Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chile - Days Five & Six: Pucon

The last time someone wrote "rien" in his diary he got his head chopped off. I'm not going to tempt fate, mainly because there is a steaming volcano a few miles from here, but what the hell - Pucon is small, it's Sunday in a country that still shuts down on Sundays, and I'm in a summer tourist town in the thrust of early spring. In other words, it's slow.

While I don't mind pina coladas, I'm not a fan of getting caught in the rain. I went for a walk along the quiet streets of this village that can be completely walked around in less than twenty minutes. Where did I go if I had already seen all of the downtown area? I don't know. I looked at the volcano and walked toward it when I got out of town, and when I found a dirt road going to Rio-whatever, I turned down the dirt road and walked toward the end.

And then the air became heavy and wet. It wasn't hard, but there was enough water falling from the sky that I felt the dampness through my jeans and saw spots on my glasses. The rain came from the left, and there were tall, thick, green trees stacked nicely next to each other that made a nice wall that I could walk behind. So when I turned around, when the rain had ceased flying through the air and instead fell straight to the ground with loud slaps on the muddy dust, the trees, now on my right, kept me from getting soaked.

But after I passed the trees and reached the tarred road that went back to town, my cover disappeared, and when I turned right the rain spit directly in my face and all over my only set of clean clothes.

I was wet when I got back into town. If it weren't for the B&B with a large roof over its door then I would have been soaked. There was just enough wetness to annoy me, but not enough to deter my thoughts on how bored I'd be if I went back to the hostel for the rest of the afternoon. If the rain had continued then I would have settled with boredom over sickness, but the rain stopped when I reached the outskirts of town so I headed to the lake instead.

There is a long walk along the black sandy beach. I took that toward the mountains with the hope that I'd find a path into the woods. But as I neared the end, the wind pick me up and tossed me into one of the summer cabin yards that lined the edge of the lake. In fact, the wind was so strong that when I finally regained my strength and balance I was only able to walk at an angle such that when the wind died, even for a split second, I collapsed straight to the ground as a bag of rocks would if tiredly dropped by someone who could not care less about holding the bag any longer.

Then it rained again. And when I got back to town it stopped raining again. There was no way to win this fight, so I said, "Fuck it," and bought my first ice cream in Chile.

It is understandable why Pucon is an adrenaline-based town. It is right below Villarica, the active, steaming volcano, which, if it blew, would kill me in a day. I don't worry, though, because there's only been two eruptions in the past sixty years, with the last one coming in 1971. No one died from lava, either. Instead, the lava redirected two rivers, and the rivers  flowed over soft ground, and the soft ground gave way to a rumbling collapse of the earth that wiped out a bunch of small towns and the hundreds who lived in them. So yeah, that's why it is an adrenaline-based town. But that's OK, because while fire stations in the US have forest fire warnings (green for good, yellow for caution, red for danger), the fire station here has the same thing...except it is for toxic gas instead. Today the arrow is on green.

But Pucon isn't for me. Sure, it is pretty and small and I could live here, but not under the current circumstances. I'm in no position to spend money for fun, and that is what Pucon is; it's a playground for those who want to spend money on fun. And to be clear, it isn't a playground for the rich, per se. It's just that with the way the activities are set up it is difficult to do anything alone. It is much easier to hire a guide to take you anywhere. I want to be with people, not pay for them. I just want to climb with people, not pay to climb. It isn't selfish. It's more that I want to live my life as normal.

Anyway, I'll have fun tonight. It is difficult to get to the nearby hot springs, particularly for me who would have to negotiate a price in Spanish. But thankfully some nice folks from the hostel are going and they arranged it for me. So I'm going for three hours tonight when the sky is supposed to be clear and starry.

The hot springs were great. There were four pools and the first one we went into, the closest to the road, was the hottest. Five of us went: there were two girls from Germany, me, and a couple from The Netherlands. We stayed three hours and that was long enough. Even though we all had fun together, it was one of those nights and moments when I wished I was with someone. I felt the springs were romantic.

I went to El Cani the next day. El Cani is a private nature preserve set aside by a few generous citizens. This is becoming a trend in Chile, and I think it is a very good thing.

I heard the views of Villarica, which, due to the cloud cover of the past few days, I had yet to get a picture of, were great. There were also several lakes nestled tightly amongst the steep, lush-green mountains that surrounded all of Pucon. I took a microbus (this time it was easier than when in Valparaiso) about a half-hour out of town and got dropped off at the rustic office at the base. The price was CH$3000 (about US$6) to hike up the steep, muddy hill that I'm sure would have made for a perfect mudslide had the volcano decided to erupt at that moment. I had four hours to hike up as high as I could go before turning back so that I could catch the last bus back into town.

The trail was a broken road with deep, muddy ruts only good for a mule or the most rugged, low-gear 4x4 trucks, and it was steep. I started out at the base, where I was surround by sheep and cattle farms, with my down vest zipped to my chin, a thin hat over my head, and my hands planted stiffly in my vest pockets. The steepness eventually got to me. Within twenty minutes of climbing my head was bald and my chest, warmed only by a light fleece shirt, was exposed to the cool, snowy wind that tumbled down from the top. The refugio, the octagonal shed that was as bare  bones as a lean-to, was an hour uphill from the base. I was tired when I got to it, but only the out-of-breath kind. My energy was as raging as the heaving in my chest was healthy in the thin, mountain air.

I went inside the refugio. There was a fire pit in the middle and an iron stove for cooking to the side. The dark and leaky edges had benches for sleeping. It was dirty and drafty, but I'd sleep there in a heart beat if I knew I could play in the surrounding wilderness all day. Outside there were views of two lakes: the one in Pucon to my left and another lake to my right. It was only a moment, but I recognized that yearning to stay forever as soon as it hit me.

But I didn't have much time to linger. There was just enough time to head uphill into the snow for a few minutes before heading back. The snow started out thin. It was just a dusting at first, but within 50 feet it was accumulated such that it was difficult for me to keep my balance on the steeper terrain. My sneakers started to get wet on the sides after another 100 feet, and then my ankles became buried under the coldness after yet another 100 feet. I was grateful to have footprints to step into, but then I came across a stream, and on the other side the snow was a foot thick and the terrain too steep without good shoes. I imagined that snowshoes would be needed within 500 feet after the stream. I turned back even though I knew I'd have over an hour's wait at the bottom for the bus.

The snow on the trail wasn't my only problem, either. The sporadic rain that had passed over me on the way up to the refugio was now hail. Within minutes it turned to snow, and where there was only a dusting of snow just above the refugio, I found my sneakers wet and my socks cold from deeper drifts that weren't there when I started up. I was grateful when I stepped back onto dry ground.

It was early, so I chatted with the guides at the base. Then I waited at the bus stop and watched two people on horses herd two bulls down the road.

Later that night at the hostel we all talked, shared climbing pictures from past trips, and I decided to head to Bariloche, Argentina.

Click here for all 2009 Chile and Argentina pics.

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful shot is that! I really love this place and when it comes to hiking, rafting, horse back riding, bird watching, fishing and canopy you may indulge yourself in all kind of daring stuffs here. I love its natural surroundings, near a volcano and several lakes, nature reserves and thermal baths and the best part comes during the winter season when you can go for skiing or snowboarding on the trails of the Villarrica volcano. Looking forward to visit it soon...
    Hosteria en pucon

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