Monday, November 29, 2010

Hasta pronto a Futa

I'm back in Coyhaique now, and what formerly felt like a medium-sized town now feels to me more like a big city after almost a week in Futa.

There are a few things to catch up on from my last couple of days in Futa, starting with a little bit of context for my stay, because I realized that I never explained that when I arrived. Patagonia Sur, the company with which I'm working, has an associated foundation that works in communities near the company's properties to advance conservation and sustainable development. As part of this work, the foundation employs two teachers of English and environmental conservation, one of whom is based in Futa. Melanie, the teacher in Futa, was incredibly welcoming from the moment that I arrived, setting me up with a spot in the hospedaje (a sort of guest house) where she was living with several Chileans working in the school system. She was invaluable as a translator, tour guide, and friend, and introduced me to a lot of great people in town that made my stay an absolute pleasure, even if I could sometimes only understand a small portion of what they were saying. Melanie, Jessica, Bill, Rodrigo, Jonathan (x2), Pedro, Carlos, Andres, Alfredo, and others that I'm probably forgetting, thanks for being so wonderful and welcoming.

With that, here are a few random pictures to give a better sense of life in town:

I love the wood-burning stoves in Patagonia - this one is a modern take on the classic design

Streets of Futa from my hospedaje

More streets of Futa

Friday was mostly devoted to a significant amount of work on my project, which had taken a back seat to travel and outdoor and cultural experiences. But at night I made it out to a birthday party with several of the people mentioned above. The party was at a disco that was a 10-minute walk outside of town - a rustic, barn-like building with a great sound and light system inside. The contrast gave it a unique vibe, and I'd imagine it'd be quite an experience in the high season with all of the tourists in town. Though Chilean parties apparently often go until 5 or 6 in the morning, I took off somewhat early because I had a big day planned for Saturday, involving....

Rafting the Futa! Though it's early in the season and there aren't really any organized trips going out yet, I was lucky enough to get in on a guide training trip with a guy named Josh at Futaleufu Explore. Josh is from Colorado, and first came to kayak the Futa about 20 years ago. It took him 9 years to get back again, but has been guiding there ever since.

The Futaleufu River is one of the top few stretches of whitewater in the world, with people coming from all over to raft or kayak, many on a 5km section known as the Puente a Puente (bridge to bridge). Between the two bridges are back-to-back rapids, with only maybe a hundred yards between each one. There's a lot of water in a hurry to lose some altitude, making for a swift current and some serious consequences for those without significant experience, especially in kayaks. Fortunately I had an experienced guide and a raft that stayed upright through the rapids, but it was quite a ride. And on top of all that, there was absolutely stunning scenery to either side, from lush forests to snowfields to craggy peaks.

Unfortunately my camera couldn't come with me on the raft, but I have a few pictures from before and after:

Entering Futa - the sign says "A landscape painted by God"

The Tres Monjas (Three Nuns)

Prepping the raft

The Futa below the take-out for the Puente a Puente

That's it for Futa. But we'll leave it at "hasta pronto," and hope that my travels bring me back someday.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving in Espelon

Today's activities were strangely appropriate for Thanksgiving. I traveled by boat to a sparsely populated place where people live off the land. There, I observed native traditions and then sat down to enjoy a meal with the local people.

The destination was the rural town of Espelon, at the end of a lake that bears its name. There's a cattle trail that runs along the side of the lake, but the best way to go is by the barcasa (ferry). It's an hour and a half to Espelon, but the views from the barcasa are incredible, especially on a beautiful day like today.

Espelon isn't so much a town as it is a school and a community center serving a few hundred people in the surrounding campo (countryside). These people make their living off the land, primarily raising sheep or cattle. The school has, I think, 12 children, some of whom arrive on Monday by horse and stay until Friday, when they head back up to their homes.

