Footnotes from the Andes


In this soil lives the stars.

In this land inhabited by the stars
In this sky water sings
of imagination
Beyond the clouds arising
of these waters and the soils
we dream of ancestors
His spirit ‘diecen’ is the full moon
Silence your heart beating.
                      Elicura Chihuailaf N.

Wherein lies the spirit? does it reside in our accomplishments? perish in our attempts? Does it fail us when times are easy? or stand fast like an inner sentinel through hardship?
Nothing we could have done would have ever prepared us for our walk over the Andes. By this I don’t mean the physical challenge, but more the metaphysical awakening that would take place during our seven day ‘pilgrimage’ if I may call it that.                                                      
  The two men who descended into the Cochamo valley were not the two men who left Bariloche seven days earlier. We have each ‘Ed and I’  had other epic adventures before this one. Ed riding a motorcycle from England to West Africa narrowly avoiding a civil war in Mali. I for my part had recently attempted to descend the Loire river (France’s longest) by inflatable kayak in late october accompanied by a ferret named Duke, a bottle of whiskey and a dozen or so books.
So neither of us were a stranger to adventure. We made the decision even before leaving Buenos Aires that we would not be using a tent. I had become accustomed to sleeping ‘out’ and preferred it to a cover of poly nylon fabric. What Ed didn’t know was that I was intent on walking over the Andes. An idea which produced a devilish grin and sparkle in his eyes when I announced it to him. He was hooked. So the two intrepid adventures set forth to tread, where no adventures would dare to go.......   or so we thought.
Our first encounter with a Mapuche Huaso was when a young boy handed Ed a trout. In fact we had seen him about an hour earlier, or what we thought was him. we were sitting by the river early that morning, trying to shake the drowsiness of sleep from our heads, when a large birdlike object dashed from rock to rock out on the fast flowing river. I thought it was a human figure and got up to investigate. But the creature had vanished. Looking at the open stretches of fast flowing water between the large rocks I realised no human could have leapt across them. It must have been a bird, its size exaggerated by my newly awakened brain in want of coffee. But it had in fact been the boy, in his crimson poncho.
There had been a Mapuche community in Puelo but outsiders were forbidden. We had to be content to watch them ride their horses silently across Rio Azul. But this was an actual encounter. The second was later that same day. 3 Huasos, expert horsemen accompanied by several dogs, making their way south along the isolated trail. Two of them then stopped and introduced us to the Mapuche tradition of ’Nvtram’ the art of conversation. Theirs is an oral tradition, originally without a written language, stories and history are passed down through the generations, father to son, mother to daughter. We listened as we had our first lesson in ‘gulam’ advise from the elderly.  Every word was delivered with deliberate and honest passion. They were imparting on us their knowledge, weather we understood it or not was not their concern. They were friendly, wore warm smiles and always looked you in the eyes. They each cut a striking figure, lean with sallow skin and shapely cheekbones. Generation after generation of traditional mountain living producing the perfect mountain adventurers.
 Then it occured to me. This was their home. This trail, these passes, lakes, forests, mountains. We had come without invitation and were made welcome by the custodians of this magical land without qualification. I felt humbled and honoured to walk amongst them, or at least in their shadows. They are the perfect adventurers if you sit and think about it for a while. The Mapuche. No race of people in the history of civilisation have ventured farther save for the Kawéskar tribes which inhabit tierre del fuego at the tip of Patagonia. When our species ventured out of Africa and spread out over the globe, the ones who dared to venture the most were the ancestors of these noble people, the Mapuche. They survived and flourished. Some say they even populated Polynesia. When Patagonia for them was no longer unknown territory, the Mapuche took to balsa rafts out on the Humbolt current in the vast Pacific ocean and discovered new lands. Thor Hayerdahl believed this so much he undertook a similar successful voyage on a raft called the Kon Tiki in 1947.  I’ve even discovered that Mapuche Chemamull or funeral statues are identical to Moai found on Easter Island.                                                       Los Mapuche, the ultimate human adventurers.
When Spanish Conquistadores had arrived and conquered the empires of the Incas the Aztecs and the Mayas, the Mapuche held fast and resisted for over 300 years. Even capturing and killing Pedro de Valdivia founder of Santiago and first governor of the new Chile.
But as always happens. Old traditions give way to new. The Mapuche were eventually defeated and naturalised into the new nation. Our third encounter with a Mapuche only served to hold a mirror to the affect western influence has had of these magnificent people. A blind drunk old man, on horseback stopped us on the trail. Demanding to see our passports. He apparently was the gatekeeper to the lands beyond, where we wished to travel. He would accept no compromise until Ed and I decided just to keep walking. His horse seemed to take the hint before he did, and continued to walk on with his inebriated rider, shouting and mumbling to himself.
We were to meet several more of these Huasos over the next few days. Always traditionally dressed and on horseback, never on foot. They are tied to this land. It would be nothing without them. And without it they would be lost. It is their identity. One could not exist without the other. I for one am happy to have witnessed it.

Although the Mapuche have no written language or alphabet, here's how Chihuailaf's poem above would appear written phonetically with the latin alphabet.
Tvfaci mapu mew mogeley wagvben 
Tvfaci kajfv wenu mew vlkantuley 
ta ko pu rakiduwam 
Doy fvta ka mapu tañi mvlen ta komv 
xipalu ko mew ka pvjv mew 
pewmakeiñmu tayiñ pu fvcakece yem 
Apon kvyeh fey tañi am -pigekey 
Ni hegvmkvleci piwke fewvla ñvkvfvy. 


  1. Nice post K.C, I thought your voice was close to home with this one. I must say, I'm bloody jealous of your experiences. Ah, I miss the traveller's life. I'll meet you on the road soon...

  2. thanks Andy, actually this post probably has a 'touch of Tope' about it. (you can use that one Andy) it took two months to digest the experience in order to write about it. Im loving the hobo lifestyle, im meeting some amazing people. homeless and penniless but very happy. I know we'll meet up again at some stage. when are you going to Barcelona? don't give up on that dream. I'll be back in europe this time next year.