People traveling to the far South of Chile, seeking to escape from the madness of the city, will bump into a shocking reality: In the middle of the Magellan wilderness you feel more accompanied and crazier than ever.
By Tania Opazo
“Hi, how are you? Where are you from?”. According to the guides at Torres del Paine, this is what guanacos usually ask outsiders. For these animals from distant lands, gazing at the hordes of frantic tourists taking photos like crazy is an everyday thing. They even seem to pose for them, as if they were going to be interviewed.
And yet, when visitors seem to have captured all essence of Patagonia with their cameras, something happens. Black necked swans, just a small group from the dozens found in Puerto Natales, throw a look of disdain and flee into the sea. Pablo Negri, manager at Remota Hotel, regrets this frustrated hunt as he holds an enourmous camera lens that looks like a rifle scope. But just minutes after, when another bird catches his attention, he forgets the swans’ betrayal.
The emotion you feel as you walk by and look around is such that the cold becomes no longer relevant. “It’s an overwhelming landscape” would be an ideal cliché phrase. Actually, this environment knocks you hard on the face. The wind is a reminder of your surrounding reality: you’re standing amid lands that keep on with their own life and rhythm, no matter who steps in. Not even roads, hotels, nor people walking by with ridiculously expensive rain coats affect them.
You’re at the mercy of nature. Rains come and go with a distinctive flavor that makes you want to drink each drop of water. I clean the moisture on the truck’s windshield as a hare crosses the road. “They are a real plague in this area”, says Chato, who’s driving the truck and, with eyes of a hawk, detects all creatures on the road. Then, we make a new stop to take some pictures.
“Get in the car, it’s going to rain!” says Pato, chauffeur from Remota Hotel, located in Puerto Natales. It’s 2:00 pm and just a couple of minutes ago you could see a blue sky on the horizon. But now, dark menacing clouds were about to arrive.
Hail starts. 5 minutes pass and, surprisingly, sunlight returns with its white shades, stronger and more dangerous than ever, given then lack of ozone layer in this corner of the world. “Always wear sunscreen on your face and hands. You don’t even realize how much it burns”, explains Pato.
Curiously, though, at Punta Arenas‘s mall people are eating ice cream. It’s a place just like any other until you hear the “chicos” talking with a hypnotizing tune. “Me cago, ché!” cries one, and the proximity with our neighboring country, Argentina, becomes evident. I realize my own accent has been deceiving me all this time. I’m not a “chumango” like all the others but just a common citizen from the North.
Pato is from the North too, from Arica. Though in Patagonia, the North starts from Puerto Montt onwards, where our country is still one solid piece of land. He comes with me to eat “churros” at Chocolatta café on Bories St. and then to buy some trekking shoes in the duty free area.
We stop at an Enersur gas station, as vehicles load fuel. One truck driver is eating some really tempting homemade French fries. The wind doesn’t stop and hits the Chilean flags that are still up since September, and the ones from the Independent Republic of Magellan, of blue and yellow colors with the 5 white stars representing the Southern Cross.
The road to Puerto Natales seems infinite. There’s no real ending to it. There’s this song in my head, my personal traveling soundtrack: “Faraway, so close”, from U2, though actually the radio is playing a “cumbia villera” from an Argentinean station.
Suddenly, Pato tells me his story. He arrived during his time in the military service, while specializing in armored cavalry, and there it was when he met his wife. His career took him to many places but he always wanted to come back, here. After a few negatives to get moved from Santiago, he chose to voluntarily leave, and decided to qualify himself for guide assistant, thus later working as a truck driver receiving military personnel and diplomats at Torres del Paine.
After this story, we take a look at the vista. The Pampa seems infinite. Lagoons and rests of snow embellish the landscape as cows and a flock of sheep eat grass next to the road. Until almost a century ago, the practice of burning the forest in order to feed animals went out of the reach of its owners. Nowadays, terrains covered with barely surviving gray trees remain as a sad testimony.
Nevertheless, there is something about this place that makes people from the North fall in love with it. Claudio and Carolina work at the hotel administration in Remota. He is from Temuco and she, from Santiago. What makes them move their lives with their families to these distant lands? They don’t dare to explain.
It might be emotion involved. It might be just this overwhelming place.
REMOTA: THE EXPERIENCE
Remota is not a luxurious spot in itself. The place is warm and filled with the smell of Lenga. The spaces and facilities are a constant reminder that your standing in the southern corner of the world. A walk by the swimming pool and Jacuzzi in the outdoors will definitely give you one or two chills given the surrounding cold breeze.
