In a town known for it's daredevils and debauchery I fear I might have been a misfit. My agenda in Pucon was to climb a mountain, maybe river raft depending on the cost and then be on my merry way. Turns out the
little pueblo had some other plans for me and I had a couple unplanned adventures.
I was going to have my first official experience couchsurfing in Pucon. It's an expensive place to be and couchsurfing just made sense. I had sent out a couple requests and heard back from one guy that yes, I could stay at his house. Richy the mountain guide and his 2 other mountain guide friends all share a house and said they had room to spare. A Chilean-mountain-guides-man-pad...this could either go really well or really poorly. When I pulled into the bus station I was starting to second guess my decision, but I figured I would give it a chance. I would try it for one night and if it didn't work out I would just suck it up and pay for a hostel.
I called Richy from a payphone and we met on a street corner in the town center. He looked more like a surfer than a mountain guide with long unruly curls covering most of his face. We met up with a coupleof his friends and roommates at a bar next door to where he worked. The standard introduction went around, stand, name, embrace, kiss, kiss...next. "Don't worry," he told me in Spanish, " there is more feminine energy at the house. Two other girls are couchsurfing with us already." I covertly let out a sigh of relief. But before heading to the house, there were some things that needed to be taken care of in town. They asked me what my plans were while I was there. To climb Villaricca of course! Maybe raft? Maybe go canyoning? The climb part they could all help with. Each one of them did that climb every single day with their respective agencies. What kind of gear did I have? When did I want to go? How much did I want to pay?
Waldo, one of the roommates, suggested I go with him. His company was more lenient with the rules as far as bringing friends along, he had one last space for the next day. If I went with him, I would only have to pay for transportation and the park entrance instead of the whole tour price. That was huge. I had most of the things that I needed and the couple missing things Waldo had extras, but I'd have to rent real shoes...mine apparently had just been judged and ruled unfit to climb the mountain. So Waldo and I went into town to do 3 things: rent shoes, inform his boss that he had a friend joining the tour for the next day...and she was coming gratis, and go to the market to get food for the hike. With all the errands done, it was time to see the crashpad.
When we got to the house I met the other girls, Rosa from Colombia and Noemi from France. They were both very sweet and we all got along well. That night the guys had planned to have an asado with some girls they met on the mountain. "Asado" aka come over and get drunk and we'll fool around. Rosa, Noemi and I all watched the ridiculousness unfold and took note that one of the guys also had no interest in all this nonsense. That one guy was Waldo, which was reassuring for me since I was trusting him with my life the next day. I didn't want no hungover guide. I'm not sure how long all the rowdiness ensued as I excused myself to go to sleep around midnight. They gave me a little bit of a hard time for going to sleep so early. This was now the second time I heard the phrase, the first time being on the boat, "esta chica tan sana..." I like sleep, as it was, I already wasn't going to get enough. I would have to get up early, at 5:30 in the morning to climb a volcano. I get that they do this every day, but I am just not that much of a glutton for pain. Morning came fast. I packed my bag, made breakfast, lunch and packed snacks. We loaded up into a taxi to get to the town center...I was still so sleepy.
The group was 6 plus 1 guide and 1 assistant. 2 girls from Argentina, 2 guys from Brazil, 1 girl from Germany, and me. This could be interesting, the Argentinian girls weren't what you would call "sporty." They openly admitted that they weren't very active, don't hike normally, and certainly have never been on a volcano. The 2 brazilians had never seen snow before let alone walk in it...and they were both chain-smokers. The German girl was a triathlete...so this should be easy for her. And then there was me. I'm no triathlete or anything, but I was fairly certain that I could handle this, I mean, I don't even really have to carry anything other than a little food and I totally just hiked to the bottom of the world! So a little mountain/volcano like this, it should be fine.
I was hoping I would get to finally use crampons. I had a pair wrapped up in my backpack, but the snow was pretty soft and the little spots of ice we came across were chipped at with an ice pick and made manageable to cross. The going up was slow, kind of like taking snow stairs. Small little deliberate steps that zig-zagged their way up the mountain face. Toe first into each one, punching a secure footing into the snow, exaggerating the footstep of the person before you for the one coming up behind. Ice pick firmly in grip, like a sharp little cane piercing the snow on the uphill side your body. Plant ice pick, punch foot, punch other foot, plant ice pick, punch foot, punch foot, etc. And like little ants in a row we climbed. There were a ton of other operators doing the same thing at the same time. And the face of the mountain had lines of people zig-zagging their way up.
