come a long time after I catch my bus back to the mainland, however.

Yes, the buses back to the mainland make the small obstacle of a sea a small thing indeed. Especially when they own the ferry. So it is with my Cruz del Sur bus. Its route breaks the journey to Puerto Montt into three segments of about forty minutes each. The middle one is the most interesting, of course, when we cross the channel on the ferry. The weather luckily cooperates sufficiently, as I join the rest of the passengers in standing around outside and watching the Chiloe coast disappear. All the while dolphins frolic not far from the ferry as a single platoon of (maybe) pelicans makes a last dash along the land to bid us adieu. There's a last of the ubiquitous churches to gaze at briefly, too, then a rather functional-looking (and thus entirely non-aesthetic) lighthouse to take in. Then that's it. Chiloe (and my latest book to find freedom - Dickens' Oliver Twist, left at the hostel) has seen the last of me, I'm quite sure. And that's not Chiloé's fault, but just that of the traveler looking for new things all too often.

Some final parting pictures? Sure. Here are some shots from a short trip to the market, where the garlic is big, the natives might be sleeping, and I don't know what the hell some of the seafood is. But the one fish whose name is sierra (saw) makes sense, and the funny-colored eggs taste better than the typical suspects from the chicken warehouse factories:

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