Adventure in Patagonia

The trip was described as “Adventures in Wine Vacation, Chile” and, yes, it immediately caught my attention. Chile was at the top of my ‘Places to Visit’ list. Also, when it comes to the country’s wines, I’ll confess to being a hopeless lush.

What I envisioned was touring fertile vineyards, meeting passionate winemakers and indulging in some exquisite libation in an exotic country at the bottom of the world. My kind of adventure. Count me in!

It took several e-mails back and forth to Beth Rypins of h20 Patagonia, for me to clue into the fact that so-called “adventure” involved white water rafting down the mighty Fualeufu. That means “big river” and I was to discover it is the raging mother of all white water rivers in Chile. The wine would enter the picture each evening when guests returned to Antucamay, h20 Patagonia’s four-star ranch, for gourmet food paired with some of the country’s best wines by a celebrity sommelier.

“Adding a wine component is one way we fulfill our company logo, ‘Beyond Adventure’, Rypins told me. And she was right.

The water on the beans, as the saying goes, had changed. Dramatically.

The lure of Chile and wine were still there, but could I, a senior, who one day wished to see her grandsons graduate from university, who had never run white water, survive rapids in the class III, IV and V categories? Rivers are ranked from lake-calm Class I to VI, technically unrunnable where boats are taken out for portage.

Beth Rypins assured me their guides were the best in the world and would screen guests conscientiously before allowing them on the river. To my benefit, in my youth, (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) I paddled, swam competitively and loved the water. I was up for the challenge.

Armed with h2oPatagonia’s detailed packing list, I headed for Mountain Equipment Co-op, feeling like a kid shopping for summer camp. And then came the long trek to what seemed like the bottom of the world. After a 13-hour flight to Santiago, it was another hour and a half south to Puerto Montt, then a charter plane ride further south to Chaiten. It wasn’t hard to spot other adventurers at the tiny airport. Bob, short and stocky looked like a pro and strong as an ox; Bill, tall and lean was outfitted in all the appropriate gear. Sharon and Dick toted well-used kayak paddles. We piled into a van for the three-hour drive through the awesome scenery that the Andes offers up. Pristine lakes and rivers. Virgin forests and fertile valleys that had barely been touched by mankind.

Arriving at Antucamay (it means God’s creation in Mapuche), we discovered a log cabin lodge and 14 sleeping cabins nestled among the trees, close enough to the river to be lulled to sleep by its hum. Fashioned after traditional African safari lodges, the cabins had wood and canvas walls, divinely comfortable beds with down comforters and feather pillows. The six-sided main lodge, or Quincho (Argentinean in design) featured an open, central fireplace. Walled with glass, it affords a dramatic panorama of the river and surrounding valley.

The “Fu” begins in an arid region of Argentina. After 25 river miles, it passes into Chile. On its journey to the Pacific are some 40 miles of furious white water. Through narrow canyons, the volume of water varies between 10,000 to 20,000 cu feet per second, depending on rain fall, moving in unique surges, unlike any other river in the world.

The first morning, we suited up in farmer john wet suits, neoprene booties, blue splash jackets, cinched-tight life preservers and snug helmets, ready to ‘put in’ for the introductory bridge-to-bridge section of the river, with its Class III and IV rapids.

Our two bright yellow inflatable rafts, plus a safety catamaran and two safety kayaks lined the bank. In this bit of calm before the first rapid, we practiced dumping, floating down stream, feet first and getting pulled back into the raft. From his perch on the back of the raft our guide Harvey King shouted commands. We responded to, “All forward. Harder. Back paddle. High side right. High side left.” High siding means piling onto one side of the raft to avoid getting plastered on a boulder. “Remember, this isn’t Disneyworld. This white water is for real,” King hollered as we headed to Entrada, the longest of the Class IV rapids.

Then came the command,“ All forward!” I was as excited as I was nervous. Make that scared. I held my breath as waves blasted over the bow. In seconds the water calmed and everyone was still in the raft. We smacked our paddles above our heads in a rafter’s high five. Was it thrilling? Oh yes! Was the adrenaline still pumping? You bet!

We made our way through appropriately named rapids like Toboggan, with its big, rolling haystack waves, Toro/Mundaca, a series of small rapids named after local flora and fauna and Condor, a sleeper, where waves can build up unexpectedly and hammer the raft. In Pillow, a mega rock sits blocking the main current and you thread a needle between the rock and a hole. Each one had its own challenges. Each one was thrilling.

After a second, more challenging afternoon run, we returned to the ranch, to find the two resident massage therapists waiting to sooth away tense muscles, and the wood-fired hot tub an inviting place to relive the day’s adventure. Then came a four-course gourmet dinner and the luscious wine. For the remainder of the week, one adrenalin-charged experience followed another as we tackled more Class III and IV rapids and a Class V, appropriately named Inferno.

I returned home awed by the majesty of the land so difficult to get to, a land that seemed so close to the end of the earth. I was equally thrilled with a new sense of accomplishment and armed with a video of our river runs to show to my grandsons. Without picture proof, I knew, they would never believe me.

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