They say that adventure is what happens when things do not go according to plan. On this trip, absolutely nothing went according to plan, and I had the greatest adventure of my life. It was supposed to be a 6 day hiking trip called the “Trail of the Neighbors”, trekking Chile’s famous Futaleufu River Valley. The trip would depart from near the little town of Futaleufu and take me to a camp located at the confluence of the Futaleufu and Azul rivers. It would be a circumnavigation of the Teta peak along side the Espolon lake, while experiencing deep immersion of the Patagonia culture with homestays in remote ranches. Well, that’s what I went to do. But I ended up on an expedition from the Andes to the Ocean on horseback. I later learned that this route is a bucket list trip for serious and experienced horseback enthusiasts. This route was once the only link between the coastal town of Chaiten and Futaleufu; used by locals and police officials up until 1975, when the Carretera Austral finally opened. I experienced sights and terrain rarely seen or traversed by humans. I crossed rivers and streams without bridges. I rode over a mountain pass towards the recently erupted Chaiten volcano. When the volcano in Chaiten erupted in 2008, the people in that town did not even know there was a volcano there. The farmers in this area had to evacuate for a season while the ash from the volcano was washed away by winter rains. The route was only recently opened again and remains very dangerous, but it is experiencing the raw power of nature at its best.
Actually just getting to the starting point was a journey in itself. I took a flight from Atlanta to Buenos Aires, another flight from Buenos Aires to Esquel, a taxi to Trevelin, and then another taxi to the Argentina/ Chile border where I met up with my guide. Her name was Natalia (Nati) and I could tell right away that we were going to get along great. We stopped by a tourist office in Futaleufu, “Futa” for short, to leave behind all the stuff I would not need for our trek in the wilderness ahead. I would be carrying everything I need in my daypack. We also stopped by a store to get some necessities- Pisco and cookies. We rode in a van with some rafters to our starting point. After walking and talking for only a few minutes, she told me to put down my pack, “I want to show you something. This is where the magic starts.” We bushwhacked a little to an overlook where the powerful Futaleufu river was raging below. I cannot accurately explain the intensity of this river. Kayakers and rafters come from all over the world to shoot the Class II to Class V+ rapids that it offers. The river is fed by glacial and snow melt in the Andean lakes region of Argentina and Chile. The name Futaleufu is an indigenous Mapuche word that means “Grand Grand Waters,” and locals often refer to the valley as “un paisaje pintado por Dios”- a landscape painted by God.
We hiked on a little more and she told me that we were entering the property of a friend of hers. It is his backyard and it is utterly beautiful. We stopped at a beautiful waterfall to snap some pictures.
We stopped at the friend’s house, a nice little rustic cabin with a view of Espolon lake. He was not there but we sat on his front porch to eat lunch. His horses were all standing around looking at us wondering who we were and why we were there. It’s the kind of place that does not see many visitors. You can only arrive by foot, horse, or boat. There are no roads. We picked some cherries from his tree, snacked on some, and carried the rest with us for later. They were the most divine cherries I had ever tasted.
