Strange Games, Sea Lions, Hot Springs, Volcano Climbs - Chile in One Week (Part 1 of 3)

Excluding the vagaries of each country's unique topography, countries with more circular borders are, generally speaking, more economical to get around in. Which brings us to Chile. It is so long and skinny that one can drive for hours and hours without feeling that one is making any dent in covering the country's terrain. The same tyranny of distance is present in my native Australia, but Australia is just huge overall and not thinned out like a long string of spaghetti.

Chile's coastline stretches out over a lengthy 4,300 kilometres, with the extensive Andes mountain range providing something of a border, on Chile's eastern flank.

With only one week in Chile, trusty travel companion Tom and I decide to head straight down south to the outdoor adventure hub of Pucon, home to an active volcano, and an 800 kilometre journey from the capital, Santiago. Our eagerness is tempered by a seven-hour wait for the next bus, which in retrospect may have been enough time to cover the country's extremities from East to West.

Nonetheless, we try to use the idle time productively by striking up a conversation with the lovely Beatriz, a local Chilean. The word "conversation" is used loosely, as Beatriz spoke very little English and Tom and I, very little Spanish. Still, this was an effective way to pass the time, as it took us about 4 hours to garner around twenty minutes worth of information.

Pic: Stuart, Beatriz and Tom

Pic: Stuart, Beatriz and Tom

Advanced Chilean Bus Technology

After the bumpy, dusty roads I had encountered in Myanmar a few months prior, it was pleasant to be on quality roads again. Chile also seemed to be at the cutting edge of road transport. 'Tur Bus' touts busily moved among the bystanders, the professionalism of their sales pitches appropriately in parallel with the premium quality of their company's offering.

Invited to peer inside the bus, I discovered seats that looked more like beds, the beds of those first class airline capsules, capsules already introduced by British Airways by this time in 2002, but still a rarity on other airlines of the day.

Impressed with the style and comfort, we quickly made a choice for seats on a different bus, for a quarter of the price. One has a backpacker image to maintain.

A British couple that ended up in our (shared) lodgings in Pucon, when taking the same journey opted for a bus in between these two price extremes. Amazingly, their transportation service still included a tucking in by the Road Steward, pillows carefully placed behind their heads for the night time journey. Better service than some full "service" airlines.


More Sales Pitches

Our overnight bus smoothly delivered us to Pucon by the early morning. Still clearing the wake from our eyes as we disembarked, some of the female passengers may have thought they were still dreaming as a Uruguayan George Clooney (UGC) lookalike approached.

Far from Hollywood however, at the other end of the west coast of the Americas, this handsome gentleman was more concerned with finding short-term tenants for his lodgings than stepping out in style with glamorous female accompaniment (though he probably would have also been interested in the latter, had I asked).

We'd joined this bus to the trailing sounds of the Tur bus salesmen, but despite a full night's travel from Santiago since then, we'd walked straight into another sales pitch. While pushing a different product, UGC's slick promotion seemed to pick up where the Tur Bus touts left off, luring Tom, me and the aforementioned Brits, mid speech, to his available accommodation.

The lodging was actually a small house, and pretty spacious for the four of us. Having talked us all the way from the bus stop to the house,

UGC left it to the very end of his sales pitch to mention that one of the windows was smashed, only marginally before it would become apparent to us anyway.

Now all rugged up in jumpers to handle the considerable drop in temperature since Santiago, we listened warily to UGC's comment that he was still waiting for the glazier's visit, our own visit at risk of becoming a chilly one (I promise to use this bad pun only once). It wasn't just the house that had effective cooling properties. After agreeing to stay, the fridge also froze our cheese and lettuce, but for not much more than the cost of an (unfrozen) block of cheese and lettuce each per night, the house was still quite a bargain.

Pic: UGC in sales mode, prospective guests keenly listening on, as he directs us towards his rental lodgings

Pic: UGC in sales mode, prospective guests keenly listening on, as he directs us towards his rental lodgings

Ten past straight days of rain in Pucon, which soon set in again for an eleventh, had me resigned to being cooped up inside our lodge for the length of our three-day stay, my arm regularly reaching for a bottle of consolation Kahlua that first evening.

Fine weather was required for us to climb the active Villarrica volcano nearby, and with this looking remote we whiled away the evening hours chatting over cards and downing Kahlua and milks till late.

Mother Nature was of course playing a trick on us, with the precipitation abruptly halting the following morning, leaving us sleep deprived, hung over and generally ill prepared for a day's hiking.

Still enthused, I figured that climbing some big hill shouldn't prove too much of a challenge, reckoning that in early March unfavourable winter weather was still many months off. Then I glanced skyward.

An enormous snow covered, cloud piercing mass burst into my reality, as did the sudden realisation that I probably should have taken this climb a little more seriously. At 2850 metres in altitude, Mt Villarrica is taller than anything in Australia, and taller still than anything I had ever climbed.

Pic: Volcan Villarrica

Pic: Volcan Villarrica

Climbing an Active Volcano

We drove to the base with our guide and three other climbers. There was an optional chairlift there, up to where the snow started. I turned my nose up at the Peso equivalent fee of 10 Australian dollars, for what looked like a pretty short ride. Besides, skipping the first section felt like short-changing the eventual achievement, to say nothing of my pocket. I started climbing. Tom followed... and then cursed me most of the way up. So as to not demoralise us, the rest of our group (and all the other groups, who realised walking up was a mug's game) waited until we were halfway up before sailing overhead. This rocky section of the mountain turned out to be the hardest part of the ascent, and climbing in the snow was much easier.

After one hour of rigorous climbing and heavy breathing, we reached our patient but eager group and guide at the start of the snow cover. Briefly catching our breath, we were quickly jolted into movement again as we tried to keep up with the fresh legs of the forward-bound pack. Fortunately, our guide stopped shortly after, to give us some very important safety instructions. Unfortunately they were in Spanish.

With crampons now attached to our feet, we made steady and sure progress over the several hour ascent, until we were pretty close to the top, excited by the prospect of peering down into the crater to the sight of lava.

Within thirty minutes of this milestone the weather abruptly turned for the worse, a snowstorm surrounding us, the climbers helplessly hemmed in like sheep in a muster, our group barely able to see the group in front of us. With increasingly gusty winds, and progressively icier snow, our guide declared authoritatively that we needed to turn around and head back. This was very disappointing, and hadn't really occurred to me as a possible outcome. I tried to overcome the disappointment as best I could, by sliding down parts of the mountain on my rear end.

Pic: The blizzard sets in

Pic: The blizzard sets in

I should note that climbing Villarrica isn't risk free, and there have been occasional injuries and even deaths on the volcano. Worsening weather, a rare landslide and renewed eruptions are all factors that need to be considered when deciding to climb.


Continue Reading: Part 2 of 3 link below