Some travelers avoid isolated places off the beaten track. Such an approach is a mistake. Being in a place with no other tourists and few locals can provide an intense sense of presence, creating a spaciousness in which even a breath of wind and the rustling of leaves can feel as expansive as the universe. Curiñanco was this type of place.
My friend Andrea and I were staying in the southern city of Valdivia when a man told us of a forest refuge nestled atop a cliff along the Pacific Ocean. He told us that this gem was located in Curiñanco, a tiny village reachable by local bus from Valdivia. It sounded perfect to me.
Our trip to Curiñanco began on a small, red public bus whose seats and floor were tinged with beige soil gathered from the road that we would travel. As the little red bus took us past the coastal town of Niebla, the pavement disappeared, replaced by sun-baked, dusty earth. The bus made its way through progressively smaller settlements, the road climbing until we saw sweeping views of the Pacific and its seemingly endless reach. The bus stopped here and there along the way, dropping off some of the other passengers.
The dirt road ended in Curiñanco. Besides Andrea and me, there were only three others left on the bus, a trio of teenage Chileans. Andrea and I and the teens rose hesitantly from our seats as we surveyed the area through the bus windows. Other than a few small homes built in a grassy clearing, there was only the end of the road and the Pacific beyond that. None of us were sure where to go. Seeing our sense of cluelessness, the bus driver told us that a beach was just ahead past the end of the road, accessible by a footpath. Andrea and I asked him about the refuge, and he told us that there was a trail off to the right somewhere. Receiving vague directions was common in Chile.
Andrea and I stepped off the bus and walked ahead to a cliff which overlooked the Pacific and a horseshoe-shaped beach below. The trio of teens remained behind us in the road, standing in the bright sunshine and debating who knows what. As we stood admiring the ocean view, big black biting flies starting swarming us. It was the beginning of southern Chile’s notorious biting fly season. For a six to eight week period starting in late December, southern Chile is plagued by large, heavy-bodied flies with serrated mouth parts designed to saw through your skin to get at your blood. Andrea and I spotted the trail leading to the beach and decided to get moving.
The beach was nice. Gentle rolling waves from the Pacific landed on shore, breaking over rocks and sand, creating that crashing water sound that seems to have universal appeal. A man and his son were fishing from the beach, but soon left because of the biting flies. I made my way onto some rocks at the water’s edge to try to elude the flies, while Andrea sat against a boulder, seemingly unbothered by the flying pests.
After some time on the beach, we ventured back up to the road to find the trail to the refuge. After some searching we found an entrance, a short gate of chicken wire in front of a small wooden home. A sign instructed visitors to leave some money in a little metal box fitted to a wooden post. As we stood talking about how to proceed, an older Chilean man came out of the little wooden house and introduced himself. He told us his name was Carlos, and that he was the warden of the refuge and lived in the little house. What a sweet gig, I thought.
Carlos informed us about the trails in the refuge and suggested possible routes to take. He told us that the entrance fee was 500 pesos per person, about one dollar. What a bargain. Just as we were ready to go, Andrea asked Carlos if there was a place where she could buy food. While we had brought some snacks with us, I guess Andrea felt that what we brought was not sufficient. Carlos said that there were no stores in the little hamlet. Never one to be shy or discouraged, Andrea then asked Carlos if he had any food in his house that she could buy. I almost laughed out loud over this. But to my surprise, Carlos didn’t bat an eyelash, and told Andrea that he would prepare us some food when we returned. I was flabbergasted. What a guy. Although, he did comment to Andrea that his house was not a restaurant. I laughed out loud over that comment.
We told Carlos that we’d return in a few hours, and then headed off into the refuge. The trail quickly took us into a splendid forest, thick with leafy, towering trees and dense green underbrush. Unlike at the beach, there wasn’t a single biting fly in the forest. There also wasn’t another soul in sight.
As we made our way along the trail, shafts of bright sunshine penetrated the forest canopy, dappling the understory trees and forest floor with golden light. The afternoon warmth opened the pores of the leaves and bark, releasing fragrant plants oils. The air was heady with sweet and spicy aromas. Cicadas buzzed intermittingly from the trees, and from deep within a tangle of brambles a solitary cuckoo sung unabashedly, its sharp, clear notes expanding in the air around us.
We basked in the wonder of this forest for quite some time, taking pictures of trees reaching high, admiring ferns and lichens and bromeliads, stopping to listen to bird song. Eventually the trail took us along a cliff some two hundred meters above the Pacific. The sun beat down on the ocean, conspiring with the movement and depth of the water to produce a rich palette of blue colors.
As the trail headed back towards Carlos’ little home, we came across a wooden viewing platform set at the edge of the cliff. Perched on the wooden railing of the platform were two large black vultures. As we approached, the vultures didn’t budge. A standoff ensued. As we drew near the platform, I became intimidated by the size of the birds and their confidence in holding their position. I decided to test their mettle by suddenly and briefly rushing toward them. They finally relented and flew off. But before they went, I took some nice pictures of them. We spent some time on the platform, snapping pictures of the gorgeous coastline.
When we reached Carlos’ house, he was sitting on a chair on the little deck outside his front door. Latin rhythms played from a square black radio next to his chair. He roused when we approached and invited us into his home for a short tour. Inside there was a modest-sized living room, a small kitchen, and a small bedroom with an attached tiny bathroom. The living room was sparsely furnished with an old loveseat and a well-aged recliner. A guitar stood in repose in a corner near the front door.
Carlos explained that his wife of 40 years had died five years ago. After her death, he took the job of warden and moved into the little house perched near the ocean. He lived a mostly solitary existence, heading into town when he needed provisions or wanted to be with other humans. He seemed happy.
After the tour, Carlos ushered us back outside to sit at a folding table on the deck. He told us to relax as he was going inside to prepare some food for us. He asked us if fresh lamb steaks and fried potatoes were ok. Andrea and I nodded, smiled, and told him his offering sounded wonderful. We asked Carlos if he needed help, but he declined assistance.
Andrea and I sat on the deck, chatting and relaxing. The smell of cooking lamb and frying potatoes drifted over the deck. Carlos reappeared with some plastic cups and a bottle of red wine. As he offered us some wine, I thought to myself, is this really happening? We filled our cups, and I offered a salute to Don Carlos, adding the honorific “Don” prefix to show my reverence for this man. He bashfully appreciated my gesture, and then returned inside.
A short while later Carlos brought out the food. The three of us ate together at the table. The meal was basic and excellent. As we savored the food and sipped wine, I gave a go at using my Spanish, which was good enough to give general details about my life.
Our time together ended with me holding my camera out and taking a picture of the three of us. Andrea and I then thanked Carlos profusely for his kind-hearted hospitality and caught the bus back to Valdivia.
That one day in Curiñanco was arguably the best day of travel I’ve ever had.