Now up until this point, with all the hiking I have done in other parts of the world and at home in Georgia, I have never fallen down once. I fell down three times on this first day of hiking! Nati said that I was “comprando tierra” (buying land). Every time I fell down, I was buying a piece of land there. The dirt was so loose and I’ve never been on terrain like that. She explained that the dirt is still mixed with a lot of ash from the volcano eruption. If you can imagine what it would be liking walking downhill in sand, that’s kind of what it was like. We arrived to where we would be staying for the night, the Cabanas Tres Morros. The cabins are run by a lady named Marcela, her husband Nestor, and her 2 children who open their home and an extra building to the few travelers that come through. There are also plenty of animals- dogs, cats, ducks, and chickens. We sat down in the cabin to share a Mate and have a chat with Marcela. Now, the people in Chile and Argentina take their mate seriously. Mate tea is an infusion of the leaves of a South American shrub (Yerba Mate), which is high in caffeine and bitter. There is a whole ritual to drinking it. I did not know the etiquette so Nati gave me a lesson. We heard the dogs barking, someone was arriving. It was an American couple on a horseback trip, their two guides, and a dog. The American couple is Amanda and Shane, they work for the US State Department and live in Juarez Mexico. Their guides are Ervin and Fabian. Ervin is the guy whose cabin we had lunch at, and ate cherries from his tree. Fabian is Nati’s brother. For the first three nights, they will be horseback riding the same route Nati and I will be walking and we will be staying at the same places. As we’re all getting acquainted, Marcela’s husband Nestor arrived by boat with about a dozen sheep tied up. Lamb is a big part of the cuisine in Patagonia. The children went running outside screaming and cheering. At first I thought they were excited to see their dad, but then I realized they were screaming “Cordero!!”. They were excited about eating some good lamb soon. We had a wonderful dinner that night, and then played cards for a long time, while drinking some Pisco. When it got dark, we went outside to the beach and made a bonfire. We stayed out there until 2 AM talking, watching the fire, looking at the stars, and listening to music. The stars in this remote area are so very amazing. You see a shooting star every few minutes and you can even see satellites up there moving across the sky. Fabian selected the music. The first song he chose was “Songbird” by Eva Cassidy. This happens to be one of my most favorite songs, it’s what I listen to when I need to relax on an airplane, and I always listen to Eva Cassidy when I’m writing. I think it’s a pretty obscure song for a guy like him to like, as my first impression of him was a rough and tough gaucho cowboy. We all eventually went to bed. I slept wonderfully despite the tied up lamb crying right outside my window and the roosters crowing early in the morning.
We all slept in the next morning. I rarely ever sleep past 7 or 8, even on weekends. I slept until 10 and I woke up feeling very well rested and content. There was no need to start hiking early that day since we did not have very far to go. We said goodbye to and thanked our hosts, and Nati and I set off on foot, while Amanda, Shane, Fabian, Ervin, and Vaquero (Ervin’s dog) set off on horseback. It was very hot and dry that day, but I wasn’t complaining. All around me was stunning natural beauty and the sounds of nature.
Right after taking these pictures, Nati took us off the trail so we could get out of the heat and direct sunlight. Perhaps if we walk in the forest, we won’t be as hot. Now, I know very well that you’re not supposed to leave the trail. But I trusted my guide and I wasn’t opposed to getting out of the heat. So we headed into the forest. It was very thick. Most of the time we were breaking and bending branches so we could pass through. My pack and my clothes kept getting stuck on branches. I fell down some more. I was getting very tired- the area we were in was a side of a mountain heading down to the huge lake at the bottom. I only had a half bottle of water left and she had none. This bushwhacking went on for several hours. I finally asked her if we were lost. She said no, as long as we can see the lake on the left we’re heading in the right direction, it will just take us longer to get there. I told her I was getting worried since we didn’t have much water left and we were sharing. I felt like we were totally screwed but didn’t want to get panicked or upset. At one point we sat down to take a rest, and proceeded to have a very personal conversation. Things in both of our personal lives weren’t going so well, and this little mishap felt like the last straw. She said that this will be the last time she guides this trip, she cannot live with herself knowing that she lost the trail on this route that she has been traveling her entire life. She has grown up in this area and knows it well. She thanked me for not being mad with her, and said that we really need to find the trail. I asked her if she prays and she said no. My instincts were telling me that we needed to walk up. As we start walking up the mountain, I prayed. I told God that I love Him and adore Him with all my heart and I thank Him for saving me by His grace. I thanked Him for the amazing opportunity to spend this time in His beautiful creation. I then plead for help to find the trail repetitively. Lord, please help us find the trail. We bushwhacked uphill for about 10-15 more minutes. She was a little ahead of me and she suddenly stopped and looked around. The trail~ we found it! We screamed with joy and she gave me the biggest hug, we both had tears in our eyes. We had been really lost but it was over now. I was so happy. Right about that time, Ervin came running down the trail on his horse. When we had not shown up at the river crossing, he knew something was wrong. He had been all the way back to where we started and back, and was on the second trip back looking for us when we found each other. We met up with the others and continued on. We were exhausted from our ordeal, my knee was hurting from all the falls, and we were running late so I rode with Ervin on his horse and Nati rode with Fabian on his. I have only been on a horse once before, so I was not entirely at ease, but I did enjoy the ride. When you’re hiking you always have to be mindful of your feet, but on the horse I was able to look around and enjoy the pristine scenery. Ervin and I talked as we rode along. We were entering the settlement of Espolon. He explained to me that the mountains all around us are at great risk because the mining companies believe there to be gold there. The people who live there and in the surrounding towns are constantly fighting to protect their land and way of life.
