17 Mar 2012
Perched high in the Andes on the border with Argentina, a tiny town full of stories and its not-so-tiny-lagoon harbor a little known paradise.
Sunbathing on secluded, sandy beaches as a wind-surfer whizzes by may not be the first image that comes to mind when thinking of the Andes, but then, maybe that's because Laguna Icalma is still pretty much undiscovered by the outside world.
And in case you're wondering about the name, yes, laguna means lagoon in Spanish, but no, this is not some little pond.
Accustomed to soaring volcanic peaks and vast freshwater lakes, Chileans have a tendency to dismiss any protruding body of rock and earth that is not permanently wreathed in snow as a cerro ("hill"), and any body of water whose far shore can just be made out on the horizon as a laguna - Icalma is a lagoon in the sense that Cerro San Ramón, which looms large over the highrises of Santiago, is a hill.
And while it sits at an altitude of 1,350 m, ringed on all sides by wooded mountain and huge bald volcanoes, it's not necessarily the size or beauty of the place that impresses upon you as you swim out to the center of the "lagoon," but its depth.
From beautiful sandy beaches, the bottom of the laguna drops away so steeply that it cannot be seen after you've swum just a few lengths, despite the fact that the water has the clarity that can only be found in high snow-melt waters.
It's the kind of depth that makes you feel as if you're hovering over a void, and it doesn't take much of an imagination to think that there may be something else down there in the pitch black below you.
Iif this thought does cross your mind, you won't be the first. The community is full of tall stories, from a supposed expedition of NASA scientists searching for prehistoric fish to Loch Ness-like monsters sightings.
Icalma abounds in stories, not just about the laguna, on whose shore it sits, but of the forests and the mountains and the strange creatures and stranger people that call them home. Stories are part of the indigenous Pehuenche tradition, and Pehuenche culture remains strong in Icalma.
Like the story that my cabin's neighbor, Chano, told me as he took me on a climb to a rocky outlook; a story about an animal he'd seen only the other day that looked like a puma - of which he'd seen many - only it was larger, had black stripes and was completely unafraid of him. A beast, Chano assured me, that could only have been part tiger.
Or the stories of misadventure and treachery on the laguna that Chano's son, Gaston, told me as we rowed across its waters, from our cabins on the far shore to get supplies from town.
To fully experience Icalma and share in its stories requires time, although no matter how long you spend you'll inevitably leave feeling as though you've only scratched the surface of a deep secret.
There are dozens of picturesque wooden cabins for rent in the area, most equipped with potbelly stoves to ward off the mountain chill, and kayaks to explore the secluded beaches and pine-clad islands in the midst of the water.
Cabin prices vary markedly depending on the number of rooms and location, with a cabin equipped for four starting at around CLP$ 35,000 (US$70) and one for 12 beginning at around CLP$60,000 (US$120).
For a more affordable option, there are two campgrounds on Icalma's shores, one just beside the town and one on the far shore.
Icalma is located on the border of Argentina in the Araucania region. To get there, follow highway Ruta 5, take the R-89 turn-off to Curacautín, continue to the town of Lonquimay and then to the Paso Liucura (border crossing with Argentina) and from there, follow a dirt road to Icalm.