South America 2011-2012: Puerto Octay & Panguipulli, Chile


The brief ferry a thing of the past, we roll into the decidedly non-picturesque city of Puerto Montt. For once I'm on the ball to get up and down the bus's aisle to leave before the rest of the horde - there's no such thing as a plane-like orderly exit in a bus in Latin America. I dash out of the bus to briefly pause to grab my backpack, then run over to catch a micro that is just starting to back up: "A Puerto Octay?" I ask. A nod puts me aboard seconds later. The downside to such prompt behavior: I'll shortly come to rue the fact that I don't ask to put my backpack in the back of the small thing.

Turns out that the ride I think should be about 45 minutes comes to nearly two hours. Worse still, it's crowded - and I'm the jerk with all my belongings on the seat next to me near the back. Now stuck with no option to put it in the narrow aisle because it will block egress, I endure the stares. Somehow it seems that everyone in the aisle has a claim to that very seat next to yours truly. Or maybe that's only in my mind. Besides, how they will all fit on each other's laps is the bigger question that remains.

In any event we slowly pass through Puerto Varas, Llanquihue, then Upper and Lower Frutillar. At the latter, tourism is in a mad crush: It's both the height of the tourist season AND the last day of the music festival - I'm glad I went there when I did two months before! Puerto Octay comes next, fortunately, but that only after the most pleasant part of the ride, through rolling countryside. I peer out at the various old and handsome homes of the former German colonists. Nowadays they hawk high tea and plug snapping pictures at farm animals for the kids, sure, but the architecture is still there. But, like in about everywhere else in South America, all of that very appealing woodwork could use, like, PAINT. The desire to save money in the short term will likely mean a lot of rotted wood, particularly in this Seattle-like climate over the long one. So be it.



I get out at what passes for Puerto Octay's bus station, then repack my gear to have my hands free for the 2-3 km trudge to my slightly inconveniently-located hostel. That decision only comes about when I find that a taxi wants to charge more for the two minute ride ($4) than what my bus cost for the previous two hours ($3). Yes, I'm obstinate (and cheap), but I also could use the exercise to unbunching my guts from that crowded and bumpy collectivo. This prepwork soon comes to naught, anyway: I catch a similar collectivo beast to the last one, and just minutes after beginning the walk uphill. 60 cents is what it takes to plant me at the tree and lavender-lined doorstep of my next hostel.

If only it's so easy to walk up and grab my bed. Turns out that another email has been sent after the last one confirming my reservation. Huh! And wouldn't ya know it, it looks like the French couple is going to be given dibs since there are two of them (and there are only two remaining beds). That I reserved first is ignored in due course by the most German of Chilean women - who is coincidentally the co-owner of the place. So I resignedly opt for a mattress on the house's office floor instead returning to town. This is fortunately the right option: I quickly find that the place is otherwise a gem of architecture and healthy food. THAT is what happens when an energetic ex-pat Swiss-man is let loose his European expectations in a land with ample amounts of wood and time to cook. This is all brought to bear on both the type of construction we're surrounded by - and the large meals that apparently should go with it.

Armin certainly has created something special, with well-done detail work evident throughout the various buildings. Everything works in proper Swiss fashion, too - and this even includes the roofs that have been turned into grasslands. If it only would be the case that the one dormitory (in which I'll reside after night one) had some shelves - I might even stay a good while. But it doesn't, even as I nevertheless extend my stay a little to aprovecharme of this pleasant farm outside of the unpretentious town that is Puerto Octay. I'm soon wondering, however, how much longer it will be before it becomes the next Frutillar or Puerto Varas, what with its similar views of Mt. Osorno and lakeside presence on Lago Llanquihue.





These natural amenities I take advantage of the next day, straightaway renting a bicycle to get a lay of the land. The idea is to make my way to Los Bajos, yet another cluster of old German colonist houses along the lake - but off the beaten path. So I roll into Puerto Octay-town for a first few overlooks, then mount the hill out of town for some more.

