Latin America is the place I’m most addicted to travelling to. The 12 months of my life I’ve spent there were so packed full of adventure stories that it’s impossible to describe. I wouldn’t dare pouring them all into this blog for fear of inundating the internet with so many superlatives that the internet itself would meltdown.
However, I’m now pleased to be able to share one of those adventures. ‘Sailing Patagonia’ is a seven-page feature article published (as of April 1st) in this quarter’s issue of Get Lost Magazine. You can click on the images to check out the mag spreads in your browser and you can read the article text below. Alternately you can download a copy of the pdf here, or cruise down to your local news agent (if you’re in Aus or NZ) and grab a hard copy in all its glossy, real ink-on-paper glory.
Cam Cope ventures to the south of South America and explores Chile’s magnificent fjords by boat.
-Words & Photography by Cam Cope
The waves build in size and turn a deep blue as we enter the Chacao Channel. The ship’s first mate, introduced to me as el Pirata (The Pirate), says to put on our raincoats and motions excitedly to an ominous squall approaching portside. The captain wedges himself behind the helm and smiles, oblivious to the impending weather. Like the wind, the idea that I might have boarded a ship with madmen is gathering strength. The wall of spray hits suddenly, filling our sail and pushing us on a steep lean. I grab a rail to keep balance and feel a giddy rush as the yacht accelerates.
Notorious for foul weather and fouler seas, Patagonia might not be a place you’d think to visit by boat. But it holds certain advantages in a landscape dominated by ice-capped volcanoes, sheer granite cliffs, impenetrable 4,000-yearold rainforests and an acute lack of roads. In fact, a cursory glance over a map of southern Chile reveals there are few other options. Here, the might of the Andes mountain range dramatically meets the Pacific Ocean in a labyrinth of over 5,000 islands and over 40,000 kilometres of coastline.
Carlos Lonza, a Chilean tourism business entrepreneur, is the captain of Agartha, the 11-metre ketch I’m clinging to for safety. I’m on board to experience 10 days of sailing on Chile’s fabled Patagonian coast. Carlos had sold me on the trip by hinting at summer adventures under sun and sail and the chance to visit what he promised was the most spectacular coast in South America.
Looking back at the grimy port city of Puerto Montt, and ahead through the rain at a brooding skyline, it’s hard for me to share in the captain’s enthusiasm. A dark chop begins to slap the bow and I wonder for a moment if these men live in an alternate reality.
“The beauty of this place is that when the weather turns foul, there is always a fjord or sheltered cove somewhere to lay anchor,” Carlos calls out to me. I glance at Carlos’s girlfriend, Marlene, who reassures me with a smile and appears altogether calm, sane and adorable in a rubber-duck-yellow raincoat. I decide to give them the benefit of the doubt, resisting the impulse to abandon ship and swim frantically for shore.
Carlos soon proves to be a master navigator, safely guiding us out of the weather to a cove surrounded by nothing but fjord and forest. There, we anchor for the night and feast on fresh machas (mussels) grilled with parmesan and coriander. Carlos lights the oil heater, opens a bottle of local tinto and entertains us with pirate tales and fascinating historical anecdotes.
“Sir Francis Drake ‘The Terrible’ passed by here,” Carlos says, winking at me, knowing that Drake was knighted and is a hero in the Anglo world. “As did many other British and Dutch pirates who raided and sacked the Spanish possessions on this coast. Though my favourite is the story of Ñancupel,” he says, pausing to refill our glasses.
According to Carlos, Ñancupel was an indigenous pirate who piloted his own sailboat and single-handedly robbed fortunes from the Spanish settlers. The legend says he hid his loot throughout the labyrinthine Guaitecas Archipelago further south. Carlos grins mischievously. “Perhaps next time we can go in search of his treasure!”
We enter Reloncaví Sound, the first fjord south of Puerto Montt, in search of a different kind of treasure. Here, Carlos wants to introduce me to a community with a unique way of life. A thick fog hangs over the water and not a breath of wind spoils its glass-like surface. Herman (The Pirate) explains that in Spanish they call such conditions ‘taza de leche’, meaning cup of milk. Steep mountainsides plunge vertically into the fjord a few hundred metres either side of us, and the all-pervading whiteness of the fog is reflected in the water. I could be forgiven for thinking we were sailing in a giant teacup.
We pass a waterfall close to one shore, it pours out of the dense rainforest straight into the seawater. Somewhere in the formless mist above is Mount Yate, a 2,187-metre active volcano. We wave back to some enthusiastic fishermen as they chug past. A pair of sea lions bob their heads up in the wake.
