It is so blustery that the wooden lodge seems to quiver with each wind gust. Ominous, heavy rain clouds darken the sky to the west, shrouding the snowy peaks. The rain begins to fall, slowly, than gaining force. As the wind howls, the rain is not really falling vertically, it is blowing—sideways.
I feel grateful to be inside, curled up with a book and my journal by the cozy fireplace. Actually, it is one of three fireplaces in the great room. I give a flip through Facebook (yes, there is the luxury of microwave wifi in this remote area here), and am relieved to be spared the sweltering dry heat of Santiago. In these latitudes, it feels like fall, maybe winter, in a refreshing way.
The pitter-patter of the rain drums on the roof. The fire hisses and crackles. The wind moans and sheets of precipitation blow across the dark lake, normally a shade of brillant sapphire. I try to remember the last time I heard rain on the roof while sitting by an open fire. I can’t–not at least since I relocated to Mediterranean Santiago. I rub my feet together. They feel toasty, bien calentitos, in the sheep-skin slippers. I conjure up memories of my childhood home in the Northeast (USA) where I would camp out many winter nights in front of the chimney, warming my back, as the snow quietly came down outside or a Nor’easter raged, tickling the windows. I could not have dreamed of a more perfect last night in Patagonia. These sounds just comforted my soul.
We are in a remote area of Chile in the region of Aysen wedged between the endless Argentinean pampas, the never-ending maze of Chilean fjords to the west, and to the south (only 10 minutes away by helicopter), the beginning of the “Campo del Hielo Norte”, Northern Ice field, which is kilometers and kilometers of glaciers. Aysen is commonly regarded among the fly-fishing community as Mecca with hundreds of crystalline rivers, streams, and lakes, all from glacial run-off.
We landed a few days prior in the frontier town of Balmaceda/Coyhaique. With its dinky airport and landing strip, it really felt like the end of the continent. We navigated, by 4×4, through windblown, rolling countryside dotted with cattle grazing for half an hour to arrive at a “port” (read: boat) on a lake. Fifteen minutes later in the jetboat, a choppy ride I may add, we arrived at the jetty of the Lodge. The water was so clear I easily peered 30-50 feet deep towards the bottom with my naked eye.
The lodge, called “Dos Lagos” or two lakes, is a retreat built on a peninsula between two lakes protected by centuries-old cohiue trees. The lakes were carved by ancient glaciers and are bordered by steep cliffs, with parts reaching nearly 350 meters deep. They are teeming with fresh water trout. This oasis set among tall peaks, rivers, and lakes, i.e. untouched nature, is also bit of a rich man’s folly.
Up in the surrounding mountains, there are intricate networks of trekking and mountain bike trails—with ATVs to zoom you to the top of the mountain, saving your quads the initial burn, and more energy for the ride down. This is not exactly beginner mountain biking. Some of the slopes are so steep with curves so sharp, you wonder how any rider could defy gravity to stay on the trail AND the bike at the same time. Trails are fittingly named “Snowball suicide”, or “Runaway Kamikaze”, apparently for those that have no fear of bodily harm and a serious addiction to adrenaline. One of the socios, partners, passion is mountain biking and essentially created this vast playground of immaculately groomed trails for his own pleasure—and now that of guests. We stuck to the trekking circuits, the most benign biking paths in many cases.
Our first hike on the day we arrived, a blustery afternoon, we were approached by the Huemul, the South Andean deer. In danger of extinction, these gentle creatures are a legend in Chile as few people ever have the privilege of spotting one alive. It is the animal represented on the coat of arms on the national flag. They are extremely rare to see in the wild. This particular animal was young and came over to us, quite close, with a curious look. He lingered long enough to give us a good look us up and down (while we bought time to snap away with our cameras). He bounced off and disappearing into the thick bush. I took the Huemul sighting to being a good omen. We never saw another one the rest of the trip, even though the guides mentioned they are more frequently seen in the area.