We arrived at our destination for the night- Irma’s house. We had a cold beer, a satisfying dinner, and then headed out to the back to make another bonfire. I chose the music this night- Simon and Garfunkel. We sat around for a long time looking at the fire, talking, and watching the stars. At one point, I was laying on my back and saw the most spectacular shooting star I have ever seen and probably will ever see. It shot across the entire sky leaving a long trail behind it. Fabian was the only other person who saw it and we both gasped at the same time. Despite the day’s events, I felt happier than I have in a very long time.
On the third day, Nati and I set out walking for a couple of hours to our lunch spot which would be near a beautiful river in the settlement of Espolon. On the way we met up with her friend Fabio, who walked with us. We stopped at the river where we wet our feet, and played cards for a while. After a while Amanda, Shane, Ervin, Fabian, and Vaquero came down the trail on their horses. We all passed the afternoon relaxing in that beautiful spot and having lunch. Ervin went for a swim. I learned that neither Nati nor Fabian knew how to swim. At one point Ervin and Fabian picked me up by the arms and legs and carried me over to the river to dip me in it! It was so cold, but it felt good to cool off and to laugh that hard. Nati, Fabio, and I continued walking for a few more hours. We saw several bandurias, a bird that is very common in Patagonia. You can always hear them honking and see them around. At one point, we saw a banduria sitting on a bridge all by itself. Nearby, there was an empty pizza box sitting right there propped up against the bridge. We laughed about how it looked like the banduria ordered a pizza. We arrived to where we would be sleeping that night, Grandmother and Sergio’s house. There was a river nearby so we all hiked down to it and even I went for a swim this time. The grandmother and Sergio’s house had the cutest little piglets hanging around. They would scratch their bodies on the wood sitting around and make pleasure faces and noises. It was very entertaining to watch. While we were down at the river, Ervin had left his bag sitting on the ground. The piglets got into it and ate all of Vaquero’s dog food and drank a whole liter of wine! We made another bonfire that night and sat around it again talking, drinking, watching the stars, and listening to music. Nati’s first song choice was Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd. How random to be listening to this song in the middle of the Patagonia wilderness! Amanda and Shane had brought ingredients for Smores and they taught the Chileans how to make them. On this night in our room, Nati first asked me how I would feel about changing the plan. Would I by any chance want her and I to keep going with the rest of the group instead of going our separate ways the next day? She explained that it was a really amazing trip but that we would have to do most of it on horse. We would end up near the coastal town of Chaiten, instead of back near Futa where we started. I was down, but I had many questions. I have only been on a horse once in my life and I’m terrified of it. She told me since we didn’t have another horse I would ride with Fabian and he would take good care of me. I also wanted to make sure I would arrive back in Trevelin on the same night because I had already paid for a room. We decided to sleep on it and decide in the morning. That night as I was laying in bed I thought about it. I have always been scared of horseback riding. Maybe it was time for me to face that fear. Facing fears and stepping outside your comfort zone is supposed to make you grow. My knee was still hurting anyway from all those falls on the second day and I didn’t know if I could keep hiking on it if we stayed with our original plan. I was really enjoying hanging out with everyone in the group and wanted to spend some more time with them. The next morning I told her yes let’s do the trip with all of us together.
The next day we did an easy ride on the horses to a beautiful waterfall they call the “Salto Espolon”. The ride was very easy and pleasant. When we arrived, Ervin started preparing the fire and the grill for the reheated lamb meat. We had also carried salad and bread with us. Fabian, Fabio, and Sergio caught about a dozen trout from the pond within the first 10 minutes we were there! People come from all over the world to fly fish in southern Chile. On my flight to Esquel, my entire airplane was full of older American men heading down to a resort to fly fish for a week. The Chileans fish by tying a piece of string to a can and winding it around. There are these insects called Tauros always buzzing around annoyingly- they just kill one of those and use it as the bait. Amanda wanted to learn how to clean fish so Fabian taught her. They threw them on the grill and it made for a very nice appetizer.
