From Rio Calle Calle to Lago Pirihueico
Now that a hard-surfaced byway has been opened from Valdivia directly east to Los Lagos, a superb road trip across the spectacular 14th Region of Chile, the Región de los Rios, is a journey worth taking.
Valdivia is a special city, partly because the Spanish settlement, founded in 1552, was subsequently settled by Germans in the mid-1800s, but also because it reigns over the beautiful Rio Calle Calle, in which, says the popular cueca, “se está bañando la luna“; the moon bathes. The infusion of German culture is reflected to this day in the architecture of magnificent old wooden homes, corrugated metal buildings, food featuring kuchen, beer, sausages and crudos, or steak tartare, and prevailing last names like Haussman, Anwandter, and Kuntsmann. What’s more, whoever designed the Pan-American highway, Chile’s north-south transportation backbone, chose to bypass Valdivia by enough to render her sort of isolated and somewhat indifferent to the passage of time. Admittedly, Valdivia has not modernized as much as other Chilean cities, except that finally there is a five-star hotel with a casino, Dreams, the ultimate sign of urban progress in today’s Chile. Because of the slowness of Valdivia to modernize, it is possible to hear visitors comment negatively on the city, as did one of our recent visitors from the U.S., who informed us after a short visit there that “Valdivia is disappointing, dirty, boring, and what’s more, the beer is not as good as the artisan beers produced in Oregon.” Well I beg to differ, except for the beer comment which, being a committed wine drinker, I can ignore.
Valdivia is a community that must be walked to be appreciated. It needs to be discovered slowly. I have known Valdivia from my Peace Corps days in the late 1960s; I was attracted to it then, and still today find a certain comfortable “feel” to it. At that time, almost a half century ago, the forestry school at the Austral University was becoming an important contributor to the development of Chile’s nascent forestry sector, and several Peace Corps Volunteers, trained ecologists, entomologists, and pathologists, were assigned to the University for their two-year tour of service. (there were other Volunteers in Valdivia too, working in nursing and education).
It had been awhile since my last visit to Valdivia so when good friends Luisa and Lionel suggested we take a few days away from Santiago to visit Valdivia and the snow-capped Andes to its east, we jumped at the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with this part of southern Chile. Actually, we confirmed that there is plenty to do in Valdivia, although admittedly it involves simple pleasures. The lovely university campus features an extensive botanical garden open to the public, a good place to start familiarizing yourself with the natural Valdivian environment. We explored several old neighborhoods, searching unsuccessfully in one for a well known artist’s studio. After walking around the center of town, we relaxed for some traditional people-watching in the central park, a classic Spanish colonial plaza with its ornate metal band stand for Sunday concerts provided by the carabinero band (or the Club Musical Eleuterio Ramirez’s Banda de Collico if it can be brought together for the occasion). The imposing cathedral, stoic survivor of several record breaking earthquakes, keeps watch over all from across the street. We ended our walking city tour at the Entre Lagos Café to sample delicious thick hot chocolate and purchase several boxes of their famous freshly-made-on-the-spot dark chocolates.
Several of the places I remembered from my visits to Valdivia over five decades still exist; the Café Palace continues to welcome with good food and friendly service, and La Bomba Bar clings to its corner position a couple of blocks from the central park. The latter clearly has not changed, nor seemingly has it been cleaned, since the 1960s. Lionel and I stuck our heads in just to check, and it appeared very possible that some of the same characters who were there a half century ago are still glued to their favorite chairs in the front room bar, still watching reruns of a soccer game or a Venezuelan soap opera and still drinking big glasses of draft Kuntsmann beer.
A morning stroll through the riverside market in Valdivia is a must. This market features fresh and diverse fish (salmon, conger eel called congrio, true sea bass named corvina (not what is sold in the US as “Chilean sea bass”, which is not a bass but more accurately a “Patagonian tooth fish” found in very cold waters in the south of Chile and the Malvinas islands), and heaping piles of shiny shellfish and crustaceans like mussels of all sizes, oysters, different types of clams, crabs, sea urchins, and maybe you’ll find some increasingly scarcer and sadly smaller locos, Chile’s delicious abalone-like sea snail.
