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Adventure Travel in Patagonia Chile

Fall 2005

“South American Beauty & The Beast”
From Exploring Magnificent Landscapes to rafting death-defying rapids…it’s time to rock and roll in Patagonia.
By Joe Kane; Photography by Jay Dickman

This is not splash mountain joked Harvey King, our seasoned guide. Ten Yards behind him, the mighty Futaleufu blasted through the Southern Andes, deep in the Chilean Patagonia. Futaleufu is a Mapuche word for “big river”; but my gut told me it could very well mean “mother of all washing machines.” The Futa is one of the world’s premier whitewater rivers, a raging, translucent green beauty that will steal your heart even as she breaks your bones. Until now, running her has meant an expedition-style assault, rafting serious rapids by day, and making camp in demanding conditions.

But an American company called H2O Patagonia has made a big bet on the Futaleufu. Run a world-class river with the best guides in the business, the proposition goes, then kick back in a first-rate lodge, nursing tired muscles with daily massages, hot tub and gourmet food and wine. Build it and they will come, credit cards in hand, not only to raft but also to hike, ride and fish in a place whose wild beauty has bewitched the likes of Ted Turner, Sylvester Stallone, and Yvone Chouinard, to name just a few of the wealthy Americans who have invested in Patagonia farms and ranches.

The 15 of us gathered there on the banks of the Futa listening to Harvey King were members of H2O’s maiden voyage as it was billed. Though clad in all of the gallimaufry of the bipedal river rat—neoprene wetsuits, waterproof paddling jackets, contoured life vests, foot gear that looked fit for a moon landing—we were an unlikely crew. (“A Wonderbra for men! said Peter, a New York investment banker, marvelling over his belly-flattening wet suit.) Some of us had only basic river-running experience; others had none at all. Harvey and his fellow guides were charged with leading us safely through water rated Class V. in which mistakes carry a high probability of mortal consequences.

“There are three rules for running the river,” Harvey continued. “They are also good for running your life. One: Listen to your guide. Two: Stay calm. If it is your time, it’s your time. Go out with some composure.” Pause. “Just Kidding.” Three: “Practice aggressive self –rescue. If you get in trouble, get on your stomach and swim.”
Born in the remote highlands along the boarder between Chile and Argentina and rushing West to the Pacific, the Futaleufu courses through a storybook valley lined with forested hills and snow-capped granite peaks—a Jackson Hole for the intrepid. To reach it from Seattle took me 36 hours of travel, the last three bouncing along a dirt road in a van through terrain so rugged that horseback is still a preferred mode of local transport. We passed chalet-style houses and beret-wearing sheperds, rolled through the sleeping village of Futaleufu, and two miles beyond it pulled up next to a spanking new riverside lodge, a six-sided building of glass and wood that housed a vast hearth and dining hall. Twenty-two cozy wooded bungalows were tucked along the river. I shuffled into Number Seven, took two sips on an ice-cold Crystal beer, secured myself under a down comforter about three feet thick and collapsed.

In the morning I slept through the 7:00 a.m. yoga session, gorged on the last of the four-zillion-course breakfast buffet, and climbed back into a van. As head guide Mitch Sasser explained, the program would have us running progressively more challenging rapids over the course of the week. We’d start with a shakedown cruise on a classic Futa run called Bridge-to-Bridge, a chain of 12 intermediate-grade rapids spread over six miles. We’d meet the river on three rafts, each of them lead by a veteran river guide and escorted by an expert kayaker poised to fish out swimmers. Two-world champion rafters, Beth Ripens and Phil Boyer would shadow our flotilla in swift, one-man rescue vessels called catarafts.

After Harvey gave us basic instructions in safety and paddling techniques. I boarded a raft captained by a soft-spoken 35-year old South African named Stan Ricketts, who has been guiding full-time on four continents for the last 14 years. He welcomed me aboard, handed me a paddle, and directed me to a seat amidships. Four other guests were seated along the raft’s side tubes. Stan explained that he would control the raft from the stern with two 11-foot oars. At his command, we would supply power. “All forward” and “back” meant paddle. “Jump right” and “jump left” meant rush to one side of the boat if the river was forcing it to rise up. “Hold on get down ” meant grab the safety line, kneel on the floor, and pray that Stan could handle things himself.
In bright sun and a soft wind we pushed into the stretch of slow current, practiced paddling forward, back, and in circles, then took aim on our first rapid, La Entrada (“The Entrance”)—a class IV that could safely be run on its left side but had an ugly, seine-like string of boulders to the right in which a British woman, rafting with another company, had drowned only the week before. We’d prefer not to have swimmers here said Stan, and then we were off.

