South America 2012-2013: Pucón, Chile

I'm welcomed back to Pucón not terribly worse for the wear of the night bus. I'm actually again sleeping so soundly after awaking early that I need to be awakened as we roll into town. Hmm, I sit and ponder, peering out the window into a steady rain. Back in Pucón after what, eleven years?

My strongest memory of the last time here is also of rain. That and a couple of beautiful if stuck-up Chilean coeds from Concepción. I did a bike ride then to a nice waterfall, El Ojo de Caburga or something; I took in some worthy hot springs, at Los Pozones; I also spent a day in Parque Huerquehue. But mostly there was a lot of rain.

Having already checked out the bleak, near-term weather prognosis, I resign myself to some preparatory tasks over the first few days. Hopefully those'll do to allow enough time for the sun to reappear. Chief of these, too, is figuring out upcoming bus schedules. I intend to rediscover both Los Pozones and Parque Huerquehue (perhaps for even more hot springs, plus camping). Again I will refuse to join the throngs of Villarica summit grabbers who pay the bucks for the burn, slog, and hopefully tremendous view to be accompanied by a self-pat on the back. Mainly, however, my thoughts turn to re-trying last year's failed attempt at the Hua Hum ferry. These are my thoughts as I head into a town that has apparently become fully sponsored by Jack Daniels and is awaiting evacuation should the volcano blow. Hmm.

On all counts of inquiry, anyway, I am successful in obtaining the sufficient information after knocking on enough doors - even as I get drenched by steady degrees. Meanwhile, at my hostel (the oddly named Etnico Eco Hostel, which doesn't seem particularly either), the Chilean coeds are briefly replaced by a couple of American coeds. They're briefly traveling after their summer semester abroad in Buenos Aires. Sure, they lack the sexy-if-off-putting edge of those Chilean beauties, but they are friendlier by far. I'm just about ready to pull out my industrial-sized American flag and chant "U.S.A. #1" before I soon realize that I'll shortly meet a horde of fellow just-finished-the-semester students from the U.S. (who I assume are generally on Mommy and Daddy's payroll). They can't pay for the rain to stop, however...

...which means more time in the hostel than hoped for. The staff of two, a Chilean and a German girl on holiday, are helpful enough, but it seems that nothing will properly drive home the point that the place could use HEATING. Single pane windows, I'd be tempted to add to the owner (the local Patagonia wear dealer for perhaps all of Southern Chile), would be a rather ECO thing to upgrade. I have no idea what the "ethnic" angle is, either, but it does seem that the "eco" one is pretty much limited to signs on various walls pleading for us to turn off lights and take shorter showers in the hopes of saving energy and the environment. That this coincidentally saves the owner money is a point not missed by ANY.

As for the rest of the edifice, I can't help but think of the building in The Shining: It's quite large, dark, and there are two massive dogs that wander the place. Each looks like a not-too-much smaller version of a grizzly bear, fortunately more lumbering carpets with odd whines when they are bored than anything else.

One thing about rain is that it doesn't stop a visit to some local hot springs. I fondly remember the rustic Los Pozones from my previous visit, several pools less than an hour from town that I visited in the moonlight back when. I recall trying not to trip and fall into one of them at times, precisely since the place was so poorly lit and slippery that the moonlight was a godsend. Sometimes I'd notice a face briefly as someone walked by to change pools.

This time around, however, I'm visiting in the day - and with a prodigious drizzle more often than not. It's perfect in any event, all pools now cozily contained by boulders held together with a modest amount of cement. They line the river gracefully apart, each with changing stations and railings now, and I sample each one. I of course stay too long in the hottest ones, but that just means longer rests standing in the rain to look at the gushing river in between dips. Just like that, I quell my hot springs desires in one go of several hours.

A few days of rain also means a good chunk of reading, a little indoor horn work, and a return to some proper cooking. Then the wet stuff abates and I go for a proper walkabout. Yep, there's the huge lake (Villarica). Nope, there's no one there. But there will be, and in not much time, either. It's shocking to think that, in about two weeks, this wide strand of ash-fused pebbles will be chock full of sunbathers crawling over one another. The restaurants that are begging for someone, anyone!, right now will be turning the likes of me away shortly without a reservation or long wait.

But nothing can stop a walking man, I know. I walk the beach and play to the sea and the lone kayaker or pair of lovers that amble by. As I leave, someone - an American, from the sound of it, in this very American-favored spot - picks up a guitar and starts strumming some blues. It's probably a hint for us to collaborate, but he would have done far better to have started an hour previously when my lips were fresh. Instead I head to the main park.

