French Guiana: A Place of Jungle & Birds

Several years ago, I remember having a heated discussion with some Latino friends over the existence of Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana, three South American countries that seem to have escaped the backpacking trail and – evidently – common mainstream memory.  So when I found out that my colleague, Guillaume Doerig, used to actually live in French Guiana, my travel senses began to tingle and I just had to wrangle him into sharing his stories.  This overseas department of France is roughly one-third the size of Ecuador with a human population of just 200,000 on land that stretches for 84,000km2. If there was ever a place to put on your 2018/2019 travel list, it should surely be French Guiana, the land of jungle!


French Guiana with Guillaume

Hi Guillaume! French Guiana is a place that I know almost nothing about, speaking as a New Zealander, so I am curious to know what made you leave Australia and why you chose French Guiana?

It stems from a personal reason. I was at uni in Melbourne, studying zoology, and I just found it so boring – I just wanted to get out.  I was a bit ´anti-institution´ a few years ago and I just thought, ¨I’ve got the whole world to choose from – where can I go?¨  I have a  British passport as my Mum’s English, a Swiss one because my Dad is Swiss, and a French one as I was born in France. So France used to be a big empire, with colonies all over the world, and I thought ¨what about French Guiana?¨  It’s in the Amazonian rainforest and the birds are drop-dead amazing, so I saved up and bought a 1-way ticket. This was in 2016, when I was 19.

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That is amazing! So you went to Cayenne, the capital. What was it like?

I was in Cayenne from March until the beginning of November. It was unlike anything I had known before, coming from Melbourne, and it was the first time I’d ever set foot in South America. Guiana is a department of France that has been neglected by the State a bit, and that is reflected in the infrastructure.  Physically the climate is tropical and just heavy with moisture, with a warm ocean. They don’t have four seasons either, just the wet and the dry.  Everywhere was so green – because its jungle, you know? It’s a place of crossroads.  It has a metropolitan French influence, a Brazillian/Latin influence, and a Carribean influence because there are lots of people living there from the Caribbean islands. Its a unique mix but also very westernized. It’s also really small, so I could go to the top of the hill and see all the edges of the city.

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The beaches around Cayenne! The leatherback turtle was massive (I went to see it with the lovely family I mentioned)
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On the beach of Rémire-Montjoly, a suburb of Cayenne

How did you support yourself?

I’d had hopes of working in conservation, as part of a project, but I couldn’t find any.  I did manage to do a few excursions with GEPOG [the Study and Protection for the Birds of French Guiana] but I found nothing paid and nothing was stable.  So I hopped on my bike and gave my cv to all the restaurants, and found a job as a waiter in Bar des Palmistes, which was a hotel/bar. I made some great friends there and I am still in contact with two of them.

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Place des Palmistes

Where did you live?

My first month I was in an Air BnB.  I also found out that my Dad’s ex-colleague’s daughter lived there, so I got in touch with them.  They were the most loving family – the best – and I lived with them for a little while. I would have broken without them.  After that, I moved into a flat and shared with my landlord, Jean-Philippe. who was actually from Guadeloupe, which is a French island in the Caribbean. He had a little cat called Bagheera and that little guy was like my salvation, my best friend. He was the cutest little cat in the whole world and I miss him dearly, and I hope I get to see him again. You know, I really miss him – I’ve never felt a connection to an animal as strongly as that, so I think it’s worth mentioning.

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Bagheera the cat!

You are bilingual, with your first languages being English and French.  How did you find the language there?

The official language is French of course but – and this is a big but – a lot of the people speak Creole.  To my ears, I didn’t know anything that they were saying.

What was the food like?

There was a lot of seafood and a lot of classic French cuisine. There is a huge market in Cayenne where they sell things like fruit from the jungle.

The jungle! Did you manage to get out of Cayenne and into the jungle?

