Monday, March 25, 2002

About Time!

About time! This is a very long email. Sorry....

March 21, 2002

The more we see and do, and the more time that passes, the harder it gets to sit in front of a computer and regurgitate the past events.

It is raining in Chaiten, Chile, and I feel that I have seen all this little village has to offer (it took less than an hour), so I can now write knowing that it is the major form of entertainment, and the best way to whittle away the time. Of course, Dan is out casting a fishing line.

Our two weeks in the South of Chile have been amazing. We have worked out our bodies on some difficult treks, met loads of Germans, and eaten extremely well (except for a horrific encounter with some seaweed and cow knee soup). I'll start with a linear account of the cities / villages(?) that we have visited.

First, we headed to Pucon. This is a virtual tourist town of gringos, situated by Lake Villarica and the famous volcano. We stayed in a cozy hostal operated by a swiss man and his Chilean wife, where we had granola yogurt breakfasts, real coffee! (most places only serve nescafe - which can be a little sad for past coffee-aholics), fruit pancakes, and eggs! You can understand what a luxury this is, when you know that desayuno(breakfast) to Chileans is tea or nescafe, with pan (bread), marmalade and butter, sometimes with ham and cheese slices. We had a cozy room with a little heater, so we ended up staying for 3 days. This was where the rainy part of our trip began, a shock to our systems after months of heat. We spent our first soppy day at the Termas Huife. This is an upscale resort with natural hotsprings, situated near an almost icy river. In and out of the hot water as the heavens poured continuously. The next day was cloudy, with very light drizzle. We had planned to trek to the top of the live volcano, but decided that the conditions were poor. Together, with 5 other travelers we hired a driver to take us to Huerquehue park, where we hiked uphill for over 2 hours to a mountainous trek to three different alpine lakes, with waterfalls, rivers and araucaria forests (similar to monkey trees). This was beautiful - the water was emerald, and the forest vegetation was in all shades of complimentary greens. We ended our day with a delicious vegetarian dinner of Humitas (corn tamales) and lasagna at Ecole. The following day, we rose bright and early to once again try to trek the volcano. This ended up being one of the most difficult things I have done. The volcano is 2847 meters tall, and is still smoking! It last erupted in the early 90's. From the base, you can take a chair lift up several hundred meters, and then begin your hike - the summit is another 4 to 5 hours away. All uphill!!!!!!!!! There were about 17 of us who had signed up for a guided tour, which is the only way to do this. They provide you with outfits to protect against the elements, proper climbing boots, crampons (for the snow) and a pickaxe. We started our ascent up a dry, lava gravel terrain, which took about 2 hours before we reached the snow. Once we were in the icy snow, the guides estimated that in reality, we were not all fit for the climb. They sat us down, and seriously explained that the snow was very icy, and extremely dangerous for the inexperienced. The climb becomes steeper and steeper, and one misstep can send someone sliding down the hill, gaining speed and rapidly losing control. We were spooked. They told us all to consider carefully whether we could make it to the top. We watched a few other groups climb past us, obviously not being given this option. Perhaps, this is what convinced Dan and I, who felt in good shape, to go ahead with the trek. There were only 5 of us who continued. Call it stupidity. We left the greater portion of our group, and headed uphill with our lone guide. I have never concentrated so hard to make sure that my footing was secure. The guide, in an attempt to avoid the iciest parts of the volcano, took us up the steepest incline. We were mountain climbing and it was exhausting. 2 hours later, we shakily made it to the summit, where we peered into the steaming center of the volcano. We were rewarded with stunning views of the lakes, Pucon, other distant volcanos, light clouds far below us. Our guide warned us that the true test was in coming down the mountain. We required a certain confidence with our stride, and no fear of heights (ha ha!). With the help of our pickaxe, we could slide down the mountain on our bum, dragging the axe to slow or stop us from gaining too much speed. The only other girl who went up, a swiss woman with limited experience, lost control in the icy conditions and let go of her axe. We watched her slide and bump down the mountain side, terrified that she would never stop, or be badly injured. Thankfully, she slid into a flatter part of the hillside and stopped. She was shaken up, a little bruised, but safe. My fear of the same thing happening to me, made me the last in the group, sliding on my bum almost slower than I walked. At the end of the journey, we were very glad we had made it to the top. There is a certain type of adrenalin you get from achieving these things, and our sore muscles ached good!

