Patagonia, With Gears to Spare!
“It’s the freakin’ Andes, Jim!”
Jim and I had been leap-frogging for the first part of the day—I’d stop to take photos and he’d pass me, then he’d stop for munchies or photos and I’d pass him—and several times as we passed one another my giddiness would be overwhelming and I had to laugh and say it again: “It’s the freakin’ Andes!!”
I’d read all the paperwork multiple times, I’d poured over the maps, I’d even answered customer questions about the tour, but in reality I’d had no idea what to expect. I’d never been on a bike tour before, I’d never been to South America before, and I’d hardly biked at all since it had gotten icy in October (it was now February), so I really had no clue what to expect of the tour, the place or even my own body.
Didn’t know what to expect, but this is what I got: lush greenery (leaves 5 feet across!); snow-capped peaks; fine company; a do-able physical challenge; rolling, varied countryside; birds birds birds; cartoon volcanoes; enormous quantities of delectable cuisine—especially seafood, lamb and beef; tour leaders who not only got the job done but did it with panache, a clear depth of knowledge and pride in their region, and who were happy to answer the questions of this American who is rather ignorant when it comes to the history and culture of Argentina and Chile (and who insisted on practicing her very rusty Spanish!); swimming in a bright green glacial river under the watchful eye of the Volcano Osorno; snug houses with lush gardens and healthy animals clucking and rooting around the yard; soulful roadside shrines and churchyard cemeteries; indigenous artwork; temperate rainforests where Darwin had walked and cogitated…
The morning of the climb over the Andes I was nervous—ate way more carbs at breakfast than I ever normally would! I think I was anticipating lots of extended suffering that day… Then everyone jumped happily on their bikes and we were off. The route teased us by gaining and losing elevation a few times before starting the climb in earnest. The climb wasn’t terribly steep most of the time, but it certainly was continuous. I’m happy to say that I only used my very lowest gear for about 100 yards of the very steepest part—the rest of the time I was puttering along with a whole gear or two to spare! At the top we picnicked and rested, then enjoyed the long downhill on the Chilean side. I’d almost forgotten there’d be this great downhill reward for our uphill efforts—I’m no downhill speed demon, but that was one long, fun, fast ride!!
Over the next days I couldn’t get enough of the landscape—the shapes and colors of one room of the landscape leading into another—I took a million photos with an eye toward future drawings and paintings. And there was one lovely species of bird I kept seeing in the meadows: I eventually learned they were Bandurria—Buff-necked Ibis. The gravel roads took us off the heavily-beaten path and went through some of the loveliest landscapes. A friendly couple waved from their yard as I stopped to photograph yet more of the wildflowers along the road. And when the volcano Osorno appeared over blue-blue Lake Llanquihue, I just sat for a while taking it all in.
More of the wonderful things I hadn’t expected: black volcanic sand along the Petrohue river; delightful fellow travelers with whom to cycle, wander in town or dine; seeing dolphins and sea lions from the ferry to Chiloe; the sights and sounds and smells of the indigenous market; a tour leader who not only knew the area in a scholarly way but had also lived on Chiloe for several years and so truly understood this magical place; the struggle of the Chilote to mesh their ancient and gentle traditional life with the high-speed changes being thrust at them; “monkey puzzle” trees!
I’d heard about the beautiful wooden churches on Chiloe, but was still surprised and touched by the structures so lovingly and skillfully built by the hands of a boat-building people—the curves of the arches and vaulting reflected the graceful hulls of wooden boats. And in the faux-marbling hand-painted on some of the columns were the palm- and finger-prints of the artists, re-emphasizing to me the personal in the collective, the tangible in the divine.
Coming from New England I know my clam bakes, so I’m not impressed by just any old cooking-hole in the beach! But when they opened the Curanto (traditional Chilean-style clam-bake) and the sights and scents came to me, I had to acknowledge that they knew what they were doing. Instead of seaweed separating the layers of slow-cooked food they used those enormous leaves we’d been seeing the whole trip. We feasted on several types of mussels and clams, traditional potato breads, chicken and fish. We dined above the beach, overlooking the little islands just off-shore where we’d just visited the penguin rookery and watched a sea otter dine on his own fresh crab (using his tummy as his plate—not wanting to appear rude, I used an actual plate for my meal…).
Final moments: walks in the rainforest and on the Pacific beach, then dinner in a traditional Chilote Fogon (an octagonal community house, with a fire pit in the center)—a savory traditional meal. Traditional songs played and sung by the children, warm talk and winding-down from a rich and magical journey.
I was sad to be ending my ‘official’ tour, but also excited to be off to do some hiking on my own, farther south in Torres del Paine National Park. This land has many layers, and I felt I’d only touched the surface (I’m already bugging my bosses to let me go back to try our new tour in Northern Argentina!). It’s the freakin’ Andes! And much, much more.