Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Chaiten & Pumalin Park, Chile

After our harrowing (or was it humorous?) experience trying to get from Chiloe Island to the mainland, we relaxed a bit in Chaiten. This is a smallish hamlet at the north end of the Carretera Austral highway, and is also the jumping off point to Pumalin Park. (See below for details & photos) I rather liked the artwork on the monument in the central square -- an otherwise rather delapidated patch of grass -- and have interspersed photos of the four main pieces in this posting.

It was pretty rainy the first day, so, although we went out to see Pumalin Park, most of our photos are of wet trees and wetter waterfalls seen through a mist of the wettest rain.

Thankfully, our raingear held up, but we were still glad to return to the hotel -- a rather posh place that was the result of my attempts to schedule lodging using my phone Spanish. I didn't hear the price correctly -- or more precisely, couldn't believe my ears because the quote differed so enormously from the guidebook -- but we were about due for spell in nicer digs. (We've been used to hostels at $20-$40 per night.) So, when we got there after debarking the (late) ferry at midnight, we just stayed. Hey, and they had free Internet!

Pumalin Park, by the way, is the largest private park in Chile (maybe the world?). It is owned by Doug Tompkins, who spawned Esprit and "the North Face", and Kristine McDivitt, his wife, who was CEO of Patagonia, Inc. (Those are all clothing companies, for those of you who have managed to keep money flying out of your pockets for these sort of name brands.) The park is a very nice operation -- a cut above what the Chilean gov't can do with its lesser budget, different priorities, and conflicting interests. It is set in territory that was never inhabited and never logged or used commercially, so it is pristine. (That's "pristine" as in "impossible to hike without a large machete or a prepared trail".) Included in its boundaries is a dormant volcano (Michinmahuida) capped by ice that spills to the floor of a nearby valley, making a convenient hiking destination for our 2nd day in Chaiten. (Swollen streams prevented us reaching the glacier, but we got a good view. Again, photos would help here. We'll try...)

The park is now run by a Chilean foundation with government oversight, and Doug Tompkins and wife are no longer active in their business holdings, so I (Case) don't think I can excuse too many more purchases of "North Face" gear as "supporting the park". Jolene and I have had this ongoing dialog over whether I might someday divert to purchasing Columbia sportswear, an old (and less expensive) standby that has improved in quality by an order magnitude since I first got hooked on North Face quality. (For another interesting CEO story, look up "Ma Boyle" at Columbia. Jolene wants you to know that Columbia is higher quality, more bang for the buck, & she backs Ma Boyle 100%. Case wants you to know that Jolene finds excellent discounts on North Face. Jolene wants you to know that the discounts on Columbia are even better. And so the dialog goes on...)

Product placements aside (Hey, can't we get paid for advertising on the Internet?), we were interested to learn that Conaf, Chile's parks & lands administrator, has some sort of "private" logging branch. Folks who told us made it sound like the fox was guarding the hen-house. Anyway, Tompkins, et al, managed to get Pumalin's foundation placed under the Department of Education, where it is, apparently, safer. He and his wife still have a home on a lovely fjord within the park and are active in its administration, so we're hopeful it'll remain untouched.

Unfortunately, Doug & Kristine weren't available to show us around, but we think we may have gotten the best end of that deal, as the guide we engaged (above) was thoroughly knowledgeable and entertaining. Sadly, I've misplaced his name, but should your travels ever take you that direction, call me and I'll find it for you...

He took us into the park on a very rainy day and tromped us through all sorts of interesting and wet territory. These red flowers (also noted at the hot springs when we were further north in Pucon) attracted my attention again. If I was a good student of our guide, I would remember their name as well as his...

We finished our hike in the woods by catchinig a little sun at the beach. Wasn't warm enough for a bikini, though.

In the car, just before we pulled out to go home for the day, our multitalented guide played & sang another of his compositions for us, "Coconut Woman". (Press play above.)
The next day, we hiked to a glacier in another part of Pumalin Park. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to reach it, but we had a good hike all the same.

And then we returned to Chaiten for a good rest, before pushing farther south the next day.

Chaiten was our entry point onto the Carretera Austral, or Highway South. This road was built by order of Pinochet beginning in 1976, at an estimated cost of $200K per km (that's a cool million for every 3.1 miles). Chile's army corps of engineers pushed the road through virgin forests and inhospitable terrain, connecting numerous settlements that had previously been reachable only by sea or, in some cases, arduous overland treks. Although not built as a scenic drive, it belongs on the list of epic road trips, and we were told it was not to be missed.

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