Next, across from the cheese man's shack on the main road, I make an error in heading down the steep ripio (unpaved) road to the lake. Fair enough, I CAN read the "private property" sign - yet choose to ignore it: Surely this IS the place where I'm supposed to turn according to Armin's directions, no? NO. A few questions below, to a confused worker at the fish farm on the lake's edge, confirms my mistake. I do my own half-assed confiramtion as well, rolling a bit around a hopeful backroad that follows the lake, then give and accept that I must slowly grind my way back up the empinado (steep), dirty road of stone to the "highway".

At Quilanto, several kilometers later, I take the correct turn. Once again I'm headed down to the lake for those houses that I really don't care THAT much about, but then again - why not? Any excuse for a bike ride is my running theory. This road is much longer, meanwhile - and also more trafficked. So I get dusted out time and again by the infrequent vehicles that come by. None of them seems to get the slow-down approach that is the norm on the dirt roads I traverse back home. Not even making a nicely passive-aggressive show of pulling a sleeve over my face as the miscreants pass me by is to any avail. Sigh.



I nevertheless gain the "town" of Los Bajos alive and only so dusted for the wear. It's time, evidently, to gander at the buildings and their volcano backdrop. I do so. It's also the right moment, finally, to chow through my pile of packed fruit. Ditto. But soon enough I again find myself spinning my wheels slowly to get back to the highway. There's only so much handsome architecture and volcanic beauty one can take uninterrupted, you know. This time, and ignoring the bull I find midway back, in the middle of the road - one who literally starts to paw the ground with one hoof as he stares me down - I have no troubles with passing vehicles in reaching it. Naturally I WIDE-ly detour around the bull onto the edge of the road's shoulder. I keep one eye - but not TOO much of one - on him the entire time.



All that's left now is my reward. This comes in the form of coffee and a cheese sampling at the same place where I had errantly turned earlier. I end up in a lengthy discussion with the owner of the artisanal cheese stand, mostly talking about making cheese... and houses. Turns out that he is interested in alternative house construction, so I run him a bit through the process being undertaken by friend and I back in Washington State. I pass him the hidden link on my website and he sounds eager to follow the process long after I'm gone and back working on it again.

Of course I feel compelled to buy some cheese on leaving - unfortunately they aren't THAT special, even if they are artisanal - but he soon throws in the espresso (which is good) on the house that I've slowly downed in between yapping hammer and nail. I finally extract myself from one of his two cowhide chairs of no return that has been so welcoming to my bike-saddled rear. Yes, THAT's the reading chair I've been looking for on this entire trip!... that I won't get a chance to use to read.





Building's the theme again come evening, when I talk construction with my host as well. He's looking for his next project to begin, something to join his haybale house, the grass roofs, and numerous other structures about the place. A sauna?, I suggest. Just the thing, he says, his eyes lighting up. I almost can see him reaching for his invisible tool belt.

Soon again I find myself ponying up for the lavish dinner spread offered by the hostel; again I eat too much, too. Yes, this is all too much of a good thing for eyes that only intend to see an empty plate at the end of each meal. At least on this second go-round, though, I'm not seated at the "big-kid's table" like the first night. That's a relief of sorts. I really wondered initially if I had stepped into a foreign world of bed-n-breakfast folks (NOT backpacker at all), with everyone downing expensive wine and both dressed and acting rather more aged than myself. I'll pass on this whole growing-up thing, myself.



More to my speed, by now I've befriended the two pixies of the joint, the older and responsible sister Camila and her crackpot 4-year-old charge called Elisa. Over each day I bump into these two unstoppable life forces and their smiles at least twice, morning and night. They're each taking their grandparents to wearying task, these latter only pinch-hitting to relieve the parents who are to come later. For my part, however, I delight in getting Elisa to make yet another of the faces she can't help making - when she's not telling yet another story with her hands. Even playing the trumpet doesn't stop her monologue of cross-eyed hand-waving.