The “Salto Espolon” is actually a series of three waterfalls. After lunch we crossed the stream to see the other two higher waterfalls.
I was somewhat quiet on this day. I was very nervous about the next day’s long trek on horseback.
On the way back, Fabian tried to give me a riding lesson on his horse while he walked. This was comical. There were lots of obstacles on the path, and instead of stepping over or around them, this horse liked to jump. Fabian said, try not to be scared because the horse can sense it. Great. I told him how nervous I was and that it might seem ridiculous to him because he has been riding all his life, but it is difficult for me to trust this large animal, especially when I don’t know what I’m doing. I think he was annoyed so I apologized for being a pain in the ass. He laughed and said he would like to teach me more tomorrow, but on a more mellow horse. That sounded like a better idea to me also.
I ended up riding back with Fabio and as we passed the homes, mostly abandoned, he told me all about the history of the area. His family dates back in that area for many years.
That night after dinner I took some Ibuprofen and went straight to bed. I was sore from riding the horse and wanted to be well rested for the next day.
We got sort of an early start the next day, around 9. It was going to be a 10 hour day. Nati and I set out first so we could walk a couple of hours. We walked along talking about life, relationships, music, all that good stuff. The weather was perfect. We eventually got to a place where the terrain was going to be becoming more difficult with steep unstable hills, dangerous river crossings, and mud. It was time to get on the horses. Fabian could tell I was tense. I was dead silent and had a death grip on the horn of the saddle. As we rode along he was very patient with me and helped me do things to relax. He told me that horseback riding is good therapy for anxiety and trust issues. He said that the horse does not want me to fall off of her and does not want to kill me, I can trust her and I can trust him to keep me safe. Still, every time we ran up or down a hill I was holding on tight and praying with everything I had.
We came into an area that was very thick with brush. Once again we were bushwhacking, this time on horseback, which is not easy. There was no way this was a trail. Still, Fabian did not let a single branch touch me. He would push them away with his arms. Ervin explained that he was told that the new route went to the left of the river, so that’s what we were doing. Shane fell off his horse at one point. He was not hurt and was laughing so it was all good. We finally came to a clearing and stopped to figure out what to do next. The pack horse said screw this and went running off up the hill. We got off the horses and Fabian went to look for a path ahead or around. He was gone for a long time. While we waited, Ervin picked some wild strawberries and we all had a nice sweet snack.
Finally Fabian returned, but he had not found the path. We decided to backtrack and go with the older route that Ervin knew well. It is really easy to get lost here. There are no blazes, signs, or even maps. There are some areas of shoulder height bushes and the animals make paths around so you never really know if you’re heading in the right direction or not, until you arrive somewhere and you are where you’re supposed to be or you’re not. Anyway, we did finally get back on track. We rode through this beautiful green forest. Riding through there, I felt like I needed someone to pinch me. It looked like an enchanted forest from your childhood fairytales. And Fabian finally figured out a way to make me relax- humor! We rode along laughing and talking.
We arrived at a beautiful spot by a creek and stopped to have lunch there. Ervin made a fire and reheated the lamb meat that we ate with some bread and salad that we had carried. We relaxed there by the river for a while. Ervin and I went into the woods to collect herbs for a tea. At one point we just stopped and looked around and enjoyed the stillness. He said there are no people around for many miles, only animals live here.
It started to look like the weather was turning bad, but it never did. We had a lot more ground to cover so we headed out. It was more forest for a while, more running up and down hills and hanging on for dear life. Once while careening down a hill, Fabian yelled to me, “This is advanced therapy”. We eventually came to this place that looked other worldly, like we were on another planet. It was this wide open area of quicksand like terrain that was about the size of a football field. I could suddenly sense that we were very high. Then, we went over this little hill and I realized we were at a pass. My breath was literally taken away and my eyes welled up with tears. The beauty was overwhelming and completely unexpected. We got off our horses to enjoy the moment and take some pictures. Even Vaquero seemed to enjoy the wonder of it all.
Going down this mountainside was too dangerous to do on horse, so we walked down. It was dangerous walking too. There was lots of slick mud on the rock and I slid down the mountain a few times. Once we got down we went back into a forest. The path was very muddy and very narrow. We got off the horses many times to walk through it because falling off the horse here would mean getting crushed.