There are also colorful displays featuring local temperate climate fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, preserves, honey, and pine nuts from the Araucaria tree. In season you can buy small bags of toasted energy-packed avellana, a native hazelnut, and if you are lucky you will find some of the slimy ball-shaped light colored edible fungus Chileans call dihueñe, found growing on trees in the temperate Valdivian forest but available for only very short periods, and freshly cut flowers including an occasional bunch of the national flower, the copihue, flaunting its bright red or white waxy petals.
An additional attraction at this market is entertainment provided daily by a maritime orchestra of barking sea lions that flop on and off the cement wharf, directly behind the fish stands, noisily scoffing up snootfuls of easy-to-catch leftovers from the fish vendors.
Colorful river boats tie up along the same wharf, several with restaurants offering the classic seafood medley called curanto as they cruise to the mouth of the Rio Valdivia at Niebla and back, an interesting half or full day excursion. Smaller boats run shorter tours of the Rios Calle Calle, Cau Cau, Cruces, and Valdivia, which come together, blending their waters here before flowing to the sea as the Valdivia River. We enjoyed a relaxing two-hour tour (longer tours are available) that offered close up views of the surrounding wetlands characteristic of the whole area but especially the Carlos Anwandter Nature Reserve known for its black necked swans. Reportedly, and hopefully, these majestic birds are reestablishing themselves here after a criminal chemical contamination from a new chemical pulp mill killed or drove away most of them several years ago.
We passed newly established upscale hillside residential developments all along both sides of the Isla Teja, and viewed from the river the oldest mansions and churches that made up early Valdivia. To honor the iconic swans and the hundreds of bird species that make the Valdivian wetlands their home at least part of the year, and taking advantage of some ice cold Cuello Negro beer thoughtfully brought along by the boat’s pilot, Lionel and I toasted to the successful repopulation of the swans in their rightful Valdivian wetlands habitat.
Halfway along the Rio Cau Cau portion of the tour, we drifted by a new half finished draw bridge, an unfortunate example of how badly good ideas can go if implementation fails an apparently well designed plan. This bridge was meant to connect the two sides of the Rio Cau Cau, something residents on both sides have been awaiting many years. It had to be a drawbridge to allow the increasingly bigger ships being built at the Asinav shipyard a way to the Rio Valdivia via the Rio Cruces, out to sea and on to their final destinations. Failures of the lifting mechanism have not been corrected after months of litigation. The now permanently open drawbridge, unusable with no resolution in sight, makes you wonder why there seem to be so many large transportation projects in Chile that may look good on paper, but suffer in execution. Failed revitalization of the railroads and the troubled TranSantiago bus system come to mind.
Since our arrival, Lionel and I had been developing an urge to indulge in Valdivia’s iconic crudo, so we stopped at the place best known for this delicious combination of raw ground beef, chopped onions, pickles, a raw egg, all moistened with lemon juice and accompanied by slices of dense black rye bread.
The Haussman Café, a small bar with several tables located right in the center of town, is friendly and efficient; they suggest you wash down the crudo with their own beer, Cerveza Bundor, so we did, lots of it. Ximena and Luisa rejected the offer of raw beef, and instead ordered juicy roast pork sandwiches, lomitos, probably the most enduring Chilean sandwich kept popular (or vice versa) by the Fuente Alemana in Santiago.
Unfortunately, the old Hotel Schuster has been closed now for many years. It was a warm place where you were welcomed in the bar with “the best pisco sours in Chile”. It’s corrugated metal building still sits proudly on the side street that stretches between the central park and the river. The Centro Alemán and the Protectora de Empleados Particulares, both restaurants that were on the plaza, have disappeared. These very popular places were open to the hungry, thirsty, and lonely; this category often included Peace Corps Volunteers who lived in and near Valdivia, and their visitors.
