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Terri Potratz

Originally published in SIX magazine issue 5 – ADVENTURE

The Travel Diary:
Chilean adventures


Written by Terri Potratz
Edited by Alina Rätsep 

In 2012 the founder of larry. designs, Terri Potratz, took SIX on a magnificent journey to South America, where she was invited to take part in a month-long residency program in Frutillar. Here she documents her Chilean adventures, week by week. 

Week 1 – The Beginning 

Day 1 – It’s 7:30am at the Roatan airport and panic is settling in. I realise I haven’t confirmed the final leg of the 32-hour journey that will deliver me to Frutillar in Southern Chile, where I will be spending the next month designing a regionally-inspired knitwear collection. Flashes of being stranded in Santiago, alone and unable to speak the language, taunt my imagination. 

I ask the young woman at the cellular phone booth if there’s anywhere with a computer that I can use, trying to convey my desperation. She rolls her eyes, shakes her head, and returns to scrolling through Facebook on the kiosk’s desktop PC. I swallow my frustration, wishing I could speak enough Spanish to explain my situation to her. 

Finally, I luck out and spy a string of PCs at a café, and before the waiter even reaches me I’ve obtained my flight number and details, awash with relief. I am still guilted into buying a $5 coffee when said waiter points at the computer and insists, “Not free.” 

Day 2 – After four connections, two surprise airport fees, and two luggage checks whereupon airline agents quizzically investigated leather working tools, skeins of yarn, an old tobacco tin filled with grommets, buttons and rivets, and numerous pairs of knitting needles, I arrive safely in Puerto Montt to the smiling faces of my hosts. 

Chile feels dream-like, where memories collect like clouds around the mountains, protecting the secrets of the land. History seems to be fused with the soil of the earth and the dew on the trees, and every living thing in between. A welcoming committee is gathered at Meli, a quaint kitchen and garden on the shores of Lake Llanquihue, where we toast glasses of champagne and later, piscolas, while I try in vain to understand these fast-speaking tongues en Espanol. Soon after, tables are rearranged, chairs sidelined, and the salsa dancing lessons begin. It’s only hours since my arrival, and already the learning curve has taken a sharp upward turn. 

Day 3 – When I wake up, I feel as though I’ve landed squarely in the middle of a cloud. My bed is plush and warm, and the simple whitewashed walls are illuminated by that bright ethereal light, that seeps into everything when the morning sun pushes through thin layers of cloud. The house I’m staying in is situated slightly up a hill overlooking the lake, heated by wood stoves and surrounded with stacks of wood, piled neatly around the open garage. The rolling green hills remind me of the English countryside, with sheep, cows and horses dotting the landscape. Dense leafy trees, plush grass, dandelions and hydrangeas fill in the rest of the scenery, and everything looks ripe. 

We spend the next day coming up with a schedule for the month of my residency – the trips we’re going to take and when; an introductory meet and greet event; workshops; one-on-one meetings with other artisans in the region; a launch and wrap party. We brainstorm what materials I might like to use, and what contacts we can reach out to in order to help us facilitate these needs. I’m eager to get started, and my sketchbook begins to fill up with potential design ideas. 

Day 4 – The goal for the first week is to get acquainted with the area, and begin sourcing materials to work with. Our hunt for a good quality yarn has sent me all over the region, but first, we visit Puerto Montt, a large port just south of where I’m staying. I stroll along the Artisanal Row looking at knit garments, sourcing potential yarn suppliers. The colours of the yarn I see are vibrant and beautiful, though I prefer to use natural colours in my own work. 

Later on, we stop by the marina, looking around for discarded parts and rope that I might incorporate into an installation piece, or woven work.  Marcela Rios, an artisan in Llhanquihue who sells her work at the shop in the Puerto Montt airport, takes me out to the town of Chamiza to the Chucao Lanas studio, where I get a demonstration of their process for dyeing the yarn, which is sourced from Punta Renas in southern Chile. 

Day 6 – I meet with Maria, the daughter of Jose (dubbed the Chilean horse whisperer), who manages the horses where I’m staying and leads the horseback expeditions. Maria shows me some of her weaving, demonstrating on her wooden loom, and a rare spinning wheel, built in Villa Alegre, that is over 40 years old. Maria dyes her own wool, using fruits, tree barks, and other materials to naturally colour the wool fibres. 

The first week has been utterly amazing and very inspirational – everything from the people, the landscape, architecture and indigenous crafts. 