I went on a few occasions! Out in the jungle is where you find most of the Amerindian people, living as they always have, and their main method of transportation is this long, motorized canoe called a pirogue.  They go by the water because some of the places where they live, like Camopi and Saint Georges, are only accessible by water.

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This is how we slept at night! It’s too dangerous to sleep on the forest floor because of the bugs, so hammocks are necessary, along with a ‘bâche’ to protect from the rain.
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Navigating the waterways by pirogue
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At Saul, rainforest village only accessible by air
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View from Sentier du Rorota, near Cayenne
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Pure jungle.

What was is lt like?

I went to Savane-Roche Virginie and Inselberg, which is literally a big rock that goes above the canopy. When I went there I went with a group of people who were studying there, and we put up these big nets to catch all the flying insects and birds for their study.  We caught them, ringed them (which is where you tag their legs so other people know they’ve been studied) and measure them before releasing them.  It is untamed jungle – like a David Attenborough documentary.  Ever since I was a kid I would watch those programs and I’d hear this bird call when Attenborough was in the Amazon like this [imitates bird call].  That’s a Screaming Piha, this grey and drab bird with an amazing call, and when I heard that sound for myself it made me really realize where I was, and was one of the highlights from my trip. Also the howler monkeys at dawn, I was woken up by them and I remember thinking ¨Oh my god, I’m in this amazing place that few people ever see, waking up when the stars are still in the sky – this is what I live for!¨ Amazing that two of my highlights were just sounds.

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Saül airport (it’s tiny, the runway isn’t even paved!)

Everyone who knows you, Guillaume, knows how much you love birds. How did you find birdwatching in the jungle?

In the jungle, birdwatching is actually so hard.  You have to rely on your hearing, and close your eyes to finetune your senses. Bird species that I was most delighted to see would be the Great-Billed Hermit, Guianian Warbling Antbird, Cream-Coloured Woodpecker and the White-Headed Marsh Tyrant.

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In Saul, only accessible by air
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Blackish Nightjar
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Great-Billed Hermit
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I was ecstatic to be able to hold a Blackish Nightjar that was caught in the nets we put up to monitor and record data on the fauna around Savane-Roche Virginie
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Band-Rumped Swift

What about birdwatching in Cayenne?

Cayenne is a small, tropical town with some good parks, so I saw a lot of birds. Highlights would be the Blue-Grey Tanager, Great Kiskadee, Tropical Kingbird and the Black Vulture.

What else did you see in jungle? 

Oh, lots. Snakes, Great big Whip Spiders (amblypygi), big toads, massive flies, really big insects – everything is so big there because the eco-system is so rich.

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The whip spider!

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Horned Toad.

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Did you ever feel afraid?

I had some pre-conceived ideas about South America, but in general, anywhere you go you should keep your wits.  I was a waiter, finishing late, and one time I was walking home alone when someone came up to me and asked for the time. So – and I can only laugh about it now – I got my phone out and said the time. The guy said, ¨It can’t be – are you sure?¨ so I got my phone out and was like ¨here look¨ and he grabbed it! He ran and jumped on the back of a motorbike and I ran after them in my flipflops [jandals/thongs].  i just remember shaking my head afterwards and saying to myself, ¨Oh nice one, Guillaume!¨

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Beaches around Cayenne

What advice do you have for people thinking about going to French Guiana?

Be prepared for a 100% tropical climate.  In the jungle, everything gets really wet. I had my passport in my pocket and it got completely soaked – it’s like being in a sauna permanently. Also try to learn some French before you go, because people don’t speak English and only a few know basic English.

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View from the plane on the way to Saul – an ocean of trees.

Did you like this? You might be interested in reading about Emily H’s adventures in Bariloche, Argentina and Emily C’s experiences here in Chile! Above all, if you enjoyed this please give it a like and remember to subscribe to my blog to stay up to date with new posts (I have a newsletter now, too!).  If you have any interesting story you would like told, please send me an email to helen@queridarecoleta.com

 

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Writer Emily & her Life in Bariloche

I recently had the pleasure of meeting freelance writer, Emily Hopcian, through work and was intrigued by her stories of life in Bariloche, Argentina. A blog article must surely be on the cards, I thought, and luckly Emily thought so too  Hope you enjoy my first article about Argentina and stay tuned for more.

