Text and Photos: Mariana Lafont
My arrival in the city of Puerto Montt (Chile) coincided with a gray, rainy day. I walked around the typically picturesque Anglemo market before boarding the Don Baldo, a ferry that also covers other routes, including the Cordillera. It stops at Chaitén, Quellón, Melinka, Raúl Marín Balmaceda, Melimoyu, and the ports of Gala (Isla Toto), Cisnes, Gaviota, Aguirre, and Chacabuco on its route along the northern shore of the bucolic Aysén region. This is not a luxury cruise ship, but a simple ferry that connects isolated islands. This area, where locals catch fish and shellfish, is truly another world.
When the sun came out the following day, I went up on deck to admire the landscape: a handful of houses hugging the sea, surrounded by mountains covered with native trees. A diminutive lighthouse marked the coast and boats bobbed alongside the dock. I was eager to see Chaitén, which made the news when its namesake volcano erupted in May 2008. The volcano (located six miles away) ejected a large ash cloud and set off earthquakes, forcing a mass evacuation. Ulises, the Don Baldo’s steward, witnessed the event. He told me that more than 1,400 people were evacuated to Chiloé; he exclaimed: “The look on people’s faces frightened me more than the volcano itself.” We sailed for seven hours after leaving Puerto Montt, and then we had to wait at anchor for another three hours until the tide rose, because the boat can only approach and offload passengers at high tide.
Enjoying the beautiful weather, I waited on deck with other passengers, who told me how the landscape has changed. An area that used to be lapped by the ocean is now a large gray empty space. It is covered by a mixture of mud and ash deposited there by the Blanco River’s disastrous flooding. As the mud flow advanced, it pushed part of the town into the ocean and covered the rest with ash and sand. For a long time, there was no electricity and it looked like a ghost town, but people slowly returned. I was surprised to hear this and asked people how they could come back here after living through such an experience. They all answered: “We have lived here our entire lives; this is our home. There was already an eruption, so it’s unlikely that another one will happen soon.” Normal life resumed in this beautiful region that is perfect for hiking and other outdoor activities. A detour fifteen miles south of Chaitén, followed by another four miles, leads to the Amarillo Hot Springs (open year-round) and Pumalín Park, created by U.S. millionaire Douglas Tompkins, who purchased farmland to protect 42,000 acres of temperate rain forest in 1991 and later acquired another 741,316 acres, which were used to create the reserve.
Going to the Guaitecas Islands
We leave Chaitén for Quellón, in the southern part of Isla Grande de Chiloé, three hours away by boat. The main port of Chiloe has been in operation since 1881 and its economy is based on salmon farms and shellfish. It was five in the afternoon and as the passengers left, cars continued to drive out of the hold. Once the hold was empty, I marveled at the skill of a driver who maneuvered his truck onto the boat and offloaded two enormous containers of fishing nets. For a long time, Quellón was isolated and reachable only by sea; Over forty years ago, however, it was connected to Chile by the Pan-American highway, making it this road’s southernmost point. One of the European tourists embarking here was Marie, a Frenchwoman who spoke very good Spanish and was happy to be taking her long-awaited first trip through South America.
We headed for Melinka, in the Guaitecas Islands, at four in the morning. Melinka, from a Russian word meaning “beloved,” was the name of the wife of Lithuanian immigrant F.A. Westhoff, who founded the town in 1869. He settled here to harvest Guaitecas cypress, a very valuable wood. The capital of the Guaitecas community has slightly more than one thousand inhabitants and is the oldest town in Aysén, Chile’s region XI. It was a bumpy night because we crossed the open ocean of the Gulf of Corcovado. People making the crossing in the daytime can see whales on the horizon. The Guaitecas archipelago emerged when the land sank after the Nazca, Antarctica, and South America tectonic plates clashed. The ocean flowed in and low, mountainous islands arose. Six thousand years ago, this region was home to indigenous peoples who traveled by canoe until the end of the 18th century. We could not approach the coast so we anchored slightly offshore and a launch transported passengers and goods back and forth. In the distance, fishermen blended into the horizon as cormorants skimmed along the water’s surface.