Week 2 – Weaving, gardens and rodeo

Day 9 – It’s been just over a week since I arrived in Chile. My role here is to learn about the region and local culture, and reflect these ideas in my designs, which will serve to celebrate the creative nature of this place. Today, I discovered the Fundación Artesanías de Chile in Puerto Varas, which is a great non-profit organisation and store that sells items made by artisans in Chile, who are fairly paid for their work. Each tag features information regarding who made the item, where it was made and with what materials.

Many of the crafts are made using traditional methods. Here, you will find fine woodwork, jewellery, textiles, knit and woven garments, dolls, and more. The Foundation brings in skilled artisans for workshop series as well; I was lucky to be invited to sit in on a Mapuche (an indigenous group within Southern Chile) weaving session. The process requires incredible attention – strands of yarn are warped around a rectangular stand-up loom, which could easily be homemade (here in Chile, homemade looms are the norm).

A heddle bar rests towards the top of the project, and the only other tools are a shed stick and your hands. I had to really dig deep to where what little I know of weaving was stored inside my brain, but after two hours of concentrated attention I mostly pieced it together and now have a strong resolve to pull my second-hand frame loom out of storage when I get home and try my hand at this craft once again.

Day 11 – The landscape here in Southern Chile is breathtaking even on a grey day. I thought people had a green thumb in my native Vancouver, but it seems gardening is an even greater pastime in Chile! I’ve visited some beautiful gardens throughout my travels and, honestly, I don’t know how people do it here. I guess the frequent rain does a lot of the work… 

One of the most unreal places is a garden and nursery called Granja Quilarayen in Puerto Varas. Everywhere you look is full of thriving plants; both potted and in the ground, tagged for identification. A little path winds through the large property, tiny bridges cover little bubbling creeks, and the whole place has the abundant air of a rainforest, lifeblood of energy running through it. The plan is to expand, so that the garden café can use more of its own house-grown products within the menu. Personally, I love looking at a plate of food and knowing exactly where everything came from. 

Day 14 – Frutillar is the host town to the last rodeo event of the season this year. Lucky for me, the rodeo grounds are just a few minutes away, so I finally get to see what a Chilean rodeo is all about. It is quite different from the rodeos at home in Canada – here, it’s just one event, where a team of riders on horseback try to pin a calf against a padded fence in the ring. The winners and runners up get to trot around the ring with a rodeo queen in a fancy frilly dress on their horse – and then the celebration begins! 

The cowboys are a very polite and interesting bunch. They are exceptionally well groomed, as rodeo club rules dictate that a man can’t have hair covering his neck and must be clean-shaven and well presented. These guys don’t compete for money; they do it simply for fun, pride and honour. 

It didn’t take us long to locate the Chilean equivalent to the ‘beer garden’ – here it was a wooden shack with a bar in the centre, a big barbeque with sticks of meat sizzling away, and plenty of whiskey colas to be shared. I stayed on after the rodeo for a dance, and even got spun around the dance floor a few times. 

Week 3 – Along the dirt road: trip from Puerto Montt to Chiloé 

Day 15 – The island of Chiloé in Southern Chile is famous for a number of things: architecture (palafitos, world heritage churches), penguins, mythology, a rainforest, shellfish, and potatoes. At just past noon we said ‘salud!’ and clinked beer glasses over lunch with some locals of Pargua, who tried to pass a young man off to me – he, apparently, had the nicest eyes in the region, and so, in their opinion, was my ideal match. 

After a beautiful drive from Ancud to Castro we check in to the Palafito 1326 hotel, which has stunning design features, eking out over the water on stilts. The hotel is heated entirely by a massive wood fireplace, located next to a sitting area and open kitchen, adjoining a large deck. Much of the interior design relates to wool in some way, so I am endlessly diverted.

Day 16 – The main purpose of the trip is to investigate yarn sourcing, so we stop in many stores featuring knitwear and ask for leads. We finally get lucky at the Agrupación Huiñe Maulín shop – they sell us a big ball of yarn of a natural grey colour and right from the island. I also found a great silver ring with broom straw woven on the face, so I leave very happy.

We can’t dwell long in Castro, and hope that the sunshine and rainbows will follow us along our route through the long country road to Dalcahue. We divert off the main road to investigate a sign that simply says ”<— Historia”, and figure an abandoned farmhouse behind barbed wire must be what the sign’s referring to. We poke around, and I liberate a big iron circle thingamajig from the rubble that I want to use for a woven wall piece.

Day 18 – Somewhere along the dirt road we pass an older woman, and stop to ask her if she needs a lift. When she says that it’s ok, we ask about yarn. Turns out she has some at home, so she hops in and invites us in to her little place around the corner. I get one big skein of a black and white blend. The design of the yarn is typical of the artisanal markets here in Chile, but I know this woman spun the yarn herself so it holds special value for me.

