Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Our Stay in Coyhaique

Monday, February 29th through Thursday, March 10th

If Coyhaique was a record, and if the record player's needle was stuck on the particular moment shown below such that the moment was endlessly played over-and-over again, I would never tire of it.

Coyhaique kitty & me.

What exactly is Coyhaique, you ask?

Coyhaique is the town in Patagonia where Brian and I spent eleven days living as Chileans. The town serves as the capital of Aysèn, the eleventh region of Chile. The region covers a massive 42,000 square miles but has a meager population of only 110,000 people. Nearly half of the region's population resides in the town of Coyhaique.

A mere 2°2' closer to the equator than Seattle, though obviously in different hemispheres, Coyhaique is surrounded by rivers and mountains. Given the similar latitudes, proximity to the Pacific Ocean, and protection by coastal range mountains, Coyhaique and Seattle have similar climates. When we passed through Coyhaique just weeks before the beginning of South America's fall, the temperatures were in the comfortable 70s, and the skies were perfectly clear and blue.

The town of Coyhaique, nestled below the basalt columns of Cerro Macay.

By the time El Mecánico and I reached Coyhaique on our little bicycle adventure, we were hungry for "urban time." For one, we hadn't showered in quite some time -- an impressive 17 days for me and an even more impressive 19 days for El Mecánico. Suffice it to say that we were ripe'n'ready to stand below a shower head. For two, we were itching to try living amongst Chileans. We wanted to learn more about the culture, and we wanted to practice the language. It was time to dismount our bicycles and stay in one place for a little while.

When we rolled into town, we headed straight for the town's pentagonal plaza. As we sat on a bench and ate lunch, smiles spread across our faces. We had a good feeling about the town. Unlike the plazas in other cities we had passed through, Coyhaique's plaza was not full of backpackers. Instead, the plaza was full of real Chilean people -- kids in school uniforms, old men sporting v-neck sweater vests and tilted berets, and women walking about in colorful pants and thick-heeled ankle boots. This looked like a bona fide Chilean town -- not one overrun by tourists.

As we had expected based on our visits through other towns in Chile, the central plaza offered free wifi. (Try that, United States!) After our park bench lunch, we surfed the web in search of a place to stay in Coyhaique. We didn't want to stay in a hostel, because although a hostel is good at immersing us in the annoying habits of 20-something backpackers from all over the world, it does little to immerse us in local culture. Ideally, we wanted to live in a Chilean home.

After various online searches, including Yapo (Chile's equivalent of Craigslst), we found a great room on AirBnB. The room cost us a mere 10,000 pesos (~$15 USD) per night, and the rental gave us access to a kitchen so we could prepare our own meals. More importantly, the AirBnB room offered us the opportunity to live with a Chilean family who could help us with the language and answer our petty cultural questions: What are the rules for tipping baggers? How do the collectivos work? Why are Chileans so difficult to understand?

Our AirBnB hosts were Rodrigo and Pao, new parents of an adorable baby, Bruno. We were hoping to stay at the AirBnB for a week. However, concerned about sleepless nights due to the mid-night crying of a newborn baby, we agreed to stay a night or two, at first, to feel things out. As it turned out, everything felt good; Bruno was a remarkably well-behaved and quiet baby. We ended up staying ten nights.

Admittedly, I did wake up to crying the first night. But it wasn't the cry of a human baby that woke me; it was the cry of a gatito ("kitten"). Though children are not in my future, I still have a biological response to a crying baby. And so I laid awake wondering about the kitty. It didn't help that I had heard a loud cat fight just hours before, as we were falling asleep. Had Gatito's mommy been killed in the fight? I considered waking up Brian and asking him to help me search for the gatito by flashlight. But I was certain he'd roll over and tell me to go back to sleep.

I waited for dawn and then headed out the front door to find Gatito. It didn't take long to trace Gatito's cry to the engine of the blue car parked in the driveway. After much coaxing and a little bit of pulling, I managed to get Gatito out from under the car.

Gatito under the blue car.

Gatito was obviously distraught. He had been crying all night long in search of his mommy, and his pure white fur was covered with smudges of dirt and oil. Poor thing! As soon as I picked him up, though, and held him close, Gatito stopped crying.

A blurry first few seconds with Gatito.

Being a guest at an AirBnB in a country far from my own, I wasn't quite sure what to do with Gatito. By picking up the kitten, I had already established within the kitty a new bond to humans. Although I'm sure the kitten was hungry, I knew not to feed him, as that would establish a burden on Rodrigo and Pao to feed the kitty well beyond our visit.

When Rodrigo and Pao woke a few hours later, I told them about Gatito. Rodrigo wasn't too fond of having a kitty around, but Pao felt otherwise. She begged Rodrigo to give Gatito some milk and meat. I knew I liked Pao -- women unite! Henceforth, Rodrigo ensured that Gatito had plenty to eat.

A kitty on a hot tin roof.

Gatito became comfortable with us very quickly. He loved rolling on the ground and giving us his belly to rub. He loved chasing a long piece of grass around the driveway. He loved jumping on my lap and getting little scratches behind his ears and below his chin. And ever time we returned home and opened the gate, he'd come bounding towards us with excitement. Ah, sweet Coyhaique kitty love!

