Chile

Chacabuco

Written by Mark McElroy

“Try it,” Manuel says.

We’re in Chacabuco (say, “cha-ka-BOO-ko”). I am in love with the name of this port. It makes me think of fine wine (“I’ll have the 2009 Chacabuco”) or a rich dessert (“Chacabuco, please, with ice cream.”)

Though he was born in northern Chile and relocated to Chacabuco more than a decade ago, locals still consider Manuel an “alphabeto,” an outsider. He is a handsome man, with dark, glossy hair, skin the color of creamed coffee, a square jaw, and a short but sturdy frame. His smile is rare as sunshine on a March morning in Chacabuco, but when that smile does break through, like the sunshine, it’s worth the wait.

“Just for thirty seconds,” he says. He holds out his arms, palms down, silencing our group. “Try it.”

When the day started, I was prepared for disappointment. Three — count them! — three large bus loads of fellow cruisers departed the dock for the “Chacabuco Nature in Depth” tour. I pictured ninety noisy adults being herded through a hotel garden, following an ill-tempered woman with a bullhorn.

But then we arrived at the nature preserve, where Manuel and seven other skilled guides gave us bottled water, fitted us with rainproof ponchos, and divided us into smaller, more manageable numbers. They staggered our departures, guaranteeing us a quieter, more intimate passage through the park’s flat, narrow, well-marked paths. By walking just a little faster or lagging just a little behind, we could easily imagine we were alone in the park for the day.

And now, here we are with Manuel, whose soft voice carries remarkably well in the chill, humid air of the rainforest. “Ready? Here we go. I will count for you.”

Everyone falls silent. Seconds pass.

Later, after our two-hour hike through the park, we will end up at a waterfall that roars as loudly as a jet engine. It will exhale mist so thick, it will fog my glasses with fat silver droplets. From there, we will climb a steep hill to an eight-sided public house. There, we’ll find four lambs spread-eagled on spits as long as a man is tall, arranged like a teepee of meat over a blazing fire. We’ll be served pesco sours (citrusy drinks made with whiskey, lemons, sugar, and egg whites). We’ll get huge hunks of lamb on our plates (but Clyde will find, to his dismay, that his serving is mostly fat and bone).

But, for now, the wind whispers in the leaves of the aryian trees, a species so waterlogged, the naked, chocolate-colored bark feels cold to the touch. Each tree has multiple limbs — upright wooden tentacles, thicker than a man’s leg. Their poses make me think of many-armed gods, beckoning us deeper into the forest.

Tiny birds rustle in the underbrush. The tze-tze, no bigger than sparrows, have rust-colored breasts and bright black eyes. They’re curious and fearless; while we stand silently, they hop forward, pose, and peck at our shoes. Beyond the ayrians, a rapid stream burbles its way to the sea.

After one minute, Manuel opens his eyes. “What did you hear?”

No planes. No traffic. No chatter. No alerts. Just wind in the leaves, birds in the brush, and water in the stream.

“Chacabuco,” Manuel says, and smiles.

About the author

Mark McElroy

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