In the process I'm just happy that both girls respond well to the catalog of children's music I have in store. That runs - per their audience, anyway - from old TV shows like Popeye, Sesame Street and Looney Tunes... to anything else I can come up with some drama to it. The grandpa wants Spanish salvos, himself.

It turns out that music is the theme of the next day, coincidentally: My stomach finally reacts to such a sudden succession of heavily sauced food I've been downing. But a day of rest is all it takes to improve my state, minus the gurgling which will continue for some days, plus a decision to lay off the richer things. Playing some tunes on an open horn in the interim is a salve, too.

Meanwhile a Chilean-German (or is it German-Chilean?) woman enters the fray at this time, game to have a companion for a grand day out in her vehicle. Fortunately that's me, and I like the idea of heading out to hike a little over by Lake Cayutúe. Hopefully we'll take in some nearby hot springs later, too. As for the huge volcano (Osorno) whose skirts we'll be crossing the entire time? That will once again provide the necessary backdrop.

And that's about how it goes, with German efficiency even... which makes sense, really, all things considered. We make our way around the north end of the giant lake to Ensenada - now completing the loop of it for me when including my earlier stay at Puerto Varas - then turn toward Petrohué. Unlike two months before, this time we immediately turn further south toward Rulán. That's both where we turn up and into the hills while also heading away from the curious inlet that I thought was another of the ubiquitous lakes of the area. It's not - it's the SEA, the Bahía Rulán to be exact. It's also coincidentally where the Petrohué River dumps its contents into the ocean beyond.

Now we make our way cautiously up the one-lane dirt road, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with a pickup truck who is barreling down from the hills. Tragedy NARROWLY averted, soon we park where a family has made something of a clearing. Or rather, more importantly, this is where the road has ended. From here we continue on a path that the surprised farmer (of the above family) indicates should take us to our desired laguna. If we continue for another hour or so, he avers, we'd actually end up at a remote entry point on the great lake Todos Los Santos. So, just in case anyone needs a random way to escape from Chile to Argentina, there ya go.

But it wouldn't be hard to be followed there, not by a longshot. This trail, described to us at the hostel as rather faint, has become significantly widened by what appears to be both horse and cattle traffic. Thus we follow it easily as it in turn follows a stream. For the above animals, I question my companion's filling of her water bottle from this seemingly-clear stream, but I've already learned her answer to any statement I make by now: "I know." And there's no variation on those two blunt words, either, allowing for a little "shaking up" to keep things interesting. It soon becomes tempting to just make some shit up, or state some arcane trivia, but she'll likely know that as well. I guess I'm starting to get annoyed.

Maybe that's why she's reeling in her current just-divorced status, I muse. The subject comes up numerous times - it's obvious that she's still in a state of some shock after 20-plus years in her relationship - but I'm alternately both led into and away from the details of what went down. As this is merely conversational fodder for me, that's fine, she can have her secrets, but eventually I really AM curious to know if the guy just felt beaten down from her two word reply to every observation. There has to be more to the story... I KNOW it must be the case!



Thus chit-chatting actually stays amiable at all times, including through the trail to the laguna. There, however, I unsurprisingly let her take a kayak out by her lonesome. I need a break from divorce recriminations, instead opting to wander around the open spaces near the lake to find a log and sit down to read my book. With hoof marks and cow patties everywhere, this is actually harder than it should be if I want to keep either my boots or ass clean - which leads me to question the status of this land. Indeed, it's often the case in South America that land officially marked as a reserve or park still has commercial uses that haven't been completely pushed out. What the case here is, I don't know, but the areas across the lake at least appear to be pristine.



This lake is also a prime place to fish for trout, the sport that seems to be everywhere in Southern Chile (and Southern Argentina, for that matter). This is serious fly-fishing country. But the only other folks at the lake, a handful of grizzle-bearded men camping here over the last ten days, have had little luck. So I can just count myself lucky that all I want to do is just read about such things as, well, love in the time of cholera in Colombia? That is, I do so when not otherwise marveling at the views of the reedy lake with the spire volcano Cerro Puntiagudo looming in the distance.