It had been a while since I’d been on a big river, and I’d forgotten the magic that happens when you’re in its grip. One moment we were surrounded by walls of roiling water, paddling urgently to Stan’s brisk commands. (“All forward! Hold on! All back!”) The next we were soaring on top of a wave, high above the river, mountains and forest hurtling upstream to either side. Down, up, down for what might have been minutes and what might have been hours, the Futa roaring all the while.
And then suddenly we burst through the rapids tail into the calm waters below and Stan yelled “high five” and we were clapping our paddles overhead and scouting “Futaleufu!” and laughing the slightly hysterical, adrenaline –charged laughter that comes with the secret knowledge borne of running big water: The river is alive.

Twelve rapids, 12 exhilarating runs without mishap. At days’ end, bone tired and giddy with success, we piled into the vans and popped a beer or three. Back at the lodge, some of us checked into the spa and melted beneath the fingers of two staff masseuses; others settled into the wood fired hot tub. Simmering nicely I leaned back in the tub, drained a cold Crystal, and could think of no good reason not to stay there for the rest of my life.
Then I smelled dinner. Jelly-kneed and freshly showered, I set course for the dining hall and confronted a Class V buffet: curried carrot soup; appetizers of ceviche and lamb-and –vegetable skewers with mint sauce; a salad of mixed greens with roasted garlic vinaigrette; chicken breast braised in white wine and Dijon; grilled rib-eye steaks with garlic sauce; basmati rice; potatoes crumbled with sour cream and chives; and chocolate and walnut cake with caramel and rum. Given that the house chef was Rocio Ariste, a Chilean trained at Washington D.C.’s Tabard Inn, I did the only reasonable thing and ate beyond all bounds of decency and shame.

Outside the lodge, a chill wind whistled through the valley; inside, the hearth blazed as we finished dessert and Mitch led a group discussion. Our trip had been described as a multi-adventure package that would include hiking, horseback riding, and fishing. The plan had been to spend Day Two off the water, but now some of the clients, emboldened by the day’s fine run, pushed for a change. “We can go home and fish and hike anytime,” said Bernie, yet another American banker. “We came here to run the river.” A vote ended in a tie, and Mitch announced that we would get back on the rafts in the morning. We’d run the bridge-to-bridge again but continue down through our first class V rapid, Mas o Menos--more or less.

From the start, Day Two was different. The river was up, running harder, and the sky was leaden and the wind more urgent. We put in at mid-morning and, for practice, flipped the raft, piling to one side and launching ourselves into the cold green river. Good morning! Quickly, Stan righted the raft and hauled us in. Then we watched Harvey’s team. Their raft slowly rose up and heaved, the crew sank and surfaced.
At Pillow rock, the second significant bridge-to-bridge rapid, Mitch’s boat slid up along a house sized boulder in mid river and jettisoned its crew. We got our own jolt of adrenaline half an hour later, on a Class IV rapid called Mundaca, which has an eight foot wave hidden in it’s turbulent heart. We hit it head on, and suddenly bodies were flying past me. Marcelo Quinteros disappeared over the side, and then Steve, and then Fred. “All forward!” Stan yelled, and we broke through the wave and collected our teammates in the calm pool below. Marcelo said his swim had been fun, but like the others, he had a look in his eye that suggested there might be more going on in that river than he’d thought.

We pulled into an eddy to organize ourselves before taking on Mas o Menos. By now a steady rain was falling. Surveying the gorge’s ramparts, I counted 11 waterfalls and understood all at once why the words gorge and gorgeous have the same root. And then I could think of nothing else except that Mas o Menos was all that stood between me and the hot tub. “Pull hard” Stan said. “Lock those feet and ankles in and when I yell hold on, hold on.”

I still have no real idea what happened when we hit the rapid, except the needle on my adrenaline meter pegged at full. We paddled forward, we paddled backward and once amazingly we stopped dead still in the middle of the rapid as water tore by on all sides. We turned left, we turned right, we held on and sprang back into action. And at the bottom, in a frigid rain now falling with abandon, we were as wet and happy as ducks.
After dinner that night noone objected after Mitch said we would take a day off the rafts, and in the morning I joined Mitch and Harvey and a half dozen guests for a hike upriver. We climbed through a federal forest reserve into a high meadow dotted with pear, cheery, and apple trees with wild mosqueta roses, and then, further up, conifers and a rare stand of gnarly old-growth deciduous trees called coigue. Castle Peak loomed across the valley, and behind it the mountains were dusted with frost.

