Three golden women of the Araucanía coast

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This little-known slice of southern Chile has unique destinations open to receiving tourists interested in their local gastronomy and culture.  Three women from the Araucania coast tell their stories. 
Text and photos by Ignacio Palma 
Translated by Andy Ford 
Like an ode to the senseless, a golden statue of a miner lies at the front of the Park of Trains in Carahue, in Chile’s Araucanía region.  What’s the figure of a miner doing among old locomotives here? The plaque says it’s to pay homage to the cultural heritage of miners, which nowadays are few and far between in this region.  But it seems strange to have such a monument in a place devoted to trains. 
Looking for an explanation, I notice the finger on its right hand.  It points toward the coast, where some gold mines were located in the past.  But beyond that, I notice that, the years having passed by, today there is a new “gold” in this region: the tourist attractions of the Araucanía coast. Not as well-known as the famed Andean lakes part of the region, among the diverse offerings of this fascinating place are the ventures led by three women from Nehuentue, Lago Budi, and Queule.  Whether it id gastronomy, lodging, or the rescue of the Mapuche indigenous culture, these true “gold mines” take advantage of their touristic environs, extracting each mineral of this new gold in Araucanía. 
Inner strength 
 “Do you want to meet my chickens?” Ester Salgado asks me. 
I nod my head. 
“Tikitikitikitikitiki!” she cries out repetitively. 
As if it were a language only they understood, a dozen hens and one rooster cross the street to surround this woman with eyes as deeply clear as the Imperial River behind her.  She promptly takes some crumbs out of her apron and throws them, to the delight of her birds, just to the side of a sign that reads: “Animals prohibited on the public road.” 
Meanwhile, at the tributary, which just mere kilometers away from us flows into the Pacific Ocean, are the feral birds.  Pelicans, seagulls, and cormorants fight there amongst themselves, flapping their wings on the water’s surface to capture their prey from the depths of the river.  Viewing these birds, with the wetlands as background, is one of the major attractions offered by Nehuentue, a small cove in Carahue. 
Ester, 52-years-old, lives among these two dissimilar types of species.  She was born in nearby Moncul, “as it was done in the old days: at home,” she says.  In addition to feeding her chickens, she is responsible for providing food for those who visit this place some 85 miles to the west of the regional capital, Temuco.  Twenty years ago, she started a gastronomic venture in her home.  And this past January she expanded her business to manage the fishermen’s headquarters “Tía Ely Los Palos,” whose cookery has privileged views of the fishing boats that rest on the Imperial River.  It offers typical plates of this coastal zone, like the “choro maltón,” an endemic dish with a distinctly different kind of flavor. “Since we have both sweet and salty tides, making it more smooth.  The result of a local tragedy: the tsunami of 1960," explains Ester. 
Despite her clientele has recently declined by 70 percent due to another recent natural tragedy, this one in a neighboring region further to the south, a massive red tide that never even affected this zone, Ester trusts that in the next few months the situation will change.  She even believes that, beyond the virtues that it possesses, the locale hides something magical that many tourists claim to find.  “In Mapudungun (the Mapuche language), Nehuentue means “place of much strength,” not of physical strength, but rather internal.  When people learn about this, they know it and they practice it, they come to renew themselves here,” she says. 
Ester also hopes that the identity of Nehuentue will be conserved in the future.  Instead of big hotel chains and restaurants like one might see in other places, her dream is that community-based ventures and sustainable tourism will be promoted.  “Tourism is a great business, but if it is not managed how it should be, the same thing that occurs other places will happen: more trash and more people that cause damage.  There will be a greater environmental impact, because we, as a small locality, are just not prepared for that. The landfills are not adequate," she adds. 
Lake of fire 
It only takes 20 minutes for the boat of Héctor Vallejos to cross from the Collileufu Grande Pier to Llepo Island.  In that time, while the sun slowly bids the day farewell behind us, Budi, the lake that separates both locales, turns a fiery color, as if the saltiness of its waters and the rays of twilight generated an infernally placid combination on its surface. 
But that is not all: in the orange landscape, the birds reign over the wetlands that surround us.  Diverse kinds of herons, cormorants, swamp crows, and ducks bid the day farewell.  And of course, there is also the black-necked swan, a vulnerable species in Chile, but that here flaps its white wings symbolizing liberty. 
