At a quarter of nine in the morning, we climbed into our four-wheel-drive pickup where the new road ends at Llanada Grande. Until this year, a flight to its unpaved airstrip or a two-day ride by horse from the automobile road was the only way to get there—and that was after a couple of hours bumping along on that winding road full of potholes.
The narrow gravel road follows the old horse road as far as the Manso River, low now after a month with only one serious rain. Nevertheless, there is a monster bridge, suggesting some idea of what happens in the spring and, sometimes, in other seasons as well.
We used to run a resort a little downstream on the Rio Puelo from the Manso, and, as we drove along just above the farm that supplied fresh produce and fruit to the resort, we could see the two-room farm cabin, christened the “Love Shack,” in which we stayed while we were building. A little farther on, we came to the ferry landing, below the big rock where I often sat to look at the twists and turns of the river upstream. Our first employee, Oscar, who drove a boat for us, lives on a farm below the lake, and we planned to visit him for the first time in some years.
Only 15 years ago, when we first came to the valley, we brought an outboard engine and a modern boat, supplanting the chalupa, a primitive wooden boat with a one-lung, 16-horse engine and a very small propeller attached to the end of a very long shaft, which was incapable of going up the smallest rapids. This meant getting out at Las Hualas (the place of the Great Grebe), walking for a couple of hours, and then, at the big lake Tagua Tagua, taking another chalupa for the slow five-mile ride up the lake.
The mountains come down to the lake so sharply that walking around is impossible. People (and sometimes sheep) rode in chalupas; horses and cows, in chatas—large, heavy flat-bottomed, high-sided barges pulled by a wimpy chalupa.
When we arrived at the ferry landing, there was no ferry there. We had been told that the first ferry came up-lake, leaving at nine in the morning, and then left for the down-lake run at 10:30. Since we had passed four vehicles (two pickups, a bright yellow van-bus, and a car) that had gotten off the ferry, we realized that it must have left immediately upon reloading. When would it return? The last ferry was supposed to be at four in the afternoon.
We hadn’t brought lunch, figuring on being in Ensenada in time. After a short wait, however, a car and then a big truck came, so we got into line. Other vehicles came, including the yellow van, and lined up with us. When the ferry arrived, about 11:45, it could only handle some of the waiting clients—the truck, our crew-cab pickup, two cars, and, hanging over onto the loading ramp, the yellow van. The lake was rough, as is normal when the sea breeze comes up about 11:00 in the morning, shooting spray over the cars and the considerable number of foot passengers.
The lodge, no longer ours, is still there. The surroundings look much the same, although, in the 15 years since we first came, most of the forest on the mountains across the lake has been burned by wildfires, often set by farmers clearing land. Sadly, civilization has perhaps worsened, rather than improved, fire control.
Since then, the economy west of the lake has changed from our Middle West-at-the-turn-of-the-last-century to today. Approaching us is a large tour bus, advertising an excursion to Tagua Tagua, following the “road” we used to have to walk. The farms all have electricity, TV antennas, cars and driveways. The farmers have cell phones. All the boats have outboards, some with jets. And, in a way, we are responsible for starting the change.
As we drove the road into the village of Puelo, which also has a grass airstrip, we were detained by the yellow van unloading a passenger and his baggage. It was Oscar! With the same wonderful smile, he is one of the success stories among the many failures of modernization. With his van, he has become the proprietor of the chief bus service from Puelo to Llanada Grande.
So, after many hugs and a little conversation in our limited Spanish and his still-more-limited English, we drove on. We crossed the huge new bridge over the Rio Puelo, which made all this possible, and, after two hours on the bumpy road, we arrived at Ensenada to a fine lunch of Meat for Poor People (Lomo a la Pobre—steak with two fried eggs on top and lots of papas fritas).
We still live here in the U.S. winter . . . farther upriver, still beyond the end of the road, with our motor boat—which can now take us to the Porton, an hour’s walk from Llanada Grande—as our only transportation. We can still look at the mountains all around us, some showing scars from bad fires. We can still swim in the clear water of our lagoon, catch trout in the Rio Puelo, walk in our small piece of virgin forest, and crank up the cookstove in the mornings—until the helicopter comes to take us out of our paradise.
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