As expected, the first markets of the summer season are setting up among the monkey puzzle trees planted here down low in the valley for our convenience. More interesting, a huelga is in progress against the local casino. Two of the larger establishments in town belong to Enjoy Enterprises or some such, but the unionized workers have walked out. They make a suitable cacophony with their noisemakers that sounds an awful lot like the Devil's Tritone. How fitting to use the thematic punch of The Rite of Spring to make their point clear. I debate joining in with my horn, perhaps playing Darth Vader's Theme. Perhaps a segment of Mars from Holst's The Planets? I put the idea on the backburner.

Further walking brings me to Pucon's little nature preserve of a peninsula that juts out into the lake. Unfortunately, I'm not welcome to check out says the guard manning the road barrier. As only a number of condo blobs front the water, it sure seems quite a shame that the rest of the peninsula can't be enjoyed by the populace, but the rich sure like their exclusionary ways. My stand on property rights isn't quite communist, but I hold dear the concept that if someone isn't working or using the land directly, everyone should be able to walk it - a long standing pet peeve of mine. No one makes land, or no human at least, which makes real estate greed particularly enervating.

I continue making my way through the awaiting hordes of empty bikes and boats awaiting the upcoming summer onslaught. Ahead is the smaller beach that is more technically the marina. And then there it is: Villarica, the most active volcano in the world. Now THAT's a fine view for a sunset. All those empty boat buoys that witness the glory with me will soon enough be attached to boats containing like-minded folks in great numbers as well.

Finally the break in the weather comes that I've been waiting for: Time to hit the park! I put together my pack the night before in anticipation of an early start, leaving The Russia House with a fellow traveler while packing the brick that is David Copperfield in with my modest camping gear. The morning, unfortunately, is rather something of a clusterfuck. Where the hell is the staff, I wonder, all ready to go but still needing to leave my remaining stuff (and trumpet!) with the hostel under security. Some repeated ringings of the doorbell finally brings Javier out and I dash out after leaving my stuff in the unlocked sauna. I'm assured that all will be safe, which assures me not in the least, but off I go.

My best laid plans of getting to the bus early in case it's packed are further dashed when I get to it. It's not only full, it's at maximum capacity. I'm the last one crammed on, standing in the aisle practically over the stickshift for the lumbering beast. I plot my trajectory out the window in event of a spectacular crash or launch over a cliff, then settle to some conversation with the driver. I'm told that 90% of the passengers out to the park are foreigners as a quiet settles over our teeming masses. We pass sign after sign for hot tubs - a pictograph of a tub with someone sitting in it - before moving beyond the junction toward Los Pozones. We now head toward lakes Caburga and Tinquilco on a remaining segment of gravel.

The bus chugs long, eventually making its way up a winding hill and passing a stalled car being pulled by a cow. That's not something seen as often in fast-developing Chile these days. Then we're at the park in about an hour total, the bus squirting its passengers out in a blink. I'm one of the few with a larger pack for camping, so I hold back with the other few to let the mob get their passes and charge the hills. I check out the UV danger sign, seeing it set at 7 (out of 10, 7 being the last kinda dangerous mark requiring oodles of sun cream before "RUN AND HIDE!"); I check out the large map of the greater park, too, very helpfully well-marked. Eventually the park ranger addresses us few worthy souls to give us a rundown of the situation.

The bottom line is that I'm convinced to forego my previous idea of staying in the refuge and then beyond at the hot springs of Rio Blanco. That's a three-night affair, plus I'll miss out on the views of San Sebastian. Instead I should camp right here at the park entrance to do a hub-n-spoke of the lakes and San Sebastian with two nights. It doesn't take much at all to make me agree on dumping gear below to hike more lightly above. The Chilean couple disappears immediately thereafter as the remaining two - a Frenchwoman and her daughter - ask to camp with me. We're the sole campers in the entire campground, but I say "Bien sur!"

Over the next 36 hours I find myself speaking almost exclusively French. This isn't bad, in fact it's quite good to get such a refresher. The words make their way back over my synapses as we chat about our travels. The woman (Anne-Sophie) trains horses somewhere in the French Alps; this is her first trip in fifteen years, now accompanied by her 9(-AND-A-HALF!)-year-old daughter Therese. We decide to hike alone to maintain our own rhythms, however, even if we'll see plenty of each other with our similar hiking plans and shared campsite.

