Cultural Immersion

We have made our return to the Northern sections of the trail! Completing section 7 marks the middle of our detour against the grain (headed Northbound for now). After completing some sections further South while we waited for the forest fires to retreat and the National Parks to re-open in these regions, we took another series of long bus rides up to the small border town of Liucura. Our hike through the mountains that divide Chile and Argentina began with a stay in the Cajon Pehuenco. Tucked in this valley is a native Mapuche family of ranchers that we will never forget.

The summer homestead of Maximiliano Lagos sits at the Northernmost corner of the Pehuenco valley. We were lucky to find a ride from a kind local most of the way up the valley to the ranch. We arrived with hopes of speaking to Señor Lagos, who is the newly appointed “Lonko” (head representative/president) of the surrounding Mapuche community. However, when we arrived, we were greeted by two young men that informed us that Maximilano had left for town the day prior. Daniel (15 years old) and Maximiliano Jr. (aka Maxi, 18 years old) are, the Lonko’s cousin and son. They invited us to stay and wait for Señor Lagos’ return. Little did we know that these two would have so much to teach and share with us.

We spent our first two days there speaking with the boys, and watching in awe of their maturity, generosity and hard work, as they performed the daily tasks of keeping things running on the ranch. They shared with us copious amounts of sopaipillas (delicious fried dough) as we exchanged stories, until it was time for them to find the horses and herd the sheep in for the night. The responsibility and extreme hospitality that they exemplified was unbelievable, and had us all reflecting on the contrast between most 15-18 year olds we knew back home.

On our third day at the ranch we awoke to finally meet Maximiliano who had arrived late the night before. It was clear right away where the two young men had learned such admirable virtues. Maximilano treated us as honored guests from the beginning, insisting on sharing with us all of the goodies he’d stocked up on in town. The seven of us shared hot sandwiches for breakfast in the small, cozy cabin. Maximilano was a wealth of information on the area. Although, before we could even ask him to do an interview to share some of this knowledge, he was out preparing an asado (traditional barbeque around the fire) to share with us. We’d planned to leave early that afternoon, in attempts to keep the schedule we’d set for the section, but there was no way we could turn down such an experience! The only thing was, that staying for the asado meant we’d have to witness our lunch go from running around the countryside, to roasting on the fire.

Witnessing the slaughter of the sheep was quite an experience, to say the least. Most of us had never watched something like that before. Three of us hardly even eat meat at all, but we were immensely grateful for the display of generosity. It was something we’ll all surely remember. We were all in disbelief at how fast the whole thing was over. Maximilano’s skillful hands had the meat roasting over the fire within minutes. It was yet another moment on the ranch that had us reflecting on how differently things are done where we come from. The process was a natural part of the life here. Nothing was wasted. Every part of the animal was used; The dogs received the innards, the hide was dried to be used as tack for riding, and the fat was saved to be used to fry sopaipillas.

As the meat cooked, other gauchos stopped by to receive supplies that Maximiliano had brought back from town. Since Lonko Maximiliano is one of the few people with a car in this remote area, he supplies other settlers in the surrounding hills with provisions that they’d have to travel for days by horse or foot to retrieve. He generously offered each “neighbor” to join us for the asado, yet most declined, and went about their way. As we finished preparing the exquisite meal, we were joined by a young man who had passed by while out searching for another nearby settler. Of course Maximiliano insisted that the stranger stay to feast with us. We were served all of the best cuts of the delicious meat and were not able to give no as an answer as our host piled more onto our plates with every bite we took.

The smorgasbord was followed by invitations for us to explore and learn about the surroundings with Maxi, Daniel, and Maximiliano. Robyn went by horseback to find the sheep with Maxi Jr. while Anthony climbed up the mountain with Maximiliano and Daniel to round up the goats high up on the cliffs above. Maximiliano shared knowledge of where to find wild edibles and medicinal herbs along the way. Garrett and Aljoscha stayed at the ranch to set up for our interviews and capture footage of the remarkable landscape. We finished the day with a few rounds of Durak (our new favorite card game, that we taught to Daniel and Maxi). We retired to our individual sleeping pads that night all in agreement that it was one of the best days on the trip so far.  

The following morning, we fueled up on more freshly fried sopaipillas before completing our long anticipated interview with the Lonko of Cajon Pehuenco. We were treated to one last striking experience as our three hosts began to wrangle and castrate goats before the four of us had even finished breakfast. It was just another example of the seemingly boundless energy and strong work ethic that the three of them exhibited. Traits that we’d learned were necessary to live out there in the “campo” (countryside).

We said our “hasta luegos” and began our hike out of the valley, full of new wisdom and inspiration of what we’ll be sharing with the world through this project. We pushed ourselves for the following three days and made it to the end of the section just before a storm moved into the area. We passed through more pristine lakes, forests and volcanic geology as we spoke with ranchers and natives along the way. Our timing was perfect and we’re now waiting out the poor weather and resupplying in a small town before heading back to the mountains to complete sections 6 and 5 (where we hope to finally encounter our long awaited hotsprings!).

We appreciate you taking the time to read our journal, follow our adventure and support this project. Stay tuned for another post in just over a week that will recap our journey along the next two sections!