By Dana De Greff
48 kilometers, 4 days, 15 wildlife enthusiasts/Chilean guides and one English Teacher. The goal? Participate in part two of Conservacion Patagonica’s local guide training course, and the unofficial inauguration of the Jeinimeni/Avilés trail system.
Before we set out, we pick up the men (and one woman) in the town of Cochrane, Conservación Patagonica’s (CP) closest neighbor. Since CP purchased Estancia Valle Chacabuco in 2004, Cochrane has played an important part in CP’s overall mission of community engagement. Most of the participants on the hike are guides or guides-in-training, interested in building regional tourism and protecting and restoring wild lands and wildlife.
CP has invited them to join the hike so that they can prepare to guide visitors on this and other trails in the future park. While background and guiding experiences vary widely, all hope to play a role in the growth of ecotourism in the park and throughout Chile. Myself? I’m an English teacher and writer, lucky enough to have landed a gig working in the future Patagonia Park. Part of the idea of opening a flagship park to Chileans and international tourists is to have bilingual employees and staff, and to demonstrate that communication is one key element to future success. When I’m not in school or adult classes, I explore as much as I can of my new home.
No matter how you travel in Patagonia—bus, horse, bike, kayak, your own two feet—stunning sights are a guarantee. En route to Chile Chico, we pass the sparkling blue expanse of Lago General Carrera, lush hills, saucer-shaped lakes and la cascada maqui, (maqui waterfall) named after a local sweet purple/black berry.
In the small but quaint town of Chile Chico we’re joined by two more Chileans then it’s off to the Jeinimeni National Reserve, now run by CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal) and destined to form part of the future Patagonia National Park. Once inside the reserve we divide up our food rations, discuss the next day’s hike, and set up camp. Before cooking dinner, we gather around the fire to prepare mate.
Post-dinner, we roast marshmallows and pass around a bote of red wine. We’re an eclectic bunch: students, teachers, workers for CP and CONAF, and soon the conversation turns to the present and future of national parks in Chile. Everyone is critical of what needs to be improved within the system but they also hold an extraordinary appreciation for the land and want both Chileans and gringos alike to enjoy it for generations to come. Not that different from the overall mission of CP.
Officially on the road, it only takes five minutes to experience our first wow moment: Lago Jeinimeni.
The shore is covered in sand, pink, turquoise and purple-colored rocks, the mountains topped with snow. Way, way in the distance we spy a cluster of glaciers tinted celestial blue, a promise of more beauty to come. Our total walking distance for the day? 23km. Our destination? Puesto Límite, smack dab between the Jeinimeni Reserve and the Patagonia Park limits. All in all, the distance isn’t overwhelming; it’s the multiple stream, estuary and river crossings that tire us out. The water comes up to our knees, our thighs, and sometimes our hips, and it’s pretty darn cold. Then again, it’s hard to complain with all that Jeinimeni has to offer. Take Lago Verde:
More of an intense blue/green color than strictly green, it sparkles under the sun and has everyone hypnotized as we stop to rest and snack.
Or Valle Hermoso, aptly named for its beauty.
Oh, and those glaciers:
Six hours later, we make our way through a thriving lenga forest (southern beech) and finish the day’s hike at the Puesto Límite. We settle down, place our socks and shoes by the fire, prepare mate and dinner and talk well into the night.
We’re officially in Patagonia Park, the former Estancia Valle Chacabuco. There aren’t too many river crossings; however, Mother Nature makes up for that with intermittent downpours. For much of the trek we weave through forests where the terrain is soft and spongy and rock covered trails. Throughout the day a thin mist hangs over the valley, lending a slightly gothic atmosphere to the route.
Around 4pm we arrive to our campsite, Puesto Pilchero. We’re greeted by trail builders Evaristo Jara, Camilo Oliveros and their pilcheros (pack horses). Without exception, this is the night we’ve been anxiously waiting for: a dinner of cordero al palo, or lamb roasted over an open fire. But before we feast the lamb must cook, and so a few of us decide to take a dip in the Avilés River.
Back at the fire, we assume our roles. Some prepare mate, some stoke the fire, and others cut tomatoes and dress lettuce with salt and lemon. When it’s time to eat, a few of us (myself included) whip out our knives and slice away the tender meat. The lamb in Patagonia, like the land, is hard to describe justly.
We give our thanks to the chefs and quickly fall into a satisfied and profound silence. This night is different than the rest, because as a group we’re closer. We have our jokes, our stories, and our nicknames. Around the fire, we lean against each other and huddle for warmth.
Our last day is one of sun and cool winds. We set out for the Pasarela Avilés, a footbridge completed in December 2012. The bridge hangs over a staggering drop to the Avilés River, bordered on either side by jagged rocks.
After crossing and posing for pictures, we move through the Avilés valley, a short but breathtaking 8 km to our final destination: Casa Piedra (the stone house) in Valle Chacabuco. Sunlight hits the tops of flat plains and hills and the Avilés river curls and bends in between. Today it’s challenging to keep walking forward; in any direction we turn our fingers itch for a camera. One of the highlights? The Cerro Pintura, ablaze in red and orange:
But at the end of the day, we have to keep moving. When we arrive to Casa Piedra, it’s bittersweet. We’ve officially completed our hike, have gotten to know the terrain in Jeinimeni and Valle Chacabuco, and each other as guides and friends. On the bus back to the estancia for lunch, the mood is remarkably different than the first day. We share our trail mix and juice, talk about the next trip that has to happen. At one point, I translate an Adele song into Spanish; soon after, a condor soars by.
As a writer, I do the best I can to avoid cliché phrases such as “awe-inspiring” and “life-changing.” But what if, in this case, those clichés are really what was felt? At least for my part, at the end of this experience, I feel more inspired than ever by Patagonia, by conservation, and by human connections. Hopefully, I’ll have the chance to make many more trips.