Pure, Untouched Aysén
The pristine Region XI is Chile’s least populous, because the remote location and transportation difficulties make it resistant to settling. But it is precisely this emptiness, surrounded by completely unspoiled nature, which makes Aysén a unique destination. From Melinka, we headed to Raúl Marín Balmaceda, arriving in a drenching rain after three hours and another crossing of the Gulf of Corcovado. Situated in the Palena River delta, this small town enchants visitors with its fjords, close contact with nature, and good fishing. The captain explained that it is located in a very difficult area. The ferry and the barges are undoubtedly an enormous help in a region of currents, tides, treacherous winds, and shipwrecks. As I listened to the captain, three shellfish boats unloaded bags of clams and mussels.
The next stop was Melimoyu, two hours away along the idyllic Refugio Canal. That day the low clouds bestowed a mysterious air on the mountains and streams of water descending into the ocean. During the journey, the captain told local stories of El Dorado, the treasure of the Incas, and even UFOs. He explained that Tompkins purchased this area and it is said that this region provided refuge for Germans after the Second World War and Hitler’s treasure was hidden here. We marveled at the clarity of the ocean as we approached Melimoyu Sound. There are no industries here to dump waste into the ocean, so the waters are ideal for salmon farming. After more than twelve years, this industry has created fortunes, despite several bad years due to the ISA (infectious salmon anemia) virus that killed thousands of fish.
At Melimoyu, a number of residents boarded the boat that would take us to the coast, the site of an imposing glacier hanging off the side of the 7874-foot Melimoyu volcano. As the boat maneuvered, I watched the crew members (some of whom had been with the company for more than ten years) greet the passengers. The leathery skin of an elderly man named José bore witness to forty years at sea. He has made good friends along the way, so he always offers to carry medicine, coffee, or sugar in exchange for quality seafood. More than a mere means of transportation, the Don Baldo is part of the social network connecting remote towns.
The hours flew by. We were now at one of the oddest places on our trip: Puerto Gala (or Isla Toto), located south of the 44th parallel, on the Jacaf and Moraleda canals. As passenger boats arrived, I wondered how people managed to live out here. The town of three hundred residents seems to hang over an inlet between two islands linked by footbridges; there are no streets or cars, and boats are the only means of transportation. The economy is based on fishing and trade in southern hake; a boom attracted thousands of people in the 1980s, leading to the development of “plastic cities” —settlements roofed in nylon for protection from the rain— with very precarious living conditions.
Fortunately, everything changed with the arrival of Father Antonio Ronchi, who took the lead in building footbridges, a church, and a boarding school. The town was officially founded in 1999. The priest thought –correctly– that attracting families would normalize social life and the area would prosper. Today, Father Ronchi is remembered as the hero of Puerto Gala or Isla Toto, as he preferred to call the place.
We skipped Caleta Gaviota because there were no passengers and we reached Puerto Cisnes in pouring rain. This tidy community sits on a bay of the Puyuhuapi Canal, next to the mouth of the Cisnes River and across from the Isla Magdalena National Park. Arrival by land requires a twenty-mile detour from the Southern Highway. From there, visitors can travel thirty-seven miles northward to Puyuhuapi, a town characterized by its old German-style houses and hot springs.
We finally reached Puerto Aguirre, where I was able to walk around while people embarked and disembarked. On that gray day my first impression was that there were more dogs than people. I strolled past colorful houses topped with the traditional wood shingles, and watched sailors come and go in search of cigarettes, which remained an elusive commodity. We set out for our final destination: Puerto Chacabuco, three hours away by water, through the Ferronave and Pilcomayo canals and the Aysén Sound. The waters foamed into “lamb’s wool,” as the sailors call the white wave crests, and the landscape shone monochromatic until a full rainbow added a touch of color.
The region’s most important port, located about nine miles from Puerto Aysén, was an important salmon trading hub five years ago. It once had 5,000 inhabitants, while now there are fewer than eight hundred, but the number is slowly rising.
From here, catamarans leave for Lake San Rafael to show tourists the icebergs that calve from the glacier; the Northern Ice Fields lie just south of this body of water. It is also the departure point for adventurers who wish to tour the area by motorcycle or bicycle, like the two U.S. ladies who rode off the boat on their bicycles. Meanwhile, the Don Baldo prepared to return to Puerto Montt.
You can pay for a cabin or just a seat. Lunch or dinner is served on trips longer than seven hours, or you can bring your own food.
Naviera Austral: se puede viajar en camarote o en butaca. Si no lleva comida, a bordo ofrecen almuerzo o cena cuando son viajes de más de siete horas.