The next day, we broke up our journey down south, by stopping in Valdivia, a town closer to the coast, that is famous for its' university. Birgit, the German girl we met in Rapa Nui, was attending this university as a foreign student, and had told us more than once that the town was a bore, but we decided to see for ourselves. It really wasn't that bad (at least for a day). We ate a delicious traditional meal of Ajiaco (a spicy stew soup of leftovers) and pastel de choclo (a maize casserole with chicken) at Bar La Bomba. We were the only tourists admidst old men in suit jackets and caps, drinking wine and smoking cigarettes, playing with cards. We went down to the rivers edge to watch the GIANT sea lions roar at eachother, defecate, and be the blubber that they are. We stayed at another accommodation owned by a German and his Chilean wife (this is a trend), and decided to get out of town to visit a very small island, Macera, in the rivers that forge their way to the ocean, and enjoy a delicious seafood dinner down the coast.

By the morning, we were off again, headed to Puerto Octay. We passed farmland and orchards, sheep, cows and apples. The streets were lined with blackberry bushes, ripe and ready for the taking. Here we stayed at a beautiful wood, farm-like homestay, called Zapato Amarillo, recently built by Armin (swiss) and his Chilean wife (Nadia). Their house was cozy with a wood burning stove in the middle of the kitchen, llamas in the backyard, and tea with freshly baked wholegrain bread and homemade jellies, pressed apple cider, and fruit salad. Armin was very helpful, and suggested various walks around the lake and to Las Cascadas, that Dan and I could entertain ourselves with during the slightly drizzly days. Like most villages in the lake district, Puerto Octay was a German settlement. Situated on the Lago Llanquihue, it was a key harbor for transport between Puerto Montt and Osorno. With the development of a more direct freight route via land, it lost its main port purpose, but retains an 'Eastern European' charm. It is amazing how much you can feel like you are in Germany in these parts. There are more fair, light-haired people, the wooden houses have a bavarian-like flair, Kuchen (dessert tarts) are served at almost every cafe, and many locals speak German as their first language. We found this to be the case of many other villages we passed through, such as Frutillar (a resort town) and Puerto Varas. After 2 nights at Zapato Amarillo, and an incredible dinner of cheese Fondue (we never thought this would happen in Chile!), we left with Alix and Petra (a german couple) to stay in Puerto Varas. Here we stayed at another hostal, Casa Azul, run by a German man and his Chilean wife - who woulda thunk it? In the evening, Dan and I met Alvaro (my father's cousin from Santiago) at the casino. He was staying the night in Puerto Varas after having business in Puerto Montt, and this perfectly coincided with our trip. We met again for breakfast for a final goodbye, and then rented a car with Alix and Petra to do a day trip. We explored the turquoise Lago Todos Los Santos, visited the Sendero Saltos del Petrohue (rushing waterfalls), and the Cochamo Valley. The weather was crappy, a shame in these gorgeous parts, but we had an incredible lunch of quiche, potatos au gratin, green bean salad, and kuchen at the basecamp for Campo Aventura (run by a couple from Luxembourg!). In the evening, we met another friend from San Francisco, Carolyn, who is in Chile working on the updated Lonely Planet guidebook. We took this opportunity to milk her for recommendations for traveling down south. She invited us to join her at a party of ex-patriots who had been living in Puerto Varas. We were taken to a historical home from the early 1900's, managed by a young Chilean woman who makes and teaches pottery. She rented out the rooms to a motley crue of artistic, creative people. We met Peter, who had been living here for two years on a fellowship, writing articles about the differences between national and privately owned parks in Chile and Argentina, and another american woman, who had started an english institute, and was teaching the salmon farmers business language skills. We met Chileans (like Fermando, who runs a diving operation) and many other Americans, Brits and Germans. Together we enjoyed a typical Chilean BBQ of steak, sausages, and corn and tomato salads.

