Sometimes you click more with a camera than you do with a person. Thankfully I clicked with both on a recent photographic adventure with professional photographer Patricio Garrido as we explored and photographed the ancient volcanoes, prehistoric forests, cascading waterfalls and otherworldly beauty of Chile’s Lake District.
Before meeting up with Pato, I enjoyed a rather whirlwind day strolling through colourful mercados (markets), wandering artsy neighbourhoods, browsing old vinyl records and sipping on terre moto cocktails (nicknamed earthquakes because they make you wobbly) with the locals in Santiago.
The next morning, I touched down in Temuco and made my way to the picturesque lakeside town of Pucón. I was about to finally lay eyes on (and subsequently fall in love with) &Beyond Vira Vira, our first luxury lodge on the South American continent.
Log off and get outdoors
Entering the gate into &Beyond Vira Vira’s enchanting, autumnal landscape, I was captivated. It is a beautiful blend of tranquil cottage country and wholesome organic farm life, mixed with an almost ski village feel with its alpine views and cosy, glass-fronted wooden suites and blazing fireplaces.
The sprawling 22 hectare (almost 55 acre) estate is an invitation to explore. Put the cell phones and laptops away and get outdoors! This magnificent property boasts wide open meadows with cows, sheep and one horse; wooded pathways through the forest; an organic farm next to the most majestic chestnut tree; a quesería (in-house cheese dairy) that produces six types of handmade cheese; 6 km of crystal-clear Liucura River frontage; a tranquil lagoon with two black-necked swans; wooden Adirondack chairs with sheepskin blankets; two rustic outdoor hot tubs; and of course the warm and inviting wooden lodge, hacienda and guest suites.
To aptly describe the rugged beauty and elegant tranquillity of &Beyond Vira Vira would require a separate blog entirely, but suffice it to say that this new addition to the &Beyond portfolio is a veritable playground for adventure seekers, photography junkies, outdoor enthusiasts, nature lovers and foodies alike. The scenery is breathtaking, the activities endless … and the food…?
Let’s put it this way, you can kiss any form of diet and willpower goodbye. It is the ultimate in good mood food (pay attention carb lovers, there are 14+ different types of bread alone). You will gain weight, mark my words, but that’s what holidays are for.
Having lugged my camera gear half way around the world, I was all too eager to be spending the next two days exploring the great outdoors on a two-day private photographic adventure with Patricio (Pato for short), &Beyond Vira Vira’s specialist photographic guide.
In fearless pursuit of adventure
With 24 years’ experience and not one, but three, landscape photography books under his belt, Pato is the ultimate guide and his contagious passion for Chile’s natural beauty is inimitable. Early in his photographic career, Pato’s focus was action sports, which later evolved into landscape, outdoor activity and extreme photography.
An explorer at heart, Pato goes to surprising lengths to discover new locations, seek different angles and get that truly extraordinary shot. He’ll often disappear by himself into the mountains for days on end, with nothing but a tent, a machete (for clearing new trails) and, of course, his weighty camera equipment.
Pato even risked his life once sneaking past a police barricade and running towards, instead of away from, the violent blasts and bursts of lava when Volcán Villarrica (one of Chile’s most active volcanoes) last erupted in 2015. In hindsight, it’s one of the craziest things he’s ever done, but his moment of daring insanity did produce one of the best images of his career to date.
It was a quick one-hour and incredibly scenic drive through the Mapuche town of Curarrehue and into Villarrica National Park, an outdoor lover’s wonderland situated in the Andes mountains and close to the Argentinean border. This picturesque area, known as Araucanía, is dominated by the dramatic Andes in the distance, a spectacular trio of imposing volcanoes, dense Araucaría forests and gleaming lakes. It was as if we were driving through a real-life impressionist painting, surrounded by bursts of colour and surreal natural beauty.
The air was fresh. It was a crisp morning in early April and the vivid gold and deep auburn colours of autumn were slowly starting to turn. As we approached the mighty Las Peinetas (the combs), the thin cloud cover parted, as if on cue, just in time for a fleeting glimpse of its jagged peaks.
With no other cars (or people) in sight, we carried on until we were in the midst of a towering Araucaría forest. With a perfect view of Volcán Lenin (which sits half in Chile and half in Argentina), this was our first photographic pitstop, and one that I’ll never forget.