Day One is all about checking out the lakes, we both agree. That's where almost everyone has gone as well. So Mom and daughter head off quickly as I dilly-dally before finally getting a roll on m'self. The length of the Lago Tinquilco must be walked first, ranging along a few private campgrounds inside the park, then it's mostly uphill from there. Up I go and down the sweat comes.

The short of it is some great views of Villarica Volcano that are followed by the three alpine lakes nestled in the local araucania, the famous monkey puzzle tree. A rambling circuit connects Lagos Chico, Toro, and Verde, plus a couple waterfalls of impressive girth and length, and I make my way to all of the viewpoints. Lizards abound as do the monkey trees once I get to the level of the lakes. The ancient alerces are in plentiful supply, too. So are tourists, of course, including a number of which who turn around after they've had enough of the climb to the lakes. A blond Irish girl tells me she's whipped shortly after the hill gets any inclination to it at all. She's not disgusted with herself at all, though, just shrugging her shoulders to the bother.

As for the flora of interest, that consists mostly of the two aforementioned trees and copious amounts of bamboo that line the trail. I also make out a number of mushroom-like growths as I'm used to seeing back home in the Cascades. On one detour from the main circuit I spot a number of appealing orange-red plants clinging to life on a dead tree, a glowing find that tickles me somehow. I point them out to a couple of stuffy Germans who I had seen earlier taking serious note of everything within their grasp. They are non-plussed, however, shrugging their shoulders at each other very demonstratively in front of me for effect. Showed me! Too bad a bear wasn't hiding behind the tree, I think.

Fauna comes mostly in the form of small birds, a few kinds of which hover nearby in hopes of some crumbs. Only one handily makes itself available for a photo, however. On a smaller scale, the dragonflies by the lake are likewise practically impossible to get a snapshot of - but some lizards and a number of black-green-blue beetles that I find gutting other insects in the trail are more compliant. In one case they are de-worming a slightly alive worm, in another I think the victim might be one of their compatriots.

Some golden-butted ants abound in some places, eerily reminiscent of their evil-yet-green-butted cousins in Australia. I don't hazard to make their acquaintance by any means. A few buzz-bys from the damned tabanos of last year (like horseflies, yet easier to kill) are much more annoying. I swat two with a 50% kill ratio. The other, naturally, gets up right after the brutal slap to fly and harass another day. Sigh. Not ALREADY!

Night back in camp means an improvised "military" shower of painfully cold water that my French friends wisely abstain from. They're infinitely wise: I start to get a headache after only fifteen seconds of the rushing eau. Ouch. Otherwise I get to enjoy the pleasure of their company, easily decoding the girl's lisp that flavors her textbook French. That they have a stove to heat some tea (and coffee in the morning) is a big plus to this unexpected company, even if nothing will stop the cold of the night: My first night with my new sleeping bag is less than a success. It indeed IS a summer sleeping bag, something which I unerringly determine as the temperature possibly drops down near freezing. That's my guess, anyway, and I vow to bundle up better the coming night.

Day Two is nothing less than spectacular. Yes, San Sebastian goes up at least twice as high as the lakes, and in the inimitable switchback method of Latin America that essentially means that they are switchbacks of only lip service level. But the views are stupendous. The trail is littered with bamboo leaves that are a poor man's pine needles, but they allow for a footfall that is an airy shuffle. The bamboo groves also provide walking sticks, some left against the signs that I avail myself of to later leave behind for others.

This is that rare occasion where I find such sticks a great help. The start to the trail is steep enough to get my breathing going, followed by a brief stretch of Pampas that affords views of several volcanoes in mountain majesty, but I'm REALLY happy to grab one of the bamboo rods when it comes time for the final assault. The trail now becomes brutally steep, an all-hands-on-deck affair that suggests misery should the day be a wet one. The slipping is never far away, even as the ground has had a few days to dry out and I jab away with my stick and grab branches. The humidity is something fierce as well as this ground-drying process continues. I sweat a river as a result of this extensive evaporation and my travails.

