culture

The North Stretch

One of the most incredible parts of a journey like this is how present it keeps us. Being constantly captivated by all of the new sights, sounds and experiences holds our focus on the current moment; leaving little time to dwell on the past or future. Therefore, each day is a new adventure full of unforgettable moments. Weeks can seem like ages. None of us can believe all that’s happened in just the last week or two through sections 5 and 6! The last two sections have been an expedition all their own. 

After finishing section 7 we took a bus back to the nearest town of Lonquimay to resupply, repair some gear, and wait out the impending weather that had been forecasted. This was a very fortunate decision as the precipitation that was predicted ended up being an intense storm. We waited out the worst of it, thankfully watching the battering winds and rain from indoors. We made our way back to the trail once things had calmed, apprehensively looking out the bus windows to the freshly snow covered mountains we’d soon be climbing.

We arrived at the southern end of section 6 in the late afternoon and made our way to a refugio (hiker’s shelter) where the road ended nearby. The refugio turned out to be adjacent to the homestead of another lovely family of settlers who, in typical Chilean fashion, invited us to come warm up inside by the fire and share matè and fresh tortilla (traditional bread cooked beneath the ash of the fire). It wasn’t until we began to set up our tents for the night that Anthony found that his inflatable sleeping pad had got a large gash sliced into it from something on the bus ride. The small patch-kit didn’t seem to be performing well, which meant we might have a big problem. A good sleeping pad would be essential to insulate from the cold while camping much higher in the snowy mountains the following nights. The kind family attempted to help, offering patch materials they had, and even insisting that Anthony borrow one of their sleeping pads for the night.

The last of the poor weather was taking its time to move out which prompted us to spend the following day at the ranch, waiting for things to clear up before we attempted the mountain pass that lay ahead. Anthony was able to use that day to try some alternative patching options, which succeeded as a temporary fix. We sat by the fire and listened to stories from Elsa, the 80-year-old aunt who lived with the couple, Dante, Delgodina and their son Angel as the rain pattered on the tin roof. We were, of course, invited to partake in another asado as Dante and Angel took a goat and prepared it outside before we could even attempt to politely decline. We accepted the honorable meal. Garrett’s stomach couldn’t handle any more meat, so we discretely snuck his meat over to the rest of us, who gladly received the delicious extra helpings.

The next morning, we thanked our hosts, who insisted on sending us off with plenty of bread, and continued toward the mountains. We had been advised by Jan (the creator of the trail) to take an alternate route to reach the mountain pass, as the main trail was badly eroded in that area. This diversion had some surprises of it’s own in store for us though. We set out to cover about 15 km. that day and camp on the other side of the pass. However, we ended up making about half of that distance, and camping beneath the mountain we had yet to pass. The route we took had also been eroded. We reached seemingly impassable, steep slopes made of nothing but scree that had us sliding back two steps for every one we took. A pretty serious fall by Garrett had us slowing down to find the safest route as we pushed on. We lowered packs and ourselves down steep gravel and rock faces with para-cord (the only ropes we have). It was clear we weren’t going to make the mountain pass that day. We made an impromptu camp at the rocky base of the mountain.

We finally made our way up the steep snowy slope the next morning. Occasionally a soft section of snow would have us post-holing through up to our thighs. Although the view at the top was so much more than worth it! “It’s not every day that you see a smoking volcano!” From the top we had views of the incredible (active) Copahue Volcano and all that still lay ahead of us in the sections. Fueled with this enthusiasm, we made it early the next day to one of the places we’d been looking forward to most; the home of legendary Juan Carrileo.

We had been informed of how knowledgeable and kind Juan and his family were, yet they surely exceeded all our expectations! We arrived at their summer homestead along the Rio Chaquilvin to be greeted by Juan’s wife Elena. As soon as we introduced ourselves she invited us in and began to slice an endless mountain of bread for us. We got to know her and their youngest son, Gabriel, while Juan and his other son Leo were out herding the animals. Gabriel went out fishing while we had tea with Elena, who then fried the trout up for us for lunch with freshly made salsa. The generosity of the people out there in the campo (countryside) had us all reflecting on the customs of our own homelands. How differently do we interact with a stranger passing by back in Europe or the U.S.? Just one of the many things the Carrileo family had to teach us.

Juan and Leo returned on horseback with the herds of goat and sheep shortly before dusk. Without taking a moment to rest after working all day, Juan then proceeded to slaughter and prepare a goat outside in the dark for an asado with us! We of course couldn’t decline the honor. At least this time we mustered up the courage to tell them that the boys didn’t eat meat; a concept of confusion to Chilean ranchers. We ate by homemade candlelight and learned more about the area from the Kimche (a native word for wise man) who had lived there his whole life. We did an interview with Juan the next morning and nearly spit out our matè we found out he was over 70 years old! None of us could possibly conceive that he was any more than 50! His eyes, full of wisdom and compassion, are the only thing that gives up his age. No one would ever know that he’s worked that way for so many decades!

As soon as our interview and morning matè with Juan had concluded, he was suited up in chaps and spurs to head out for a day of work. We thanked all four of them for their unbelievable hospitality and again continued on our way, each with a loaf of fresh tortilla. We left with such full stomachs we weren’t sure that we’d even make it to the nearby hot springs that we were planning to camp by. Unfortunately, the hot springs ended up being a little more literally a ‘hot spring’ and not the natural pools we’d imagined soaking in. So we hiked the rest of the day to reach the end of the section at the small village of Guallali.

From Guallali it was only three days through section 5 to complete our Northbound part of the trip! The powerful winds there that night prevented us from getting much sleep, but that couldn’t deter us from keeping a good pace to get through our last ‘hiking only’ section of the trip. We got a helping hand from a local construction worker who gave us a lift up the road a few kilometers towards the Laguna El Barco. Even with the helpful ride, we arrived at the lake pretty exhausted. We relaxed at the campground on the lake that afternoon, gathering our energy for the next day, which would be the longest distance we’ve hiked in a day so far. Fortunately, the majority of the incline we had to ascend that day we crushed first thing in the morning.

For most of the rest of the day we covered ground quickly on the high plateau, surrounded by views of the massive, glaciated volcanoes like Copahue. The difficult part of that day didn’t end up being the long distance, it was the lack of water sources up on the plateau. We hiked nearly the whole day on just the water we started with that morning. Nothing can describe the feeling of finding fresh running streams when you’re low on water, hiking in the hot sun! It was a long steep decent down to the valley below. We reached the grassy fields and got a great night’s rest before pushing through the last day of pure hiking we’ll have on this expedition.

The section ended in the incredibly scenic village of Trapa Trapa. The next day we took one of the most terrifying bus rides of our lives along the cliff edge roads, from Trapa Trapa to the town of Alto Bio Bio. We’ve now just completed interviews with native Pehuenche elders and youth alike that have left us speechless. The knowledge that the people of Alto Bio Bio had to share with us was immeasurable. It was truly the most remarkable end to our time in this region that we could have asked for!

We’re now headed back South to finally make our way into the “official” boundaries of Patagonia. We’re all insanely excited to get into Patagonia and do some more pack rafting! Stay tuned for all to come from our navigations of the Patagonian rivers and lakes! 

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!