Chile’s southern Los Lagos and Aisen regions captivate by elements. Sea, salt, fire, steam, ice, water, earth, mud.
We are traveling from El Bolson in Argentina’s rain shadow into a saturated version of Chile. We pass Bariloche, Villa La Angostura, wind into Nahual Huapi National Park in Argentina and then Puyehue National Park in Chile. As we pass from east to west the air grows thick with moisture. Ferns and bamboo explode into the ecosystem along with massive nalca leaves. We are moving into Patagonia’s verdant Valdivian Rainforest.
But wait, what did Pedro de Valdivia have to do with temperate rainforests? Did he ever stand in awe within this unique ecological wonder? Could he contemplate the wisdom of 4000-year old trees or the unnerving courage of 200 meter waterfalls that appear to envelope you in every direction? Was he capable of ecological awe? This villainous conquistador cum provincial leader of the southern extent of the new Spanish empire. The founder of the cities of Santiago and then Valdivia. The Spaniard who had, well, what did he have? What did he believe? What were his dreams? Was he afraid? At night? He surely was – deeply afraid. Of god. Of poverty, the King, and disgrace. Afraid of an insignificant life. Who were his parents? And his children? All of his children. Where are his grandchildren?
But back to the Valdivian rainforest – what did he ever have to do with these temperate rainforests? And why, in addition to a great many terrors and thefts that he perpetrated, does he continue to steal something sacred from this place each time we repeat his name? He was captured and (rightfully) killed by the Mapuche who made abode in the rainforest that now bears his name. Why do we honor him by calling his name every time we travel to this unique ecosystem? Perhaps my Chilean and Argentine comrades can enlighten me as to some attempts at name re-appropriation for this ecosystem, but for now all I can do is call it by its popular name – its colonial one – la selva valdiviana. I have not yet been informed of other options.
As we descend west from the Andes, Lago Llanquihue sprawls below like an inland sea, with wind-borne whitecaps tickling the shore. But, what an inept metaphor – the true outland pacific sea taunts us no more than 60 kilometers west of here. Or south of here. La mar (she is most definitely feminine) is even southeast of us here.
It is literally all around us here.
It’s all islands and fjords and estuaries. And lakes like inland seas. And the rivers that seem like lakes. So much water.
Volcan Osorno sweeps to the west in a perfect cone. The kids are captivated and mortified by the possibility that fire could explode from the earth. They wonder if the earth could open beneath us and rain fire through and onto our rented Chevy Spin right now. Right here. Indeed, our drive from Bariloche carried us through the arboreal skeletons near Volcan Puyehue, hundreds of thousands of trees instantly torched by the 2011 Puyehue-Cordón Caulle eruption. The ash that we observe over the pass between Argentina and Chile also traveled around the entire globe that year. This stuff literally changes the climate and makes mountains. It creates the planet.
Passing from the post-apocalyptic Puyehue immediately to the symmetrical glaciated elegance of Osorno puts the creative and destructive potential of the earth’s fire element in stark contrast, while nature again reveals itself in circular form – creation being destruction, and so on.
We round Volcan Osorno and then Volcan Calbuco appears to the south. The 2015 eruption dominated the horizon above the picturesque town of Puerto Varas.
We travel south to the Reloncavi Estuary, past more hot springs in Ralun and then as we bump through coastal towns along the estuary we view Volcan Yates gazing down on the sea.
While not as active recently, just south of Yates lurks Volcan Chaiten, whose 2008 eruption and subsequent mudslides nearly destroyed the nearby town of Chaiten.
And so it continues south. And north.
Elements. We crave them. They feed us. The make us. They obliterate us. In this part of Patagonia we find the earth making itself.
Now for our purpose. Metaphorically, we are seeking our Eden. We have sought a valley that will be nameless in this piece. I don’t keep it nameless because it is obscure, or because I own its story. Indeed, in 2015 an estimated 15,000 people visited the valley. It was promoted nationally as a unique and proud Chilean patrimony. It has been on the front pages of magazines. It is in the Lonely Planet. You may know this valley. I choose to keep it nameless both because it wouldn’t necessarily benefit from me naming it and because this kind of place in this particular story is more allegoric than specific.
Regardless, this valley is becoming “discovered”. At least part of the idea in us going there is to be there before it gets “more discovered.” Before the cars, and trams. Before the soda stands. As a rock climber I journeyed here in 2007. Perhaps for me, that was my Eden, and the place has since fallen from grace. Or we humans that inhabit it have fallen from grace. Or both. Now with our family I aim to see what 12 years have done with the place. When I came there in 2007, I am certain that I was responsible for trampling someone else’s Eden and now as I return I wonder who has trampled mine. Speculators? Investors? Philanthropists? (More) climbers? (Mere) tourists? All the foreigners, like me?