Finally I top on one chunk of rocks, then another. This is the end of the official trail, such as it goes, even if San Sebastian looms above a bit more for those willing to bush whack. That's not me. Instead I have a long, leisurely lunch alone on my perch. I take in the panoramic view of volcanoes as a few condors eventually fly overhead. I can make out their coloring on their wingtips, deciding to stick my camera up in the air to see what auto-focus will give. Apparently not much, as the shots display nowhere near the appearance of the clarity of the swooping pterodactyls than my naked eyes receive. I hungrily and nevertheless happily munch away at my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

When I make my way down, I shortly see the only other few souls of the day. What a contrast to the zoo at the lakes. Each wants to know: Where exactly does the trail end? I describe and point at the general direction of my rock perch, assuring them with only a weakly false confidence that that'll be it. They're relieved, each panting from the final scramble assault that I now must make my way down. With a stick that's a cinch, fortunately, so I get back down to the pampas (which makes me think of a Colombian paramo with it's bunch grasses) and then do the Quilchon circuit bypassed not that much earlier. That's nothing special, but it does give me the opportunity to tangle with more monkey puzzle trees up close on this considerably less-used path. The short of it is that they are not pleasant to rub up against, ESPECIALLY in the wrong direction - which hurts.

At camp I hang out with my French friends until they depart with the evening bus. I switch campspots - all are equally available to me, now the lone camper - and settle for a long read of David Copperfield until the sun goes away. Dickens's admitted favorite work, I find myself agreeing that it is his best - and by a good measure to boot. The characters have more depth, the pathos is more real, even anger-inciting. How the boy is mistreated in this coming-of-age saga is more than Dickens's better-known Oliver Twist fare, here addressing psychological aspects sufficiently as well. Some more positive descriptions, such as of his beloved nurse Peggotty and her relatives, display equally sheer mastery of winning detail. For 1000 pages, thus, there will be no entailing bit of suffering for the cheery slog. Hopefully the little guy makes it out of Victorian England alive! I think somehow that he will.

Sleeping in my sweats, meanwhile, is the proper cure for my summer sleeping bag blues. In thick cotton from head to toe, I'm as snug as a bug in... the synthetic tapestry that is the sleeping bag of today. I have no idea what the stuff is made of! Again I go to sleep while listening to the odd bird calls before the lovely symphony of frogs erupts. I rue that my camera doesn't do audio-only recordings on account of their lovely sound.

A heavy fog rolls in and out over the lake to announce the morning as I get up early and quite alone. There'll be no coffee/tea on this day as I pack up my mess to catch the early bus at 9:30. This time I'm to be the only gringo, and just about the only passenger as well, after the bus ejects its next full load of extranjeros ready to zoop up to the lakes.

The bus still fills up, however, even if no one will sit by me. Even when there are only two seats available, the barely-ambling old man chooses to squeeze in by the fat lady. A different lady is eventually seemingly forced to sit by me briefly; She hovers on her seat's edge the entire time. I'm pretty sure I don't smell, either, which makes this all the sadder. Maybe it's my thug hat!

My seatmate leaves soon enough as a few more that come on board opt to stand. There are kids on the way to school, plus a goodly number of elderly passengers. For the younger woman making their way to the back of the bus, meanwhile, each runs the gauntlet of kisses for all known acquaintances - which takes a while. This is only true for the more remote first half of the trip, however, where everyone is a neighbor. Things get more marginally more urbane after that as the conversation steadily increases in volume. What a contrast to the bus of gringos using the opposing schedule! In the ruckus, I can't count the number of "Sipo" (short for "Si, por supuesto" - "of course" - a well-known Chilean-ism) comments I hear.

For a brief while, too, I try to figure out if the locals are bothering to pay or not. From my vantage point it's hard to tell from watching the pauses and head motions of the driver and boarding passengers. So I hazard to wonder if it's all being subsidized by the gringos somewhat. Oh well. Who knows, or cares. We get back to Pucón and I pull out my lone, extremely dusty backpack from the bus's rear. Not a bad test run for both the sleeping bag and my new (used) pack.

Back in Pucón town, I'm soon in search again for a great coffee, hopefully one found at a more reasonable price than Cafe de la P. Turns out that there are TWO good cafes, and the Brazilian place knocks the frou frou P down flat in atmosphere. I chat up the girls there on second go round, playing Brazilian music for the seasonal Brazilian and Peruvian staff. A long yak about language and culture ensues, interspersed with my taking soundings of the building's acoustics. If I was to stay in town longer, this would undoubtedly become my home.

Another trumpeter is in town after this park interim, too, all fancy in busking with a jacket with white gloves. I hear a Pantera Rosa (Pink Panther) lacking soul, and too fast at that. Yeesh! I'll have to busk soon, I feel, especially as my ilk is increasing in number on the streets just about now. I walk on by, all ears for now.

