Climb Up then Slide Down. Yes Please.
I like Pucon, Chile. It is a fun town. I hope to go back to Pucon, Chile because of those two facts. It was pretty as well.
Ok, enough of that. That was my imitation of my writing skillZ in comparison to Seema’s. #Fail.
En serio – Pucon was our first real Chilean experience. We made our way over the border from Bariloche to Pucon to see if we could taste the difference between Chilean Patagonia and Argentina Pategonia – turns out you can. Chile is where the real action exists.
These two towns, Bariloche and Pucon, would probably be considered “sister” towns if the two countries didn’t posses mutual contempt for each other. Their distaste for the other’s culture is not as pronounced as Brazil/Argentina or Panama/Costa Rica but there is a definite separation that keeps them from being nice to each other – futbol probably has much to do with it. As far as the towns go, on paper they are very similar. They’re both located in the Northern Lake Region of Patagonia, and both sport the full spectrum of adventure activities: mountain biking, fly fishing, white water rafting, motocross trails, hidrospeed (think whitewater rafting without the raft), ATV tours, canyoning, nature reserves, and snow skiing as the biggest draw. The problem was we visited both at the end of winter which rules out 90% of the adventure activities, but also significantly reduces the amount of tourists you have to wade through to get where you’re going.
The differences in these two ski towns is that Bariloche is more like those quaint Colorado ski towns that have been poisoned by kitschy touristy bullshit, and Pucon, although slightly poisoned, retains much of its small town charm. Bariloche is a ski town with little “good” snow for the past 2 winters. Instead you have a main street full of ski rental places that claim the skiing is still good while every tourist that visits the summit comes back complaining of a wasted day – the definition of a tourist trap. Pucon seems to be run by more honest facilities that will turn business down in favor of telling you accurate information about the conditions of the whitewater or snow. The other major difference between these two towns is that Pucon has incredible volcanos. Some of the most active in the world, the closest and most dangerous being Volcano Villarica sitting right in its backyard. It would be my focus for the next few days.
Chile is know as the country of natural disasters. Contrasted with Brazil which doesn’t seem to have any, Chile has earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcano eruptions all along the tenderloin of southwestern South America. The most recent eruption was on account of Villarrica in 1971.
With the constant reminder of our fragile mortality hanging there in the sky, we contemplated what we should do with the 4 days of russian roulette we were playing with nature just by being there. One look at the volcano and I knew I wanted to climb it; Seema was definitely against the idea so we had to come to some compromises. I also wanted to take a motorbike out on the volcano trails and do the hidrospeed, but Seema used up all her adventure points on paragliding in Bariloche. Usually these things work themselves out, and of course this time was no exception, thanks in part to the weather conditions and our hostel selection and the guests we met there.
We were staying in a great hostel called La Bicicleta run by 2 ridiculously helpful Chileans and their 9 and 5 year olds. In reality, the 5 year old (Leon) dictated what was happening in the hostel most of the time- the others played supporting roles. The Bicicleta, like most great hostels, attracted some interesting travelers, this time from Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Australia – Xenia, Caroline, and Mustafa. Xenia and Caroline were traveling for 3 months through Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru while Mustafa was making his way from Chile to Rio De Janiero and all had great stories to trade over a couple bottles of Chilean vino. Xenia and Caroline are a dynamic duo of spunk and smarts and have a magnetism that make you want to hang out with them and do whatever cool shit they are going to do next. Mustafa, traveling on his own, has a unique combination of nerd and suave that made whatever he said worth listening to; he also badly wanted to climb the volcano so we quickly made plans to form a group and go when the weather next looked good.
We spent most of the the day we arrived in Pucon walking around, checking out the town’s highlights: black sand beach, lake with mountain backdrop, and even saw the end of a rainbow about 200 yards deep into a prairie as the sun was setting – if it sounds a bit surreal, it’s because it was – see photos. After walking around the town, we went back to the hostel to rest (read: drink a bottle of wine) before dinner which is getting later and later the longer we stay in South America. At the end of the bottle, it was 9:30 and now our dinner options were limited to what was open. We picked an organic hippie restaurant called Trawen and split a giant empanada and shared a free Pisco Sour. (a note on Chilean pisco sours as compared to those of Peru – they are sweeter and smaller, all around worse. When you confront a Chilean about this detriment they counter with the fact that it is served in a champagne glass, as if that makes it any better). Then it was time to get to bed- we had a big day of rafting tomorrow.