Now, when the island is wrapped in nighttime's purple blanket, Héctor’s wife, Jessica Huenten, displays her family venture: Turismo Budi Isla Llepo.  Here it is possible to stay in a “ruka” made of straw with a dirt floor, which contains four beds and a fireplace in the middle.  In addition, you can get to know the history of the area, learn about the world view and gastronomy of the Mapuche, and participate in agro-tourism, getting involved with members of the family in their daily routine. 
Twelve years ago, Jessica was working lending technical-agricultural services in the area, until she realized the great potential the island had, when several tourists consulted her for tours on the lake.  Since then, she has received visitors from various parts of Chile, as well as from Brazil, Argentina, Germany, and South Korea. 
Observing the horizon, and with a tone of voice that mirrors the calm of the place, Jessica affirms that the people come for the peace, silence, and tranquility offered by the nature at the island.  “We have had a lot of people who visit while depressed.  Here they seek to think and to meditate.  They stay three or four nights, and it rejuvenates them.  They leave with another idea: that life is beautiful, that you must live and enjoy it," she emphasizes, while the first stars anticipate what will be a calm and clear full-moon night, contrasting with the boisterous waves heard in the distance.  
Everything is transformed 
An eruption of smells is encountered upon entering the ruka of María Victoria Ñancuan.  The smoke from the coals combines with the aroma of peppers, seaweed, onions, smoked fish, and beef jerky that hang around the fire.  The fumarole slips through an opening in the roof and then gets lost in the clear air of the coastal region of Cayulfe, located at kilometer 20 of the route that joins Toltén and Queule. 
This Lafkenche woman wears a trarilongko (silver headband) and trapelakucha (silver chest adornment), traditional pieces of Mapuche women’s clothing.  She demonstrates her wisdom and respect for nature in every opinion she gives, followed by a smile as sweet as it is unbreakable. 
As the Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler would say, she seems to follow the maxim “nothing is lost, all is transformed."  She turns a cow’s head into a dried pot; she roasts wheat in order to make coffee with it; she grinds peppers until they are reduced to merquen; she makes canned fruit and marmalades; she sows and harvests vegetables in her greenhouse, and creates crafts out of local wood and wool.  “The only things that are trash are toilet paper and diapers.  Everything else can be reused.  One must know how to respect and take good care our Mother Earth. One must love all that they do in life, for in this way, we, what we enjoy in the present, others will also do so in the future,” she says, as if it were a life motto, before taking a sip of mate. 
With this philosophy, in 2008 she began her venture on this land of 200 square meters.  First she offered camping services.  Then, she was trained in the area of tourism.  She loved her culture so much that, along with the help of her family, in 2011 she brought about her greatest dream: a ruka made of strips of wood.  In this infrastructure, besides offering delicious homemade meals and a pleasant atmosphere, there is a bed available for the guest.  Among the featured activities are horse rides, sport fishing in rivers and the Pacific, and birdwatching. 
Analyzing in retrospect, she tells how her “Camping and Ruka ‘La Victoria’” has yielded great fruits.  Last season she registered 100 visitors, Chileans as well as foreigners.  Some of them planned to stay for a few days, but their stay ended up lasting weeks.  “When they leave, we take that attachment and it pains us to say goodbye.  Some come back, too," said María Victoria. 


Tourism contingency plan 
This year has not been the best for the touristic entrepreneurs of coastal Araucanía.  Two important sardine die-offs in Queule and Caleta La Barra de Toltén, in April and May, respectively, have increased the reticence of tourists to visit the area.  This is in addition to the past red tide that affected the coasts of the Los Lagos and Los Ríos regions.  Even though it didn’t contaminate the shellfish of Araucanía, it nevertheless likely contributed to the scant arrival of tourists.  According to official estimates, visitor turnout fell by 60 percent. 
As such, the National Tourism Service (Sernatur) office in Araucanía, together with other ministerial secretaries, has headed a reactivation plan.  First, consider regional and national promotion of the tourist attractions.  Second, support tourism initiatives that are being developed in the area.  “Our idea was to identify which cases already have resources in order to be able to project them with a determined standard, and which are those that require support in production and promotion," explains the regional director of Sernatur Araucanía, Richard Quintana. 
Nevertheless, the president of the National Council of Defense of Fishing Heritage (Condepp), Hernán Machuca, requests that the fishermen also be included in these touristic contingency plans, since their earnings have diminished by some 70 percent compared to the same time period last year.  “Sernatur is promoting, but the fishermen’s organizations are left on the margins. I think that they should be incorporated.  All of us are necessary.”