Mapuche woman Rosario and Claire in front of ruka
© Claire Trickett

Mapuche wisdom

A sneak-peek into the fascinating cultural and culinary heritage of Chile’s Mapuche people…
by 15th May 2019

A sneak-peek into the fascinating cultural and culinary heritage of Chile’s Mapuche people…

Some chickens squawk and a posse of friendly dogs enthusiastically escorts us down an earthy path to the rustic ruka (traditional Mapuche home) where doña (a woman of rank) Rosario Colipe greets us with such warmth. “Mari, mari” (welcome) she says, as she ushers us into the dark, cosy and surprisingly spacious homestead.

A quick 20-minute drive from &Beyond Vira Vira in Chile’s picturesque Lake District, the small Mapuche community of Quelhue (just across the Trancura River from Pucón) is home to roughly 1 000 Mapuche people that still proudly maintain their unique cultural heritage.

Interestingly, the Mapuche are the only indigenous group in South America that were able to fiercely defend and successfully maintain their independence, bravely protecting their nation from, first, the Incas, and later the Spanish. Today, 80% percent of Chile’s indigenous population is Mapuche, with the largest concentration residing in Araucanía, where doña Rosario lives. Now a respected and influential Mapuche elder, Rosario was actually one of the first to offer this cultural immersion in Quelhue, an experience I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend.

Preservation of culture

The autumn air is crisp, so, as our eyes slowly adjust to the dim light inside the ruka, the crackling fire surrounded by mud benches covered in sheepskin for us to sit on is a welcome sight. We gather round as doña Rosario speaks to us in her mother tongue and &Beyond Vira Vira’s guide, Jorge Herrera, translates.

The ruka entrance always strategically faces the east and each morning not only does the sun warm the homestead, but it also provides natural light and positive, cleansing energy. The kütral (the Mapudungun word for the fire element, which is surrounded and protected by volcanic stones) is central to the ruka. It is the main hub and energy centre, where families gather to cook, eat, share stories, and impart wisdom and knowledge to the younger generations.

Only hualle, a type of native beech tree, is used as firewood, because it is typically spark-free and therefore safer for indoor use. The ash from the fire is then recycled into a disinfectant used to clean seeds before planting, as well as a soap mixture used to clean clothes.

Sitting around the fire, Rosario describes the strong calling she felt from her ancestors some 40 years ago, willing her to preserve their culture and to share it openly with people from around the world. It’s a known fact that today’s travellers seek holidays that educate and transform them and cultural tourism is most definitely on the rise. However, back then, when Rosario started, these traditional homestays/visits were not the norm and she is hailed as a pioneer for initiating them in her own community.

It goes without saying that &Beyond seeks to provide cultural interactions and learnings that are truly authentic, accurate and uncontrived. Those that realistically and respectfully portray the proud heritage, unique lifestyles and time-honoured traditions of the local cultures in a genuine and non-invasive way. With ‘care of the people’ firmly entrenched in our company ethos, we offer cultural experiences, like Rosario’s, that not only educate and enlighten guests, but that also help preserve local cultures and give directly to those people, enabling them to mutually benefit from tourism.

Ñuke Mapu

The overarching theme of our conversations with doña Rosario is the Mapuche’s unwavering respect for “Ñuke Mapu” or Mother Earth. ‘Mapu’ meaning ‘land’ and ‘che’ meaning ‘people’, the Mapuche people hold a deep connection with the earth, a unified respect for the natural world and a strong urge to protect the precious landscape that surrounds them and provides for them in such abundance. “Nature is our provider, our mother.” Jorge explains, “We need to love the land and we need to protect it.”

Doña Rosario describes exactly how her ruka was constructed, pointing at the colihue (local bamboo) that is secured tightly with junquillo (grass roots from the surrounding wetlands). She tells us how the earth provides for the Mapuche people, supplying them with wholesome food and reliable building materials, but she is also firm in her belief in paying it forward. Long before sustainability became a driving force in our world, doña Rosario’s elders would always remind her that for every tree you cut down, you must plant four in its place. Ñuke Mapu gives in abundance, but we must always give back, respect, protect and care for the earth.