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Fitzroy Skyline.  Photo: Cascada Expediciones

Who is Emily Hopcian?

I’m a writer and content producer with a focus on outdoor adventure and social and environmental impact storytelling. I was born and raised in Michigan in the U.S. I have a love for most things water, cats and stories that are told well, especially character-driven stories with impact. Most recently, my hunger for travel, outdoor adventure and new challenges brought me to Bariloche, Argentina, where I’m developing a passion for and knowledge of this beautiful, story-filled region; the people who live, work and play here; and the plentiful adventures to be had here.

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Cordon Fitzroy Sunset. Photo: Cascada Expediciones

Why Argentina and why Bariloche?

I’ve had a desire to live outside the U.S. since I studied abroad in Bath, England in 2010. I held onto that dream, and in 2015, I started to seriously consider what living internationally would look like for me. Where did I want to live, and why? And what did I want to get out of living in a place outside the U.S.?

I wanted to learn Spanish. European countries felt similar to the U.S. in many ways, and I knew I wanted to challenge myself. Since I planned to continue working remotely for the company I was with in California, I set my sights on Latin America. Patagonia had been on my list for a while, so I honed in on Argentina and Chile. After talking with some acquaintances in Buenos Aires — yes, they were a bit biased 😊 — and being sold on the idea of a “European city in South America,” I decided to make the leap to Argentina.

I lived in Buenos Aires from November 2016 to May 2017. In short, the city was too much for me — and kilometers and hours, even by plane, from Patagonia. Craving a more natural landscape and the promise of outdoor adventures, I bought a one-way ticket to Bariloche, fell in love with this city and the Patagonian region as a whole and haven’t looked back.

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Photo: Emily Hopcian

How have you found living in Argentina?

I’ve experienced plenty of ups and downs in living here, but I also think that’s an ingredient for life no matter where you’re living. Landing in Buenos Aires, not knowing anyone, not speaking Spanish and navigating my own way were all significant challenges for me. I’ve been taking steps since day one and figuring it out as I go along. I learned a lot while living in Buenos Aires — castellano, what I need in my daily routine, good places to meet people with similar values, etc. — that helped me hit my stride here in Bariloche much faster.

I find the people and culture in Bariloche to be warmer and more welcoming than Buenos Aires. I think Bariloche attracts people with a more laid-back lifestyle. Which is not to say I didn’t meet great people in Buenos Aires. I did. Some of my favorite friends are from / still live there. Bariloche, as a whole, simply has more of what I’m looking for in my life.

For me, the biggest downside to living in Argentina is being so far from my family, who I’m very close to. Modern technology makes it easy to communicate and even see each other, but there are definitely moments when I miss the comforts of home, the things that are familiar to me — and my family is a big part of that. Suddenly losing my 10-year-old cat and watching my sister undergo brain surgery have been two of the toughest events to navigate from afar.

What have been your favourite travel experiences so far in Argentina?

My favorite travels have been in the Patagonian region, primarily El Chaltén. For me, Patagonia is everything I’d read about and so much more. The wild, remote landscape and simpler, richer pace of life are tough to come by in our world. Perhaps it’s the Michigander in me, but I like that the challenging weather is a defining characteristic of this region. Patagonia makes you work for your adventures.

In Bariloche, I love the plethora of opportunities for getting outside. I don’t have a car here and still find it incredibly easy to walk out of my tiny house and be up in the mountains hiking and camping overnight at one of Bariloche’s refugios (mountain huts) — a must-do if you come to visit — or near this region’s many lakes.

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Photo: Emily Hopcian

What are your favorite things to do and places to eat in Bariloche?