On a second go-round when I see him, I stop to talk with this man named Patricio. He offers me his horn and I crank out Fly Me To The Moon and Blue Monk as he thumbs through his music. Unfortunately I find that his horn is a beater, not a good thing, but what's far worse is that he hasn't been cleaning the valves. They stick a bit when I try to rip some runs. So THAT explains why he's only been playing slow stuff! Oh well. I hand the horn back, pitching in his best tip of the day as he asks me to come by the local cultural center in the coming days. He's disappointed when I tell him that I'm moving on, but we both agree that a trumpet could use a guitarist more than another trumpet anyhow.

Other locals aren't quite so sanguine on the mean streets of Pucón. The protest against the horribly-named Enjoy Co. still churns on. I hear them now even at the hostel as their numbers have grown a bit. They seem to be more focused on the more centrally-located casino now, and the number of airhorns has increased. Finally I get the details of what the huelga is about, and it comes down to wanting bigger raises. On the plus side for the union, though, is the fact that the casino faces big fines if they hire replacements. I don't think that's how it works in the ol' U.S. of A. Whatever: The time comes to break out my horn and blast Darth Vader's Theme - plus some intentionally annoying trills - at the doors along with the multitude. This goes over well at least from the point of view of the workers. As for the real estate and gambling robber barons inside? They won't show their faces nor negotiate to the moment.

With my upcoming trip to the boonies and the border, I decide to exchange some of my U.S. currency to hedge a bet without taking another ATM hit. As always, a number of the bills are rejected for any number of defects, all now to be forcibly tucked away in books for safekeeping until back Stateside. Sigh. This doesn't stop the flow of cheap wine, fortunately (I've happily found a friend in La Frontera wine, at all of $4 here as opposed to $3 in Santiago), so I grab another bottle to chortle when heading back to the hostel. Once there I head to the backyard, now sunny, soon finding myself chatting with a wannabe expat and some Brazilians while playing the horn. The two dogs that best resemble grizzly bears give mixed reviews for their part, both wagging their tails and barking at times whilst staring at me confusedly.

As for the American expat, he's another of those conspiracy theorists I periodically run into on these travels. His presence here is mainly conspicuous only because we are meeting in tourist central. Usually I find the conspiracists in more out of the way places. From him I do, however, learn that Chile is exceptional in its land ownership laws. They essentially matchi those of the U.S. in letting foreigners have equal claims to locals. Hmm: I remember, from the previous year, learning in El Bolson (Argentina) of the dangers of squatters that can take over a piece of property legally. This sometimes makes it impossible for someone to ever leave their property for vacation. As always, I only wistfully consider the expat option. As for the Brazilians? No surprise there, as they do their part to satisfy the typical equation of their only being present in the more upscale, touristy spots. I have no idea as to why that is as of yet.

My Pucón experience, meanwhile, is undoubtedly completed by an earthquake that feels like 5.0 - but turns out to be a 4.8. How about that! Coincidentally, two of the study abroad students have been staying at the hostel over the same time as myself, working on a thesis project that surveys about earthquake preparedness. Their efforts don't apply to travelers on the move, but they generally find people are ignoring the reality that could become real in a hurry at any time. For my part, I'm mostly just glad to be only rummaging about one-story buildings. I feel placed on a minimal alert in any event.

In the meantime, knowing that I'm headed to nowheres-ville, this also implies moving through my food pile as best as possible over two days. This I intend to do while also stocking up on local quality bread, chocolates and salami since the getting's good here - you never know. With the same thinking I also grab strawberries and cherries that have suddenly appeared in deep reds and great quantity both on my last day.

All the above should help as I've decided to further push my "back way" route concept to Puerto Fuy. Now I intend to head to head from Lican Ray to Coñaripe and on to Neltume by thumb. I see that high winds are forecast for over a week on the other side of the mountains, so I shant necessarily be in any hurry. The Huilo Huilo Reserve I could optionally plan to check out sounds good and remote, too. That's that.

So that should do it for Pucón on the eve of a day of rain that should usher me out. The fact that there are more sushi restaurants than there were even hostels back when, or that one can't throw a rock in any direction without hitting one now, doesn't yet strike me as problematic. It's just another San Martin, Villarica, or Bariloche - replete with similar well-fed "wild" dogs wandering every street - or it's Whistler Village, if you please, just minus the same. That's just the way it is, no Ft. Lauderdale, Acapulco, or Daytona Beach by any measure. Sure it costs 4350 Chilean Pesos for a modicum of laundry (7 underwear, 4 shirts, 6 pairs of socks and a towel for nearly $10), but one can also find a good coffee and decent groceries. All I REALLY know is that it's time to see what el campo near the border will provide me...
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