In the morning, we were off again. This time headed to Chiloe, the largest Chilean island (180km by 50km). We were joining Alix and Petra again, in Castro, one of the larger island towns, notable for its rows of houses on stilts, perched over the water (palafitos). Here, we struggled to find a restaurant for dinner (we found many, but all of them were strangely empty), and afterward, ended up drinking piscola in a seedy, low ceiling bar, full of drunk men, and an overly pestered female staff. This was the poorest place we had been to yet, and the most Indian. The island is beautiful, densely forested or farmed with verdant undulating hills. It is famous for its steepled churches and quaint villages of shingled houses with corrugated roofs, painted in all shades of the rainbow. It is a mini-Ireland, with the usual rain to go with it, but we finally lucked out, and had absolutely beautiful weather. We spent a day in the Parque Nacional Chiloe, walking through the sand dunes and vegetation to the Pacific ocean. I was coming down with a cold, Dan was getting over one, so we spent a large part of the late afternoon lying in bed and reading - a wonderful luxury of traveling. Onto Chonchi and the Hospedaje Esmeralda, run by a Canadian expat. We sampled the local liquor de oro (made of milk, alcohol, sugar, limon and vanilla), and did a lot of aimless wandering, trying to run our chores (like changing money, checking email, searching in vain for a lavanderia - our clothes stink!). Dan and I have become traveling hobos. As the weather gets colder, we are each limited to two pairs of long pants, and a layering of t-shirts. At one point, Dan only had 2 pairs of unbelievably stinky socks which he kept alternating between, and both of us had a strange funk about us. I have a donated wool sweater which smells like a goat when it gets wet. Not pretty.

March 25th - Back again! SOOOO, anyway, after Chiloe, we took a 5 hour ferry to Chaiten, where I wrote the first part of this email. We are in the 5th and 6th Region of Chile (Aisen and the Camino Austral). This is the least touristed part of the south, from a gringos perspective, but is a haven for fishing enthusiasts. I am here mainly to oblige Dan, who is desperate to catch a trout or salmon. We are more cold than we have been in months, and we still have a long way to go to the far southern end of the world. After doing a lot of nothing in Chaiten, we took a 5 hour bus to Puyuhuapi on a gravel road. This was the most scenic drive of our entire trip. Much of the land is uninhabited alpine forests, with massive mountains, and surprising glaciers with flowing light blue rivers. We passed the occasional Chileno on a horse, dressed in a poncho, boots, and wide brimmed hat, sporting an elegant mustache. Our next port was a tiny village of wooden homes and smoking chimneys in a scenic fjord. This was one of the earlier (1940's) German settlements of the Camino Austral. From here, we hitched a morning work bus along the Seno Ventisquero, in order to catch a boat to the famous, and luxurious Termas de Puyuhuapi. We made a mistake, and ended up on a boat destined for Piscicultura, a salmon farm. Oops. We're not quite sure why none of the workers questioned the presence of two obvious mitfits... Needless to say, we had to walk through dense coastal forest, in torrential rain, tramping in the mud, to make it to the Termas. We entered the sophisticated hotel with mud splatters up to our knees, leeches on our jackets, dripping wet, and smelling like farm animals. This prestigious, hotsprings resort sucked up enough of our money to last for 3 days of travel, in less than 8 hours. It was by far, the most expensive day of our entire trip. We spent over $150 to swim in an indoor thermal pool, and enjoy a fine lunch in posh environs. I also treated myself to a massage:) This was a highlight - an excellent place to relax and pretend that we were rich, until we had to put our skanky clothes back on. The next day, we hitched a ride with 3 chilenos from Santiago, who were traveling in their country for 3 weeks - THE RIGHT WAY. They had two cars between the 3 of them (for safety), packed with camping equipment. We went to Parque Nacional Quelat, where he tramped in the rain to get an awesome view of waterfalls and the Ventisquero Colgante, a massive glacier, where the ice rumbles and roars, crashing periodically into the rocks below. We stopped at a campsite to light a fire, try to dry our clothes and heat our numb limbs. The Chileans took pity on us, feeding us bread and beans and hot drinks. They ended up giving us a ride all the way to Coyhaique, another 5 hours away on a gravel road. Here we are! Dan is out fishing, and I'm stuck writing this dreadful email. We just found out that the flights from here to Punta Arenas are cheap and quick. This coming Friday, we're going to avoid the 25 plus hour bus ride to the far south, and take a plane. Hooray!

Photos should come soon. We have to find an internet cafe that accomodates digital cameras first. Thank you to all of our friends and family who have written to us during our travels. We really do appreciate it.

much love,
Sarah and Dan, the hobos and


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