One old haunt familiar in the past to the forestry community, is the Guata Amarilla, a rustic restaurant serving roast lamb, grilled beef, fried fish, steamed shellfish, and plenty of wine and beer, a favorite venue for dinners and celebrations linked to meetings of foresters at the university. This is where I and many other young foresters and forestry students honed our rayuela and rana skills, the two being games played mostly in the Chilean countryside, in which the players try to toss some object (coin, rock etc.) into a sand pit coming close to or on top of a string stretched across the pit (rayuela), or into the mouth of a brass frog mounted on a wooden box and placed a few meters away (rana). The Guata Amarilla is a true picada, the label given informally to a small, family owned traditional restaurant mostly patronized by locals in search of basic, abundant, inexpensive but tasty Chilean food. It sits along the main highway that enters Valdivia from the north, so when we entered town the day before, we had stopped by to check it out. I am happy to say that not much has changed, including the oft repeated promise that “we are going to renovate the place this summer”. They haven’t done it for decades, and probably they didn’t do it that summer either; actually I hope they don’t. It sits on the shore of the Rio Calle Calle and is worth a visit, especially if they have not “renovated” it. Don’t bother to dress up for the occasion.
Notwithstanding the nostalgia for the historic eating spots now gone, there are plenty of new places we enjoyed on our visit: Pisco sours at Kantu, a comfortable, cozy place overlooking the Rio Calle Calle serving Chilean/Peruvian fare, short ribs, veal cutlets, and sirloin steaks at the Argentine style Parrilla de Thor, just down the street from Kantu, and great pasta and pizza at the Italian Restaurant Approach on the Isla Teja, where we celebrated with a bottle of Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon we had brought along for the occasion. Still can’t figure out the reason for the name of this place, “Approach”, but the pizza and pasta were very good and the service was pleasant.
At this point our journey looped out from Valdivia to the Pacific coast, to the twin towns of Corral and Niebla which sit across from each other at the mouth of the Rio Valdivia, guarding stoically the entrance to the river and hence the city of Valdivia several kilometers upriver. We drove From Valdivia to Niebla, crossing the Isla Teja where the beautiful campus of the Universidad Austral is located, and over the Rio Cruces where it joins the Rio Valdivia. A stop at the touristy Kuntsmann Brewery for a taste of one of their increasingly better beers (Torobayo a favorite) could include a huge sliced pork sandwich, lomito, swathed in way too much mayonnaise and creamy mashed avocado.
In Niebla, if you visit during the summer months of January or February, the very active Fiesta Costumbrista Valdiviana would be a good place to stop to listen to local musical groups, some good and some not so good but trying hard. this is a great place for lunch, as long as you have an abundant appetite. Typical robust Chilean fare, reasonably priced, is served all day every day: hallmark beef stew, cazuela de vacuno, usually bulked up with two or three huge yellowish potatoes, crispy but juicy lamb roasted over wood coals, classical beef empanadas, and Chilean salad, that ever present mixture of sliced tomato, blanched and feathered onion, topped with the ubiquitous cilantro. Don’t miss it, but arrive hungry.
You can leave your car in a lot next to the docks in Niebla and take one of the small boats that ferry folks back and forth to Corral, where the Spanish colonial fort still stands. We took the creaky but waterproof “Estella”, a nautical gem, for our 30 minute crossing to visit the fort at Corral. The last serious “attack” that passed by this fort was the 1960 tsunami that reached all the way up river to Valdivia, leaving ships, homes, and forests destroyed, some under water to this day.
The fort is worth a visit. It sits in a strategic spot with a spectacular commanding view of the mouth of the river and nestled on the outskirts of picturesque Corral, a village of wooden houses, friendly people, and at times towering piles of wood chips from fast-growing eucalytus plantations that have replaced some of the native forests, cut in the period 1920 to 1960 to feed blast furnaces producing steel. After a bit of investigation and to our pleasant surprise, we discovered that there is a small restaurant, Donde La Abuela, where delicious fish is prepared and served happily by, who else, but la abuela herself.
