Kayak the waters of Chilean Patagonia.Boston Sunday GlobeBy Kristine Dailey (Globe Correspondent)
As we navigated our small flotilla of kayaks through the narrow channels of Chanques islands, I was surprised how familiar this faraway place seemed. Like Maine’s midcoast 100 years ago, I though, or southern Ireland. Indeed, the green rolling hills melting into rocky cliffs and then stony beaches stirred a strange and comforting sense of familiarity that I didn’t expect to find in Chilean Patagonia.
Many people have asked why I spent my vacation sea kayaking in and around the Andean fiords and the Chiloe archipelago in southern Chile. To be honest, it was one of those rushed (some would say hasty) decisions based on the Lonely Planet travel guide, and several faxes and phone calls to Santiago, Chile. Within a few days of stumbling across the area on the Web, I had booked with Altue Expediciones, a Santiago-based outfitter, for nine days of camping and kayaking in Chilean Patagonia. Hastily made or not, it was a great decision.
Support vessel in Andean fjords
A day and a half after arriving in Puerto Montt, I assembled, bright and early, along with the eight strangers with whom I was to spend the next 9 days. We were three Americans, two Chileans, a couple from Switzerland, and two people from England. I was happy to discover that, like me, several of my trip-mates were novice kayakers. Our guide, Francisco Valle, a 20-year veteran in the adenture travel bussiness, quickly stowed us, and our gear, in the waiting van.
We traveled south, via the Camino Austral, the famous road built by General Pinochet that traverses most of Chilean patagonia. The drive was breathtaking, with the narrow road flanked by the towering Andes and the ubiquitous Pacific. We passed directly to the west of the parque Nacional Alerce Andino, created in 1982 to protect some of the last remaining forest of alerce, an evergreen similar in appearance and longevity to the sequoia. I was constantly turning my head, marveling at the alerce and giant ferns – then wincing as I gazed from the van’s window directly down a cliff to wave-beaten rocks. At last we reached the small coastal village of Hornopiren, where our support boat, the María Inés III, its crew, and a nice lunch awaited. We boarded our kayaks after lunch.
Sea lions in Cahuelmo
By day three we were paddling in Cahuelmo Fiord, the second of the three fiords we toured. Seated in a kayak, a person feels very small in these fiords. There is no shore along these waterways; the mountains plunge straight into the sea. And the mountains are blanketed by forests filled with venerable trees such as the coigue, canelo, tineo, and the noble alerce. These forests are virtually impassable.
The area is magical and essentially uninhabited. Much of the land surrounding Cahuelmo Fiord is owned by an American, Douglas Tompkins, founder of the outdoor gear company North Face. He bought the land years ago to preserve its pristine beauty. So far, he is succeeding.
Cahuelmo Hot Spring
The day ended like many others - with a long soak in a natural hot spring. The scalding mineral-rich water of Cahuelmo hot springs trickles across volcanic rock out of which the natives carved individual “tubs” hundreds of years ago. We indulged ourselves, wearing bikinis, trunks, and cut-offs, laughing and talking through the steam.
We were six days in the majestic fiords, kayaking and hiking in and around the ancient forests, enjoying the natural hot springs and paddling with sea lions and dolphins. On the sixth day we navigated west, away from the continent and the snow capped Andes, across the Gulf of Ancud, to Chiloe Province, and archipelago that many consider Chile’s greatest repository of traditional culture and folklore.
We arrived at the westernmost islands with plenty of light, pitched our tents, and communed around a campfire under the Southern Cross.
With dawn came the realization that the crossing had transported us to another world. Here the power and severity of the fiords give way to an inviting, undulating landscape of hills, stony beaches, and sandy peninsulas. To a New Englander, this place is oddly familiar.
We navigated our kayaks through the strong currents, making our way slowly westward into the archipelago. Along the way, the sound of wind and waves was interrupted often by the sounds of birds – there are 110 species in the area - and occasionally by the barks of sea lions. We stopped briefly to visit one of the 150 small wooden churches found throughout thisregion. The churches, which are emblematic of Chiloe, have been painstakingly hand constructed over the past 200 years.
Mechuque village Chiloe
Our final day of paddling brought us to the picturesque island of Mechuque. We paddled into the protected harbor to find rows of houses called palafitos, built on stilts over the water so boats can anchor at the back door. This type of construction is found throughout Chiloe. Here and on the other islands, the houses are built of wooden shingles painted in bright colors, which lends a distinctively northern European feeling to the villages.
On Mechuque Island, our Chilean guides were met by the affable Chilotes with hearty backlaps and bottles of Pisco, a powerful grape-based distilled spirit produced in Chile’s northern vineyards. Pisco runs a close second to the country’s famous wine as beverage of choice. Some say Pisco served with sour mix rivals the Mexican margarita.
Weary from roughing it for eight days, we were happy to be shown our room in a local guest house, equipped with running water. We showered and rested up for the much-heralded dinner and fiesta we were to enjoy on our last night together. By now we were familiar with the full range of delicacies from the rich Pacific waters. Throughout the trip we had enjoyed salmon, sea bass, see eel, abalone, and mussels, all fresh from the sea. But even after eight days of enjoying the Pacific’s rich bounty, we enjoyed the first taste of Chiloe’s native dish.
The curanto is a mouthwatering combination of fish, shellfish,chicken, pork, lamb, and potato in a hearty stew. First, ordinary rocks are heated in the oven. When the rocks are red hot, they are placed in a dirty hole. Its is normally served with a fresh salad, lemon juice, and wine Pisco. Curanto is simply wonderful.
We ended our final night laughing, singing, and dancing with the Chilotes and our crew. It was a fantastic voyage, filled with breathtaking landscapes and rich in culture – the kind of trip that you can’t plan.