By Paola Fornari
Castro is the shabby, colorful capital of Chiloe, two thirds of the way to the southern tip of Chile. My niece Diana and I take three days to get here by bus from Montevideo in Uruguay.
On the journey we play many games of scrabble, solve dozens of sudokus, read Chatwin and Greene, roll through pampas, pampas and more pampas the whole breadth of South America, and cross the Andes.
Chiloe is a fertile archipelago. The Chilote are an independent island people. They fish and farm, and live in shingled houses. Chiloe boasts an array of wooden churches, many over two hundred years old, which are UNESCO world heritage sites.
Early on our first morning, Diana and I take a bus to the Parque National Chiloe. Anna, a young Russian girl we met at our bed and breakfast, joins us. It’s early spring, raining and cold.
A Soggy Hamlet
The bus takes us twenty-five kilometers south on a smooth tar road, then twenty-five more west, on a pot-holed dirt track lined with dazzling whin and broom. The small bus is full: mostly indigenous Chileans, and five tourists.
After two hours, having dropped off all the locals, we arrive in the bleak, soggy hamlet of Cucao, and stop outside a sign reading “Parador Darwin.”
A chalkboard advertises the day’s menu: goulash, schnitzel and strudel. Another sign says “Zimmer.” Above it lies a large splayed weather-beaten ragdoll.
The driver offers to book us in there for lunch. Our companions head towards the entrance to the National Park. A sign near an abandoned wooden house says: “Horses for Rent”. We decide to seek out some horses and a guide.
We are directed across a marsh to a small house where Nelson, a handsome, quiet gaucho type, tells us he has three horses and needs to borrow a fourth.
“My Horses Know the Rules”
Having negotiated a deal we are invited us to wait in his tiny, dark, damp living-room, crammed with knick knacks and old sofas with crocheted antimacassars. On a wall among several calendars are two framed primary school certificates dated 1968.
After a few minutes Nelson returns, having failed in his quest.
He quizzes us on our equestrian experience. Diana has ridden a horse seven times in her thirty-four years. I had six lessons as a child and have ridden a couple of old nags in Uruguay. Anna says: “I can ride.”
“My horses know the routes,” he tells us. “I lead you on foot to the beach and leave you there. They walk to the end of the beach and then come back home on the inland route. You are quite safe.”
We agree on a discount since we are one horse short. Nelson gives Diana Chispa, who hardly sparkles like her name. I get Feo, and wonder why this beautiful beast is called “Ugly,” and Anna gets a pure white beauty misnamed Moro, who immediately proves to be friskier than the others.
The Icy Pacific
Nelson, accompanied by a stray black Labrador and his mongrel, leads us through the deserted village, down a path through whin-covered dunes.
The icy Pacific wind hits us as we get our first glimpse of the ocean. The sky has cleared to cobalt with splashes of foamy white clouds.
Closer to the salty spray, the whine is replaced by low bushes with giant prehistoric-looking leaves. Nelson tells us it’s nalca, an edible plant.
We stop at a gate, and as Nelson is opening it, Moro starts trotting back the way we came, Anna tugging at the reins and yelling in Russian. Nelson sprints after her. My Feo decides to follow. Chispa chomps at the dinosaur grass.
Eventually Nelson manages to regroup us, and opens the gate. “I leave you now.”
Moro is once again champing at the bit, eager to reach the ocean.
“No way,” I whimper. “You come with us.”
A Circular Tap Dance
So Nelson leaps up onto my saddle, behind me. Feo does a circular tap dance, and I slide off the saddle. Nelson seems to think it would be improper to touch me.
“Help!” I scream, and at last he mellows, hauls me up again, holds me in place, and horses, dogs and humans head towards the ocean.
I feel safe enveloped in the gaucho’s muscular arms.
We ride through swamps, fiercely guarded by screeching southern lapwings, and reaching the beach Moro canters off, ignoring Anna’s Russian commands.
Nelson slides off Feo, legs it after them, and manages to catch up. Anna is shaken and decides to walk.
The two-kilometer beach is stunning: sparkling with giant cockle and mussel shells, dunes on our right, hills far ahead, white foam and spray to our left. Oyster catchers stitch the shoreline.
Eventually Anna mounts again, Nelson behind her.
He tells us about the indigenous people, the Huilliche. They had lived on the land for generations, but had no title. The Pinochet government created the National Park and expelled them into a corner of the island, but after the dictatorship, the National Park boundaries were moved, and they got some land.
“They live over there,” he says, pointing to the hills beyond the end of the beach. “It’s a day’s walk.”
“Do you people get on with them?” I ask.
“Oh yes. Sometimes there is intermarriage. But remember, they were here before us. This is their land. We respect them.”
The 1960 Tsunami
Nelson tells us about the 1960 tsunami. Although the earthquake which caused it measured 9.5 on the Richter scale and killed two thousand people, Chiloe suffered few casualties, because people were warned and moved to higher land.
One victim was a gold-panner called Abraham Lincoln.
The geography of the coastline was transformed, as Lake Cucao was flooded and joined up with the sea. Farms and fields were washed away, and replaced by dunes. Freshwater lakes in the area are now salt lakes.
After an hour on the beach we head back towards Cucao through the dunes.
“We’ve booked lunch at the Darwin. What’s it like?”
“Well, if you want German food… but I’d recommend Rosa’s place, just across the field from my house.”
It has clouded over. Heavy dreadlocked clouds hang low in the sky, and a cold drizzle is falling. At Nelson’s, we slide off our horses, hug him good-bye, and trek across the mud to Rosa’s little wooden shack. It’s after two o’clock and we’re cold and hungry.
Pisco Hits the Spot
A large, jolly, aproned woman welcomes us.
“Toilet, please,” I say.
“Food.” That’s Diana.
Anna has been singing the praises of the strong, clear local brandy all morning. She’s right. Served with a fizzy mixer, it hits the spot.
Rosa offers us seafood empanadas – exquisitely delicate patties. Then there’s a cazuela – a deliciously warming casserole of lamb with seaweed. We guzzle down two huge helpings each. Rosa’s bill comes to $3.00 each.
Back to Castro
The meal has warmed us up, and we wait in the rain for the bus, which arrives an hour late. We greet our traveller friends from the morning.
As we pass the Darwin, under the ragdoll, a blonde, heavily made-up, scantily clad, middle-aged woman waves at us. She doesn’t look perturbed about having missed out on our custom.
Blurred by iodine and pisco, we sleep soundly all the way back to Castro.
Getting to Chiloe:
There are frequent buses from Puerto Montt to Castro. The journey includes a twenty-minute ferry ride and takes about three hours.
There are direct flights to Puerto Montt from Santiago with Lanchile.
The bus ride from Santiago with Cruz del Sur takes seventeen hours.
We stayed at the Hospedaje Corchito in Castro, paying $7.00 per night – breakfast not included. They have a small but comfortable upstairs lounge where guests can hang out and play cards or read.
Ramirez 251 y Ramirez 240
Tel/Fax Castro 632806
Paola Fornari is a writer, EFL teacher, teacher trainer, and translator. She was born in Tanzania, and has lived in a dozen countries over three continents. She describes herself as an ‘expatriate sin patria.’ She currently lives in Uruguay.