Landscape discovery is still and has always been a farce. It is of deep concern for issues of historical justice. Some questions are begged – who discovered this place and at what cost and to whom? And how many people were removed in order for them to discover it? Who were they? Who are their children? Were they simply asked to leave? Kindly? Forcefully? It was most likely tragic, and possibly violent. Was it genocide?
Did they implant themselves permanently in the names? Such a heavy burden to bear – that of giving names.
Or maybe the discoverers erased the previous discoverers from the pages when they wrote about the place? Authors of history hold boundless power. These discoveries survive in the stories we choose to tell, as in the story of the selva valdiviana.
What we discover in landscapes is what we hope to discover in ourselves. The stories that we tell about a place are the stories that we project onto them. The uniqueness that we find is impossible to separate from the uniqueness that we crave. How we write about landscapes and what we choose to advocate for with those landscapes is often as much of a projection of ourselves as anything inherent in them.
Now this valley, which shall not be named, was “discovered” from our current narrative around 20 years ago. At that time there were ranchers here. 15 years ago tourists started to come here. Rock climbers may be considered some of the earlier discoverers of the place. 200 years ago Mapuche most definitely lived here. Pedro de Valdivia never made it here. I don’t know where the name of the valley came from. It did not from a Beach Boys song – that was “Kokomo”, an island, but this valley is actually, well, it sounds similar . . . err, maybe I just gave too much away, but it does almost sounds like “Kokomo”. I’ll leave it at that. Perhaps my Patagonian comrades can once again enlighten me to some autochthonous wisdom that I have not yet accesses.
This place is unique. Unique in the most awesome sense of the word. And awesome in the most literal sense of that word. I mean unique in the way that unique is a unique word. In a way that it can’t be qualified with more, or less, or somewhat. It is not very unique. It is unique, which is a word that rejects qualifiers. I mean that there is nothing like it. Here the uniqueness is found in titanic chunks of immaculate and blinding granite, sylvan estancias, millennial Alerce trees, natural water-slides, verdant rainforest, placid blue swimming holes, and of course those chunks of immaculate granite feature long and stellar climbing for the vertically inclined. We are traveling here largely because of this unique time in our lives and in the history of this place. We tell ourselves, and it may be an apt metaphor, that we are traveling to Yosemite in 1890 – yet, we acknowledge in making this comparison that we cheapen the uniqueness.
We are going to a place that will be forever changed. Soon. We want to see it now, before it is adulterated, before it is . . . well, before it is anything other than how it is now. Now it is pure. Now it is unique. This is our Eden. We are romantics. I can, for now, suspend the belief that it was more unique or more pure 12 years ago. And before that?
For our families simply arriving here could be considered an expedition. We have pooled resources and, ultimately, find ourselves as a team of three Colorado families plodding our way up the trail. I remembered and had read that the trail was 10 kilometers. Then I read on a blog that it was 12km, but when we started hiking the sign puts it definitively at 13 kilometers. Fortunately we had all day to hike the 8 miles, and this provides just enough time.
Forecast is important in Chile’s Region de Los Lagos and ours is inclement at best. This region is known for biblical rains and insect infestations. During my times in this region in 2004 and 2007, all I can say is that I had visible mushrooms growing out of my, well, everything. Visiting in late February and early March hedges our bets for the former (rains) and against the latter (insects). Tabanos are big, fat, round, orange-striped, clumsy horseflies, which make it nearly impossible to be comfortable during daylight hours when they are around in January. They mostly leave by early February, and the rains mostly appear in March. So our window is rationally planned but low pressure persists.
Moisture in the selva valdiviana can be in the bucket form, or in the misty form. In the form that makes you wet, or the one that keeps you damp. It can be in the air or it can fall from above. It can be all of these at the same time. It can splash your chin from below with each muddy step. It is rarely absent. In the rainforest itself, however, rain does not often fall to the floor until the canopy is saturated. February has been mild, and as we begin to hike in a low pressure, low precipitation forecast, this serves us well. Rain continues most of the day, but as we are in the forest very little precipitation actually falls.
We are prepared for a flood, with ponchos and umbrellas, purchased in Puerto Varas’ abomination of Chile’s commitment to free trade that is manifest as SuperChina. A box store packed with plastic and glitter, gimmicks and gadgets, things that shine and things that ping. Things of modernity. Things of oil. SuperChina is packed but those things that occupy this unique space and time in colliding human confusion. We buy umbrellas with cats and clouds, ponchos, and a watch battery.
The flood does not come today, but we trod backwards toward Eden with as much Old Testament preparation as we can muster.
Part II in progress