Friday, October 21, 2011

I think I found heaven, the locals call it Valle Chacabuo

Before I begin, there will most likely be a series of blog entries from my time volunteering in Patagonia. As you can imagine my connection to the internet intermitten and spotty at best. I tried my best to take notes, mental pictures and actual pictures to capture what I had have been so fortunate to see and experience and will try to relay that here. This first entry is mostly my first impression of everything here in the region, the estancia and before the actual work had kicked in. I will have to post pictures when I get back to a city, so, do your best to imagine what wonderful looks like.

My trip to heaven was straightforward all things considered. Fly from Arica to Santiago with a stop in Antofagasta. Fly from Santiago to Balmaceda with a stop in Puerto Mont. Take a bus from Balmaceda to Coyhaique and stay the night there. This is the driveway to the gates, and the scenery gives hints of the beauty to come. Take another bus for about 6-7 hours to a crossing, Cruce Baker, in the middle of a
underused highway. To the right is Rio Cochrane with it's jewel-toned turquoise water fed since this land was formed by pure glacier water. To the left is a bumpy, windy dirt road, snaking it's way through thigh-high tufts of golden colored grass blanketing what seems like endless ridges. They have to end...because all around this
valley are perfect snow-capped mountains. You drive through them the whole way here, and in their valley's they hide pools of water as clear and still as glass or fields of grass that from the distance look soft like moss.

I never found the pearly gates, but in their place was weathered wood posts turned gray from years of exposure to wind, rain and snow. A thin wire held the posts together. Quaint, I thought. It's like walking back in time to a world of cowboys. These fences, I would soon discover, had no place in this heaven, and my job would be to remove them.

I think I met Peter, but the locals call him Luigi. He came barreling down the road in a Nissan truck, that I believe was painted green, but had been polished over with a thick coat of Patagonian mud. I threw my
backpack into the bed of the truck along with my fellow travelers, and climbed into the cab. Even the clouds look fake, puffy balls of white like you'd see in a toddlers drawing of the sky; and the blue in which
those clouds hung was a gradient from powder blue in the horizon to a deep cobalt overhead. Gripping tight to the handle of the truck I got my first glimpses of my new home. Those golden grass covered ridges
are the feeding grounds for herds of Guanacos. I would get to know them better too, and become familiar with their lazy walk around the Estancia and their odd, synthesized sounding neigh.

The end of the drive was base camp. A flat grassy field with windbreaks to pitch a tent behind.  A community tent, known as the carpa verde and a bank of rooms housing toilets, showers and sinks. "Lujo" I was Yeah, this ain't half-bad. There's a casino here too, or at least that's what we call the cafeteria, and I woud soon learn that after days in the backcountry coming back to a heated room with prepared hot meals is like winning the jackpot.

We met Lilly, she was waiting for us at the carpa verde. She is the intern here assigned to the volunteer group and she would be our guide out in the field working side by side with us. All we had to do that night was set up our tents, get some dinner in the casino, and make small talk in the carpa with our new group. We´d be spending a lot of time together, must just well become friends. We were a small group, only 6 plus Lilly, eventually the number would swell to 10, but for now this was it. There was me, who would soon become the estacia´s resident yoga instructor, Annie the light-hearted pastry chef\patagonia store manager from the bay area, Jaime, the park ranger from Joshua Tree, Andy the trained architect turned ski bum from Vail, Liz the recent grad school grad from St. Louis and Marie Pierre the french roofer. We made quite the team...those fences weren´t going to stand a chance with us, a pair of decent wire clippers and an endless supply of cookies.

We arrived on a Friday and would have all of Saturday to explore the area around the estancia. We would start work on Sunday morning. In that time I saw a variety of birds that I had never seen before, including one, who´s name I really should make it a point to learn, looked like a GIANT hummingbird. Seriously, a giant hummingbird. If you could make a hummingbird the size of a goose, it would look like this thing. I know it´s not a hummingbird, but in the Claudia Saunders field guide to patagonia, that is what it would be called. I also saw what seemed like hundreds of Guanacos (a wild relative to the alpaca and llama), a fox, and FLAMINGOS! Silliness, flamingos, doing there flamingo thing, standing on one leg, being all the freezing cold. It still doesn´t make sense in my head.

I spent my first night in my tent. Pitched her right behind the wind break and close enough to creek to hear the water running all night long. People pay good money for recordings of creeks, I had the real thing right outside my tent door, which may or may not have been responsible for my need to pee in the middle of the night, but even that is a blessing in disguise in atagonia. Yeah, it´s cold, you can see your breath, the ground and your tent is covered in a thin layer of ice and it does take every bit of courage and strength the leave the warmth of a sleeping bag to sprint in the dark to an outhouse. But man, take a look up at the clear night sky, even the stars are brighter here. It takes a minute to fathom what it is that you are really looking at, there are so many, and none of the same constellations are there. Even the moon shines brighter, drowning the light of the stars next to it. So this is what the night sky is supposed to look like. No wonder people have been fascinated with space for so long. It´s funny to me that even as the days and weeks went on, every time I had to get out of my tent in the middle of the night the same thing would happen, in the rain, in the wind, yes, even in the snow, I´d look up and it would take my breath away. Damn this place is beautiful, and all I can do is smile, take it in, and bow my head in thanks that I get to be here.

It´s almost feels like a dream. The kind that seems so real you promise never to forget it. I wake up every morning I´m here and unzip my tent to get smacked in the face by heaven. Every day I see the handiwork of a presence that I believe to be God...for something this beautiful, it has to be. I drink it in every pore, and overwhelmed with joy, gratitude and that ellusive thing called peace, I walk around heaven.


  1. Claudia, I have so enjoyed keeping up on your adventures. I am planning a trip to Peru to see a Shaman. Depending on where you are, maybe I can come connect with you for a couple of days? I'll keep in touch.
    Be well...
    - Erica

  2. Your giant hummingbird might be a buff-necked ibis.