Not even a tour guide’s insistent apologies could diminish the splendor of Chile’s Aiken del Sur Park.
It’s a Saturday at sea. I am on the deck of my Holland American cruise ship as it cuts its engines for the slow slide into port. The Patagonian town of Puerto Chacabuco doesn’t look like much from here. But I do not care. My cruise line-organized excursion — billed as “The Natural Beauty of Patagonia” — will whisk me away from there.
Boarding the bus, I see my cabin steward, Wahoo, going somewhere with a backpack. “Enjoy, enjoy!” I yell. It is what he always says to me. He raises his sun hat in a solemn salute.
The bus rumbles to a roll, leaving the port. Between the trees that line the road, there are strobe-like glimpses of the tops of mountains. The sky is an unrealistic blue. “Although it is true,” announces Edith, our Chilean guide, “that today is absolutely sunny, this, I tell you, is not normal.”
Edith puffs into the microphone to clear it. “Mostly it rain here,” she explains. “You need umbrella. You need boots.”
According to our guide, this is Chile’s least populated region. “Also,” she sighs, “no too many animals. No snakes at all. And no too many birds.”
Still, I can’t help scanning the sky for condors as we unload at Chile’s Aiken del Sur Park. Nothing yet.
Before marching off along the park’s Waterfall Trail, everyone in the tour group is issued a sticker depicting the Chilean chucao. “A very friendly bird, if you can find it,” says Edith. A man in my group nods. He sticks the sticker on his forehead.
In front of a trail marker that urges us to “Prevent Accidents!” in both Spanish and English, Edith gives us a briefing on some of the shy and rare animals we will probably not encounter here in Patagonia. There may or may not be pudús, for one thing. The picture of this animal in my brochure makes it look like someone was sketching a goat and got tired of it, adding in a rabbit’s head and ears at the end.
There could be zorros or zorrillos, says Edith, unrolling the Spanish words for foxes and skunks, in that order. If we are very lucky, she adds, the area has on offer two kinds of cat: the guiña (a housecat-sized leopard) and the puma. “Not normal!” warns Edith. “Not normal!”
We’re off. Since it’s spring here in the Southern Hemisphere, the air smells like new wet grass. Segments of the trail are carpeted with buttercups and, at one bend, we can see the park’s Riesco Lake off in the distance.
“Some of these trees no have flower,” sighs Edith, who’s walking backwards so she can keep to the trail and talk to us at the same time. “This is because it storm and storm last two weeks!” The deluge doesn’t seem to have affected sunset-red-and-purple clumps of fuchsia to our left or the delicate bell-like blossoms hanging from a tree that Edith identifies as an Arrayán macho.
“What’s macho about it?” asks the man with the head sticker.
One plant that stops us in our tracks is known as a nalca. For reasons of her own, Edith is surprised at our interest. Flower-studded nalca stems spread out at the plant’s top into mighty, elephant leaves.
“Looks like it’s from Mars,” comments a woman in my group. It looks like a plant that might be hungry. I give it a wide berth.
A roar, though distant, is beginning to make itself heard above the sounds of scuffling footsteps. As we approach the stream, we see a crested shape that’s flittering, now flying, now tree-limb still.
“Kingfisher!” whispers someone.
“Kingfisher fishing!” adds someone else as the bird darts down and away.
“Martin,” corrects Edith. “Martin pescador.”
The roar is louder now, and there are curtains of mist that float from the falls. I feel as if I’ve hiked into a sepia photograph. The air seems somehow silvered, as if overexposed.
Edith, slightly ahead, has attained an aura. The man with the sticker looks regal. Khaki rain hats give off an angelic glow.
Views grow softer, then sharper. We smell water. Then, all at once, the fog unfurls to show that, only footsteps ahead, our trail is finished. We see a stab of sunlight and hammering, exploding falls.
Edith presents the view. “The water is much more in winter,” she says. But I do not listen.
I have a brand-new feeling about this Patagonia park. One that falls on me like a mist. One that roars in my ears like thunder.
Animals are everywhere, I sense, although I may not see them. Pudú are grazing on the warm, wet grass. A zorro sniffs at a nalca, just behind us. The kingfisher dives and splashes, strikes and catches, slightly out of view.
When I try telling Edith about my suspicion, she just laughs. “No, no,” she says, while pouring out some cups of trail mix. “Not so.” I have a crazy thought. Maybe Edith wants the area to stay the country’s least populated region.
Just then, I notice a shadow that is crouching behind the trunk of a tree. A shadow with triangular ears. A guiña?
The shadow stretches. It stares: two yellow eyes.
I am just about to shout, when Edith puts a finger to her lips. “Not normal,” she whispers, just to me. “Not normal.” The shadow tenses. I hear a rush of grass.
I turn to try and spot it. There. A blur.
I see … a bag of trail mix. Edith is approaching.
The curtains of mist are back. No yellow eyes. No bird, no animal, no snake.
This is Patagonia.
My guiña is gone.
Peter Mandel of Providence, R.I., is an author of books for children, including the new “Zoo Ah-Choooo” from Holiday House.