After enjoying our lake sojourn, we later make our way to the thermals. These, unfortunately, are something of a complete bust in my book. Not that it looks that way from the outset: The setting and view is stunning, a series of natural, pitted lava tubs that sit along a fast-running river of green enveloped in dense forest. But then it comes down to the facts: There's just ONE tepid hole that is heated, and not quite chest deep. Neither is it all that hot. Meanwhile the river's too swift (and cold) to swim across or lounge - a ferry of a minute or two is needed to do the necessary trick of crossing to and from the springs. Make that spring. And did I mention that it's crowded? This is the definition of a letdown, I suppose.

I don't bother to register a complaint, however, since my face is likely doing the trick all on its own. My companion, meanwhile, takes this point in time to stop complaining about all the Chileans from Santiago being everywhere (failing to notice precisely that she is one of them) to tell me that she won't marry me. This is convenient, I can't help but think, immediately wanting to slowly submerge and drown myself in this pool if I could. In those last moments before my life is snuffed out, however, I'd really like to know what else her psychiatrist told her beyond her need to take this trip by herself. Sigh. I return to my survival strategy instead, offering soft platitudes as she laughs at her own jokes and tells me that she is funny. Somehow I can't help but feel like a contestant on a show not of my choosing.



None of this spoils the day out, believe it or not. It helps immeasurably that the first hour of the drive was sufficient to tell me which way the wind would blow, allowing me to quickly stake out a calm position of passivity and agreement to all. Even most of the "I knows" have been responses to milktoast statements such as how beautiful the lake is. But it's mostly shutting up and letting her talk away which allows things to stay on a even keel throughout, allowing for those short moments where I want to throw myself from the vehicle to pass.

Post the springs bust, meanwhile, we ultimately receive a beautiful alpenglow on Mt. Osorno on the way back. Then, as the day concludes and we have nearly returned to Puerto Octay, I spot the ash funnel above Puyehue. Wow! Too bad the light is too poor for a picture! There it is in the distance, spewing to the heavens as the last of the day's light disappears and we return to our Swiss redoubt.

Morning brings goodbyes to my hosts - I'm ready to move on toward Argentina and toward the warmth of its people and air both. I decide to take leave off from more touring here in Puerto Octay, taking further advantage of being the only resident of the dorm for my last night now into the next day. I practice yoga in peace - it just doesn't work when others are around, I find - then pull out my trumpet in the airy, sunlit room. THAT had to be gotten out of my system, for the first time since Ancud. Eventually I'm doing the final, inevitable packup, though, reflecting that this has not been either a bad retreat or unlike Germany (as all of Southern Chile is generally advertised) indeed... in a Swiss way. Then it's ciao to my two little friends traveling with their grandparents as well.

I thus bid Puerto Octay adieu, walking to the road to catch the collectivo - which is just now roaring by. Someone apparently yells at the driver to stop for me, however, so onboard I go to Osorno. There I switch buses for what I shortly find to be the only way to go to Panguipulli, via Valdivia. There is no service to Los Lagos to make the route more direct (much as a great deal information at my hostel was given with authority, almost all of it is rife with errors I've found in a mere four days). Fortunately going via Valdivia only involves a brief layover of a minute or so - if ignoring the detour that is involved in passing that way in the first place.

On the last leg of the journey to Panguipulli we continually pick up passengers. This elongates the ride by an hour or so, but eventually we roll into yet another tourist town in Chile's high season. That's because, like many of the other hotspots of the Lakes District, Panguipulli is loaded with Chileans. This I rate as a good thing in it's way, though it might be also indicative of some lower status of tourism-worthiness. Whatever the case, I practically don't see a single other gringo. And this will stay true for the couple nights I'm in town. This is a nice change, no offense to my fellow North American, European, and Down Under friends (who generally dominate all hostels).