It was getting dark but I had a headlamp. In summer in Patagonia it doesn’t get dark until around 11 pm. We started having problems with the pack horse. She was very tired and was having a hard time navigating the narrow spots. She would get stuck in some places, and at one point she collapsed. It was very scary and difficult to watch. They eventually got her back up, gave her some water, and let her rest. We rode along for a few more hours in the dark. I would have been content to make camp anywhere for the night, but we were trying to make it to a house where we would camp or perhaps be invited to sleep inside. There was more therapy- Fabian made me turn off my headlamp. He said that horses see very well at night, better than us, and I could just close my eyes and trust the horse and enjoy the ride. He played the Eva Cassidy song to help me relax, and it worked. It was a beautiful moment I will always remember. At 3 AM, we finally arrived at the house. I could not believe it, but Nati, Fabian, and Ervin went and knocked on their door to ask for permission to camp on their property. This is not something I would ever think would be OK at this hour, but Nati said that people who live in Patagonia are willing to help anyone at anytime. It is such a remote place and no one wants anything bad to happen to anyone. To my surprise, they invited us all to sleep in their barn where they had extra beds. Shane and Amanda went straight to bed. I was exhausted but for some reason I didn’t want to go to bed yet. I sat out in a shed with Nati, Fabian, and Ervin and we made a fire, listened to music, drank some wine, and gave each other shoulder massages. We realized that we had just done a 17 hour day! It took 7 hours more than it should have because of getting lost and problems with the pack horse. I eventually made my way to the barn to sleep. As I walked away, I heard Ervin and Fabian listening to “Open Arms” by Journey, “Lying beside you, here in the dark…” Nati made a Brokeback Mountain joke. The first thing I saw when I walked into the barn where I would be sleeping was a fresh sheep’s head on the floor. Good night Patagonia!
When we woke up the next morning we were invited in for breakfast and we got to know the family that graciously let a bunch of strangers onto their property at 3 AM. It was an older lady and man and their daughter, son in law, and grandson were visiting from Chiloe. The son in law, I think his name was Jaime, got out his accordion and played some music. He was so good! At the end of every song, the little boy would yell “BRAVO!”. We even danced.
We had a 4 hour ride ahead of us so we said our goodbyes and headed out. That last day’s ride was beautiful. The sun was shining and the riding was easy besides a few difficult river crossings. I was finally relaxed on the horse. Fabian and I continued talking and laughing all the way. We saw the Chaiten volcano. After one last river crossing, we had arrived in Chaiten and were done. I took a moment with the horse we had been riding, to thank her for her sure-footedness and for keeping me safe. Her name was Terere, which means cold mate. We rode back to Futa in a car after dropping Shane and Amanda off in Chaiten. It was looking like I was going to miss the border crossing back to Argentina so I spent the night at Nati’s house. I got to meet her mom, who made us ravioli and french fries. I was able to take a shower for the first time in a few days which was really nice. Ervin and Fabian could have gone home at that point, but we all continued to hang out and sing along with Journey songs. Ervin does not speak a single word of English, but he can sing along perfectly with Journey.
After a restful night of sleep at Nati’s house, I woke up the next morning with tears in my eyes. I was sad the adventure was over, but so happy to have had the experience. Fabian came back that morning to say good bye to me. He gave me a big hug and picked me up in the air. He gave me a little leather saddle that now hangs from my car rearview mirror. I thanked them for a wonderful experience and for taking good care of me. Their mom drove me to the airport in Esquel.
At the end of this trip, my stomach and my face hurt from laughing and smiling so much. I had also faced and overcome my fear of riding a horse. I had made new friends. I also feel that I got back in touch with a part of me that was lost for a few years. In my life at home, everything is according to plan and according to schedule. On this trip, I was able to trust the universe and let the adventure unfold even though what I was doing was very dangerous at times. This is very hard to explain but in those moments when I was skidding down a hill on top of a horse while absolutely terrified, at the same time I was thinking that I could die happy- happier than I’ve been in many years, with these friends, in this place, with these animals, and this joyous pounding heart. It’s one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever experienced.