It’s 9am and I’m standing in the brilliant sunshine on the shore of the Espolon river. I’ve been staring at the tan sandy cliff across the river from me for 45 minutes. The sun has just risen behind me and has lit up the face of the 150 foot cliff like a giant movie screen and the longer I watch and listen the more I see and hear. A falcon swoops to the water line and takes a drink, then flutters twenty feet back up the vertical face and lands next to a shrub and a slight movement and there is another one sitting next to it. The birds color matches the sandy cliff face so well that it is invisible if time is not slowed down enough to make it appear. Then I see a hole about halfway up the face and out flies a swallow, then two more, and they skim the cliffs face in flight in what must be pure joy. Then two sheep appear on the cliffs edge then disappear like white ghosts. I hear at least ten different bird calls. There is something hypnotic about this scene, the sound of the river running, it’s like one of those 3D paintings that jump out at you after staring at it the right way, only this one is real and it fills all my senses.
I’ve been camped on the Espolon river for two days now, just outside of the town of Futeleufu, in a tranquil campground that is owned and run by Arturo and Monica. He calls it Camelot and we laugh when I tell him that’s perfect because my name is Lance! Futeleufu is in a valley that is surrounded by the Andes, about five miles from Argentina. It’s incredibly beautiful here. I travelled sixty miles up a gravel road by bus to get here. Besides being a crossing point into Argentina it has world famous class 5 rapids on the Futeleufu river, just outside of town. They won’t let you near a raft or kayak at the point of access if you can’t show papers proving that you are rated for it. Dang, must be a heck of an adrenaline rush. I may try to catch a ride on a calmer part of the river.
I want to fill in the gap between here and Chaiten (I was out of cell range for a few days). I traveled twenty miles by bus beneath hanging glaciers and giant mountains on the Carretera Austral to the tiny town of Amarillo, the southern entry point to Pumalin National Park. The park is huge and was created with funding from Douglas and Kristine Tompkins, founders of the North Face company. They fell in love with Patagonia and helped create enormous parks and protected areas. Doug died of hypothermia while kayaking with friends on lake General Carrera, south of here, in 2015. It’s a four mile hike into the park to the nearest camping spot. It’s a partly cloudy day with mist on the mountains and birds and frogs are whooping it up and a glacial river, running cold and milky colored is talking to me and the air that the green green forest has just made is as fresh as it gets. I make camp and hike into the back of the valley and return to camp and make a dinner of ramen and chicken soup and loan my little stove to a guy in his twenties who tells me in broken English that he really needs a hot meal, which makes sense because the cold Andean wind has begun to bluster and the rain has started. Then I hit the hay and it rains all night and I find out that my faithful old tent leaks and most everything gets wet but that’s how it goes so I pack up and hike out the next morning. I’m running out of ways to say gorgeous and this place tops the list, if that is possible. The road splits where the Carretera Austral meets the trail out of the park and I take a gravel road that leads up into the mountains to Amarillo hot springs. It’s a three mile walk and I’ve just walked four so I don’t mind when a van pulls over and offers a ride. I find a funky old Hostal at the hot springs, surrounded by jungle, and am greeted by a tall, soft spoken Goucho looking guy who I learn is the owner and lives there alone with his cat. He shows me a room, I take it, he lights a wood stove that sits in the corner and shows me where the stone lined sunken hot tub is and I empty the soaked contents of my backpack in my room and hang them everywhere possible and immerse my tired, sore body into the steaming mineral water, surrounded by jungle, birds singing, chickens clucking, dogs barking, cat meowing and the creaking of floors in the old wooden house that surrounds me. I meet a couple from Tubingen, Germany who are also guests. Marvin speaks good English and he remembers me from the info center in Chaiten. It takes me awhile to remember he and his wife and I tell him that sometimes remembering is like reeling in a fish from the bottom of a deep sea! We have a great time, nice to have someone to speak English with. Night falls. This is the first time ever to hear birds singing all night. The German couple head out at six am next day, I have breakfast with the owner, sun beaming through trees, pack my backpack and thank him for an awesome stay and hit the road. It’s a beautiful misty morning and I meow to his cat as I pass her and a dog sits at the bridge leaving the hot springs and looks at me as if I’m deserting it and down the gravel road I stroll. About a mile out an infant fox, cute as can be, wanders into the road and almost stumbles into me and is gone before I can take a picture. Further on I sit to rest. There is a tiny puddle next to me, about the size of my cell phone and the surface is just as shiny and smooth, and I touch it with a fingertip and realize that this is the real contact that I’m trying to make, a connection between me and this big beautiful place. Then three miles down the road to Amarillo and onto a bus to Futeleufu. Another tough goodbye and on I go.