When we weren't enjoying Gatito, we were exploring the town. One of our first adventures was to check out the library. We were super-duper impressed. Built just a few years prior, the library was housed in a modern facility. The library had a plethora of books, computer terminals, and other offerings. Expecting a "no," we were surprisingly pleased to receive a "yes" when we asked if we might be able to check out books from the library. Though we were foreigners, we were granted temporary library memberships. Wowsers!

As we walked about town, it was great to see a whole bunch of Monkey Puzzle Trees. These are some of my favorite trees in Seattle.

A Monkey Puzzle Tree.

Known in Chile as the "Chilean Pine," I hadn't realized that these trees were actually native to central and southern Chile and western Argentina. In fact, the Chilean Pine is the national tree of Chile. Though I had seen male cones on Monkey Puzzle Trees in the Pacific Northwest, Coyhaique offered my first view of female cones.

The female cones on a Monkey Puzzle Tree.

As we learned more and more about the town, I became curious about the liberalness of the Chilean culture. My question was answered when I strolled through the plaza one day and saw a giant condom, at least as tall as three fully grown Chilean men! Any culture that displays a humongous inflated condom in its central park is at least a wee bit liberal.

Sponsored by the Ministry of Health, this condom was made for a giant.

El Mecánico and I checked out the bike stores in town. We were impressed to see well-stocked stores and a plethora of mechanics. One of the bike shops had a couple of funny posters on the wall. I thought the one below was particularly great.

For those who like wearing pants below their waists, read this explanation: This trend was born in the US prisons, where the inmates who were willing to have sex with other prisoners needed to invent a signal that passed unnoticed by the guards of the prison. So as not to suffer consequences, they wore their pants below the waist, whereby their partially showing buttocks demonstrated that they were available. Now, will you continue wearing those pants?

A great thing about Coyhaique is that it is surrounded by wilderness. One day, Brian and I rode our bikes a few short kilometers outside of town to the Coyhaique National Reserve. Offering a couple of different routes to explore, we opted for the long loop hike. With a significant elevation gain and lots of spectacular views, the route provided us with nearly five hours of hiking entertainment.

Me, marveling at the bamboo along the trail.
Looking towards the town of Coyhaique, across the valley.
The full panoramic of Coyhaique and its surrounding peaks.
Once we reached the top of the peak, it was like walking on the moon. These huge teepee-like cairns marked the way.

Another day, Rodrigo and Pao took us on a picnic. The plan was to drive an hour and a half south to their favorite lake. About an hour into our drive, though, as we started our descent towards Cerro Castillo, the air became thick with the smell of smoke. Sure enough, we spotted a huge wildfire on the far side of Lago General Carrera.

The wildfire across Lago General Carrera.

Not wanting to have to clear our lungs every thirty seconds, we turned back towards Coyhaique and drove to their second favorite lake, Lago Elizalde, instead. Though Rodrigo and Pao seemed disappointed by the change in plans, Brian and I were thrilled to be enjoying a lovely Sunday afternoon as the Chileans do.

Me, Pao, Rodrigo (holding Brunito), and Brian.

Rodrigo and Brian found a common interest in music, and so they spent hours sharing favorite songs and strumming the guitar.

Rodrigo and Brian, sharing some tunes.

In the rare moments when Brunito wasn't attached to his mother's bosom, we enjoyed entertaining and being entertained by the little man of the house.

Brian gets his baby-fix from Brunito.

When Chef El Mecánico learned that there was an apple tree in the backyard, apples started appearing more frequently in our meals.

El Mecánico climbs the ladder to fetch some apples, while Gatito watches from below.

El Mecánico even spent an afternoon baking a tasty apple pie.

El Mecánico demonstrates his baking skills.

While flipping through the calendar on the kitchen door, I was surprised to see a photo of familiar faces -- Erin and Katmai McKittrick! Erin's husband, Hig, is a cousin of sister acquaintances of mine from my climbing group back home. Via their non-profit organization, Ground Truth Trekking, Erin and Hig are scientists who explore Alaska's natural resource issues via expeditions. I watched an excellent presentation given by Hig and Erin a few years back in Seattle. What a small, small world!

Familiar faces on a calendar in Chile.

We fell in love with Coyhaique and our experiences there. The town was everything we were hoping for: not too big and not too small, not too touristy, and offering plenty of nature just outside of the city boundaries.

Thank you, Coyhaique, for a wonderful stay. Thank you Rodrigo, Pao, and Brunito for being such wonderful hosts. And thank you, Gatito, for making our stay extra special.

What ever happened to Gatito, you ask? Well, the day before we left Coyhaique, a few young neighborhood girls asked if they could adopt the kitten. It was a win-win for everyone. We got kitten love for a few days, Rodrigo and Pao were freed of their pet responsibilities, and the little girls now had a new kitten friend.


  1. I am beginning to think that someday, the cats of South America are going to erect a statue of their patron saint, Sarah. And it will be the photo of you and Gatito!

    I hadn't thought about the the climates being that much aligned with Seattle, but you make perfect sense, its about where Salem Or would be I think!

    Great post, a great rest week and damn that pie looked good!

    1. Thanks, Tony. As long as pigeons didn't perch on my head and Gatito's head and poop all day long, I'd be fine with a statue. :)

    2. The cats will be sure to drive off the pigeons!

  2. another great description of whats happening on your trip. Having fun, enjoying the culture and people and small towns atmosphere. Love it Phyllis


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