Back to basics

Our morning is spent discussing the Mapuche’s simple and traditional way of life, with hands-on experience and interactions. Doña Rosario shows us the handmade tools they use for cutting the colihue, she explains how the small rustic looms are used to weave colourful garments, and she effortlessly crushes cachilla (wheat) on a molino (basically an oversized pestle and mortar made from rough-cut stone). Once the wheat is ground into an even trigo (flour), it is then used to prepare a large round slab of dough that is buried, uncovered, in the fire’s ash and cooked to perfection while Rosario’s engaging storytelling continues.

Again, with effortless precision, Rosario energetically roasts some of the uncrushed cachilla in a callana (special cooking tool) over the open flame, which we are then invited to snack on while she showcases some of the traditional clothing that the Mapuche women wear. Doña Rosario chuckles as she wraps me in garments. First, a black and purple traditional dress, with the black representing the beloved Ñuke Mapu. Then, a brightly woven belt and dark woollen shawl.

Saving the best for last, an ornate silver trapelacucha is placed around my neck. This elaborate necklace is worn on the chest of the Mapuche women and it depicts the Andean condor, waterfalls, earth and the children of Ñuke Mapu. A series of colourful ribbons are then tied around my head, symbolising a rainbow, and an intricate headdress (trarilonco) made of fine silver coins representing the stars is placed over the ribbons, almost like a crown. The Mapuche are celebrated for their decorative textiles and intricate silverwork. We pose for a quick must-have photo together, then doña Rosario gives us a musical demonstration of the various iconic instruments, chants and dances of the Mapuche people.

A Mapuche feast

Now about that wholesome abundance I mentioned earlier. This is our grand finale and wow, is it well worth the wait. We move from our fireside seats to a large table (the only visible Western/modern influence) where a plentiful, wholesome and delicious lunch is shared.

But first, we must make a special toast to give thanks to Ñuke Mapu. Every Mapuche meal starts this way, as a sign of respect and gratitude to the earth for its providence. A small glass of pulco lahuen (a medicinal drink) is poured. Each person must turn and pour just a splash of the drink onto the ground as an offering to the earth. Then, ‘puchaimi’ (cheers), everyone takes a sip and our lunch commences.

“A modern man,” Rosario teases as her husband Florencio enters the ruka carrying fragrant trays of food freshly prepared in their cocina Mapuche (Mapuche kitchen). The tortilla bread is quickly rescued from the fire and, while it is still piping hot, we tear off pieces and cover them with pebre, a tomato, onion and coriander salsa gently spiced with merkén, a smoky yet gentle Mapuche chili powder. A small clay bowl of extra merkén spice sits on the table for the more adventurous chili-lovers like me.

We tucked into three different kinds of mouth-watering homemade bread: the ash-cooked tortilla bread; multrun, which is a chunkier, wholewheat bread; and sopaipillas, which are more of a deep fried pastry.

A largely vegetarian culture, our Mapuche meal was meat-free, but bursting with natural, organic flavours, local spices and home-cooked goodness. It was fresh and light, yet satisfyingly filling. The hearty pishco (a hot vegetable stew made from beans, potato and cereals) definitely hit the spot, and there were jars of local honey and blackberry marmalade to go with the leftover warm bread. We also snacked on nguilliu (fire-roasted piñones or pine nuts from the iconic Araucaría, Chile’s national tree).

Simple, yet moreish, it was a basic meal shared with fantastic company next to a cosy fire in a traditional ruka in the middle of Chile’s volcano country. Definitely not your everyday lunch … these are the travel memories I cherish most.

Fierce protectors

It was an insightful and humbling morning, and although a portion of these cultural immersions will always be lost in translation, this is often the beauty of these chance encounters. Much of the communication relies on hand gestures, smiles and an innate human understanding. Thank goodness for Jorge who did a commendable job translating the Mapuche wisdom most beautifully.

The Mapuche are proud, gentle people with an unwavering respect for the earth that we can all learn from. Not only did they fiercely defend their land from repeated invasions, but they also continue to fiercely guard their own culture, as well as the environment.

Mother Earth is their constant provider and the Mapuche love to share this food and offer it in great abundance to their guests, as a sign of appreciation and hospitality. This experience was an invitation into an unfamiliar world and I am grateful to doña Rosario and don Florencio for welcoming us into their home and their traditional way of life. Chaltu mai (thank you).

See what lies beyond...

Escape to &Beyond Vira Vira and meet the Mapuche people (you can also support the lodge’s Star Projects, which fund community development & conservation initiatives in local Mapuche communities).