South America 2012-2013: Puerto Fuy, Chile to San Martin, Argentina - Crossing Paso Hua Hum

Well here I go again, making a stab at the less-used Hua Hum Ferry crossing between Chile and Argentina. Last year I was denied the opportunity while enjoying the otherwise delights of Panguipulli - the boat was broken down, with no hopes of resuscitation in sight. Thus was I eventually forced to resign to taking a bus from P'pulli through Lican Ray, Villarica, Pucón, and Junin de los Andes (Argentina) to reach San Martin de los Andes (Argentina). Would I have better luck this time?

The first steps are promising. Within minutes of approaching the terminal in Pucon, I'm on my way to Villarica for about half an hour. I have similar luck in Villarica, topped by the fact that the bus to Lican Ray will continue on to Coñaripe for an hour total. This is the adjustment to last year's trip I hope to make to go through some different scenery. I'm left off at the side of the road as a drizzle mixes with sun.

Now what? I cross the road to the last business on this far end of town. To my delight, the door opens to perhaps the best of the German-styled bakeries I've seen stuffing up the downtowns of Southern Chile. The variety is stupendous; so is the quality. Moreover, the lady behind the counter is eager to give travel information as I down a slice of hazelnut pie/cake. On its heels - er, crumbs - I shortly add an order for a couple more (one blueberry - arandano - for a little variety). Must provision the belly for the hardships ahead!

And here my luck takes a hiatus. Although I'm enjoying my treat, and the bus company has been notified that I'm waiting at this outlying stop on schedule, no bus arrives. I alternately cool and heat my heels as I take in Coñaripe's surroundings: What a beautiful pocket of mountains hem this town in! Waterfalls abound to each side, plus I know there's a plethora of hot springs tucked into these bergs as well (although at strictly resort prices).

Finally my bus toward Liquine arrives... and zooms right by. The thought had been to get on this bus and get let off at the crossroads toward Chosohuenco, then hitchhiking to Neltume and Puerto Fuy beyond. Now I'm thinking... Panguipulli! I'm not interested in taking more chances on a zooming bus after hours of waiting. Besides, almost no cars are heading by in my desired direction. They'd furthermore have to be 4x4s with space to achieve the final link from the crossroads to Neltume, I'm assured. I trudge back toward town center.

Here my luck reignites: I wait only twenty more minutes for the bus to Panguipulli. This is an uneventful ride of an hour, featuring a repeat of the Lican Ray segment, then I'm deposited in the very same Panguipulli bus station of only a year before. I wait an hour, listening to the tapping of hammers in the bathroom under reconstruction, before the bus to Chosohuenco, Neltume, and Puerto Fuy arrives. Off we go, in a jam-packed thing that I'm quite happy to have a seat in - albeit squished between two fat ladies in the center rumble seat at the back of the belly of the beast.

The PLUS side of this jaunt is that I could still be sitting in the rain, lonely and getting drenched, with my thumb stuck in the air for vultures to consider. Instead, and for a mere several dollars, I'm nearing my destination - and the views are frankly stunning. In the process I'm seeing a number of cyclists on the road - their intrepidness makes me jealous.

I'm nevertheless happy to be off in this almost-chicken bus, with folks lining the aisle all the way back to your truly. It takes most of the hour-and-a-half to just reach Chosohuenco, where almost no one gets off as we rumble its dirt streets. We similarly roll a zigzag through Neltume beyond, yet here - thankfully - almost all depart.

Only a couple girls and myself remain in the back of the bus, plus the ticket taker who is disappointed that I've changed my mind about staying in Neltume. I joke to send my apologies to his abuela (or whichever other relative of his) I would have been staying with - before he hits me up for another 500 pesos to continue on to Puerto Fuy. Sigh.

I have no issue with the extra fare, of course, but we nevertheless argue for a while over his method of extracting it. He insists on treating it like a brand new ride with a brand new minimum, which it's not, but there's a serious possibility I have no clue as to what he's saying, too. He employs about the worst form of what can be an already-challenging Chilean dialect ever. It's a cross between gargling water and trying to swallow a goldfish.

The remaining girls, meanwhile, step in to be my heroes. They take me to a restaurant with some rooms and a view of the port. From there I can eye the ferry lying in wait, plus one of the conspicuous frou frou hotels in the area. I make the same joke about their relative being the proprietor, to which they only smile. Fair enough - they've already mentioned that everybody's about related to everybody in these parts.

Well, if Neltume is a town of several hundred to a thousand, Puerto Fuy is about half that. Both have views of the Volcano Chosohuenco, an undeniable treat until she blows, I suppose, but Puerto's lakeside setting absolutely kills the small valley that Neltume sits in. For all of seven kilometers between the two, I'd choose P.F. every time.