The next morning, we woke up to a cloudless sky. Pure blissful sunshine. Our good luck continued. We headed out on the jet boat west across the second lake to the area called El Desierto, “the desert”. The water was turquoise and sparkling. Cerro Castillo, one of the tallest mountains in the area, glittered with its eternal snow under the rays of sun. We set off on a hearty hike to see some of the turquoise waterfalls feeding the river. The trek followed the river, so clear we could see see the colored stones lining the bottom from several hundred meters above. The sun blazed. It got hot enough to peel down to a t-shirt. A cool Southern breeze from the ocean, only 40 kilometers or so as the crow flies, felt like refreshing ice against the skin.
We got back in the jet boat to go on a little joy ride up the river. Jet boats are insanely fun. They move at high velocity skimming over the shallow surface of the water, snaking with the contours of the river. We cruised along when our guide, Javier, told us to “hold on” traversing a deep section. Yep, he was gonna do a “180″ to turn around to head back. Okay…here we go.
Turned achieved. He reignited the engine. Nada. We floated downstream with the current. Let’s try that again. The engine hacked and coughed. Third try. Damn, apparently a stone had lodged in the motor. Everyone off of the boat to lighten the load. Meanwhile, the guides radio for help (no response).
We stepped off the boat into a windy pasture as the river babbled by. I tried to remember the distance we had traveled by river and was mentally calculating how much walking could likely be in our very near future. A lot. The upside. We had snacks, water, toilet paper, and daylight until 10pm. But I really did not want to trek back. I closed my eyes and visualized the boat getting fixed. Pronto.
The guides tinkered a little while more with the engine. A couple swift maneuvers and suddenly the boat spit out the rock with a loud BAM. We climbed back on board and raced upstream.
We arrived at the lodge just in time for lunch–a traditional cordero al palo, spit lamb barbeque. One of the cute sheep running around the property met its fate earlier that morning, which saddened me (full disclosure: I am not much of a carnivore). The lamb was slowly roasted for 2.5, spayed open like it had been crucified. Everybody was buzzing about the asado since it is such a beloved tradition in Patagonia. The crowd, however, went crazy and laid into the tender meat, salads, and other fixings like pebre served with local tortillas, a sort of Southern Sopiapilla.
That is pretty much the days roll in these pasts. Fly-fishing, hiking, biking, relaxation, eating, indulging in massages, hot tubbing, and mostly just enjoying the pristine setting. The uber-oxygenated air had my smog-ridden Santiago brain asleep by 10pm most nights.
Back in front of the fire, I had dozed off while waiting for dinner to be served. We sat down as the rain raged outside. We dug into a bowl of perfectly al dente rigatoni with a delicate king crab sauce accented garlic, butter, and fresh cream. It was lovely. It was the kind of simple, delicious flavors that I crave at home. It was the taste of all that coziness surrounding us.
The next morning, it was snowing when we opened the curtains. Such excitement. I felt like a kid in December before Christmas.I forgot how much I missed snowy days (although never shoveling and the cold). That night, we returned to the hot summer days of December in Santiago, only 2 hours away by plane but another world. Now that we are well into the New Year and summer here in Santiago, when I need a recourse from the heat, this pasta dish with a nicely chilled Chardonnay can take me straight back to Coyhaique and the south of Chile in only one bite–recipe below.
Recipe for Creamy King Crab Pasta
1 box rigatoni
2 pounds fresh king crab meat (if not available, substitute with lump crab meat like Dungeness)
3 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
½ cup dry white wine
1 cup vegetable stock
½ cup fresh cream
2 tbsp unsalted butter
salt and pepper to taste
nutmeg, pinch freshly grated
Freshly grated Parmesan
- In a saucepan, sauté the shallots in the melted butter over medium heat. When they become fragrant, add in the garlic for another 1-2 minutes, being careful not to burn. Deglaze with the white wine.
- Add the stock and let cook, stirring occasionally, for about ten minutes. It should reduce. Drink some wine while waiting if this seems tedious.
- Boil water for the pasta and slightly salt with sea salt. Cook the pasta according to the cooking instructions to al dente.
- Add the nutmeg to that sauce but just a touch. This is NOT pumpkin pie, people.
- Pure the sauce with an immersion blender until creamy. Add in the fresh, thick cream with a whisk along with the crab meat and gently heat.
- Strain the pasta then toss with the sauce. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan and optional fresh herbs like basil, parsley or chives.