I enjoy hiking and camping in the mountains, and I’ve been learning to rock climb, which is a lot of fun and a great challenge to learn something entirely new in a foreign language. In terms of Bariloche’s refugios, Refugio Frey and Refugio Laguna Negra are my favorites. Cerrito Llao Llao is a great, quick hike with amazing views.

Cerveceria Berlina at Km 12 is one of my favorite places for beer and food; I usually get pizza. Cerveceria Patagonia has great brews and views. Delirante Cafe and Vertiente are two of my favorite cafes. Bellevue, Meiling Casa de Te and Chiado are cozy tea houses with great views. Rapa Nui is easily a favorite for chocolate and ice cream — as is Dolce Rama, which is right in my neighborhood.

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Grey Fox. Photo: Cascada Expediciones

How would you describe the local culture?

I feel as though the local culture is diverse here — meaning that it is what you make of it. For me, in many ways, the culture is reminiscent of a mountain town in the U.S. I lived in Jackson, Wyoming, for a short period of time, and while Bariloche feels and is bigger than Jackson, I see similarities, mostly in terms of an outdoor lifestyle. People are drawn to the mountains and outdoor activities.

That said, the influence of Argentine Patagonia is felt here. Asados in a friend’s jardín or el campo. The tradition of sharing a mate, conversation and time with friends is alive and well — be it in someone’s house, on one of Bariloche’s many beaches or up in the mountains at a refugio. For me, these two things — asados (barbeque) and mate (herbal drink from Patagonia) — reflect the slower, more easygoing pace of life here. There’s something about Bariloche that makes life feel a little simpler.

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Photo: Emily Hopcian

You recently spent some time volunteering with the Torres del Paine Legacy Fund. Can you tell us about this experience?

The Legacy Fund is leading thoughtful, innovative projects in Torres del Paine and in the surrounding communities. It was a great pleasure to join them on trail and conservation projects earlier this year — and to spend more time in such an incredible national park. One thing that’s really struck me about the Legacy Fund is that they’re working collaboratively to address local priorities — true partnerships with public and private stakeholders, both local and foreign, and park authorities. My experience with the Legacy Fund was educational and also a great chance to meet like-minded individuals from both Chile and the U.S. and swap stories and ideas with them, while contributing to a more sustainable future for the park and the communities surrounding it. In particular, I think it’s pretty neat that, as a volunteer, you play a role in positively contributing to the future of Torres del Paine. It’s an experience that is far different from that of your everyday visitor.

What are some of the pressing issues you see affecting Bariloche right now?

I think Bariloche is facing issues of continued expansion and development. In speaking with friends who grew up here, it’s my understanding that the population has grown dramatically in the past 20 or so years. Most people living here did not grow up in Bariloche. Many are from Buenos Aires and other cities in the north of Argentina. There’s obviously also a group of expats, like myself, here. There are other current events here — one having to do with the Mapuches who are native to this land and another having to do with Cerro Catedral, the ski mountain — but I don’t know enough about those events to explain or comment on them.

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Photo: Emily Hopcian

You are a freelance journalist. Can you share any tips for people looking to get started in the industry?

In terms of freelance writing, know who you’re pitching to. Know the publication or brand. Know their departments and campaigns. Know what types of stories they feature and what tone of voice they use. Do your research. Search online for pitch or story submission guidelines. Follow those guidelines. When possible, reach out to a real person — not just a general email. The best way to do that is by reading through mastheads or web pages that list employees. Social media can be a good tool for connecting with editors or making contact to then follow-up via email.

I’ve found sending three story ideas — sample headline + a story idea with the who, what and why now baked in — to work well. It gives editors a menu of sorts to choose from. I also mention whether I have photos, have access to photos or know a photographer who can capture photos for the stories I’m pitching.

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Photo: Cascada Expediciones

What is next for Emily?

At the end of January, I stepped into freelance writing and storytelling full-time. I’m navigating the challenges and victories that come with such a move. I’m starting my own creative agency with a focus on character-driven stories in outdoor adventure and social and environmental impact — especially stories local to Patagonia — told via writing, photos and videos.

