The forests of Patagonia could well be the backdrop for an adventure or mystery movie, with their nearly impenetrable forests, full of streams and wildlife, and the almost constant wind that rustles the branches in a constant swaying dance. To make things even a bit more magical, many of the forests are streaming with hanging lichen, Usnea barbata, popularly known as “old man’s beard”. This light colored lichen is an indicator plant for air purity; thus, the further away you go from civilization, the more abundant and dense grow the “beards” hanging from the trees.
In the forests of Villa Ortega, just one hour from Coyhaique, the old man’s beard grows in such abundance that it inspired a group of ingenious artisans to incorporate it as a raw material in their unique artistry; the creation of unique miniature gauchos and gauchas, scarecrows, witches, angels, birds and other tiny figurines that later grace the houses of visitors from all over the world. Their project started with a small group of local women who were looking for a hobby that would bring them closer, connect them with their natural environment, and provide them with an additional source of family income. The result has been the creation of Mi Taller Che, a social group and artisan workshop that has become well known throughout the region and the inspiration for a growing permaculture movement throughout the community.
Their workshop is located in one corner of the Plaza in Villa Ortega, next to a small community museum where you will find old farming tools, historic documents, coins and photographs and other artifacts of the pioneer era. You can visit the workshop and purchase a souvenir; however, we recommend that you opt to spend an afternoon with the women and men of the Taller so that you can participate in the entire process, an experience that the artisans are very willing to share each Thursday.
Members meet in the workshop on every Thursday afternoon to work, share knowledge and have a good time, and they are more than happy to welcome travelers who want to learn about the area and their art and buy their crafts. You can even accompany them to the forest to collect the old man’s beard and grasses used in their art and then work with them to learn the techniques for making your own special souvenir. Artisans in the workshop also work with raw felt to make figurines, clothing and jewelry. The non-woven wool comes from local sheep and is often stained using natural products, like scotch-broom and yerba mate, which provide green tones, and onions or calafate branches for the yellows.
Crafts are only one of the ways in which Villa Ortegans are defining a sustainable future for their tiny community. For several years now, community members have been developing a growing number of projects and initiatives related with permaculture and fair trade. As you walk around town, you’ll likely notice a unique house built of mud and recycled materials, surrounded by gardens and edible landscapes. Don’t hesitate to visit the owners of this house, Jorge Águila and Marcela Agüero. Marcela is the president of Mi Taller Che and Jorge is an artist who works with recycled woods to build sculptures and drums. They will be glad to show you the techniques for water and energy savings that they have implemented in their home and tell you about the minga-style (volunteers working together), approach to community revitalization and development taking place in their community. You can see examples of this growing movement in the mosaic murals and interesting tree-house at the local school; all developed with community volunteers. You can also speak with them about volunteer possibilities that would provide the opportunity to stay a bit longer and learn about permaculture construction, philosophies and techniques.