She and her lovely daughter treated us to crispy fried seafood empanadas filled with a mixture of navajelas and huepos, types of local shellfish, after which we savored sautéed robalo, a type of snook, and crispy fried pejerreys, a type of mackerel sometimes called silverside, the freshest seafood you can imagine. Of course the setting helps the flavor; this small rustic family run restaurant, perched up a steep side street in the town overlooking the small port where fishermen and ferryboats arrive and depart with much fanfare provides an unparalleled culinary experience, increasingly difficult to find, unfortunately, on coastal Chile.
Presently, Corral is a town most people just visit to see the fort, returning quickly to Niebla and Valdivia. However, a new road is opening up the coastal area south of Corral, a relatively undeveloped area between the Rio Valdivia and the Rio Bueno just west of the cities of La Union and Osorno, that includes extensive and biologically unique native forest reserves harboring the iconic redwood-like alerce forests, now protected by law from the ax and the chainsaw. Recent reports claim that a 3,500 year old alerce has been located in this area, in the Alerce Costero National Park. There is also disconcerting evidence that some isolated harvesting of the protected alerce is happening in this Reserve. We can only urge the authorities to clamp down on this illegal logging. It will be a tragedy if this new road, by opening the area to increased vehicular traffic, leads to uncontrolled exploitation of this valuable and unique natural resource, contributing to more and larger piles of wood chips in the port of Corral on the way to industrial production centers in Chile and beyond.
We will take our car across to Corral the next time we visit, to explore the new road and the unique forests that hug the coast at this point. But on this day we ferried back the same day to Niebla, like most visitors. But instead of returning to Valdivia the same way we had come, we drove north along the coast towards a protected coastal area named Curiñanco, on a spectacular twisting gravel road that eventually led us back to Valdivia.
The next morning we were greeted by one of those absolutely beautiful crisp sunny days so rare in the rainy south of Chile but revered when they do occur. To be clear, it does still rain a lot in Valdivia, but this was one of the days when it did not. We departed Valdivia early and set out directly east towards the village of Los Lagos located on the Pan-American highway. We exited the city through the modest Collico neighborhood on the south side of the Rio Calle Calle. The entire journey from Valdivia to Los Lagos borders this river on a fabulous newly paved road covering only fifty kilometers. This excellent road cuts through verdant, fertile lands on which crops, animals, and trees comingle in an agro-mosaic environment, highly productive while visually pleasing, surely the source of the fresh produce sold in the fluvial market in Valdivia and neighboring markets as well. The Rio Calle Calle begins in the east as the Rio San Pedro, carrying the waters that flow out from Lago Riñihue and only becomes the Rio Calle Calle as it crosses the Pan-American highway near the town of Los Lagos.
From Los Lagos it is just sixty kilometers more to Panguipulli, the town nestled on the west end of Lago Panguipulli, the gateway into the Valdivian mixed species forests that for decades provided abundant native hardwoods for construction timbers, railroad sleepers, veneer for decorative panels and plywood, beautiful furniture, but also for firewood. To this day wood for fuel represents by far the largest amount of wood taken from Chile’s native forests. The road to Panguipulli skirts Lago Riñihue, the southernmost of the “seven lakes” that, framed by Volcán Choshuenco on the south and Volcán Villarica on the north, make up one of the most spectacular natural areas in Chile.
Panguipulli until recently was a very sleepy town, supporting the forest products industry operating in the Andean foothills further east, and vacationers hearty and adventurous enough to encamp around the lake to fish, boat, and mostly just relax. In the last twenty years or so, though, Panguipulli has grown more as a place for vacationers who own or rent homes along both sides of the long, narrow lake, to shop, eat, and have coffee at the internet cafes. Internet connections are still scarce in some of the more distant areas in the Andean foothills, so these internet cafes are important popular gathering places; hubs of communication. While tourism and vacation homes have grown by leaps and bounds around Panguipulli, the business of forestry has been in steep decline.