At the edge of the swimming pool there’s a huge window with view to the sea. Water is cleaned with ions, without a single drop of chlorine. Jovita comes closer and offers me a glass of wine. I took it as I see how the vapor goes up the window. piscina1
After a few minutes in the sauna I went back to my room. At Remota, rooms are simple, spacious and warm. Wood is an essential decorative material used on the walls. All windows face the sea which is dark during cloudy days and of a deep blue during sunny ones.
The dining room seems to have been taken out from a camping site. It’s very cozy, beautified to an extreme. Chef René Espinoza lives in the hotel. He doesn’t seem to care about being all by himself, most likely cause he doesn’t really feel alone. He says he likes looking through window to animals passing through his yard, where there’s a vegetable garden producing all the products that arrive at the hotel’s dinner table.
He gets all excited when talking about his dishes and specialty, Carpaccio of guanacos which he prepares very quickly, catching the attention of all guests around. His team puts on the table varied dishes for tasting. Surprising ingredients arrive one after the other: codfish in mint sauce, oysters, snails and salmon… all of them absolutely delicious. In between every small dish you end up enjoying a real feast.
Silence. The rain hits the roof. “It’s the Remota style”, Carolina will add afterwards. Having no TV’s in the rooms, the invitation here is to experience tranquility. Someone throws a joke. Laughter fills the room for a moment and then, silence again. In any other place that would be pretty uncomfortable. But here is strictly necessary.
There’s a shared enthusiasm over here to try to defeat the climate. This involves crossing fingers, pray and having faith. “Skies will clear”, says Chato with his “chumango” accent. Torres del Paine hide and suddenly appear again amid clouds.
Claudia, our guide, explains to Tom how the rock in the caves was formed. When talking she’s very clear to explain things and she’s really funny. The perfect guide. There’s no doubt that a nice guide can make your experience at Patagonia a thousand times more enjoyable.
In Cueva del Milodón, Claudia tells me that she is from Santiago as well, and was a guide at Torres del Paine for five years. Her husband was also a guide here. For a long time, when their shifts didn’t match at all, the only contact they ever had was when they met at ‘Hello Trail’, the most frequented path on which you’ll always find someone to say hello to.
The cave is huge. There are remaining stalactite pieces falling from the roof. The cave’s entrance opposes the absolute darkness into which you’re entering. Claudia kneels down, touches the earth and after a few seconds raises her hand making a triumphal gesture to show us… a mylodon hair. This replica seems more tender than menacing, actually.
At the entrance of Torres del Paine National Park we can observe the Paine River with its rapid pale-blue water streams. A gray fox lays down and stares at us with curiosity. Scenes for taking shots are so many that you can’t stop. Like if you were crazy, you click over here and click over there.
We go back to the truck for a picnic in the outdoors. “It is the Remota style”, repeats a proud Pablo Negri. Then, we’ll have to stop for a couple of minutes to take some photos of little red flowers growing on hills, contrasting the gray scenery from the Pampa.
picnic2“Sorry if I got too excited on our trip”, I say to Tom, after having shouted, jumped and touched all that I could during our trekking excursion.
“You know?”, he confesses me, “I have traveled across the whole world but there’s no doubt that this is one of the most beautiful places in it. Here you have all the right to feel just like a little kid”.
We arrive at Lake Grey. There’s a wide beach where there was water once. After walking for a while, feeling a bit suffocated due to the fresh air and the excessive clothing, we arrived at the shore: Pieces of ice are within our reach. Farther, there are the glaciers. All is white and very close but at the same time inaccessible. I’m being offered a pisco sour with ice. I say no cause I don’t want to take the clothes off my face.
Condors are flying over us. After many pictures and videos it’s time to finish filling up our memory cards. When we get close to rheas, the guanacos keep staring, but none of them wants to interview us.
Los cóndores planean sobre nosotros. Luego de muchas fotos, muchos videos, toca ir llenando como locos, como drogados más bien, las memorias de las cámaras. Cuando pasamos cerca de los ñandús, los guanacos nos miran a un par de metros. Ninguno se acerca a entrevistarnos.
There’s definitely something breaking inside you once you leave Southern Patagonia. You were supposed to escape from the madness of civilization and, yet, in Magellan lands you never feel alone. On the contrary, you feel in company but in the good way, it really gets a smile from you.
Later on, you try to desperately carry out one of the cabalas that people promise you during your return: Eat calafate mermelade or kiss the big toe of the Patagon Indian placed on the main square of Punta Arenas.
After a while, I start thinking: what difference do these tricks make? I get on the plane, with one very simple and strong conviction: I have to come back.
Coming back… what better cabala than that?