Remembering Christmas in Patagonia

Lago Elizalde Chile

A roadtrip to celebrate the season

After a hard winter of long dark nights, Coyhaique finally sees a day or two of warmth and sun. Locals hang out in the plaza, kids splash in the fountains, and the sun shines until well after 10pm. I’ve been living in here for about eight months, and this is my first Christmas in Patagonia.

Anne and I rent a pickup truck. The plan is to head to the airport and pick up my college roommate, Kelly, who is flying down for the holiday. Then we will drive the bumpy, unpaved and deliciously wild road north to see the spectacular hanging glacier at Parque Queulat. Kelly arrives on Christmas Day and we load up the truck with sleeping bags, a pot of black beans and rice, a couple cartons of red wine, and my roommate Alberto’s guitar. We don’t have a tent but we’re flat broke after renting the truck and eager to get the heck out of town.

On the road, the sun blazes high overhead while Anne and I blast the radio, educating Kelly on the preferred music of the Chilean south: mostly chamamé and cumbia, neither of which are native to Chile. In Mañihuales, a tiny town where the pavement ends a just north of Coyhaique, we stop to visit our friend Rodrigo at his family’s Christmas celebration. The kids are laughing and screaming in an inflatable pool in the backyard and the adults are drinking cola de mono, a traditional holiday beverage consisting of aguardiente, cream, and sugar.

Rodrigo’s mother happens to have a brand new tent that sleeps three, and although we feel slightly guilty for asking, we’ve learned never to be too proud to accept the great kindness and generosity of strangers in Patagonia. We throw the tent in back and head off again, stopping to pick up a couple of kids hitching on the outskirts of town.

Anne with some young hitchhikers

Anne with some young friends

We arrive as planned to Parque Queulat at dusk after three some-odd hours of bumpy unpaved travel. The glacier is tinted a soft pink from the late-night summer sun. It is receding rapidly, and especially on hot and sunny days you can witness large chunks of ice breaking free and crashing hundreds of feet onto the rocks below: BOOOOOM!

The sight is impressive, but the sound is even more so, a deep resounding BOOM that echoes in the valley like thunder. Settling into camp, we make a fire and pass around the pot of beans and rice and a carton of wine while I play sloppy songs on the guitar. Later, we lay on our backs and look at the stars, the distant booming of the glacier accompanying us like ocean waves into the night.

glacier queulat

Kelly checks out the view

In the morning we head to the next town north, Puyhuapi. Puyhuapi sits on a fjord, a spectacular and sleepy little place with a German carpet factory and a couple of German hospedajes. We settle into a campground by the fjord and when the sky finally darkens enough to see the stars, we head out to the dock to celebrate another fine evening.

I’m feeling supremely happy and content after singing a round of songs, so I lay down flat on my back to look up at the starry sky. Never have I seen so many stars as those summer nights in Patagonia! I get choked up by the simple beauty of it all. I stare and stare at that sky, taking it all in, when,

PLOP

Puyhuapi Chile

We arrived on a sunny day to Puyhuapi

The keys to the truck have slipped out of my pocket and into the dark, frigid water below.

Doom and disbelief settle in like big black clouds over our starry night celebration. The “plop” of keys falling into water is now officially the most horrifying sound I have ever heard in my life. Spirits dampened, we crawl into our sleeping bags and plan for a recovery attempt in the morning.

When we wake up the fjord is shrouded with chilly clouds. A closer examination of the waist-deep water under the dock reveals an appealing mixture of boat oil, slippery green algae, and sharp looking shells. Kelly and I were college roommates at UC Santa Barbara, and since we are ocean women we figure we can tough this out. We devise a strategy: one will dive and hold onto the other’s legs while patting the area with her free hand and feeling for anything resembling keys. We will take turns diving and attempt to work the area systematically.

Word travels quickly through Puyhuapi and soon the dock is lined with townspeople watching in amusement as two crazy young women dive repeatedly into the murky and freezing cold water. “Come on girlie, you can do it,” cheers Kelly, always the optimist. A well-meaning local lends us a pair of vintage metal diving goggles that look like they were taken from the set of a Stanley Kubrick film. We give them a try, looking more ridiculous now than ever to the delight of our audience, and the water leaks in around the edges making it impossible to see. After twenty minutes or so we are shivering, slimy, and frustrated, and we retreat to the shore to regroup. We devise a brilliant plan B: we will pay some local kids to do the diving for us. We find two wide-eyed and curious boys playing in a nearby boat and offer them ten luca as a reward for finding the keys.

The boys dive diligently for almost an hour with no success until we feel bad and call them out of the water to give them the ten luca anyway.

Finally at long last, we call the rental car company. Andrés, the owner, is kind and understanding. “No te preoccupes, mi amor,” he tells Anne on the phone. He says that they will simply send the spare key on the next bus to Puyhuapi. Buses are infrequent, so we might have to wait a couple of days, but no big deal. We are relieved. But then Andrés calls back; it seems they don’t have spare keys for our particular truck.

In the end, Andrés and a mechanic must make the three+ hour drive themselves to Puyhuapi. The mechanic hot-wires our truck and drives it back to Coyhaique while we ride sheepishly in the backseat of the other truck with Andrés. We have to pay for gas for both trucks, an extra day with the rental truck, and a mechanic fee. It is a small fortune in Chile, especially for our modest traveler budgets.

oso andy

Anne with Oso Andy

On the way home, Andrés stops so he can show us how to eat nalca, a huge plant that grows on the side of the road. He blasts the chamamé and pounds the steering wheel, sticking his head out the window to let out a great big howl. We decide his nickname is “Oso Andy,” and it becomes clear that our new friend Oso Andy is having the time of his life, having escaped from the banality of the rental car office in Coyhaique.

Peering out the window I see only darkness, but I can sense the vast and wild landscape stretching for miles in every direction. I feel warm and fuzzy and particularly grateful for the comfort of my sweatpants after the morning’s diving episode. We giggle and laugh in the backseat, reliving our adventures while Oso Andy delivers us back to the safety of town.

“Ayayayayayeeeeeee!” Andy screams out the window.

The stars shine over head. This is Christmas in Patagonia.

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