Not that I'm alone, apparently: Tourism has apparently long known about this spot, I'm told on arrival. With a gem of a spot tucked in a steep mountain redoubt, plus a massive lake to one side, how could that not be the case? Moreover, the little-visited, but large and largely untrammeled Huilo Huilo Reserve sits alongside here, too. So yes, I'm all about the boat ride toward Argentina, sure, but I hope to take in some of these local attractions somehow while I'm at it.

The recurring rains insist on a different story, naturally, but my afternoon arrival and the coming morrow are a promised break from the wetness. So I flop my tank of a backpack into my frankly marginal room and set out walking back toward Neltume. At least I'll take in the Huilo Huilo waterfull, I think.

Think again. My eager thumb manages to snag me a ride in a car with a couple from Viña del Mar traveling with their daughter. Although I speak to them in Spanish, upon hearing that I'm an American I'm imperiously told "But we will speak English, of course!" Thanks. In any event, they're only headed as far as a waterfall that the woman insists is far superior to the one I'm headed to.

To this, I aver "Okay!" - and the father looks to me in surprise. "You're taking our advice?" he queries in Spanish. Hey, I tell him, YOU guys live here. (Besides, for the most part, a waterfall is a waterfall, after seeing approximately a thousand of them.) So I jump out of the car to check out the Cascade de la Leona as they turn off the main road and motor on into the bush to their house somewhere back in the trees.

What a waterfall, indeed! Glorious. And, well, that's about the size of it. I pull out the horn to play some tunes while taking in the view... before I meet a visiting Chilean who's found my spot off of the trail as well. He's the only other soul about the falls in this waning hour of light; we have a brief conversation before he asks to take pictures of me playing the horn. Sure. I've long gotten used to being this romanticized freak show traveling with a trumpet (even more so when on a bicycle tour), so I don't object. In the meantime he insists that the Huilo Huilo falls are most impressive: Morning would be the correct time to see them. Perfect!

Later I meet several Chilean cyclists back on the main road, chat the pleasures of cycle touring, before heading back to Puerto Fuy. We leave behind one of the local tourist highlights, the hotel Montaña Magica. Wacky. Its architecture is indeed curious and interesting, a cross between something from The Hobbit and Swiss Family Robinson - and one pays dearly for the pleasure and honor. It nevertheless fits in here, keeping right in with the gnome theme the area has adopted in general - or at least some of its more deep-pocketed gringo ex-pats have. There's evidently a passion for building something goofy and weird - and cool.

In town I pass on the promised beers with the Chilenos in favor of passing out at 10 p.m., just after sunset. It's been a long day of travel. This allows me to wake early in the morning, admittedly in a state of shock, when a bus sputters by at 6:45a.m. I rouse myself with the memory that I can catch a bus at 7a.m. to make it to Huilo Huilo Reserve, reducing the amount of hitching required to get back to P.F. to catch my ferry at 1 p.m. Up and at them, I think, decided to go to Argentina today with the capricious sun promising views I should get on the lake.

I'm hurriedly dressed, then running down the main drag with hopes that if that bus that passed by was THE bus, I should catch it. It's not, I'm told shortly later, as I catch my breath at the lone bus stop. An elderly lady assures me it will come by at 7 as scheduled. She next remarks on how the young of the town are turning into such hooligans. Hmm. I ask her if there's grafiti showing up round and about, to which she assures me that nothing so horrific has happened... yet. We catch the bus.

Neltume is precisely as exciting as it was the first time, zzz, and we pick up numerous folks to fill the thing out for the trip to Panguipulli. Then I get let out at the reserve... just after we zoom past it. Sigh - so much for the driver's promise to be on the ball. I walk into the reserve, pass all the wooden tributes to gnomes in the forms of a cafe, the entrance, and a playground, then walk over to the thundering falls.

Again, I'm impressed - but not so excited that I'm not pulling out my horn in a matter of minutes. This time not even one other person is around, so I have the roar to compete with all to myself. Eventually tiring of all this beauty at seemingly the break of dawn, I later hike back up and then out to another nearby falls.

These are those of the Puma, where I both taken in a local woodpecker (its red head is sizeable and brilliant, but unfortunately its timing and the light conspire to keep me photo-less of such and same) and an overwhelmingly-sized plaque to an Israeli girl in three languages. The poor girl plunged over the cliff while trying to take a picture just a few feet in front of me. It's a LONG way down: She must've had a few seconds to think about what came next, unfortunately. I stay behind the fence.

That'll have to do it for Neltume and environs, I decide. I've actually been at this venture for a few hours, so I head back to the main road and amble back to the port. I manage to hitch for about half of the distance, just about precisely to where I had been left off the previous evening by the deluxe hotel. I then walk the rest back happily in the shade, soon spending some time drinking coffee before playing a lot of trumpet for the pleased and humble family at the restaurant. Then it's time to catch my ferry.

