In Patagonia - Part One
Having completed our family yuletide festivities on the 23rd and 24th, Dawn and I flew down to Atlanta on Christmas Day, and that night boarded a B767-400 to Santiago. I hadn't realized it would be a -400, so it was a nice surprise since I consider that the most comfortable plane in Widget's fleet, given the lie-flat suites in Business Elite. I have no idea how bad it is in coach, because I've never been there! I was able to get 5 or 6 good hours of sleep and woke as we descended over northern Chile in the morning light, the Pacific to our right and the Andes on our left.
We arrived at 8am on 26 December; Chile is three hours ahead of CST. After paying our $140/person gringo fee and clearing customs, we caught a Turbus coach into the city center, stopping first at the Turbus terminal to purchase tickets for our trip south the next day. We checked into our hostel, "La Casa Roja," an impressive crumbling mansion in the middle of tumbledown Barrio Brasil, and refreshed by a shower and change of clothes, set off to see the sights in Santiago. These included the Palacio de la Moneda, site of the 1973 CIA-backed coup that killed President Salvador Allende and ushered in the ironfisted rule of Augusto Pinochet; Iglesia de San Francisco, Santiago's oldest church and one of the few colonial buildings to survive Chile's powerful earthquakes; the bustling pedestrian paseos of the centro historico; the palm-lined Plaza de Armas with its Catedral Metropolitana providing a stark contrast to the modern skyscrapers surrounding it; and the covered 19th century Mercado Central, with its few produce vendors and fishmongers still eking it out among the cluster of tourist cafes. After lunch at Bar Nacional we crossed the river to Barrio Bellavista and took a cog railway up Cerro San Cristobal, a thousand-foot crest that dominates the city's skyline. From here I realized why I had such an persistent sense of deja vu: Santiago looks a lot like Los Angeles. It has roughly the same geography, similar climate and vegetation, same brown smog, and the same endless white sprawl. Later on I would find many other striking similarities between Chile and the American west coast - at least until we got to Southern Patagonia, where I made comparisons to Alaska and Norway that were completely inadequate in capturing the uniqueness of that wild and windswept land.
We hiked down the east side of Cerro San Cristobal, into a leafy residential neighborhood that looked oddly like some of the posher parts of Dallas. Hot and exhausted, we hopped back to Barrio Brasil on the Metro and retired to the hostel pool to soak our tired feet and sip pisco colas until sundown. Later we ventured back out to Barrio Bellas Artes for a late night stroll and dinner, but didn't stay late enough to sample the nightlife; we had an early bus to catch the next morning.
The bus trip from Santiago to Pucón took nearly twelve hours, most of that spent in Chile's central valley. Again the comparison to California proved apt, for much of it looked strikingly like California's central valley and boasted the same assortment of orchards, vineyards, and dusty farm towns. As we went further south, I started seeing dashes of northern California and southern Oregon; then we turned east, towards a symmetrical volcano with a blue lake at its base that would've looked perfectly in place in the Cascades. This is the very-active Volcán Villarica, Pucón's raison d'être despite its occasional threats of total destruction. Its snowcapped peak loomed large over Pucón as we walked from the bus terminal to our hostel in the golden evening light. It was impossible not to look.
The British couple who run the Tree House Hostel are an extremely friendly and welcoming pair, and we were soon relaxing in the leafy backyard with beers in hand, chatting with a gaggle of travelers who'd just come back from climbing the volcano. This is the most popular activity in Pucón, but there's a great deal more on offer, including whitewater rafting, canyoning, paragliding, skydiving, ziplining, and horseback riding. I'd heard Pucón described as the Interlaken of South America, which actually predisposed me to dislike it; however, I found it considerably more relaxed and enjoyable than its Swiss counterpart despite offering a similar range of high-testosterone activities.
We began Wednesday with a walk to the black sand Playa Grande, on the east end of the large freshwater Lago Villarica. We rented a 12 foot dinghy for $10/hour once I figured out what the spanish word for sailboat is (velero), and spent two hours sailing to the north side of the lake and back. It was a gorgeous day with warm sunshine and just enough wind to make for a good, spirited sail. The breeze was not strong enough, however, to keep away the large biting horseflies (tabanos) for which southern Chile is known. Our course bobbed and weaved a bit as I swatted them away. Curiously, the flies left us once we returned to shore, so we lingered on the beach and soaked in the sun for a bit before lunch. We belatedly put on sunscreen; I hadn't thought to do it before, with the water and wind hiding the strength of the summer sun. The damage was done, my pale winter skin was burnt. I would later discover that the further south you get, sunburn becomes an inevitable fact of life regardless of how much sunscreen you put on. Patagonians get a constant barrage of UV rays in the summer thanks to the somewhat shrunken but still present hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica.
After lunch we were picked up by a minivan and taken to one of several canopy tours that surround Pucón. This activity was selected as a compromise with my long-suffering bride; left to my own devices, I might've dragged her up a volcano or down a raging river. In fact, I ended up really enjoying the canopy tour. There were twenty or twenty-five sturdy ziplines winding through the broadleaf forest and crisscrossing a river canyon, each connected by a network of wooden ladders, platforms, and catwalks high in the treetops. It was a lot of fun, like playing in the treeforts of my childhood. It took nearly 90 minutes to complete the course, which was just about right. Dawn had approached the ziplines with considerable trepidation but did quite well and was even rather enjoying herself by the end.