In living, traveling and building community here, I’ve realized that there’s a gap in the outdoor and travel industries’ storytelling. We often tell stories of Americans and Europeans traveling and adventuring in foreign spaces, like Patagonia, but we don’t often share the stories of locals adventuring in their own backyards. I believe there’s a missed opportunity for cultural — and, quite simply, human — connection and to encourage all of us to think about / see places and our role in them differently as we explore. So I want to share the stories of locals in their own backyards, starting with the Argentines and Chileans in Patagonia.

Beyond Patagonia, I’m also working on bringing a mid-length documentary to life about a Nepalese female mountain guide in the Himalayas.

I plan to continue living in Bariloche, making a home and community for myself here — and would like to rescue a cat later this year.

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Photo: Emily Hopcian

Keep up to date with Emily’s adventures in Argentina by reading her blog. You can also follow her on Instagram and on Twitter

 

 

 

Rayuela, Christ & BBQ

I have surprised Manuel. His eyes don´t really believe me, his mouth forming a perfectly round O, followed by an exhalation of confused air.

The question had been a simple one, and my answer was nothing unusual, just a simple ¨no, I do not miss my home country because I feel at home here in Chile.¨ That is completely true – I love living here – but it always seems to catch the Chileans I meet off guard.

¨What about your family? ¨They always inevitably ask, followed by an exclamation of ¨But New Zealand is paradise! ¨.  But nothing I say ever convinces them, so I just change the subject quickly.

The day is a Saturday and I am in the small community of Calpún, four hours south of Santiago and an hour from the nearest city, Curicó.  Calpún is a blink-and-you´ll-miss-it sort of place, a scattering of houses that line a winding road in a tumble of colors.   Chickens squabble on the roadside and dash from passing cars, their clucking joining the whirring of tractors and scraping of shovels.  The wind blows fiercely east from the sea and causes wind dials to spin all morning and night in a cacophony of creaks and moans.  The afternoon – which it is right now – is made of summer sun and gentle breezes and, combined with the smell of the barbecue coals, makes for a moment of pure bliss.

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Calpun birds eye view

I have come to Calpún because it is the home of my partner´s family. Manuel´s son, David, was baptized today in the small church that dominates the village skyline.  Despite the countryside setting, we are all dolled up in our dresses and high heels, the men in suits and the children in bow ties and ribbons.  Chile is a predominately Catholic country, thanks to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in 1541, and baptisms are still a big deal.  Family from all across Chile have come today, arms piled high with presents wrapped up in blue paper. The ceremony itself is short and sweet; David barely makes a sound and his parents have been wearing smiles that light up the room (or at least rival the camera flashes).

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We are now in the house of Manuel´s brother, Tio Lucho.  ´Lucho´ is a common nickname for Luis, and part of a naming tendency that envelopes the whole country.  Fernando becomes ´Nano´, Francisco -´Pancho´, Felipe – ´Pipe´ … They join a whole host of diminutives that call attention to characteristics, such as ´Negra´ (black) and Flaco (skinny).

Lucho´s house is large with thin walls and naked of any furnishings alluding to grandeur, save for a few religious statues and dangling rosary beads.  In fact, as my mother-in-law Paola tells me, ¨the people don´t really care about that.  Our lives are spent outside¨.  This is, after all, primarily a farming community and a place that irks its living directly from the land.  The sauerkraut dripping all over our choripán (hot dog)? Homemade with cabbage from the garden.  The mayonnaise? Made just before using eggs from the chickens.  Even the salt comes from nearby Cáhuil, a group of ancient saltpans that are a blindingly vivid array of yellow, orange, brown and white.

 

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Gathering the salt in Cahuil.

