The south of Chile is full of Lakes and Volcanoes and is known as the "Lakes District". It sits bewteen 700 and 1,500km south of Santiago.
It is a brilliant landscape and home to the indigenous Mapuche people. In summer people climb, hike, bike, fish and in winter they ski. The Lakes District was originally colonised by the Germans in 1850 and some of their influence still abounds in the food and style of housing.
At 10:30pm on Thu 10MAR we left our Santiago hostel to travel 785km in 13hrs door-to-door (10hrs on the bus) to our wooden cabins hostel at Pucon in the Lakes District.
Pucon (Pop 16,900. Elev 260m) is a cosy ski village full of wooden buildings and a quaint flower-covered main road. Only 5km from town sits the active, smoking, snow covered "Villarrica" Volcano (2,847m) and Pucon itself is set against a huge lake of the same name. The area around the lake is very scenic and many Santiagoans have holiday houses here.
When we arrived in Pucon at 11:30am it was pouring with rain and did stop for the rest of day. This has only happened on two other occassions. Given our hostal comprised wooden cabins with cosy fireplaces and TVs, I decided that the rest of the day would be spent blogging and watching cable movies. I armed myself with chilled Chilean Rose, Chardonnay and Riesling and a variety of cheeses and stuffed olives and had one of the most relaxing arvos in a long time. That evening, Maureen cooked up a fabulous Portuguese Chicken with roasted vegies and fresh blueberries and rasberries covered in vanilla ice cream. Our drinks included a St Emiliana 2009 Malbec Rose and 2010 Chardonnay. Superb finish to a rainy day.
The next day was very exciting. We rose at 6:30am to attempt a hike up to the summit of the active Villarrica Volcano. The owner of our hostel also runs a tour company so he supplied us with serious mountain climbing gear including waterproof, windproof and snowproof clothing, huge waterproof hiking boots and ice pick. Five of us were driven to the volcanoes base, only 5km away and started our climb at 1,400m.
The day was sunny, the volcano was smoking and some clouds were present lower down. The aim of the climb was to get to the caldera summit and try and look down the 80m throat to see the magna below causing the "steam" that comprises the smoking volcano.
The climb was steep and hard over black volcanic rock mixed with snow. It took its toll on two of the four girls who stopped when we got to the end of the ski lift shelter at 1,960m. The climb from there was stunning. By this time the sun was shining on us but cloud had closed in on Pucon and the lower mountains below.
The steep black and white side of the volcano coming up from the clouds below and shimmering in the sun ahead with a freezing blistering wind starting to build up is what true mountain climbing looks like. The other reality is how quickly the weather can change.
By the time we got to the start of the glacier at 2,250m the temperature had dropped to 8C and the wind was now howling. Ahead you could see cloud starting to build up around the summit and snow was being raised skywards in several twister style mini-tornados.
There were approx 30 other climbers stopped there as well. Something was wrong. Our guide told us to hanker down and wait. He and the other guides were going to climb ahead to gauge the weather conditions for the last 600m to the top.
It was bad news.
After 20min they returned with the news that the summit was now hidden and the wind was gusting up to 70km/h resulting in a wind chill of -15C.
These guys wear digital GPS watches with this info streaming live. Unfortunately our clothing is only rated to 0C and even if we made it to the summit we could see nothing. So all the guides decided to arrest the climb and turn back.
Even though we were disppointed we were also glad - by this time the temperature was close to freezing and so were we!!! We had climbed 850m in 3hrs from 1,400m to 2,250m on our way to a 2,879m summit.
If weather permitted the whole climb would have taken 5-6hrs, up and back. Now I have a very slight appreciation of what the heavy-duty mountaineers must go through. This was a "walk in the park" compared to what they do.
Of the total of 120 volcanoes in Chile, Villarrica Volcano is one of three in South America that are listed in the world's top ten list of the most active volcanoes. Of the other two, one is in Equador (we were scheduled to visit it after Quito but it had a slight eruption and we had to cancel) and the other is only 300km from Villarrica in Chile. Villaricca itself last erupted in 1984 but it was small and Pucon was not evacuated.
Back at the hostel, in a strange twist of fate, the weather was OK and I decided to go for a run. Fabulous views of the surrounding mountains and Villarrica Volcano (now covered in cloud!). After my run the sun came out so I decided to walk to the lake and centre of town for some photos. Lovely. The walk was very satisfying and relaxing. I picked up a few goodies at the supermarket (including my first coffee-flavoured ice cream) and headed to my wooden cabin for a feast. A great in-room dinner watching "American Wedding" (aka American Pie 4). Very funny and very Jewish!
The morning of 13MAR was cold and crisp but spectacular. Villarrica Volcano was in full view, smoking and bathed in the 7am orange-pink light of the rising sun. I have never seen anything like it (refer photo in this blog). I have been travelling 95 days in this amazing continent and it just keeps getting better! I thought I would reach a point where "I have seen it all" but no such chance.
Today we travelled all day. Pucon hostel to Ancud hostel on the island of Chiloe ("Isla Grande De Chiloe"), 440 km due south via mainland city Puerto Montt took a total of 9.5hrs including 7.5hrs on buses and 40min on the ferry to the island. Chiloe Island (Pop 155,000. Est 1567. 180km long by 50km wide) is Chile's largest island and UNESCO protected because of its Chonos and Huilliche indegenous roots and 400 wooden churches, some up to 200 years old.