The reason for today's visit was the Teleton, supposedly inspired by the Jerry Lewis Telethon. It's a country-wide campaign to raise money for children with disabilities, this year with the slogan "Chile, un solo corazón" (Chile, one heart). The local schools are doing their own small programs, Espelon's being today. There were music and dance performances by children from Espelon and Futa, as well as a local traditional music group. The most unique component was the cueca, the Chilean national dance that reenacts the courtship of a rooster and a hen. It involves whirling handkerchiefs and fancy footwork as partners circle each other before eventually ending up arm-in-arm.

After the Teleton performances, everyone headed over to a nearby farmhouse where we ate cordero, or lamb cooked whole on big metal skewers over a fire. The cordero was brought out and laid on a wooden table, where men with large knives cut it up into reasonable-sized pieces. Women eat off plates and men eat with their hands, or so I was told. The cordero was especially good with a homemade chimichurri sauce and some fried bread.

Though I missed being with family and having traditional Thanksgiving food, spending the day in Espelon and experiencing local traditions was a wonderful experience. Feliz dia del gratitud!

Pictures are below:

La barcasa

Me on the barcasa

View from the barcasa

View from the "port" of Espelon

View from the "port" of Espelon

In Espelon

Niños in their school uniform

School children dancing the cueca

Carving up the cordero

Cordero remains - note that I don't recommend Patagonia for vegetarians...

Sunset from Futa #1

Sunset from Futa #2

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hiking and more pictures from Futaleufu

It was beautiful here in Futaleufu today, without a cloud in the sky. Not the best for pictures, however, but I will post some anyways. I ran out of town and up to Piedra del Aguila (Eagle Rock), and was rewarded with spectacular views - on one side into a valley and on the other down to a sheep farm.

As you might see in the pictures, the landscape here is a mix of New Zealand (glacial valleys, braided riverbeds) and Switzerland (traditional farms, rocky peaks). Es muy hermoso.

There are all sorts of other things I want to write about Futa, but I can't keep my eyes open any longer. I think the run did me in. They'll have to wait for another day.

La Piedra del Aguila - it was described to me as looking like Pride Rock from the Lion King, and I think that's apt

Sheep farm

Sheep farm with mountains

Up valley, I think with the Rio Espolon

Up valley

An idyllic pastoral

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Change of plans - now in Futa

I left Coyhaique at 4:45am on Monday for a long drive up to Vallee California for a quick visit to one of Patagonia Sur's properties. The plan was to drive up there for a few hours, then continue the next day to another property at Melimoyu. However, plans changed. More on that to come.

We were on paved roads for about 2 hours, then on dirt roads for about 6 more (an approximate route is here, though I think Google Maps doesn't account for the dirt roads when it estimates times...). We drove through every type of weather - sun, clouds, rain - as we approached the coast and then went back inland. It was cloudy at Vallee California, but the setting was still beautiful. Pictures from Vallee California and a smaller property right outside the nearby town of Palena are below:

Fence post at Vallee California

Barn outside of Palena

Roof of the barn - I was a little obsessed with the color and texture

Outside of Palena

We spent the night in a town called La Junta with the intention of leaving this morning to go to Melimoyu, but getting there requires a ferry and there was bad weather along the coast, so we went with plan B. The others ended up heading back to Coyhaique, but pieced together rides for me to get up to Futaleufu. I'll go to see one of the properties at Lago Espalon on Thursday, but other than that, there's no real plan. I might be here a couple of days, or maybe more. We'll see.

The whole going-with-the-flow thing is a little new to me, but I'm doing my best. It helps that Futaleufu is a cute town in an absolutely gorgeous area. It's known for world-class rafting and kayaking on the Futaleufu River, which I'm hoping to experience in the next couple of days. It's a bit early for the rafting tourist season, but we'll see if I can find something.

This evening I went for a run as the clouds were parting after a gray and rainy day, and the light was absolutely incredible. There are a few photos below, and I hope to take more in the next few days.

