Life with the Huilliches on Lake Ranco

Immersed in nature for centuries, Chile’s original communities continue to live in the heart of the Los Ríos Region. Visitors are welcomed into the fold and become apprentices in the wonders of ancestral wisdom.

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Jorge López Orozco

“That grass you’re stepping on there is called ‘seven veins,’ and it’s used to cure colds,” Señora Nora explains calmly, with all the authority of someone who speaks from experience. Standing there on the Illahuapi Penninsula, on the south-eastern shore of the magnificent Lake Ranco, Chile’s third largest lake, Señora Nora Beroisa Millahuanque tells us that she learned everything she knows about plants from her grandmother, and that knowledge is what made her the local Huilliche community’s meica, a type of ‘doctor’ who heals with herbs.

“Boldo (Peumus boldus) is for rheumatism and the heart, chilco (Baccharis chilco) is for fever, and sarsaparilla (Acaena argentea) with murta (Myrtus communis) cleanse the blood,” Nora continues. All of this knowledge comes from direct contact with the Earth and nature; it is the inheritance of the Huilliche people, a sub-group of the Mapuches. In the native Mapudungún language Huilliche means ‘people of the south,’ because they once inhabited the area from south of the Toltén River to the Reloncaví Sound. We have come to Illahuapi to learn about their ancient roots and find ourselves face to face with the heirs of this ancestral lineage.

This area was recently opened to visitors and huincas (the indigenous term for white people) to come and learn about the world view of the original residents, and speaking with Sra. Nora is a powerfully eye-opening experience in that respect.

The Huilliche world is full of surprises, and those who live in Illahuapi are wonderful hosts—smiling, friendly, and open to visitors.

The scenery is also impressive. The peninsula’s rolling landscape alternates between low hills, tilled farm fields, patches of forests, panoramic views of Lake Ranco, and the nearby Huapi Island, which is part of the lake’s dozen little islands.

Illahuapi

In addition to the meica, there are other places to experience the Huilliche culture. Local artisan Paulina Chiscao shows us her Mapuche loom and works quickly and masterfully as she demonstrates how to weave colorful fine textiles, such as blankets, scarves, and hats. “The entire process is done by hand, from spinning the wool to dying it with natural herbs,” she explains.

Mother Earth provides everything here, as is evident in the flavorful local cuisine that begins with ingredients harvested fresh from the Illahuapi hillsides and combines traditional Huilliche fare with the influence of the local rural settlers. Hearty cazuelas made with beef, potatoes, pumpkin, rice, and broth is served with catutos (a type of bread made with cooked wheat), spit-roasted lamb, and sopaipillas (fried dough made with pumpkin). And the muday—an alcoholic drink similar to flat beer made by macerating wheat—is not to be missed.

Although there are no formally established restaurants in the area, these dishes are made available with just a bit of conversation, especially in the cabins and camp grounds that receive the few tourists. The best time to visit is certainly February, during the annual Lepún, the Huilliche community’s cleansing ceremony that includes a trilla, a traditional Chilean agricultural activity in which horses are made to run over sheaves of wheat to separate the grain from the shafts. The entire peninsula comes out for the traditional music, food, and camaraderie between locals and visitors.

Rupumeica Alto, A well-kept secret

The Jaramillos are one of those families that would be impossible to forget—not only because reaching them requires a long trip down a dirt road around Lake Maihue, or for the glimpses of the beautiful Andean landscapes—without even the slightest sign of urban life—that alternate with evergreen forests of tepa (Laureliopsis philippiana), luma or arrayán (Luma apiculata), and canelo (Drimys winteri) trees, but because they are wonderful people. Organized through an agro-tourism association called Rayen Lemu (which means Mountain Flower), the Jaramillos are the primary hosts of Rupumeica Alto, home to some hundred people and where nature reigns supreme.

Tourists are not frequent, but a constant flow of foreign visitors have reached Rayen Lemu by word of mouth and come to learn about the rural Huilliche way of life.

The family’s large home, where most the clan lives, has rooms available for travelers. Daily life revolves around the kitchen, the epicenter of the house, where there are always women hard at work. Sumptuous breakfasts, lunches, and snacks of homemade bread, local vegetables, and plenty of meat are served at the large table that sits off to one side.

Come nightfall, Roberto Jaramillo, one of the key hosts, often tells stories about the area—ancient legends, such as the “black ravine,” the mythical place where the largest animals of the region live, hidden from human eyes.

Roberto’s son Herman Jaramillo is in charge of showing Rupumeica’s extraordinary surroundings. He arranges hikes and horseback rides to different points of interest, including daytrips to the Lake Maihue overlook or longer excursions to such little-known spots as Lake Gris or Hueinahue, geographically impressive areas surrounded by volcanoes where the pristine natural beauty remains firmly intact.

You don’t need to go far from the house to see for yourself. The Jaramillos live close to the impressive “Ojos del Huishue” falls that spring from the Earth with no evidence of any nearby river, and drop like a breath from 20 meters (65 feet) above. “When the ‘Ojos’ don’t recognize approaching people, they raise a misty fog and soak the intruders until they leave,” Herman cheerfully explains… we are all drenched.

The members of Rayen Lemu sell hand-crafted products such as jams, preserves, and woven sweaters and hats, as well as carved items. Plan on spending a few days at Rupumeica. The warmth of the Jaramillo home and their old-time stories make the journey an experience that touches all of the senses and a powerful way to appreciate the lifestyle of the region’s ancestral inhabitants.