Sunday, April 1, 2007

Puerto Chacabuco – On the Chilean Frontier!

We were warned in advance that Puerto Chacabuco was “remote, unspoiled and underdeveloped” and that the “tourism infrastructure…is extremely primitive.” Those sources weren’t kidding…and on top of this, the weather was chilly, rainy and downright miserable! None of this interfered, however, with enjoying some wild and dramatically beautiful Aysen countryside.

We chose the tour that many on the Crown selected – a five to six hour drive into the Simpson Valley with a stop in Coyhaique, the capital of the Aysen Region, in the heart of Patagonia. We were piled into bus #2 of about five leased by NCL for its passengers. Because of the “primitive tourism infrastructure” in the part of Chile, the buses along with all of the tour guides - college students who earn summer money and practice their English - had to be “bussed in” from a town almost 200 miles away! NCL had to reach that far because Puerto Chacabuco consists only of a main street, a fish processing plant, a pier and clusters of very poor homes.

The hour plus drive to Coyhaique (no metropolis but a far cry from Chacabuco!) occurred in driving rain, making observation of the scenery difficult. Sightseeing was even more challenging because many of our older companions demanded that the driver maintain high heat in the bus, far higher than was comfortable for me (what with sweater and rain gear). That, in turn, caused the windows to fog and for us to be constantly wiping with tissue. Despite these annoyances, one couldn’t avoid an overwhelming impression of the rugged natural beauty as we made our way through the valley, tracing the rushing river on our right, sometimes separating from it as we climbed over mountains before dropping down until we almost touched the winding water.

By the time we reached Coyhaique the rain had subsided to a drizzle, allowing us to walk around the town. An interesting stop was a park-like street divider that featured a multi-figure statuary. Constructed of an unknown white rock, the statues were several sheep, a sheepherder grasping a staff and leaning into the wind, accompanied by his dog. This tribute to those who helped tame the land we found repeated in other locations.

Our next stop, the Regional Museum of Patagonia, caused me for the first time in years to think about the Reading Museum, my home town repository of artifacts. Housed in a attractive museum-like building, the Reading Museum was (and still is) set in a lovely park along the Wyomissing Creek. While most of the Museum’s collection reflected Berks County and Central Pennsylvania, it had significant materials from beyond the local area and it regularly hosted traveling exhibitions of some note. As a kid, I always enjoyed trips to the Reading Museum. But after visiting great museums around the US and abroad, I realized it was a very good local museum with a limited range of exhibits. In comparison, however, to the Coyhaique Museum of Patagonia, the museum I grew up with was the equivalent of the New York Museum of Art!

The Regional Museum occupied the first floor of a modest home on the corner of one of the town’s few major streets. It did not appear that a trained professional had prepared the Museum’s strange collection of exhibits that included poorly preserved photos of early settlers and leading citizens, clothing from earlier eras draped on badly chipped mannequins, an odd looking contraption that turned out to be the town’s first computer and a few scruffy stuffed birds, including a Condor that seemed quite out of place. This sad cultural experience sharpened my appreciation of the breadth of our opportunities in contrast to the limitations of so many other people, including those in this part of Chile.

Many the cruise passengers who pushed into the tight Museum space clearly were more interested in getting out of the rain and lining up for the tiny restrooms than in learning anything about the area. They were very keen, however, to get to the next attraction – the handicraft market! Once again, we walked through quickly and headed to the main plaza and park, another lovely space with well-maintained walkways, trees and fountain. Nearby we found a large bronze statue of a naked native woman nursing an infant. We dubbed her “Pachamama,” the Earth Mother of Peruvian Inka fame. You can see a photo of Barbara with “Pachamama” in the collection below.

Back in the bus, we twisted along the road we followed into the Simpson Valley, passing again a stunning waterfall that tumbled from a considerable height to crash right next to the road, its spume merging with the steady rain that blurred our view. We also got a better shot of a trio of modern windmills, the only ones operating in Chile we were told, that provide electricity for Coyhaique. We ended this portion of the journey in a parking lot where we exited to the sound of the rushing Simpson River. Our young guide led us on a dripping walk along the river bank, pointing out beautiful patches of wildflowers and small chipmunk-like animals. Given the weather, it delighted most of us on the excursion that the stroll was shortened to less than a mile, ending at a restaurant set in a garden filled with gorgeous blue and white hydrangeas and other flowers that fairly glistened in the rain.

The restaurant didn’t have the usual square and round tables set about the large fireplace that dominated the center of the room. Instead there were two or three long tables on either side of the entrance and a handful of chairs set against each wall. As a busload of passengers straggled in out of the rain, the group was directed to a specific table, each one covered with plates of delicious tapas – vegetables, fruit, salad, chicken, beef, lamb, seafood, desserts and drinks (wine and Pisco sours). Our colleagues from Bus #2 descended on the food like a swarm of locusts, bellying up to the table, standing two or three deep in front of the juiciest treats and twisting to reach over others to grab food by the fistful. They only turned away from Table #2 when the staff began hand serving kabobs and other delicacies, at which point they crowded around each server until the carried tray was empty. Take a look at the decimated table in the photo we posted to get a sense of how rapacious was our crowd. To say the least, lunch was a unique experience!

Our student guide called us back to the bus only when she determined that our group was sated (the gang from Bus #2 wasn’t the last one to arrive at the restaurant but it was the last group to leave!). Because only a single road runs along the valley, the return trip was the same as our outbound ride, with a few noted differences. First, the rain slowed so our view of the countryside was far better. Second, all of us conformed to typical small group conduct and returned to the same seats we occupied earlier so we were on the opposite side of the road and thus treated to a different perspective. Third, the combination of full tummies and the warm humid air on board the bus caused most of our fellow passengers to fall asleep almost as soon as we pulled away from the restaurant; as a result, the constant chatter of the morning ride was replaced by a steady soft snore.

After a 45-minute journey, it was satisfied group from Bus #2 that lined up in the light rain to check back aboard the Crown. Even the weather failed to dampen the enjoyment most of us experienced traveling through a wet, windy and wild portion of Chilean Patagonia!