However, despite the fertile abundance of the land, Calpún is struggling. My partner´s family would love to live here but there is no work and competition is high.  Instead, they live in Chile´s capital, Santiago, where they earn meagre pesos as a taxi driver and housekeeper (referred to as a nana). Many of the relatives attending the baptism, including Manuel himself, have also left the area to follow work opportunities elsewhere, including to the mines that dominate the northern desert.

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These fields supply Santiago`s markets.

¨When I was a child, there were two Calpúns.¨ My father-in-law is telling me now amidst a row of bobbing heads ¨Upper and Lower.  There were lots of people then before everyone left for Santiago, and the wealthier people lived in the Upper part while we lived here, in Lower Calpún.¨

¨Yes,¨ Tio Lucho agrees, ¨and Calpún was known as the place of the Blue-Eyed People – it was unusual to have blue eyes because of our ancestral ties with the Mapuches, who are traditionally dark.¨

 

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The river beside Calpun

Mapuche is the collective name of the indigenous people that historically occupied the areas south of Santiago until Patagonia. They are famous for withstanding the advance of the Spanish in the Arauco War, and today are a marginalized group.

 

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Mapuche mural from Curepto.

 

¨I had sixteen brothers and sisters¨ A woman I don´t know by name joins the conversation, ¨I don´t know how my mother did it because I have two kids of my own and I can´t imagine having any more!¨

There is a moment of laughter than my father in law says, ¨I played with my ball each and every day – it went everywhere with me! And I remember Paola, even though she was just a girl then, and she was always running, running everywhere with that light hair flying behind her.¨

My mother-in-law smiles shyly. ¨I loved to run and walk.  One year I was chosen to enter a big race, all the way in Curepto.  I was so nervous because I thought I wouldn´t be very good, but I WON!  I got a huge ribbon and I got to be in the summer festival that year.  It was one of the happiest moments of my life.¨

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Family antics in Calpun.

 

The conversation continues for a while and then turns to rayuela. Rayuela has been declared the national sport by two Chilean presidents and is traditionally played during las fiestas patrias, the celebration of Chilean independence that occurs the week of September 18.  This is the date when Chile united to seek independence (but not the date it formally received it, which was February 12, 1818).  According to the Chilean National Library, some 80,000 people choose to play the game in their free time, and there is even a national Rayuela Day, which occurs each year on July 19. To play the game, teams take turns throwing a metal tejo, which weighs around 1 kilo, onto a line drawn in an inclined clay box. If you hit the line you get double points, and the game can go on indefinitely. Lucho sets this up now and, using a piece of string and a stone, the game begins.

 

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At Tio Lucho`s house.

 

A few hours later and it is still going.  The wine has also made its appearance, a full-bodied red hailing from the nearby Maule Valley.  This valley is the largest wine producing area in Chile and grows excellent grapes thanks to the Mediterranean climate and varying soil compositions. Many of the wineries are organic and have a sustainable focus, the most characteristic varietal being carmenere, a grape once thought to have been extinct worldwide after a devastating plague swept through Europe in 1867.

¨Out here in the country, we prefer to drink red wine because it is the wine we have always drunk,¨  Lucho is telling me, ¨for Catholics it is associated with the blood of Christ¨.

There is music now too, courtesy of a live band playing an eclectic mix of Chilean cumbia, Mexican rancheras and traditional cueca. My father-in-law takes the hand of Paola as a song they love begins, and as their knees knock together they sway to the sound of their own laughter. The air has also thickened with smoke, the barbecue mingling with cigarettes (the World Health Organization reports that 34% of the population smoke).

 

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Dancing the cueca in Vichuquen.

 

¨Si es Chileno, es bueno¨ Manuel appears beside me, If it´s Chilean, it´s good. ¨Do you really not miss your country? ¨

I pause for a moment, then shake my head. Right now, beneath the crystal clear stars and beside these wonderful people, the moment is pretty close to perfect.

