The village of Chaltén

Por Mario Vargas Llosa


Down there, to the right, in those small white houses that look like snowflakes at the foot of the mountain, is where we live, we women and men of the village of Chaltén. You don’t see us, of course. We are insignificant, invisible, compared to the cordilleras that surround us with their year ‘round snow, jagged peaks, yawning ravines, rushing rivers, and thunderous waterfalls.


Here humans count very little because they are dwarfed and obscured by Nature. Nature written with a capital N to underline how stately and majestic it is, how fierce and untamable, even though man has tried to be its master ever since the first humans appeared here ten thousand years ago. We have not succeeded yet. Who could conquer these mountains? The most we have achieved is to coexist with them, grant them the respect they are due, and never dare to challenge them because they always win. The proof is that they are still here where they have been since the beginning of time, unchanged; in contrast, countless cultures and peoples that flourished in their valleys and on their heights have disappeared without a trace.


In Chaltén we are modern, civilized people. But even so, the nearness of these mountains fills us with nearly religious respect and uneasiness. We are not pagans, or pantheists, or idolaters. We are religious in the most elevated and profound sense of the word: Spiritual trembling, a preoccupation with the beyond. These soaring mountains that pierce the clouds, that challenge the heavens, fill the spirit with anxiety and a mysterious melancholy, lift us to a more immaterial but less fleeting world than the one in which we live. That is why it must be true that great mystics have almost always lived at altitudes that inspire flight, even if only in fantasy.


But it is not only religious disquiet that is engendered in a landscape like ours. Peoples’ sense of beauty also flowers. Who could be insensitive to spectacles like those the mountains offer at sunrise and as night falls? We have no need for fireworks here because Nature provides them to us gratis, every day. Spectacles that are never twice the same. Rain, snow, or sunshine, skies covered with clouds or glittering with stars, there is always a different picture, new shadings and hues. Even though ours is a small village with many problems, we are proud of Chaltén. How could we not be when, compared to what we see here, the rest of the world seems ugly?