The Mapuche of the Forest – Indigenous Tourism in Chile
As the famous poet come politician, Pablo Neruda once said of the Araucanía region of Chile in Northern Patagonia, ‘it’s the wild west.’ Often spending his time wandering the sacred forests of the valley where he once lived and became so fond of. Curarreuhue, a charming little hideaway for Mapuche indigenous communities, is nestled in between the mountains just a stone’s throw over the Argentine border – 40km west to be precise. Over 80% of the population here are Mapuche and they have made it their own by successfully introducing etnoturismo to the area and flourishing.
Chile may claim first prize for being the most disproportionate country in the world, but as a consequence it has a truly diverse, magnificent landscape. Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the awesome Andes which reach heights over 6,000m, snaking down the entire length of the country, makes it the rugged backbone of South America. It boasts the driest desert in the world – the Atacama in the north – to the temperate forests, rivers and valleys of the Lake District – dominated by snow-capped volcanoes – to the impenetrable ice fields, perfect blue glaciers and jagged mountain peaks all the way down to ‘the end of the world,’ Tierra del Fuego.
However, it is the sacred forests where we will be focusing our time with the Mapuche people of Trankurra, 5 kilometres off the beaten path from Curarrehue. There is a distinct cultural identity here, Simone our guide considers himself Mapuche first, Chilean second. Yet, unsurprisingly Chilean when the football is on! After arriving at our Butch Cassidy style log cabin, we set off with Simone on a six hour trek through the forests of Villarica National Park to reach the base of the Lanín Volcano that overshadows the forest. Volcanoes rule in Chile, holding 10% of the world’s active volcanoes, none more so than in this region of Patagonia where recent eruptions have transformed the biodiversity and landscape.
Before we began our climb we paused at a stream on the outskirts of the forest with Lanín Volcano looming in the background. Surrounded by all the elements – water, earth, fire and wind – we each scooped up four handfuls of water from the stream to drink as a sign of respect for the forest. Simone strongly believes that Mapuche is not just about the name, ‘it’s about living in connection with mother earth and being in harmony with everything around us,’ he said, ‘respecting Nhen – the leader of the forest – is what we stand for.’ This deep cultural connection between the Mapuche and the forest is evidently showing. Rituals over, we started our trek through the forest which was dominated by a particular tree renowned in this region. The Pewen tree in Mapudungun, otherwise known to the English as ‘monkey puzzle tree’ due to its forbidding foliage, jigsaw like bark and impenetrable spines, enough to stump even the most persistent of our cheeky cousins.
This grand old pine that can age up to 1,000 years is fantastically resilient, able to withstand the harsh winters, and an integral part of the Mapuche’s history. The elders relied upon it in times of starvation, collecting the fruits which often formed their staple diet and as a medicinal remedy to combat rhumatism. The term ‘Kimun,’ in Mapudungun means the holder of knowledge and as Simone explained, ‘by respecting these ancestral traditions our culture remains strong and prosperous.’ As we ventured deeper into the forest the Monkey Puzzles became taller and grander, regularly reaching 50 meters, distinctively different to the juvenile tree which has more of a Christmas tree look, often seen around urban areas. However, it’s not just flora that Mapuche have great respect for but fauna as well, with an insightful knowledge of each and every creature we passed, like the wonderful tiger patterned spider and the nimble Jewel Lizard or slender Lizard as its often known.
As we made our way out of the monkey puzzle forest, the awesome sight of the Lanín Volcano, covered in snow unfolded in front of our eyes. Despite the hot summers, these high volcanic peaks remain snow-capped all year round giving them an even more distinctive look in the summer months. We stopped for a picnic and an earned siesta beside Lake Verde (1,800m) which lies at the base of the volcano, whilst feeling very insignificant looking up at the impressive 3,800m Volcano looking over us. Hunger contained, we then headed back down the mountain stopping off at a small waterfall to replenish our souls and thankfully made it back in one piece.
As reward for our effort, we visited a fantastic little Mapuche-gastronomy restaurant just outside of Curarrehue, where Anita the chef conjured up a creative dish fit for a master chef final. Organic, vegetarian and straight from the forest, it seemed apt that after just learning the importance of the Monkey Puzzle fruits, Piñón, to the Mapuche people that we were served a dish for ourselves, it was delicious. Anita’s restaurant serving the type of food her ancestors gathered all those years ago was testament to the charming little restaurant she had created and the strong cultural identity that is heavily linked to this small mountain settlement. It turns out Pablo Neruda was right in coining this land the ‘wild west,’ and although he may no longer be wandering the sacred forests of Auracanía, there is a new generation of Mapuche people who are doing so and maintaining their age old traditions, intrinsically linked to the forest.
On our next adventure we will be heading to Lake Budi, to experience what it’s like to live in a traditional Mapuche ‘Ruka’ house. Keep following #Adventurelust with Danny & Harry.
All pictures by Harry Dowdney