Chile’s Mapuche People & the Trail of the Spirits
By Marcus Woolf
“I went to cut the tree, oak wood it was, in the steam I let it sleep, soaked in water, bathed in the moonlight it waited, before becoming human. I went at dawn to retrieve it: I began to carve his visage, his body, his Christian face, I did it myself with an ax and adze, with a chisel, I marked his eyes and mouth so he could speak and bring the voices of above.” — Eugenio Salas Olave
Dusk falls and shadows creep across damp boulders and blankets of moss, as Eugenio Salas Olave speaks softly, describing spirits that haunt this ancient forest that lies within the Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve. For more than 30 years, Olave has studied the Mapuche, the indigenous inhabitants of south-central Chile who centuries ago carved wood and stone totems of mythological beings and planted them among the ferns and notofagus trees.
The totems represent spiritual beings and fantastic creatures, such as the Nguirivilu, a fox and snake hybrid that lives in lagoons. According to Olave, the carvings were part of religious practices, where the Mapuche summoned the appearance of ancestor guardians and allies. Also, the myths and the totems reminded the Mapuche to live meaningful lives, adhere to social norms, protect nature, and avoid potential dangers, such as the swift, cold rapids of the mighty Fuy River.
Only a couple of the original totems were ever found, says Olave, a researcher and visual artist. Through careful study and years of talking with local Mapuche, he determined the style and form for each mythological being and then carved recreations using wood from local fallen trees. The 17 totems he fashioned are scattered along a winding path known as the Trail of the Spirits.
During a recent stay at Huilo Huilo, we walked the path guided by Olave, and following are a few of the totems we observed.
These figures represent divine beings that are the first couple and the first Mapuche, so all people on earth descend from this couple. According to Olave, their hands cover their genitals to convey that they are divine and immortal, so they are not born and they do not die.
These Mapuche elves appear at the entrances of forests. They accompany travelers who treat them kindly and ask for company when trekking through dark parts of the forest.
Using magical powers, a Mapuche sorcerer can remove his head and transform into the ChonChon, a winged creature that flies through the night singing its characteristic song, “tue, tue, tue.” Supposedly, the ChonChon announces bad luck or misfortune.
Perhaps the most famous magical beings in Chile, the Trauka and its male counterpart, the Trauko, are like sirens that seduce men and women wandering through the forest or other deserted places. When men and women would stray in their lives, they would blame it on these beings. Known as satyrs of the forest, the Trauka and Trauko wear conical hats woven from quilineja, a climbing plant.
Located near the banks of the river, this female figure is the Shumball, which guards streams and waterfalls. According to legend, the Shumball will sunbathe on the rocks while combing its hair, and leap off quickly when an intruder approaches.
The Wallipen lives in lakes and rivers and leaves the water to mate with females on the shore. This union gives birth to another Wallipen represented as an animal with deformed, crossed legs.
Covering 60,000 hectares (about 148,000 acres) of forest, the Huilo Huilo Bioligical Reserve is one of Chile’s hidden gems. Tucked away in lush, green forest, the preserve includes lodges, cabins and restaurants that feature rustic wood architecture and make you feel as if you’re in a village of tree houses. From your accommodations you have quick access to a variety of activities, including hiking, horseback riding, skiing, zip-lining, kayaking and whitewater rafting. Plus, it has an excellent museum detailing the history of the Mapuche, as well as a center that studies the endangered (and very unusual) Darwin frog. Heck, there’s even a brewery onsite with a great stout. During our stay at Huilo Huilo, we found that the customer service was excellent and the food was top-notch. If you plan to visit Chile, consider venturing beyond the typical hotspots and spend a few days at Huilo Huilo.
————————————————————————————————————————————— Veteran journalists Wendy Geister and Marcus Woolf launched The Adventure Post to share their passion for travel and outdoor adventure. They chronicle their journeys to inspire others to explore and provide insider tips that steer people toward richer travel experiences. The Adventure Post also includes contributions from other experienced travelers, as well as detailed gear reviews and reports on trends in outdoor recreation and adventure travel.