Villa O’ Higgins is a small cluster of single story wooden houses, organized into 4 blocks across and 7 down, huddling below imposing mountains that almost completely circle the village. After the long trek south, we were happy to spend a day in the warmth of the campsite kitchen, swapping stories, charging our multiple devices, and drinking mint tea. Well, I say that, but Lauren spent most of the day out in the freezing cold, playing with her sticks and her new found canine friend (yes, after being assured he had had all his vaccinations…..).
There was an interesting bunch of fellow campers – researchers for an American conservation NGO, backpackers, hardened cyclists ‘doing’ the CA, and overlanders getting close to the end of a 2-year trip down the americas. This was no ‘gringo trail’ bunch – people who make it down here need to have some perseverance and grit. Mind you, we’d done it the easy way – there are a hardened bunch of cyclists who are totally hard core and I have huge respect for them – we pass them occasionally toiling up a hill in the rain or struggling down a steep incline, covered in the dust thrown up by other vehicles – they camp out in the cold, windy patagonian nights, and are just basically super hard core. I keep wanting to stop, usher them in out of the cold, give them cups of tea and offer to give them a lift for the next few hundred miles…..
We did venture out into ‘town’ – it seemed deserted; the ‘supermarket’ was in someone’s house, the tourist information booth was manned by a young lad of about 16 who didn’t speak a word of English and couldn’t give us any information about anything, and the only café we saw was closed. The grand ‘plaza de armas’ – main square – was deserted every time we passed through – I got the impression the state had built it, and the community centre and library (lovely wooden structures) to compensate for people living in such a remote place.
One imposing building was the library, where we went hoping for decent internet. Entirely built out of wood, heated, well stocked and welcoming, we lingered for a while chatting with the librarian, who had her three kids with her – but alas, our search for internet good enough to upload even one photo was frustrated. The librarian told us the only decent internet was at the school, so suggested I take my laptop, sit outside the school and connect – she got the password off her son, but I couldn’t get it to work, and frankly, I wasn’t bothered enough about updating this blog to sit in the just-above-freezing cold to do so.
Over breakfast one day, we got talking to an American guy who was part of a team of environmental researchers working for an American NGO on conservation in a number of countries, including Chile. Their focus in Patagonian Chile is on Huemels, a rare deer whose numbers seem to have been declining. They had been carrying out a baseline on the huemel population in various areas around the southern ice field – all only accessible by boat – and invited us to join them at a meeting in the community centre later that day to present their findings. We had a long conversation about conservation and community involvement in such efforts – I had been tangentially involved in similar work in Mozambique in the past – and it was fascinating to hear what they had been up to, and to note the parallels and similar challenges despite being a totally different context.
We duly turned up at the community meeting, doubling the audience, and enjoyed the presentation and in particular the drone footage of the area. They had put together a virtual reality programme of the local glacier and surroundings, which they gave to Lauren, who wandered around quite un-self-consciously ‘exploring’ the glacier in her headset.
Over chocolate biscuits and mate we discussed community participation and what could be done – I felt a bit of a fraud, but only two members of the community actually turned up – and I think it was good for Lauren to be exposed to such discussions and to meet people actually working on conservation, as she has in the past expressed interest in following a career in this area. The Americans and their Chilean counterpart were clearly very dedicated, and tough, as well as having a scientific background to support their work, and I wish them luck as they face familiar challenges of institutional coordination among government bodies, community and NGOs, the impact of increasing accessibility as the road will eventually be upgraded, the need for remote communities to supplement diet and income with hunting….
It was an unexpectedly interesting discussion at the end of the road, and made our trip to Villa O Higgins worthwhile in itself, instead of being just a starting point for our ‘real’ start of the Carretera Austral.