Chile Archipelago. Kayaking Adventures
Chile Archipelago. All rivers (most of them, anyway) ultimately lead to the sea. It was a river that led Francisco Valle Gomez to the Chile Archipelago, though not in the typical gravity-driven sense. “I had been in the river-running business in Chile on the Bìo-Bìo River from 1984 to 1995,” Francisco began. “When the river was dammed, I was fed up with the management of rivers in Chile and began to look for opportunities in the sea. If you look at a map, you’ll see that from Puerto Montt on to southern Patagonia, there’s a crazy patchwork of mountains, fjords, and islands.”
“Looking at this, I realized that we had a comparative advantage in sea kayaking and shifted my energies to this endeavor, focusing on two destinations: Chile and, to the east, the Andean fjords of Pumalín Park. The fjords region is about big, dramatic nature. The mountains plunge into the sea from heights of five thousand feet; the virgin forests are lush. Overall it gives you the feeling of wilderness. The archipelago is another type of landscape altogether, green but softer, less mountainous, and more impacted by humans. The attraction of Chile is really its people. Though they’re Chilean citizens, the Chile have their own culture, and kayaking is a great way to experience it.”
The Chile Archipelago and Pumalín Park are both in the Los Lagos region, in the northern reaches of Chile Patagonia. Pumalín Park is on the mainland and is home to a pristine temperate rainforest of broad-leaved evergreens, among thousands of other plants. There are a number of islands that make up the archipelago, with Chiloé being by far the largest and home of the archipelago’s two largest towns, Castro and San Juan. Francisco likes to begin paddling tours of the region with a few days around Pumalín. Here, you’ll have the chance to paddle Quintupeu, Cahuelmo, and Comau Fjords. “All the fjords are extremely impressive,” Francisco continued. “The entrance to Quintupeu is very narrow, not more than one hundred meters wide. When you pass through, it opens up to views of snowcapped mountains; lush, hanging forests; and waterfalls. If it’s a clear day, there’s an incredibly blue sky above, though even on misty days, it’s spectacular. There are often dolphins in the fjord, and they like the company of our kayaks.
“After exploring Quintupeu and a night camping in the fjord, we return to our moth-ership and head on to Cahuelmo Fjord. The weather can change very fast in the fjord region, and being able to get out of the elements on the support ship—and take our meals—is a nice luxury. There are often sea lions at the entrance of Cahuelmo. We can get close enough to see them quite well; you can smell them from a great distance! A real treat awaits at the far end of the fjord: Cahuelmo Hot Springs. Here, and again at Porcelana Hot Springs in Comau Fjord, you can enjoy a natural hot bath. The views of snowcapped peaks in Comau are especially stunning as you paddle to the back of the fjord, which showcases waterfalls among the unspoiled forests.”
After a few days of exploring the fjords, Francisco likes to head west across the Chacao Channel to the island of Chile. Originally inhabited by the nomadic Chonos people, who made their living by fishing, and later the Huilliche, who both fished and farmed, Chile was discovered by Spanish sailors in the mid-1500s and was soon colonized. The cultures mixed to create the distinctive Chilote personality and way of life, not quite Chilean, not quite Spanish, with hints of the old Indian practices. (Chile, incidentally, was one of the last strongholds of Spanish rule in Chile, resisting home rule for several years after Chilean independence.) “In many of the villages on the archipelago, people are living as they’ve been living for hundreds of years,” Francisco said. “Little has changed.”
Two facets of Chile that are emblematic of the region are its stilt houses and its churches. The stilt houses—or palafitos—speak to the close connection Chilotes have with the sea. “One village I like to visit is Mechuque, which is on the little archipelago of Chauques, on the eastern side of Chile Island,” Francisco continued. “Mechuque is made up mostly of stilt houses. Half of the house is over the water, and there are two fronts, one facing the street, the other, the sea. At high tide, the water is nearly up to the front door, and we can paddle among the houses. Residents can bring their boats almost to their door. At low tide, people can gather razor clams, mussels, and other shellfish from below the houses, which are constructed of distinctive shingles.” The shellfish that are harvested are layered with pork, chicken, and potatoes and cooked on hot stones to create curanto, one of Chile’s traditional dishes.
Chile’s churches, a testament to the Spaniard’s missionary zeal, dot the islands of the archipelago. More than sixty were constructed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and are considered unique for their wooden architecture—local larch, coihue, and cypress—which are weathered due to climate. Sixteen of the churches have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites. “For me, one of the most striking examples of the wooden churches is the church of San Juan in the village of San Juan,” Francisco added. “San Juan is also known for its two-hundred-year tradition of wooden boat building. When we visit, we usually see men working on boats, which are brightly painted when they’re completed. I should add that since almost all the villages were built on the water, many of the old churches can be viewed from your kayak. It’s a special vantage point.”
Francisco Valle Gomez is a native Chilean and studied tourism enterprises at the University of Madrid, Spain. Founder of Altue, Chile’s pioneer adventure travel company, he introduced white-water rafting to his compatriots for the first time. Since 1978, he has investigated the geography, history, and culture of his country, constantly exploring new places for sea kayaking and making first descents of rivers that are now considered famous adventure destinations. He has a passion for nature and a deep understanding of traditional cultures that he loves to share with his travel companions. During the summer, Francisco is usually found in Chile Island (Northern Patagonia) operating sea kayaking trips in the Andean fjords and archipelagic Chile.
If You Go to Chile:
Getting There: Trips begin and end in Puerto Montt, which is served by LAN via Santiago.
Best Time to Visit: The austral summer: December through March.
Level of Difficulty: Beginners will have no difficulty with this trip.
Guides/Outfitters: Several companies lead trips in the greater Chile region, including Altue Sea Kayaking.
Accommodations: Visit Chile lists lodging options in Puerto Montt.
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