Rainbow above the Futaleufu

The Futaleufu

Mountains and clouds outside of Futaleufu


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Hiking Cerro Chinchao

The weather improved today, so Alejandro, from Patagonia Sur, and I drove out to the Reserva Nacional Coyhaique to hike up Cerro Chinchao. It snowed last night and the mountain was in the clouds when we started up, but it had cleared by the time we reached the top, and we had excellent views of Coyhaique and the surrounding peaks. The trail continued in a loop from the top, but they had run out of maps at the entrance and it was quite windy on the summit ridge, so we decided to return the way we had come. All in all, a great day, and rewarding to finally get out of town and into the mountains that I had been admiring for the past week. A few pictures below:

Coyhaique with the Divisadero in the background

At the summit ridge

Snow on trees

Now it's time for a fire in the woodstove, some tea, and some work in preparation for my site visits. Maybe some Spanish studying too.

Nos vemos!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Rainy day in Coyhaique

My tentative plan to head out to the Reserva Nacional Coyhaique, just outside of town, was pushed off until tomorrow due to rain, so I have stayed indoors and worked on Spanish flashcards while drinking Nescafe. Yes, I've definitely come around to Nescafe after much initial skepticism. It's not the same as a good cup of fresh-brewed coffee, but it's satisfying in its own way.

Anyway, it's not a terrible way to spend a Saturday, especially with the promise of some considerable time outdoors coming up. I'm heading out very early on Monday morning to Vallee California and then over to Melimoyu (properties here). My exact itinerary is still up in the air, as it depends on other people being at the properties and transportation. But I'm hoping to be out there for about two weeks.

And I finally booked travel for my last week in Chile. I'll be heading down to Torres del Paine in the southern part of the country to do some trekking. I've drooled over pictures of Torres del Paine for years, and it looks like I'm finally going to get a chance to see it. Very exciting!

Below are a few pictures that I took last night while out for a run. It was getting dark, so the quality is not great, but they give a sense of some of the ranch land around the town.

San Francisco? Looks different than I remember it...

Around Coyhaique

Coyhaique is a town of about 40,000 or so people, capital of the Aysen region of Chile but relatively isolated. The road from Coyhaique goes south for a few hundred kilometers and then stops before the mess of ice fields and fjords that make up the southern tip of Chile. The only way to drive to Punto Arenas or Puerto Natales in Tierra del Fuego is to cross into Argentina to the east of Coyhaique, then drive south and eventually west again. To the north, the road is paved for a hundred kilometers or so, then gives way to dirt. And even this is apparently a big improvement in the past 5-10 years. No wonder everyone here drives a truck.

Despite its isolation, Coyhaique is growing quickly as people arrive from the surrounding countryside. And though still quite a ways from being a tourist attraction, visitors are apparently becoming more frequent due to the relative improvement in connection with the rest of the world. What draws them is not Coyhaique itself, which doesn’t offer much, but the beauty of the Lakes Region just to the north and the fjords and ice fields to the south, accessible if you have your own form of transportation.

The town square, which is actually a pentagon, is quite pleasant, with surrounding shops and municipal buildings. There are some nicer homes downtown and in the hills surrounding the town, but much of the rest is filled with small, closely-packed, and sometimes ramshackle houses. I haven’t yet figured out where people buy things other than candy, soda, cheese, bread, and avocados, since every store seems to be a minimarket selling the same things. There is also an inordinate number of clothing stores, but each is about the size of a living room and they are scattered throughout town. I’d like to explore a little more, but many of the stores appear to have everything behind a counter, which is not conducive to remedial Spanish.

I haven’t yet taken many pictures in town, but the ones below give a limited sense of the surroundings.

It sounds like I’m heading out to a couple of Patagonia Sur’s properties – Vallee California and Melimoyu – on Monday for something in the vicinity of two weeks, depending on transportation schedules. With internet mostly out of service where I’m staying now and spotty at best from the properties, I may not be able to upload anything for a while. But I will try my best to keep up with writing and taking pictures, and then upload everything when I’m back.

