THIS photo essay is what the northern fjords of Chilean Patagonia look like if you explore it the only way you can: by boat.
Notorious for foul weather and even fouler seas, Chilean Patagonia might not be a place you’d think to visit by yacht. But it holds certain advantages in a landscape dominated by ice-capped volcanoes, sheer granite cliffs, impenetrable 3,000-year-old rainforests, and an acute lack of roads.
This is a local fishing family in Reloncaví Sound who carry on centuries-old traditions. Like many other families in the region, their only roadway is the sea. Towering in the background is Mount Yate, a 2,187 meter high active volcano. Minerals that naturally erode from Mount Yate are what give the water its cloudy turquoise appearance.
Local marine scientist, Carlos Lonza, at the helm of his 11-metre ketch, Agartha. Carlos sold me on this sailing adventure by hinting at summer adventures under sun and sail, and the chance to visit the most spectacular coast in South America. The only thing he overstated was the sunshine.
Carlos dives for crustaceans in Chile's cold, nutrient-rich waters. The Pacific produces an abundance of seafood that characterises cuisine all over the country. Being no wider than 350 km at its broadest point and 4,300 km long, Chile is essentially one big coastline -- so it’s not surprising they take the fifth-largest annual seafood catch of any nation.
Machas, a native pink clam of Chile, freshly collected and ready for grilling ‘a la parmesana’ with chilli and coriander (cilantro).
A local’s tender 'parked' in a ‘driveway’. Fishermen in this part of Chilean Patagonia have no other access but the sea to their subsistence homes / farms cut into the steep forested edges of glacial mountains and volcanoes.
Sea lions in the mist make the eeriest human-like cries. They often rob catch from fishermen and are a protected species. But most locals would never shoot them anyway. They genuinely believe the legend of a ghost ship, el Caleuche, that roams these waters, manned by drowned sailors and captained by a sorcerer who transforms lost fishermen into sea lions. In a community constantly at the mercy of the sea, and where the ability to swim is a rarity, most have lost loved ones to the water.
Many times while sailing through Southern Chile I fantasized about buying a home like this one, shrouded in the mists, surrounded by nothing but forest, mountain, and sea. They’re quite affordable, but Carlos warns me that obtaining the paperwork can be a nightmare. The deeds granted to the original colonists who came here are often missing, as are the many descendants’ signatures required to transfer ownership.
A typical settler home on the fjords of Southern Chile. Despite the constant lashings of Patagonian rain and sleet, these wooden shingles rarely succumb to rot. The secret is that they're made from Alerce wood (Patagonian Cypress), an incredibly slow growing, water-resistant native tree species that is the second-oldest growing plant on Earth.
Agartha at anchor at Caleta Porcelana. “The beauty of this place is that when the weather turns foul, there is always a fjord or sheltered cove somewhere to lay anchor” says Carlos, whose local knowledge really comes into its own as we explore the twisting depths of Chile’s fjordlands.
“There are some happy advantages to living among volcanoes,” Carlos says as we hike into a series of secret pools in the temperate rainforest. The intense colour of the water is due to mineral deposits suspended in the superheated water as it bubbles from a geothermal spring.
The view south-east over Reloncaví Sound. In the distance are the granite hulks of Cochamó Valley. Its immense walls are legendary in rock climbing circles worldwide and have earned it the moniker 'The Yosemite of South America'.
The only way to get into Chile's Cochamó Valley is on foot or on horseback. It’s a tough uphill slog, but the view when you arrive is all the more inspiring for the knowledge that no road has ever penetrated the valley, no internal combustion has echoed between these cliffs, and commercial felling has never disturbed its primeval mountain forest ecology.
One of the Spanish-speaking world’s greatest poets, Pablo Neruda, once said "Anyone who hasn't been in the Chilean forest does not know this planet." In the Cochamó Valley, wild pumas still stalk pudús (the world’s smallest deer) as rare endemic marsupials scamper through the undergrowth of 3,000-year-old Alerce trees.