Zoë Hofstetter places herself behind the eyes of a Dutch tourist living the Huilo-Huilo Experience, then returns to her own shoes to tell the hidden truths of this paradise behind the volcano.
As a regular boy from Holland, my childhood encompassed cycling on flat, paved roads from primary school to secondary school and then jumping on the train to university with its equally flat land. Turn a page in my passport—and whoa, a stamp from Chile! I tumble into the land of outdoor adventures through curving and undulating roads and arrive at the Huilo-Huilo (which is much more amusing pronounced Hulo-Hulo—native-style!). I’m instantly submersed into an abundance of adrenalin-filled activities and previously unimaginable landscapes. I walk on closed hanging bridges atop fiercely flowing rivers with waterfalls at the “Salto de la Leona” (indeed this section of the river is called jump of the female lion, quite rationally for it roars like a pack of lions defending their pups). Horseback is my first activity the next morning, which I had only ever had the pleasure of admiring in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But here, rather than through Bolivia, we galloped through forests and torrential rivers, pushing through the green foliage (this green spiky stuff that rips trousers!) to emerge facing the majestic volcano “Choshuenco” with its sleeping crater and beard of snow. The volcano may be slumbering now but it is not retired; it awaits in utter silence and petrification the moment of its reawakening. Nevertheless I ride on, taking no mind of the lava and cries of history. I jump off my horse and find myself strapped in wires and hooks onto the tops of trees and loose planks of wood. One gloved hand on the zip line, the other on my harness, “estai listo?” Zip-a zap-zup- I go through the trees looking down into the valley, a steep waterfall letting its tears fall into the rivers that fill the lakes, and “Oh! Tranquilo amigo” I almost crash into the tree on the other side of the line! I’m suddenly and abruptly reminded that I’m not a monkey soaring through the trees, but a human attached to wires, and off I go to the next step onto a rail-less hanging bridge. And the adventures keep coming and slapping me on the face, throwing me into real life with fresh wafts of untouched wilderness.
From a corner of his life, I observe the Dutch boy’s adventures. Unknown to him—whose adventures have placed him in another world—stories and facts lie buried beneath his lack of knowledge of Spanish on the one side, and on the other, the dying Mapudungun language creating bigger gaps in the richness of oral history. To begin with, the name of the national reserve “Huilo-Huilo” is Mapudungun for ‘grandes grietas’ or ‘big crevasses’. The repetition of the same word makes the word bigger. The reason for this name is the structure of the river basins formed by the lava. These are extremely deep but remain hidden from tourists’ eyes by the ferocious flow of the water. But these holes, this language, this landscape contain many more stories, which one must dig out of the people or pass by them indifferently with the stamp of ignorance, the stamp of the destructive, selfish tourist. This lack of communication in tourism is evident worldwide, however, it is especially ironic here since one of the pillars of the Huilo-Huilo reserve is local integration and community service. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is excellent in that the community becomes self-sufficient in generating its own employment and in using their own products; having their own brewery, chocolate factory, lactose products, ceramics, embroideries, pizzeria, etc. Beyond production, the locals are more capable of transmitting their culture, traditions and history, making the entire reserve even more natural and real in a way that a Disney theme park could never be. It is a model of how all communities should work. However, when taking into account the requisites of tourism there are many challenges to this paradigm of local integration. The most obvious challenge is language: most of them cannot speak English, which leads into a myriad of other problems such as miscommunication, bad service, lack of organisation and punctuality, all of which are crucial elements for good hospitality service.
The Dutch boy himself experienced a rather confusing circumstance in which no key, apart from the cleaning lady’s, worked to open his bedroom door—well the cleaning lady couldn’t stay, that would have been a rather speedy match! And he couldn’t leave his belongings in the room and go off adventuring—an idea put forward by bewildered staff. So he stood in the spiralling hallway of the hotel, The Baobab, for an hour and a half greeting a new staff member every ten minutes, knowing beforehand that the magic key would not appear. And that is just one example of how the service industry was sadly lacking at this reserve.
The lack of possible communication between the tourists, the staff and guides in this place almost defeats the purpose of local integration, for everything seems to get lost in translation. As this Dutch boy sat mute in the back of the pick up truck, the guide told me gilded stories of the Mapuches (the only Chilean native Indians remaining) and of a place seven hours into the mountains where one finds two queen trees which are the width of sixteen people holding hands in a circle. But more than stories that might or might not be true—however much these please the mind of a wandering fairy-tale collector—basic and crucial information was being lost in translation—or lack thereof. For instance the incredible amount of activities this reserve offers ranges from midnight walks to the waterfall which they then light up for you, to a dinner at the base of the volcano right at sunset, to a cultural tour of the town going to all their factories and finishing at a local house where they prepare you “tecito” (tea time), which in Chile is always massively oversized but ultra delicious!
Of course, tourists are informed of the canopying, the rafting, the horseback riding and the ski motorcycles because they attract the biggest amount of money-ridden adrenalin junkies. But by not communicating the activities more telling of the identity of the place; of its nature and people, they are losing a chance to perpetuate their culture. And one of the most beautiful and exciting parts of travelling is tasting a culture completely and unimaginably different from one’s own – to have to re-familiarise oneself with new food, smells, landscapes and traditions. It is to challenge the flat horizons with mountains so that people’s view of the world grows in more than stamps on a passport.
Images by Zoë Hofstetter