Trip to Chile Part 2: Rio Baker ~”Frisky Turbulences”

Sam and I were cruising along the Carrera Austral, Chile’s “highway”, continuously impressed with the stunning views of central Patagonia. We had hiked the stout Cerro Castillo hike, visited the Marble Caves…around and in…and stocked up for several weeks of camping out of our rented truck. Making our way toward Cochrane, we were meeting with “Rolando”, our Chilean River guide for a 4-day sea kayak trip on the Rio Baker. This wasn’t a trip we’d known about until just two or three days before. In fact, we hadn’t planned to do a lot of paddling on this trip, if any, but to cover my bases I’d thrown some 1-mms and a pair of Astrals in my travel duffle just in case. The timing just fell into place and now we were prepping for a river trip. The Baker didn’t disappoint.

It’s wise to have plenty of time as you’re driving toward any destination in Central Patagonia. You’re going to stop a LOT. Too many amazing views and sites to see. We’d embraced that mindset as we drove south but eventually arrived to meet the crew in the Cochrane Plaza. It would be Sam and I, Rolando and his guide “Gary”, Rodrigo and Aldo (two “early 30-something” social workers from northern Chile) and Sergio and Pascal (two 60-somethings…Chilean and French, respectively). The team set off the next morning about 10km north of Cochrane, having packed our kayaks and completed a safety talk….in Spanish. Sam and I were in a tandem which works surprisingly well for us.

Lunch that first day covered my introduction to the rules of Mate. Sidenote: I’d (mistakenly) thought that coffee was pervasive in Chile. It is definitely not. In fact, most coffee available is instant, and finding really good coffee, for us coffee snobs here in the Pac NW, is basically impossible. I’m an addict and thankfully I will lower my standards to just about any hot, brown liquid tasting remotely like coffee, when the circumstances demand it. Mate is the standard in Chile and there are rituals when drinking it. For example, there is a single “server” who offers and is in charge of the drinking during that session. We also learned that other regions have rules specific to their region. Mate…which is essentially a tree bark brewed like tea…has a distinct taste. Obviously many love it. I did not, but I drank this first time, and then respectfully “no thank you-ed” myself out of the circle. Mate breaks are much like smoke breaks in the 1980’s. Expected and frequent.

Our first night camping was at a beautiful, tree-sheltered area where I was able to hike along the river and enjoy the feeling of every, single, thing taken care of for me since we were clients!! This is not a situation I get to experience often but maaaaaan was it nice. Rolando and Gary worked their butts off for the four of us. The food was tasty, hearty and cooked entirely from two pots. Also, their “energy” was such that you didn’t feel they were working, but totally engaged with the conversation. It was light and relaxing, which takes a special person to pull off, and Rolando is certainly that…special. He has a lot of past experience, having worked for both Outward Bound and NOLS for years. He is grounded and easy-going yet kept us on target. And stay on target we did, leaving camp by 8:30-9am every day. Throughout the trip there were many laughs and great discussions. All with a twinkle in his eyes, that Rolando!

The stretch of river we did on the Baker, was mostly flatwater, from Cochrane to Tortel. That’s about 168 kilometers, and gravel highway driving we avoided. There were a few “frisky ripples” aka “turbulences”, as Rolando called them, along the way and two class 3 rapids. The first rapids we broke into two groups and “rafted up”, a technique that is a little wonky but works! With that said, Sam convinced Rolando we could paddle ourselves down the second class III rapids, in the tandem, which made for a bit of fun. Easy peesey.

Another noteworthy part of this river trip was the almost mile and a half mandatory portage. Our kayaks were polyethylene sea kayaks, two of which were tandems–not light weight. Plus, all our gear. It was on the hottest day of the trip, so Rolando made the wise decision to have us take camp gear and the kitchen over, rest up during the afternoon, and then transport the kayaks when it cooled off. Full disclosure, I was beat. I wasn’t getting much sleep on this Chile trip plus we were physically exerting a lot every day. With that being said, Sam did his share AND mine. I was SO grateful. I luxuriously took this time to jump in the cold creek below our campsite, which had a small waterfall flowing into a pool. Very picturesque and really refreshing. I felt like a million bucks when I got done–a little guilty for not pulling my weight, but still very happy how I spent the afternoon. When I fell asleep in this little slice of heaven it was early, and it was deep.

The last night on the river was spent on a “finca” (farm) at a goucho’s (farmer’s) homestead. We paddled up to the finca around 5pm and Milton, the goucho, had an asado prepared for us. This is also a big thing in Chile…”asado” which is basically a meat–in this case lamb, roasted over an open fire. Milton had butchered, skinned and roasted the lamb that day and we swarmed in like vultures, literally knives in hand, cutting ourselves our own meat. It was served with the traditional cucumber, tomato and lettuce. Milton also provided us hard biscuits and a very tasty homemade chimichurri sauce. It was a gracious cultural experience, albeit difficult for a vegetarian, had a vegetarian been on the trip. In exchange for his hospitality, Rolando brought Milton a few supplies and socializing (this goucho lives so remotely, alone, that he can go a month without seeing a single person). Sam and I enjoyed a post-dinner hike through the sheep fields (feeling a little awkward…”hey guys…our apologies”) toward a waterfall on Milton’s property. Stunning sunset, and later, beautiful stars.

The final day was the longest paddle of the trip so we arrived in Coletta Tortel fairly late, tired and hungry. We’ve all heard about Venice, Italy which has become famous and romanticized world-wide with its canals and Gondoliers. Tortel is basically unknown and really cool! There are no streets in Tortel. You cannot take your car into the town…because like I just wrote…there are no streets. The town sits on a steep mountainside in the fjords, and is connected by wooden walkways–a main boardwalk and connecting boardwalks and/or stairs up to residences, restaurants or tiendas. It is adorable, unusual and picturesque. Established by the Chilean government as a fishing town, ironically (we are told) no one fishes. It is in continual construction, either fixing, rebuilding or creating new walkway. We hauled all of our gear to a small hotel (residence with a few rooms to rent) where we had a final dinner with our river crew. Pascal a.k.a “Frenchie” was predictably funny with his dry humor, Gary was emotive and just basically his happy self. Sergio was tired but content. I enjoyed a glass of wine with our beef dinner. It was all smiles for Sam and I, having wrapped up this chapter of our Chile trip. Still so much more to explore, but already we’d made new friends and enjoyed a trip of a lifetime… On to the Patagonia National Park!!

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