Chiloe is historically very important since it was the last place to be occupied by the Spanish and the first place to populated by European immigrants that were formerly invited in the mid 1800's to build up infrastructure just like the post WWII migration in Oz. The first to come were Germans and they are now up to 4 generations on the island.
Chiloe is full of wildlife and thick mud. The Chiloeans even invented a special sled called a "trineo" to travel over the mud! Most of its locals live off the land or fish.
Chiloe is also home to the two largest colonies of Blue Whales off its shores. The salmon industry is big here (60% of Chile's production is from this island alone). The specialty of the house is "curanto", pork, Chunyo (local potato) and shell fish, vapor-smoked in giant leaves on coals in the ground - like Hungi in New Zealand.
The landscape from Pucon to Puerto Montt was full of lakes, volcanoes and green forest. We arrived at the lakeside city of Puerto Montt at 2pm and boarded another bus for Chiloe at 3pm which included the ferry crossing from the mainland to the island of Chiloe. The ferry took 40min. At 5:30pm we arrived at our hostel in Chiloe's largest city, Ancud (Pop 49,500). Maureen and I found a quaint little restaurant near the hostel, full of collectibles and antiques. We feasted on Salmon Ceviche and Curanto accompanied by Chilean St Emiliana Chardonnay 2009.
That night it poured and the rain continued through all of Mon 14MAR. Chiloe Island is famous for rain given its location next to the Pacific and is hit by the "roaring forties" winds. It gets 2000mm a year over 9mths. Today was our fifth day of rain - not bad for Day 95 of my trip! The only dampener is that today we had booked a whole day tour around the island. Nevertheless we had a good time. Our first stop was Castro (Pop 41,000. Est 1567), the capital of Chiloe Island and 79km from Ancud.
This town has the most amount of wooden churches (like the ones in Norway) all different from each other in design and sizes. Castro houses are all wooden shigles, brightly painted and those near the water aare in stilts. The place looks like a Norwegian or Icelandic fishing village! Castro is also the centre of the salmon industry on the island. Our first stop was the central market where we viewed all the local produce including a huge array of seafood (oysters, giant mussels, Kingclip fish and salmon).
The other big export is seaweed to Japan. It is nothing like our smelly green seaweed and looks like long brown sausage shaped ballons tied up like at kids parties - refer photo.
In Castro we visited the wooden churches of San Francisco (Built 1902) and Our Lady of Pains (Built 1878) which was designed as an inverted ship, ie, the ark that sails to heaven! Both were made entirely of wood, including the alter.
We then journeyed to Dalcahue (Pop 12,000) to catch a ferry to one of Chiloe's 40 islands, Quinchao.
Before catching the ferry we enjoyed a simple but superb seafood lunch. I had "Paila Marina" which is soup of shellfish and salmon. We also visited a nautical musuem and local artesan market before the ferry.
Naturally, the next day was completely fine and sunny with scattered cloud. Today was a rest day so I slept in til 9am and went for my first island run at 10am. It was unreal - I ran along the shoreline to the next beach and back.
I then went off to the markets to shop for tonight's salmon feast - Maureen and I decided to cook a huge 2.5kg salmon in foil in the hostel oven.
I bought the fish and all the vegies for unbelievable prices from individual local farmers selling their wares under tarps in the main square. The freshly caught 2.3kg salmon was only 12AUD and the fresh vegies (peas, broad beans, beetroots, zucchini, carrots, corieander, yellow garlic, onion, peppers, tomato) totalled another 12AUD. I was back at 1:30pm and decided to try and contact the Brazilian Consulate in Buenos Aires re my second VISA before Maureen and I started cooking at 4:30pm.
Much to my horror, I read on the consulate website, that an interview needed to be booked. Neither the telephone number or online diary for interviews worked so I could not book anything. I sent the consulate an email requesting a time and also emailed Intrepid to assist. Our guide Carlos also undertook to contact the Intrepid office in Buenos Aires to haave someone meet me at the Brazilian Consulate at the opening time of 9am on Fri 18MAR. Fingers crossed. Stay tuned.
Maureen and I then cooked up a storm. Only downside is that the fish took 90min to cook because the oven was not hot enough. The result was hard to describe. We invited Carlos and Poonan to eat with us and it was possibly the best salmon I have ever had... and all for 6AUD per person (fish and vegies)! I then retired to my room for a movie as tomorrow we were leaving Chiloe and Chile, bound for Bariloche Argentina, on our way to Buenos Aires.
NEXT BLOG: covers Bariloche and Buenos Aires due 21MAR.
NOTES TO SELF: 1) I have become known to all on the Interpid trip as "The Plastic Man"! This is because I carry around a big plastic bag with my snacks and wine inside ex-yogurt bottles. I also have many spares, so when someone needs a plastic bag they all say "go see John, the Plastic Man"! So I say to "bundy" that I have out-done him and to all of you out there: "Come to me all yee that are wet and heavy-laden and I will give thee Plastic"!!!
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: 1) Thanks to our local guide, Jose, who drove us around Chiloe Island.