Entering a cove we spy all manner of old-fashioned boats parked in a line next to a pebble beach. This is the driveway of a remote community whose only roadway is the sea. Carlos is hoping that Pablo is home, a local boat builder, fisherman and subsistence farmer. We lay anchor by his beach and paddle ashore in the dinghy.
After admiring Pablo’s latest work in progress, a six-metre fishing boat made from Patagonian cypress, we are invited up a steep, muddy track and into his self-built wooden home. It sits high on a hill with a commanding view over the fjord on a clear day – or so Pablo says. A cast iron stove radiates heat into every corner of the low-ceilinged two-room house and keeps a seafood stew on the boil. Looking at Pablo’s stature (not one member of his family stand taller than five feet) and back down the hillside, I can’t help but wonder how the hell they carted everything up here. The presence of the large iron stove and the house itself seem miraculous.
But Pablo soon demonstrates his resourcefulness, proudly explaining how he has just installed a small waterpowered turbine to generate electricity from a stream nearby.
“How are your animals?” Carlos asks him.
Pablo’s expression shifts.
“The pumas took my chickens again,” he replies.
“Pumas?” I interject, assuming I’ve misunderstood their peculiar Chilean Spanish.
“Pumas as in pumas,” Pablo replies. Carlos nods.
“But at least they didn’t take any of my calves this time,” he laughs.
Pablo explains that the national parks above are home to native big cats that often descend onto the tiny slivers of land occupied by the fisherman on the coast. Perhaps these people do live in an alternate reality?
As if reading my mind, the two then start talking ghosts and witches. Legend has it that a ghost ship named el Caleuche roams these waters, manned by drowned sailors, captained by a sorcerer and capable of navigating underwater.
“The local people are very superstitious, they really believe in these myths,” Carlos says, before directing the discussion towards sirens and mermaids. I think Carlos just likes stories.
Later in the afternoon the sun burns off the fog for the first time, finally revealing the spectacular scenery I was promised. I can see the granite hulks of Cochamó Valley across the water. Its immense walls of exposed rock are legendary in rock climbing circles worldwide. The fjord sparkles emerald as Herman and Carlos dive for fish, spear guns in hand, to collect crustaceans. Some fishermen notice us back on the water and visit with gifts of oysters. The next day we take advantage of the continuing good weather and paddle up a river in the dinghy to fish for trout.
Over the week, the many moods of the world’s most southern inhabited coast are slowly revealed. We explore the fjordlands to their twisting depths and I occasionally get to admire the ice-capped sources of waterfalls that otherwise explode mysteriously out of the cloud and fog. Carlos’s local knowledge comes into its own. It’s clear that his business takes full advantage of a childhood spent adventuring in the region. We check out a unique tidal rapid squeezed between two islands and later visit a colony of sea lions on a misty islet. They cry out with eerie human-like tones that echo across the water. But the real prize is yet to come.
Venturing onshore Carlos guides us into the forest in search of a natural secret. Amongst the dripping ferns and twisting nothofagus lies a series of descending sapphire-blue pools. Steam rises from the surface and curious small birds flit and cheep amongst the branches overhead. The intense colour is due to mineral deposits suspended in the superheated water as it bubbles from a geothermal spring. “There are some happy advantages to living amongst volcanoes,” Carlos says.
After days without a wash I can’t strip my grimy necked T-shirt off fast enough. I wade in up to my chest and dip my head under with relief. After 10 minutes I psyche myself up for a dash into an ice-cold river that’s rushing past only metres away. Carlos and Marlene resist my shivering overtures to do the same, so after reviving myself in the warmth of the hot spring I leave to explore the other pools. Each one sits in perfect seclusion thanks to screens of vegetation. As I approach the spring mouth they increase in temperature. The sun pierces the canopy and reflects the shimmering blue surface into the vegetation and rock walls. This is the most perfect natural phenomenon I’ve ever seen.
Exiting the fjords we catch a strong northerly wind and re-enter the Chacao Channel at full speed. Behind us the Tolkein-esque volcanoes and mountains recede into the distance. Carlos wastes no time finding his inner pirate. The unbridled enthusiasm I’d previously mistaken for seamadness is back with a vengeance.
“Hey man,” he calls out, this time practising his heavily accented English.
“I love this place, it is so beautiful.”
This time I agree. Leaning on a backstay cable I squint in the full sunshine. I can just make out the island of Chiloé on the horizon ahead. My mind begins to imagine the possibilities of exploring its many inlets, islets, coves, national parks, fishing villages and legendary seafood dishes.
“And you know what the best thing is?”
Carlos says, as a spray of foam flies over the cockpit.
There are so many possible answers running through my mind, but instead he answers for me. “We have this place all to ourselves! Look around you. Do you see any other sailboats?” I don’t.