Nos vemos!

One of the main streets, seen from the town square (pentagon) - this is the nice part of town

Sunset on the outskirts of town

Houses toward the edge of town

Rio Simpson and el Divisadero (the ridge in the background) outside of Coyhaique

Monday, November 15, 2010

Arrived in Coyhaique

I arrived in Coyhaique yesterday after 20+ hours, 3 planes, and one awkward car ride.

The part on the planes was much better than expected, thanks in large part to LAN’s selection of over forty movies. Trying to follow the plot of Inception took up a good 3 hours. When I finally arrived in Balmaceda, on the high plains of Patagonia, it was early afternoon on a beautiful sunny day. The airport primarily serves the town of Coyhaique, but is an hour away, despite a surplus of empty space for an airport much closer in. The explanation seems to have something to do with Balmaceda’s position very close to the border with Argentina. Good fences make good neighbors, and apparently so do strategically placed airports.

I was met at the airport by a driver named Rafael, who I greeted with “Hola, soy Brad. Hablo solo un poco de español.” The truth is closer to “no hablo español,” which made for a spectacularly awkward hour-long drive in to Coyhaique. I struggled to recall and string together even the simplest words and phrases, often mixed with a little errant French. Somehow “aqui” kept wanting to come out “ici.” Rafael tried to tell me that there was fishing in a river that we crossed, saying what sounded to me like “pecar.” I repeated it as such, and he told me that was “otra cosa” and pointed upwards. “To fish” is actually “pescar.” I found out when I got home that “pecar” means “to sin.”

My accommodations here in Coyhaique are wonderful. One of the guys working for Patagonia Sur just left to spend a month in Santiago, and I took over his very small, cabin-like apartment while he’s gone. It’s working out perfectly, and even has internet, though that’s a bit finicky at night. It now sounds like I’ll be here for about a week before heading out to spend another couple of weeks at two of the properties managed by Patagonia Sur. More to come on those as plans become a little more firm.

Coyhaique is at 43°S, which makes it pretty close to the southern hemisphere’s equivalent of Portland, OR. As a result, the days in the summer are delightfully long, and I had time after work today to take some photos around my cabin and then go for a run as the sun was setting behind snow-capped peaks. The pictures are below:

Lupine across the street from my cabin

Fence and a view west, towards Argentina

Looking north from my cabin

Still Life With Burned Trash - Next to my cabin (not very relevant, except for the fact that it looked cool)

Like a black-and-white Rothko

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Start of a Chilean Adventure

I’m here at SFO at the beginning of an adventure. I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for the better part of the last six months, after I realized that all of my good stories were several years old and that was disappointing. It started with a few criteria: I wanted have a concentrated experience in a new part of the world, learn something, and spend some time outdoors.

Paulo Coelho wrote, in The Alchemist, that when you really want something, the whole universe conspires to help you achieve it. That’s how it felt when I came across an opportunity to do a volunteer project with an organization in Chilean Patagonia. Plans fell into place, all three of my criteria were satisfied, and was able to take six weeks off work, between long-overdue vacation and a leave of absence.

I will spend about a month in Chile working with Patagonia Sur, a company that invests in, and protects, environmentally sensitive land in Patagonia. My project focuses on working towards certification for the company’s eco-tourism operation. While I’ll spend some time at their office in the town of Coyhaique, I’ll also get to take about two weeks at two of their properties in this region, called the Carretera Austral.

After that month, things are wide open. I’ll have about a week and a half before returning to the East Coast for Christmas, and I’m keeping that time flexible for now. Hopefully, by then, I’ll have some good tips on where to go.

I’m hoping to post updates and pictures throughout my time in Chile, but all depends on a reliable internet connection. For now, it’s on to Balmaceda (the airport serving Coyhaique) via Lima and then Santiago.

Hasta pronto.


Note: I wrote this from the airport on November 13, but did not get to post it until November 14