The destination for this leg of our journey was Puerto Fuy, a town of a few houses on the western tip of Lago Pirihueico, well east of Panguipulli and almost on the frontier with Argentina. The first class road along the northern edge of Lago Panguipulli provides another breathtaking drive as Volcán Choshuenco comes closer and closer into view at the far end of the lake. Puerto Fuy sits right next to this snow-capped volcano, but before we reached Puerto Fuy we drove through several small towns where sawmills and lumber yards were located, and where the hardy folks lived who worked before in the private forestry estates, and then in the state-owned forestry complex named “Complejo Panguipulli”. The expansive forested area, covering as much as 270,000 hectares, has remained mostly in public ownership for national security reasons due to its proximity to the Argentine border. The forests have been extensively high graded, with most of the valuable trees already harvested. Very little significant native forest management is going on to guide the cutover forests back to a healthy state, and hence most of the population, if they don’t work in tourism, are leaving. Prime examples of this are Choshuenco and Neltume, towns that bustled in the early days of the Complejo Panguipulli. During the Allende Unidad Popular government in the early 1970s, the Complejo was not only a very active center of native forest exploitation, wood production and experimentation with native forest management, but also a political hotspot where a cadre of revolutionaries gathered under the direction of the leftist firebrand named Comandante Pepe, preparing for the revolution.
Just beyond Neltume, the road narrows and turns to gravel. The Huilo Huilo Lodge, a unique agglomeration of four hotels of very different aspect and comfort, and price lurks along the road, shrouded by the native forest that, although harvested repeatedly over the years is still impressive. Even if you are not staying at one of these hotels, and we were not, it is worth a visit. Constructed with mostly local building materials, the impression you get either in the restaurant or walking through the hallways or public areas of which there are many, is that you are very much “at one with nature”. The Huilo Huilo Lodge offers all sorts of activities from fishing expeditions and hiking to ice climbing on the volcano, kayaking and white water rafting on the nearby lakes and rivers. Or, you can simply be there, read, write, and just relax surrounded by the unique and comforting Chilean native forest.
Pablo Neruda could have been in this part of Chile, maybe crossing into Argentina to seek political refuge, when he wrote: “If you have not been in a Chilean forest, you do not know this planet.”
Our destination was just a couple of kilometers further down the road, Puerto Fuy and the Marina Fuy Hotel that sits on the northern edge of Lago Pirihueico. Shortly after we arrived at Puerto Fuy, the ferry that plies Lago Pirihueico from end to end arrived from Puerto Pirihueco. We watched as a truck disembarqued, followed by several hikers with backpacks, a cyclist, two cows, and a couple of cars. This is the only transportation from Puerto Fuy to the other end of the lake, Puerto Pirihueico, and on to Argentina and San Martin de los Andes. The trip across the lake takes about two hours, so even if you are not going on to Argentina, the trip from Puerto Fuy and back exposes you to a most spectacular Andean lake scene, notably with the magnificent snowcapped Choshuenco volcano in the background.
Good food, fantastic views of the lake and surrounding volcanic peaks, forest, and wildlife make a stay at Marina Fuy dreamlike. Even the creaky, uneven wooden floors seem appropriate in this environment. We spent a wonderful day and evening here, we enjoyed a fabulous risotto with a local mushroom for lunch, and tender, medium rare “bife de chorizo” for dinner. We dug out the last bottle of wine we had in the car, a 2008 Concha y Toro Don Melchor, which is usually much too pricey for our table but in this case it seemed most appropriate; it pairs very nicely with Chilean sirloin.
We knew we had to return to Santiago the next day, but mellowed by the moment, we celebrated; Luisa and Lionel, Ximena and I, blessed by the silent comfort of the Valdivian forest, a full moon about to hide behind the volcano but reflecting for awhile on the rippling surface of Lago Pirihueco……and our good and loyal companion, Don Melchor.
Posted on November 4, 2015, in Leesburg, Virginia.
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