The stoic Araucaría tree, also affectionately known as the monkey puzzle tree, is Chile’s national tree and it can live up to 1 000, even 1 800, years, growing a mere centimetre each year. These trees are considered living fossils, they somehow manage to thrive in harsh volcanic soil and high altitudes, and their hardy, fire-proof bark is so well adapted it can even withstand volcanic lava flow.
Walking beneath these giants, one is reminded just how small and insignificant we are. I could barely reach my arms around even half of their enormous trunks, which were absolutely covered in a thick, shaggy layer of lime green old man’s beard, a clear indicator of how perfectly fresh the air is. With an eerie, haunting beauty, the Araucaría forests feel almost Jurassic, which is fitting since they date back to the Mesozoic era. What a privilege to wander amongst them, trying to imagine what they must have seen over the centuries.
A photographic wonderland
For two full days, Pato and I ventured to some of the photographic highlights of Araucanía. This was just the tip of the iceberg, and Pato explained to me that each photographic journey that he guides is uniquely tailormade to suit the photographic wishlist (and skill) of his guests.
Although he is a Nikon expert, Pato’s knowledge of photography, on every possible make of camera (and indeed any smartphone too) is extensive. Cheerfully and full of enthusiasm for his homeland, he will encourage you to just have fun behind the lens, to look for new subjects, to discover the best angles and to truly appreciate the breathtaking surroundings.
We took extreme close-ups of tree bark and lichen. We strolled around Lake Quillelhue and took slow-mo videos of the black volcanic sand seeping through our fingers. We stood arms outstretched overlooking vast mountainous valleys, we clambered up into caves to witness the misty surge of countless waterfalls. We photographed curious horses, we hugged ancient trees of a bygone era, we trundled through dewy forest paths and we stepped onto rickety, moss-covered bridges that hovered over the Trancura River.
We even stopped for a picturesque lunch deep in the forest overlooking a waterfall. Earlier that morning, the extraordinarily talented head chef, Uruguayan-born and French-trained Damián Fernández Dupouy, had prepared the ultimate picnic basket for us.
Pato and I sat on giant boulders next to the river, tucking into fresh cheese from the quesería; newly-baked bread from the bakery; just-picked vegetables from the organic garden; creamy, homemade pâté; the fattest, juiciest olives; and warm, spicy tea infusions.
Go with the flow
The next day we headed straight for the base of Pucón’s pièce de résistance, Volcán Villarrica, one of Chile’s most active volcanoes. Although you can opt to climb the side of this volcano for incredible views or hover over its lava-filled abyss in a helicopter, Pato and I stuck to a leisurely stroll along the volcanic debris still clearly leftover from 2015 and enjoyed a lofty view of the dense, yet photogenic cloud cover.
Chile is home to more than 2 000 volcanoes and 15% of the world’s active volcanoes. There is a permanent plume of smoke wafting from the fiery depths of Villarrica and we stopped to take a quick timelapse of the action. I had never seen an active volcano before and wish I’d had more time to explore.
Travel tip: four days at &Beyond Vira Vira wasn’t nearly enough time to explore the exciting array of more than 60 different activities available in 5 different national parks. Not to mention the freedom to indulge in some personal, guilt-free downtime at the lodge itself, next to the fire with a cheese platter, a bottle of wine (there are 210 different Chilean wines in the cellar) and a good book.
Shoot for the stars
Our photographic journey wouldn’t have been complete without Pato’s ever so enthusiastically recommended evening drive back to the base of Villarrica. It was chilly and my jet-lag was still lingering with a vengeance, but it was well worth venturing out after dark, not only to see the blanket of stars, but also to photograph the dramatic night sky behind the active volcano. When would I ever have an opportunity like this again?
Guided patiently by Pato’s expert photographic instruction and with the use of his tripod, we mounted my camera and (although Pato instructed me every step of the way in terms of settings, angle and composure), “I” managed to take my most favourite photo of the entire trip. If you zoom in, you can see the red glow of the fiery volcanic plume, which is completely unnoticeable to the naked eye.
It was the perfect end to an adventurous few days. I had made a new friend for life, explored a new destination, learned some new skills and, most importantly, filled not only my camera’s memory, but indeed my own too, with the most extraordinary memories.