Rafting was at 2pm, so we spent most of the day leisurely working our way through breakfast, then 2nd breakfast with Xenia and Caroline. This is when Mustafa checked in and joined us. When 2pm came, we joined the tour group Politur, who had recently lost 2 people during a volcano climb. We figured since rafting is significantly different than volcano hiking, it was a.o.k… We did some level 3 rapids which were a bit of a bore for most of the people in the boat that weren’t in the front (Mustafa and I); Seema even claimed she used the paddle to splash herself so she would feel like she was actually doing something. However, 3 of the 10 rapids threw individuals from the craft to be rescued quickly. The water was icy cold, so we had to wear pee-smelly wetsuits with worthless and tattered shorts (why?) over them, some safety-theater helmets, and undersized lifejackets – welcome to adventure sport South America. The guide had a good time running us into rocks and sexually harassing Xenia but made up for it by being a pretty good pilot when needed.
Day 3 was the volcano hike. Caroline ended up joining Mustafa and I, while Xenia and Seema decided to take it a bit easier by going on a 12km hike in the Huerquehue National Park. Our day started at 6:45am, strapping on our gear, grabbing our lunches, and heading to the base of Volcano Villarrica. I’m always pretty amped up for these personal challenges and like pushing my physical boundaries. The high I get from these types of activities comes in the form of focus and determination, and it seems nothing is better at delivering the fix than a daunting, physical task.
The climb itself was done slightly above 2000 meters, and we climbed to almost 3000. The guide was ready to start the climb when he asked “any questions?” I was holding an icepick in my hand and examining the various ends of the thing, pretending to know what I was looking at, while looking around to see if anyone was going to ask the most obvious question hanging in the air “how do i use this thing?” Seems to me that if you give 10 people sharp axes, you should show them what to do with it, but what do I know. The explanation is pretty simple, they’re pretty much used exactly the opposite of how you think they would be (my only experience is watching various cartoons or movies where they use the thing as a combination axe-claw). The pick is used as a cane most of the time, and if you fall it keeps you from careening down the entire volcano since it gets quite slippery and steep (40 degree incline). To keep from falling though, you don’t swing it into the mountainside like Sly Stallone in Cliffhanger- your momentum downwards paired with your icy grip would result in you tumbling to your rocky death (apparently this is how 2 people died in March this year on the Volcano). To stop falling properly, you grab the pick with both hands near the head, wedge it basically into your side and slam your side into the mountain – viola! Stopped.
The climb itself lasted 4:20 minutes. We climbed on rhythms of about 1 hour with 10 minute breaks to cool off, rehydrate, and nosh. It got to be more technical at the top when solid footing was at a premium. The entire climb was over wet snow, but near the top it got steeper and more slippery, which made the turns of our incline-reducing zig-zag a bit more difficult. All-in-all it was about a 6 out of 10 in difficulty, made easier by the cool air and pristine surroundings.
At the top of Villarrica is the payoff, the giant gaping crater of an active volcano. The mouth of the beast. One of the only volcanos in the world with a splattering magma pool within visible distance. Unfortunately you can’t get close enough to see the lava due to the angles, but you can sense it. It’s South America, so its not like there are any ropes from keeping you from plunging to your death, so you keep your distance and observe.
The other payoff of the climb is the 360 degree view of Chilean Patagonia on a crystal clear day. So clear that when you look straight up in the middle of the day, the blue sky turns dark blue and almost black as if you were close enough to space to see it peeking through the atmosphere. The view of the landscape includes a few other giant, snow-capped volcanoes, lakes, and the tops of clouds about 700 meters lower than where we were standing.
Now comes the fun part.
Reach into your bag and pull out the plastic sled. Use your icepick as a break against the snow. Slide down the volcano. Hell yes.
It took about 30 minutes to slide all the way down the volcano in about 5 different slides at some serious velocity if you let yourself have it. While sliding down a volcano on a Thursday afternoon i reflected on how ridiculous a week I was having… The slides were honestly long enough to have deep thoughts, and the scenery did it’s part to encourage it by making you feel small and inconsequential, but alive.
At the end of the trek they take you back and give you some beer as you strip off your wet, cold clothes. Seema and Xenia met us up at the travel agency’s office to make sure we were still alive and said something about “how their hike was hard too” but I couldn’t hear them over the BS alarm that was going off in my head as they tried to compare their day with ours.
The next day we spent recovering, packing for Vina del Mar (6 hours north), and checking out some local hot springs with Xenia and Caroline. You’ll probably roll your eyes as you read this, but at this point we’re a bit tired of hot springs. They’re nice and all, but really it’s just a hot bath with creepy old men. The hot springs in Peru were an exception because I hadn’t felt my toes in days, and the scenery was like something out of the first couple chapters? of the bible. The Los Pozones springs in Pucon were quaint, mostly empty, and beautiful so we stayed for a few hours before leaving with enough time to catch our night bus. A nice Chilean man gave us a ride back to Pucon, and we attempted to converse with him about his grandsons who were economists and investment bankers in the US. This man was not the first Chilean to show us how kind and caring the people of this country can be – a pattern that has repeated itself incessantly since we arrived.