But first I need run around town a little bit to find a last-minute lodging. Finally I find a room at the home of a couple of teachers. But I soon realize that this entails that I'm robbing their daughter of her room so her parents can make another 20000CP. Family comes first in Chile, and this is the family's summertime business - putting up with wackadoos like me. This nevertheless works for me, of course, but I find myself saying sorry to the poor girl more than once. Perhaps it's as a form of karma that I next get to realize that the bottle of olive oil I foolishly stashed in my main backpack at the last minute has rather... opened. I now have a fine collection of clothes with fine designs of splotch, even after washing. Somehow a few dots have ended up on the bedspread, to which I can only confess my crime and offer myself up for punishment which is of course refused. (The bedspread comes easily clean, thankfully, and eventually I hand over some of my goods from El Bolson to thank my hosts' hospitality.)



As for Panguipulli, there's not much to say. It's not that it isn't pretty enough - it IS. It also sits on a large, navigable lake, which makes it certainly tourist-worthy enough. The DOWN side is that I'm now again in the ash zone, so a good part of that view is pretty much gone. No, I'll have to be content with the feria going on at the waterfront. Yep, it's time to see what new forms of meat-on-a-stick there are here, right in between testing the waters of all other foods artesanal. I'm game.

What I'm not game for, however, is any more busing about. And this is most certainly not after that extended last one, and it on the heels of so many others - plus the ones to come. Meanwhile, it turns out that the main reason for which I've come to Panguipulli - to take the Hua Hum ferry to Argentina - is a non-starter. It's been broken for a week. Crap! For all the above I eschew any local buses to hike or hot spring it around town, using this as guess enough to wander around town and the waterfront. I'll instead take in coffee in its various forms, ALWAYS a proper substitute when accompanied by book in hand.

But that's about it. I wander all of the downtown streets looking for something to catch my eye, but for the most part don't succeed. I instead only can marvel at what has become a recent and citywide push to line every street with rosebushes. Yeah, there's a church, a "cultural" cafe, some sculptures and willow trees at the lake, plus lots of perfect fruit in season - but that's about it for Panguipulli for this now-weary traveler.

In the process, of course, I can't help but also learn that I'm in the heart of CHILE's version of the Seven Lakes Tour. This is actually both larger and probably older than the one I bumped it and found out about in Argentina when I first hit Bariloche, also without a guide to clue me in. But after two-plus months of much of the same I have no plans to check them out more than I already have. They all kinda look the same. Beautiful, yes, but the same. Nor am I thrilled at the white haze of ash still to be found in all directions, either.

All of the above is what puts me on a bus the next morning to San Martin. No, I'm not excited to get on a 6-1/2 hour replacement bus for the ferry, but I'm hopefully NOT going to be getting on another bus for a bit up ahead in San Martin. I take my seat next to the pretty girl I've been blessed to sit next to, hopeful of a modest distraction, only to find that she's traveling with her sister and watchful grandfather - all of about a fist's distance away. Guess I better make googly eyes at her 1-year-old nephew instead.



Perhaps it is thus that I only vaguely notice the scenery outside as we make our way over the border. At least getting out of the bus for passport control will provide the best of the journey's vistas by far: A large black volcano looms just above us (Volcan Lanin). Impressive. Then, more impressively, we all thank god that our bus driver seems to have bribed or otherwise arranged for us to hop around the line that otherwise is said to take two hours to process for the crossing. Yikes!

That formality behind us, we retake the dry side of the mountains in Argentina. For as much traffic as this pass (Paso Tromen) gets, I find it amazing that it lacks paving for a good ways on both sides of the checkpoint. But whatever, it's time for the next step and it's on its way. About the only thing I'm thinking now is steak, actually... and no more seafood. That's Argentina for you. So I guess it is that, when the going gets tough, all eyes on the stomach for consolation! Oh, and HELLO, San Martin de los Andes! Remember me?

A couple more shots of my pixie friends at the hostel, the goofballs Camila and Elisa:



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