As we hiked we got the full Patagonia: One moment a blast of sun, the next an icy, hat-stealing wind, then cloudbursts from a suddenly lowering sky. From atop the canyon we could see the Argentine boarder, two miles distant, marked by nothing more than a handful of rough shacks huddled in the gray light. After a few miles we descended to the river and ducked into the lee of a boulder field and snacked on plums, nectarines and chocolate.

It was a beautiful day in a wild place, but as Harvey and Mitch explained, the Futa might not always be so. A Spanish power company, Endesa, has secured the water rights to most of southern Chile and has already built five dams on the Bio Bio, north of the Futa, which less than a decade ago was one of the world’s best whitewater rivers. “People in the Valley didn’t even know water rights existed,” said Mitch, who is married to a local woman and lives year-round in Futaleufu, which has only a thousand inhabitants. “You used the river because you’d always used the river.” Endesa exploited a loophole in Chilean law, locking up rights to the Futa through a clever paper-play in distant Santiago, the national capital. “No one here knew it was happening,” Mitch said “They never had a chance.”

That night the rain fell in buckets and morning light revealed snow well down the mountainsides, and at breakfast the guides called off the day’s run through Inferno Canyon, the most spectacular and challenging stretch of the Futa—once you enter the canyon there is no exit but the river itself. But the river had risen further still and the air temperature had continued to drop, and in the long pools between the canyon’s big rapids, guests might chill down so much they’d be unable to paddle when called upon.
Instead, the guides organized a group to run the Rio Azul, a Futa tributary, in inflatable kayaks. I’d never ridden a horse so Mitch arranged for me and three other guests to spend the day with a local gaucho named Torivio Baeza and his 20 year old son Fabian. They live on a 20 acre ranch on the edge of the village and own 17 horses and no vehicles. Squat and powerful at 47, Torivio wore a broad suede gaucho brim and chaps made from two tanned puma hides, one for each leg.
“Cool,” I said.
“In my country when something is very good, we say it is ‘cool’.”
“We say it is very good.”

Horseback riding is very good. As we skirted town and crossed the river and climbed through a rocky zone called Las Escalas “The Stairs”, I felt like I was riding through every cowboy movie I had ever seen. This was frontier country; across the canyon soared a dozen spectacular peaks and spires, only a few of which bore names. The sun broke through and lit the landscape in a thousand dazzling shades of dun and gold, and by mid afternoon we’d reached a high, postcard-perfect grassland, home to a few small ranches and a one-room schoolhouse, the Futaleufu running through the heart of it all.
Torivio said that both he and his wife were born in the Futaleufu Valley, which because of its remoteness and ruggedness, has been settled for less than a hundred years. “It was difficult when I was a child,” he said. “Nothing grew here. The winters are long and harsh. People died young.”

Tourism—specifically, river running—has changed some of that. By guiding horses for rafting companies, the Baeza family supplements its subsistence living with little cash, and Torivio was able to send Fabian’s older brother, Eduardo, to the city to study accounting and computer science. “That money is what enables me to give my children a better life,” he said. That the Futa might be damned outraged him. “it would destroy us,” he said, “and we will fight it.” But he found rafting’s allure elusive. “The river is big, fast and cold. People born here never learn to swim. Who would want to go in that water?” He laughed out loud. “Only crazy Americans!”
Those crazy American shave also been buying up land in the valley, and Torivio said the ranch we were riding through—80 drop—dead gorgeous river front acres—was for sale. The price? He checked with Fabian: about US$1,500 an acre. That represented a tenfold increase over the last five years. Of course Torivio said with a smile, it was also about five times the “local” price.

We crossed the Futa on a cabled wood-slat bridge and stopped for lunch at the compact home of lively, toothless Nelly Barga, mother of 13 kids and grandmother of 35. Three of them sat in the kitchen and watched silently as Neli served us a traditional Chilean chicken cazuela, or stew; a salad of homegrown greens; and a plate of cheese made from the milk of her own cows. Then according to custom, we passed around a small brass cup called a mate, sipping the tea of the same name through a silver straw called a bombilla, each man drinking his fill.

By the time we wound back down out of the highlands and into the sleepy streets of Futaleufu I’d been in the saddle eight hours and been thrilled every minute of it. Torivio galloped ahead to lay a fire and get mate brewing for us on the ranch. Fabian and I rode slowly through town, until he suddenly started cutting between houses. When I caught up to him I pointed out that we’d just trod across other people’s property. He threw his head back and laughed a laugh of the open trail. “We are gauchos!” he said. “We have no boarders!” It was a good rule for Patagonia, I thought. And for life.
In Futa there is a limited variety of tourist camps and comfortable lodges, but it is hard to beat H2O Patagonia with its new lodge and 22 cozy bungalows tucked along the river.


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