This is my 4th visit to Chile and the main reason for coming here this time is to do the Air-Cruise to Antarctica. Most Antarctica cruises leave from Ushuaia in Argentina that involves crossing the rough seas of the Drake Passage which takes 2 days before arriving in Antarctica. As I am prone to sea-sickness, I was so happy when I discovered that there is the option of flying down to King George Island in the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica and then boarding the cruise ship there. So here I am again in Chile, awaiting for my flight to Antarctica that leaves from Punta Arenas in southern Chile. More about the Antarctica cruise in my future posts.
I have already visited most of the main places of interest in Chile such as Atacama Desert, Easter Island, and Patagonia. So this time, before heading to Antarctica, I decided to visit the lake district where the volcanoes meet the lakes and specifically the areas around Pucon and Chiloe. From the capital of Santiago, I flew down to Temuco which is the closest airport to Pucon, about a little over an hour away. Pucon is located on the shore of Lake Villarrica with the cone-shaped Villarrica volcano looming only 17km away. Villarrica volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile and is known as Rucapillán in the local Mapuche language which means “devil’s house”. Pucon was first settled in 1552 when the city was called Villarrica and was a gold mining town. After the gold was exhausted and some buried by lahars flowing from the volcano, the settlers abandoned Villarrica. In 1883, Pucon was resettled as a fort when the Chilean state subdued the native Mapuche population of the Araucania Region. Today, Pucon is the adventure capital of Chile offering all kinds of activities like skiing, kayaking, horse back riding, white water rafting, ziplining, skydiving, volcano hikes, and hot springs. The town is small and revolves around all the outdoor activities provided in this beautiful setting that feels like some village somewhere in the Austrian mountains. I chose to stay at Hotel Antumalal on the shores of Lake Villarrica just outside the town of Pucon. Hotel Antumalal is a boutique hotel set in a private 5-hectare park and began as a tea room. The other luxury option in the area is the &Beyond Vira Vira Lodge which costs 4 times that of Hotel Antumalal but includes room and board and activities.
Most people come here to climb the Villarrica Volcano where the summit is covered in snow and offers spectacular views of the surrounding lakes and other volcanoes. It is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile with the last eruption in 2015. This volcano is said to sometimes have a lava lake in its crater and hiking to the summit depends on the weather and volcanic activity. It is a grueling all day hike and you have to use crampons, ice axe, helmet, etc. Nowadays, I’m less eager to overexert myself especially at the beginning of a long trip so I gave it a pass. Instead, my wonderful fellow photographer and guide, Patricio, suggested that we do some night photography to capture the “action” of the active volcano. Pretty cool to see some the volcanic activity more clearly in the dark.
Instead of partaking in the more adventurous activities, I came here to Pucon mainly to explore the Mapuche culture and meet some of these people. To understand this region which is still the stronghold of Mapuche culture, we have to talk a little about these ferocious indigenous Mapuche which translates to ‘people of the land’ and who lived in Chile from as early as 600 BC. The Mapuche defended their land and resisted the Spanish colonialists for hundreds of years from their arrival in the 16th century. Before the Spaniards, the Mapuche also successfully defended themselves against the Inca Empire. Until today, there is still tension between the Mapuche and the Chilean government over who actually owns the land and who can live and use it etc. Although the government has given funding to the Mapuche but it continues to allow the encroachment of their lands by developers. They are often unfairly treated with occasional raids by the military police making them very defensive and reclusive. Nowadays, there are about 1.6 million Mapuches living in this region and they make up about 9% of the total population of Chile.
About half an hour outside of Pucon is Quelhue which means “red soil” and is home to the local Mapuches. Unlike in other parts of the South America, the indigenous Mapuches no longer live in their traditional ruka huts nor do they wear their traditional costumes on a daily basis. I was hoping to capture them before their ancient culture, traditions, and warrior spirit completely disappeared. Most of the Mapuches still speak their ancient language called Mapudungun and practice shamanism. The village visit experience was rather touristy but still enjoyable. There is a group in Rio Plata, specifically the Esparza H-Colipi family, who welcomes visitors and offers them a chance to stay in a traditional ruka hut and sample the local cuisine in particular the traditional style barbecue. I had the privilege of spending a morning with Rosario Colipi who strives to keep the Mapuche culture alive. Rosario tells me that when she was a little girl, her village was separated from the rest of the world and could only be accessed by boat. She lived inside a traditional ruka hut made of straw and wood and designed for communal living without any room divisions. Parents sleep in the middle of the ruka with boys sleeping in the northern side and girls sleeping in the southern side. There is almost always a fire pit near the door of the ruka and two windows up near the roof, one on the east and one on the west. The fire inside the ruka is very important to the Mapuche. It is kept burning and the family cooks and gathers around it and shares their day and their dreams. The Mapuche believes that spirits of the ancestors will never leave the village and they believe that each place has a niem which is a spirit who protects such as a spirit of the river, of the mountains, of the forest, etc. At the end of our visit, Rosario requested to be photographed with her ruka. She tells me that even though she and most of her people no longer live inside a traditional ruka, the ruka will always feel like home.
If you are in the area, do pay Rosario a visit. In Pucon, there is also a small private Mapuche Museum displaying the 1,500 pieces of artifacts and objects collected by the Ulloa-Metzger family. Gonzalo Ulloa and his son Rodrigo are in charge of guiding visitors around the museum and sharing countless stories of the tribes of the area. Unfortunately, they were closed during my visit and there was talk that they may move to a different location.
So instead of visiting the museum, we stopped by the workshop of Serbando Morales who is said to be the pioneer maker of wooden flowers in Pucon. When I arrived at his workshop, I honestly thought these were all real flowers. He invited me into his workshop and showed me how he would pick different kinds of wood from the forest or the shore and shave them like sharpening pencils. He will fashion the shavings into the petals of the flowers. He then uses the plastic casing of an old ballpoint pen and “blows” paint onto the flowers. Mr. Morales proudly tells me that he started shipping his creations abroad and that he has clients all over the world. Amazing!
Since I’m in the area, we decided to drive out from Pucon to Curarrehue near the Chilean border with Argentina mainly to see the araucaria or monkey puzzle trees. These evergreen trees are native to central and southern Chile and western Argentina and are considered sacred by the indigenous Mapuche. The araucaria tree is the national tree of Chile and are deemed endangered so people are no longer allowed to use the wood which is said to be one of the hardest. The Mapuche like to gather its seeds that are like large pine nuts and include them in their cuisine.
From Pucon, we will drive south to the Chiloe archipelago which was one of the last places to be taken over by the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. Stay tuned!
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