After returning to the hostel we spent an hour or two relaxing in their backyard hammocks, reading and chatting with passersby, when an Aussie told me I absolutely could not miss the night trip to Termas los Pozones. We decided a visit to the hot springs would be a nice way to cap off a busy day, so we hurriedly grabbed some dinner before the 8pm shuttle. The route to the springs was incredibly gorgeous, winding as it did above deep and verdant river valleys with vertiginous views of rugged mountains and volcanoes turned pink in the alpenglow. The sun was finally setting when we arrived at Los Pozones an hour later. The termas consist of six natural rock-lined pools of varying temperatures set alongside a rushing river. It was relaxing to lay back in the steaming waters, close my eyes, and listen to the babble of languages from the other bathers. As the sky darkened, a multitude of stars appeared over the remote valley, many of them unfamiliar. I spotted Orion far north of his usual hunting grounds, Venus in the west, and Jupiter nearly overhead. At midnight we finally left the pools, dried off, and headed up the hill to the waiting minivan for a sleepy ride home. We had another early bus, so it'd be a short night. We'd had a very nice taste of Pucón, though. I wouldn't have minded spending another few days, which seems to be a constant theme of our trips. There's always so much to see and do, and such limited time when you have a job back in the real world to hold down.
Six A.M. came quite early, and we were soon blearily trudging to the bus station with our heavy packs. I'd liked to have viewed the scenery on our drive to Puerto Varas, but instead slept through much of it. We arrived shortly after noon and found a picturesque small town on a crystalline lake reflecting two snowcapped volcanoes (the Fuji-like Volcán Orsono and the older, collapsed Volcán Calbuco). Despite the superficial resemblance to Pucón, Puerto Varas has a rather different vibe. It has a longer history, older buildings, a statelier pace, and seems to attract an older and more local crowd. Like much of Southern Chile and Northern Patagonia, Puerto Varas was settled in the mid-19th century by German immigrants. Their influence lingers on in the architecture, cuisine, excellent beers, and a fair number of blond-haired, blue-eyed locals speaking rapid Spanish.
We stayed at Casa Margouya, a unique Chilean-French guesthouse near the lakefront. Here, as in many places throughout this trip, the inadequacy of my high-school Spanish frustrated me. It had been fine in Spain last year, but in retrospect that's probably because most Spaniards usually switched to English before my Spanish got embarrassingly bad. We've traveled to Europe so much the last few years that I've become rather used to everyone knowing English, and rather complacent in my pre-trip language studies. I heard very little English in South America except on the Navimag ferry. Few locals speak more than a few words of it, even in the tourist hotspots. Here's the thing: there's little reason for them to learn it. A large portion of the tourism is by affluent urban Chileans and other South Americans. There are surprisingly few estadounidense around, considering South America is virtually in our backyard. All the foreign backpackers doing the six-month tour of the continent speak Spanish fluently by the time they get down to Chile. Even most of the Dutchmen, Germans and Swiss just popping over for a few weeks seem to speak better Spanish than I do.
Now mind you, the language barrier didn't cause any real practical problems. We were always able to find our way around and ask questions and make purchases and do activities using a combination of my broken Spanish and the locals' limited English and the usual international words and pantomimes and notepad doodles. I think we would've been fine even if I spoke no Spanish at all. I just felt bad being that guy, the typical monoglot American butchering the locals' language and then woefully resorting to "Lo siento, solamente hablo un poco espanol...y lo hablo terrible! ¿Habla usted algún inglés?" The staff at Casa Margouya were really nice and helpful and spoke a decent bit of English and did their best to not look baffled at my Spanish, but I was intensely conscious of the fact that all the other guests, foreigners included, were speaking to them in reasonably good Spanish. It was much the same elsewhere throughout Chile and Argentina. This didn't ruin the trip for me; to the contrary, I loved South America and want to go back and explore much more of the continent. It did, however, convince me that I need to get serious about relearning Spanish - to get at least to the point of competency I was at in college, and preferably to fluency.
After checking into Casa Margouya we walked along the lakeshore to Cerro Philippi, a forested headland criss-crossed by walking paths; it afforded some nice views of the lake, volcanoes, and town. We walked back into town via a circular route on dirt roads flanked by old houses, many rather Germanic, and many seemingly abandoned. The place had a definite aura of bygone glory to it. We crossed the town center, popped into Dane's Cafe for an afternoon empanada del horno and tasty Stocker Pale Ale, and then visited the Sacred Heart Church. The German settlers patterned it on a similar church in the Black Forest, but sheathed it in the local style with corrugated tin!
We walked down the bay to the Playa Grande, which was covered with sunbathers enjoying the warm afternoon on Lago Llanquihue. The eastern sky was actually covered with a haze that I initially thought was volcanic ash from the continuously erupting Volcán Puyehue but turned out to be smoke from some large forest fires near its base. I waded in the surprisingly warm lake and took a nap on the dark sand (whoops, no sunscreen again). The sun was getting low in the sky by the time we walked back to the centro and went shopping for provisions for the four-day ferry ride starting the next day. When we emerged with shopping bags in hand, we detoured to the jetty to watch Orsono and Calbuco fade into velvet as the sun set behind us. The rest of the night was pretty low-key, spent reading and chatting and playing cards and mixing pisco sours at Margouya. The next day we were sailing on the Navimag from Puerto Montt, 20 minutes south of Puerto Varas. I'd really enjoyed Chile thus far, and was excited to venture further south into Patagonia.