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If You Go:

Stay: at the Casa Roja in Lilco, 5 minutes from Lake Vichuquén and ten minutes from the Pacific Ocean.  This is also the site of the Oro de Torca olive grove and olive oil press.  From here you can make daytrips to the surfing town of Pichelemu, the salt flats of Cáhuil, the city of Santa Cruz, and the wineries of the Colchagua and Maule valleys. Birdwatchers can head to Laguna Torca.

Book your stay through Airbnb here.

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Birdwatching at Laguna Torca

 

 

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20 Things You Didn´t Know About Chile!

  1. Top Producer of Wine

Chile is the world´s fifth largest exporter of wine and the ninth largest producer. There are 14 different wine growing areas producing 10 million hectolitres each year – all thanks to Chile´s unique microclimate, secluded position between mountain and sea AND the ingenious of Spanish conquistadors who brought the first vines over in 1554. My favorite spots? Check out Casas del Bosque for something grandAttilio & Mochi for something special, Matetic for something fun, Emiliana for something organic, Bodegas RE for something small and Santa Rita for something close to Santiago.

2. Oldest Mummy in the World

The oldest known mummy to have been excavated was found right here in Chile´s Camarones Valley, and dates back to 5050B.C.  The mummy was a child who was part of the Chinchorro culture.

3. UNESCO Sites

Chile is blessed to have five cultural UNESCO sites that will transport you in time and blow your mind. Don´t miss the historic section of Valparaiso, the island of Chiloe (specifically the churches), Rapa Nui National Park (Easter Island), Humberstone & Santa Laura Saltpeter Works (former mine) and Sewell (former mining town).

4. 6500km of Spectacular Coastline

That makes Chile one of the world´s longest countries, which is made all the more obvious when you take into consideration that it´s also one of the narrowest at just over 200km wide. The water is frigid though, thanks to the Humboldt Current which makes its way up from Antarctica, bringing with it an incredible bounty of seafood that makes Chile famous. Close to Santiago, a good option to visit is the small fishing village of Horcon, which clings precariously to the shore.

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5. Driest Place on Earth

Is the Atacama Desert, which has an average annual rainfall of 0.05mm with soil that has been compared to Mars.  In 2003, scientists published in the journal Science that there were no signs of life in the Yungay region, and as such this area has been used by NASA to test instruments for possible missions to Mars. This beautiful desert also provides one of the clearest places to view the night sky and is filled with observatories, including two major sites opereated by the European Southern Observatory.  There are also geoglyphs such as the Atacama Giant, which is the largest prehistoric anthropomorphic figure in the world at 119m high.

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Beautiful gift and souvenir ideas by Siski Green

6. Obligatory Flag Display

Each year during Fiestas Patrias, Chile´s national holiday celebrating the country´s independence, it is compulsory to hang a Chilean flag from every public building. If not, you face a fine!

7. Fireworks Like You´ve Never Seen

South Ameria´s largest fireworks display occurs each New Years Eve in Valparaiso. In 2007, the Guinness Book of Records recorded a display of a whopping 16,000 fireworks!

8. Government UFO Research

Chile is one of the world´s few countries to boast a government supported organization researching UFO´s. In fact, the paranormal has become normal in Chile; the town of San Clemente has an 19 mile ´UFO trail´ although a sighting guarantee is slim: “In no way can we guarantee that a tourist coming to San Clemente will see a UFO” states Chile´s official tourism board, Sernatur.

9. Divorce + Abortion = Hot Topics

Divorce was legalized in 2005 and has one of the world´s lowest rates of divorce, while abortion is still illegal and a topic of debate politically. Chile is classed as a Catholic country.

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10. Glass House Protest

In 2000, an actress took up residence in a temporary glass house in the center of Santiago. This provocative display was to prompt discussion about the double standards surrounding morality in Chile and to protest against cafe con piernas (below).

11. Coffee Shops + Sex

Cafe con Piernas are traditional coffee shops sparked during Chile´s dictatorship, where you order your coffee from scantily dressed women. There are various levels of nudity on display depending on where you go.

