Chile's Lake District

Trip Start Oct 05, 2005
1
7
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Trip End Apr 06, 2006


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Saturday, November 26, 2005

It's often the way while travelling that you don't fully appreciate a place till you've left it, and it took a trip to Argentina to realise how much I loved Chile. My time in Valparaiso, aside from Sharron, Danky ice-creams and veggie cafes, had been a bit of a damp squib, and one that continued to be so right down to the Chilean Lake District. But actually, in retrospect, I loved it.

I stopped for an afternoon in Santiago, to have a look around, and to see Tim, the German guy from my Spanish course, who was there volunteering with local children. Everyone had told me how horrible Santiago is... the traffic, the smog etc, but I thought it was beautiful. Ok, so I did visit on a Sunday afternoon when it was quiet, and the sun was shining, which always puts a good slant on a place (especially after the grey skies of Valpo), but I really liked it. I managed to see much of the city in just a few hours, then met Tim for empanadas and chilli flavoured ice-cream (when in Rome...) before getting a night bus to Villarica, eight hours south of the capital.

Villarica was a small town that smelled of woodsmoke, on a lake near an active volcano. Most people go there to climb said volcano, as it's relatively cheap and easy to do, and you can see the lava bubbling inside. Due to the incessant rain, I was told I wouldn't be going anywhere near the volcano. Not today, not tomorrow and possibly not for the next week. Nor would I be doing any tours. I couldn't think what else to do in a place I had already walked around twenty times in two hours. Everyone in my hostel spoke German (the owner was doing a very good impression of an 80s porn star), there were bugs in my bed, and the locals stared at me as if the circus had come to town. I couldn't get out fast enough. Annoyingly though, as soon as I had booked my bus ticket, the clouds cleared, the sun came out, and I found a place called Pucon, which I like very much. Am still gutted about getting on that bus, which took me to Puerto Varas, and the rain, which followed me south.

I was in Puerto Varas for a week waiting for my flight to Punto Arenas, and I don't think I saw the sun shine once. Not one to be deterred by a little wet weather, I went rafting on River Petrohue, which I was told was "grade 3", but in my eyes was at least grade 10. Waves crashed over us, we landed in several "holes", where our leader/captain person kept shouting "Get down!" and we jumped into the raft holding our heads, and at the end we all got in the water to "body raft", which essentially consisted of us all hanging on for dear life to the raft while it flew down a rapid, me wishing I hadn't worn the thick woolly jumper, which was doing a really good job of drowning me.

One night I went to stay at an eco-lodge ranch in Cochamo, which was lovely, apart from the aformentioned rain, and we rode the horses up into the rainforest, striding through more than one high, fast-flowing river. The stirrups were huge clogs, to shield our feet from the rocks. It was one of those times where on the outside you look like you do this kind of thing all the time at home, but on the inside are shitting bricks. I still to this day do not know how the horses didn't get washed away with us on them. I didn't do the whole trip up to La Junta, so rode back with Horacio, and we chatted all the way back in Spanglish, much to his obvious frustration.

Another night was spent on a farm near Puerto Octay, on the north end of the lake. When I arrived I tried to find a phone in town to call the farm but every one I tried was out of order. The place was dead, and I managed to amass five stray dogs while I was on my phone-finding mission. I was pointed in the direction of a "call centre", which was basically this one guy with a Nokia, so I went in, dogs waiting outside, and called the farm to rescue me. The hostel was brilliant, its buildings were made of wood and had grass (turf) roofs. I had the entire octagonal dormitory tower to myself; all the eight beds faced inwards to the centre and had eight little windows, so you had 360 degree views of the coutryside. I felt like Snow White, minus her seven dwarfs. The owners were the typical Swiss/Chilean couple combo, which I have come to know and love as it usually means exceptional kindness and hospitality. They didn't disappoint, and that night the Swiss guy made fondue.

The next day I arranged to go riding with a friend of theirs called Marcelo, who lived up the road, but it took an hour and a half to get there on the bus as I had to keep getting off every time there was a junction, and take another bus in the direction I wanted to go. Marcelo took me riding along Lake Llanqueue, on the black volcanic sand, and we spoke at length about the ins and outs of Chilean politics (the elections are coming up - the first in six years). I asked him if the Chilenos were political people, and he said no. But he seemed to me to be incredibly political, to have an opinion on everything. Maybe he is one of a kind. Or maybe there's not much else to think about out there than how to put the world to rights. It was a typically rainy day and our thick animal-hair ponchos had become heavy and cold, so we gave up riding and went back to the farm where his wife was waiting by the stove, Nescafe on the go and cheese sandwiches ready. We sat for hours chatting and eating, and I was so afraid of stopping them mid-flow, I missed my bus back to Puerto Octay.

Marcelo was kind enough to wait with me in the pouring rain and help me hitch a ride back. But after an hour, and four cars that didn't stop, he put me on a bus going in the opposite direction, for shelter more than anything else, and in the vain hope it might turn around at the end, which it did, after picking up and dropping off every local within a ten-mile radius. It then reversed down a dirt track and parked in a chicken coop while the driver and his mate went and had lunch for half an hour. I was sat in the bus watching the rain, and the various animals peck and snort the mud around me, soooo frustrated, wanting to just get out and walk, which I debated might be quicker. My mum, meanwhile, texted me to tell me she was tucked up at home watching Ready Steady Cook. When the driver got back on, I think my face said it all, so, after spending another ten minutes fixing the bus that had in the meantime decided to break down, we drove to the nearest shop and he bought us each an apple and let me off the bus fare. I surprised myself at how quickly I forgave him.

I spent one day walking round the base of Volcano Osorno with an English girl from my hostel in Puerto Varas and an Irish guy called Eamon. The volcanic setting, Sacha's Cath Kidston poncho, and Eamon's uncanny likeness to Pippin/Merry (we couldn't decide which one) was too much to ignore, and we spent the afternoon doing Lord of the Ring impressions, me playing Gollum.

One evening back in Puerto Varas, I went with a girl who worked at my hostel and a Canadian guy to watch a local jazz band play in a club called Garage, a big wooden barn on a garage forecourt. The musicians were amazing, especially the guy on piano, and I couldn't believe we were in a small town in Chile and not some expensive New York jazz dive.

Wednesday came, and I got on the plane to Patagonia. Was glad to be leaving Puerto Varas. I'd been in a permanent state of dampness for too long and the grass was beginning to grow beneath my feet.
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