My theory is that I'll play some more horn on the boat over the next hour and a half. HOPEfully, I'll catch a ride to the border from the other side of the lake, at Puerto Pirehueico. Only several cars - and a garbage truck! - are on the ferry, however, so I play my hand quicker than anticipated: I notice a couple of Brits with one of those Wicked Rent-a-Cars I remember seeing so many of in Oz! Although they say okay quickly enough, it's only after conversing with them for a while and playing the horn (after all!) that I'm convinced that they are happy to have me along.

The ensuing ferry ride has been described as the poor man's version of the one that heads from Todos Los Santos lake to Bariloche a ways south of here. That's an odyssey of some dozen hours, using several boats I believe, that comes in at nearly $300. At 800 pesos - less than $2 - this one is certainly is a bargain by contrast. Nevertheless I'll have to be honest and say that the views whilst plying the lake are pretty much just like any of the magnificent ones that are found lakeside in Pucón, Villarica, Lican Ray, Panguipulli, etc. Which is not a bad thing.

So we arrive in P.P., in any event, rolling off the ferry as the garbage truck similarly trundles off on its mission of mercy. (Evidently it gathers the garbage in this cut-off morsel of Chile to return the goods back to Chile proper for disposal.) We, meanwhile, motor the 12 km to the border - while eating some of our fresh veggies and dumping the rest out the window. Which is probably not the idea the customs officials of either side have in mind.

Chilean customs is a snap, even if we have to be called back in the building for forgetting to jump through the hoop of the car's papers. Then we cover the rest of the dozen kilometers through the no-man's land that separates the two border controls. This time the paper caper doesn't go so well.

The short of it is that the rental company has given my new friends the wrong documents: They can't enter Argentina. Theoretically, they will be able to go back to the Chilean authorities and make the phone call to get the necessary documents faxed from the company. It's still during business hours and there is hope. To this end I write a number of translations on a piece of paper for them just in case. One is labeled "what happened", another "the situation", and the last "what is needed". I wish them luck and assure them we'll meet over beers shortly in San Martin. [Still waiting for those quaffs of brew a week later as I write this...]

And maybe we will. Meanwhile, I ask the Argentina customs officials to play my horn in a now-empty border control building, awaiting any form of a ride. After fifteen minutes of muted melodies sure to have captured the fancy of any human alive, a Chilean man from Puerto Pirehueico comes in to make his bi-monthly run to San Martin for supplies. Asking him for a ride, rather conspicuously in the presence of the authorities, might be a bit cheeky of me all things considered - but he agrees to take me if I get my ass in gear.

What follows is an odd 45km of dirt road along Lago Lacar with a man who is obviously thinking 100 miles an hour - while saying almost nothing. I do learn that he's one of the few folks to live in Puerto Pirehueico, mostly an extended family moved over from Puerto Fuy, and that's about it. I quickly find myself distrusting him in the process, although not fearing for my safety. So I pass on the couple of times he rounds out to stop if I want to jump out for a picture at a lookout. When we near town, I likewise pass on saying things to the girls out the window as he asks me to in hopes of a pick-up. I suggest to him that they appear to be teenagers, eliciting a frown. Sigh.

With such disappointments in myself at hand for my benefactor, he shortly pulls up to a curb when we hit town. "I'm going shopping," he states to the window before picking up a piece of paper from the dashboard and staring at it intently. Taking the hint driven with a felt-tipped sledgehammer, I thank him for the ride - to which I'm only ever so imperceptibly given a nod. I make a point of leaving the front door open which I get the things out of the back in case he thinks of turning over the engine and pealing out in a hurry. Ah, back in San Martin!

Seriously, I'm glad - even if I have no plans of staying. It's windy as hell; There is nothing in particular I want to explore after last year's week here. But one benefit is knowing that I can go back to my previous hostel (Puma) and the staff remembers me, which is nice. Nicer still over these wind-whipped days is treating of myself to heaps of coffee, chocolates, jams, and a meal at my favorite restaurant from the previous year's trip, at El Meson. I'm remembered there as well.

As to the rest of it, I spend my time continuing to read from that paper brick that is Copperfield while abusing the French language with my cellmate from Toulouse, Robin. I also reacquaint myself with the "zhe" sound of Argentina, their awful drivers and their warmth in conversation shortly after getting to know someone. The peso has slid to the dollar since last year, meanwhile, even as inflation has outraced it still more. I hear talk of black market dollar exchanges from a fellow Seattlite in the hostel, but I've not brought piles of greenbacks to get the 10%+ boost in currency value.

But that's about it: All wind and threatening rain does little to help keep me around in previously traveled ground. Besides, Villa La Angostura is not so far away at two-and-a-half hours by bus, and via the glorious Seven Lakes Route to boot. This time Volcano Puyehue isn't spewing ash, either, from only 40km beyond and over the border. Which reminds me: There's a saying about Chile's volcanoes, some bit about where Argentina basically gets the raw end of it - which is true. No, it's not the one about sneezing and catching cold. Anyway, last year's practically-shut-down town should promise something different this year, I assure myself. So have bus, will travel. I have bus.

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