12. Robinson Crusoe Inspiration

This classic novel was inspired after Daniel Defoe read the story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor, who was marooned on the Juan Fernandez islands for four years.

13. Really Amazing Trees

The Alerce tree, found in the south of Chile, is recorded to grow as much as 4000 years old making it one of the world´s most ancient trees.  Meanwhile, the Chilean Palm is the biggest palm species in the world but it´s also one of the rarest – check out La Campana to see amazing natural palm forests.

14. Largest Copper Reserves

Chile has the world´s largest copper reserves and is the largest exporter. It is also has the second largest reserve of lithium along with sizeable reserves of iron, silver, zinc, coal, gold and iodine.

15. Powerful Earthquakes

In 1960, the world´s largest recorded earthquake struck southern Chile, measuring 9.5. and killing some 1,500 people.  Make sure you are prepared by reading this.

What to do

16. Moving Houses … the Traditional Way

On the island of Chiloe, people get together to perform minga, where communities gather to pop a house on tree trunks and move it to a new site by oxen.

17. Attached to Horses?

The term huaso, which today refers to the Chilean cowboy, comes from the Mapuche (indigenous culture) word for shoulders. Why? They had never seen horses before when the conquistadors arrived, and so thought man and horse were joined.

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18. Nobel Prize Winners

Chile is known as a country of poets, and for good reason. Pablo Neruda was a famous politician and poet who won the prize for literature back in 1971, and is known for such works as Twenty Love Poems and Heights of Machu Picchu. Interestingly, his former school principal was none other than Gabriela Mistral, who was the first Latin American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1945.

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19. 4000 Disappeared Under the Dictatorship

During the dictatorship, led by CIA-backed Augusto Pinochet, 4000 people are said to have been executed or ¨disappeared¨. A million more fled the country while hundreds of thousands were detained or tortured. Pinochet was influenced by a group of Chilean economists who studied at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman, free market guru; they became known as the Chicago Boys. You can find out more at the Memory + Human Rights Museum located at metro Quinta Normal.  The General Cemetery in Recoleta (metro Cementerios) also contains a field dedicated to those killed, with a series of unmarked graves.

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20. Romantic History That Should Be A Movie

The early colonization of Chile is nothing short of movie-worthy. Spanish-born Pedro de Valdivia lead a team of men from Peru into (what is today) Chile, dodging murder attempts by his fellow team leader. Valdivia brought with him Ines de Suarez, a widow who he is rumoured to have known in Spain … despite being a married Catholic to a woman in Spain. Once in Chile, they founded the city of Santiago, despite facing numerous uprisings from the local Incan/Picuenche communities. When Valdivia was away, an uprising nearly defeated the Spanish but Ines de Suarez rallied the troops and decided to boost moral by cutting off the heads of the 7 tribal leaders they were holding prisoner (and hoping to barter their freedom with). Her move paid off and the natives were defeated. Valdivia brought to Santiago a young Mapuche boy, Lautaro, as his personal groom but during one battle Lautaro switched sides and passed on valuable information to the rebelling indigenous Mapuche who had united under the leadership of Caupolican. Lautaro became a leader and it is thanks to his intimate knowledge of the Spanish that led to the capture of Valdivia, who was killed in unknown circumstances. His death came after he´d been ordered to give up longtime love, Ines, who had been married off to one of his Captains in 1549. His wife had been en route to Chile when he died.  Interestingly, the popular local soccer team Colo Colo is named after the Mapuche leader Colo Colo, who was instrumental in the appointing of Caupolican to tribal leader. Have a read of the much beloved poem, La Araucanawritten by Alonso de Ercilla, which details the Spanish conquest of Chile and was published in 1569.

Don´t forget that I am writing a weekly fictional story about this very history. Read the first chapter here.

What are your favorite facts about Chile? Here are some other posts you might enjoy:

Chile in Photos

An Introduction to Musica Latina

Paranormal Chile Top 7

10 Common Misconceptions About Chile

The People of Tierra del Fuego