Days 20 and 21 – We drive through Quamchi and then back to Ancud, where we make it to Kelgwo Arte Textil, a very well established store and organisation that works with numerous indigenous artisans to create beautiful garments and decor, both knit and woven.

Week 4 – Travel Guide for Gringos in Santiago

Day 22 – With just over two days to explore Santiago, the capital city of Chile and home to about six million people, and no idea how to navigate such a large city in such a short time, I am lucky to have a local host who whizzed me through many of the top sights Santiago has to offer.

When I arrive in Santiago on a Saturday evening, my host friend picks me up from the airport and I am whisked straight to the Pacific Ocean – not a destination I expected! A two-hour drive delivers us to Playa Ritoque, a beautiful long stretch of pristine beach, with bluffs rising on one side of the bay and sand dunes stretching the other direction down the coast. I love the hippie gypsy hostel we’re staying in overnight – think driftwood and shell decorations, mosaic tile flooring, Vogue magazines on the nightstand and surfboards stacked everywhere. 

Day 23 – In the morning, we’re sat on the deck that skirts right out over the beach and watch the surf over a leisurely breakfast of bread, butter, avocado and coffee. The Pacific crashes over rocks and surfers tumble under impressive waves. This is probably one of my favourite places in Chile now and I soak it up for as long as I can.

From here, we sneak down along the coast through Concón, Viña del Mar, and Valparaíso, where we stop to walk around. Valparaíso is incredibly beautiful – chock full of boutique hotels, cobblestone streets, amazing historical architecture and buildings dressed up in colourful paint. We walk past street-side artisans, tiny little retail nooks containing cafes or gift shops, and my favourite: the hills, which are so characteristic of Valparaíso. 

Day 24 – On our second walking day we start down in the Bellavista area, and head up to la Choscana, the museum/house of poet Pablo Neruda, for a tour which features such treasures as the original Diego Rivera painting, Neruda’s Nobel Prize (among many other medals), and personal effects collected by the poet and his wife. We then cross the bridge to the Bellas Artes, visit the National Fine Arts and Contemporary Art Museums, and stop by one of the many great cafés here. One of my favourite was the Sur Patagonico restaurant, it has sidewalk tables with a great view of the fashionable passerby. At the end of day two I feel fairly confident that I had packed in the tapas version of the city – little samples of a lot, without feeling overstuffed.

Day 25 – I missed my flight out of Santiago, and now have extra four days in the city. I need to replenish my reading material, and go wandering the streets in the hopes of finding a bookshop. I’m in luck as I come across a bookstore/ book exchange in Providencia that sells second-hand English titles. If you bring in your old book, you can get half off your new purchase. Books are pretty expensive in Chile, even used. Expect to pay at least $10, even for older titles.

I’m pretty obsessed with flea markets, so I go to check out the famous Persa Bio-Bio flea market near Franklin Station. Note of advice: don’t bother. It’s all cheap junk, mostly clothes and shoes. I walked through the whole thing in about 15 minutes then hightailed it out of there. Better luck to just take the time to stop at streetside vendors – usually there’s some worth checking out in the Belles Artes neighbourhood near Sur Patagonico restaurant.

What to see in Santiago

My top two Santiago must-sees are the Santa Lucia Hill and San Cristobal Hill. Santa Lucia was built atop a very old volcano that used to function as a lookout and was later ‘rebuilt’ with stone facades and walkways, fountains, terraces, gardens and a chapel near the top. Darwin visited the peak in 1833 and proclaimed the view as “most striking” – there is a plaque at the top recounting his words. 

San Cristobal Hill is much higher; you can either hike up or take a funicular elevator to the top, which is a fun ride. Once at the top, you have an up-close view of the marble statue of the Virgin Mary that overlooks the city. A view, which is typically partially obscured by the ever-present smog.

Other highlights are the Plaza de Armas, the main city square containing the Metropolitan Cathedral, City Hall, and other historical buildings. From here, it’s a short walk to the Plaza de la Constitucion, where the Moneda Palace is. At a gift shop here I bought a rotating wooden necklace by Chilean artist Nicolás Hernández.

It’s considerably easy to get around Santiago walking, which surprised me given how big the city is. Most of the worthwhile areas are within a few hours’ walking circuit: start in Providencia, head up the Alonso de Cordova for luxury shopping and galleries, circle back down to the Isidora Goyenechea and the financial district. It was here that a Chilean businessman complimented my “ropers” – incredibly scuffed up black boots that have been traveling on these feet of mine for the last year.

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