We took lots of little breaks for the benefit of the Argentinian girls. Waldo would use these opportunities to explain what we were seeing in the valley below. The view was a little hazy. It was ash from neighboring Argentina and the volcano erupting outside Bariloche. But we could see as we climbed more and more peaks and valleys and lakes in all directions. When we were nearing the top and taking another break Waldo pointed out the beautiful peak of Lonquimay. The view from there, he told me, is incredible. I could only imagine. It didn't look that far away. Then he asked me, "you want to go climb a real mountain? If you do, you should climb Lonquimay. I'll take you if you want." Of course I want to go. I said yes, not really thinking anything would come out of it...it is Chile, and I'd learned not to hold my breathe for promises like that. I didn't know it at the time, but it turns out Waldo wasn´t joking.
Our group spent a little time at the top, peering into the smoking crater. After our lunch break it was time to head down. Coming down the volcano was the best part. We got to put on stupid looking outfits complete with butt pads and slide down. The ice-pick was your friend you used for steering and braking. There were paths already determined from previous groups, and I found myself thinking of penguins sliding around in their slip-n-slides and it made me laugh to myself. Unfortunately it was short-lived. We made it down much, much faster than we made it up. We were all wet from sliding around in the snow, but it felt wonderful. It was really hot there and the snow was refreshing. Soon enough we were loaded up into the van and brought back to town. A successful tour, everyone made it to the summit and everyone made it back down safely.
I didn't have a plan for the next day but I flirted with the idea of going rafting. The guys said they might be able to get me a discounted price with one of their friends. They all had the best intentions, but it didn't work out that way, and I couldn't get myself to pay full price. So I spent the day bumming around the town, watched part of the ironman competition that was going on, and went down to the lake. It was a nice, relaxing day and I welcomed it. When I got back that afternoon, Waldo told me that yes, he was serious, we were going to climb either Lonquimay or Sierre Nevada. He had a couple of days off and he wanted to go for himself, and since I happened to be there I was welcome to come. The invitation was extended to Noemi and Rosa as well...but they both had issues committing so in the end it was just the two of us. The plan was simple: Waldo would work in the morning, I would be free to do whatever I wanted so long as I was back by 4 in the afternoon so we could catch the bus to Temuco and then to Malalcaheullo/Lonquimay. From there we were staying with an old friend of his that would drive us to the mountain and pick us up at the end of the day. The next day we would go see some other sights in the area and then head back via the same route to Pucon.
Sounded like a good plan to me. I get a private mountain guide for free and get to do some things I didn't even know were options. Later I discovered that Waldo's motive for going was 3-fold: 1. To get a break from doing the same climb day after day. 2. To see an old friend he hadn't seen in a long time. 3. To explore the option of making this trip a regular private tour that he could sell to people who wanted a taste of something less touristed. They all were good reasons for me.
My morning and afternoon free were spent with Noemi. There are several thermal baths outside of Pucon and we decided to hitch a ride to one of them. We were lucky and a very nice couple picked us up and offered to take us all the way there even though it was out if the way. We thanked them profusely and spent the next several hours testing all the different rocky pools. Some were too hot, some were too cool, and like the little bears, we eventually found the one that was just right. There was hardly anyone at the baths when we arrived, apparently this particular site is more popular at night. We didn't mind, it was nice and quiet. Eventually people did start showing up...very lean athletic looking people. Ironmen and women to be exact, soaking their aching bodies from the race the day before. I had my eye on my watch and told Noemi we had to start making our way back to town. We timed it just right and were able to hop in the back of a pick-up to get most of the way back and then got picked up by an ice-cream truck for the rest of the way.
I got back just in time and was turned around within minutes by Waldo to get to the bus station. It all worked smoothly and we were soon greeted with warm hugs by Pedro and his family. He made us dinner, passed around the mate and I excused myself for bed to leave the boys to catching up. And I heard it again..."esta chica tan sana..."
In the morning we geared up, ate and got in the car to start the adventure. He decided we were climbing Sierre Nevada. It was a bumpy ride and I felt so bad for the old truck that bumped and bounced its way along the "road." It eventually got so bad that the truck couldn't possbily go any further. We helped him do an austin powers style turn to get the truck turned around and I watched Pedro squeak out little bits of progress before it got righted. Then he was off and we were left to our own defences. So we started hiking. Huge Araucaria marched like soldiers up the valley and along the mountain ridges and I remembered the first time I saw saguaros like soldiers on the mountians of Arizona. I had never seen anything like this place, but in a strange way, a way that is starting to seem more normal, this new place seemed familiar. Not in that deja-vu I've been here before kind of way, but in that I don't feel seperate, I don't feel like a stranger, I am starting to reconginze a similar current in all these "new" and "strange" places that makes them seem...like a welcomed repetitive dream.
Waldo was taking note of the sky. He was retired military and had spent 6 years in this region and new all the mountians, volcanoes, and valley like they were his childhood playground. He attempted to explain to me what I was seeing and how and why the flora and flauna did what they did...and why the clouds rolled like water over the distant ridgeline. He pointed out the cloud formation that sat like a hat on the head of Lonquimay volcano. I've seen this before I told him, and he explained that it happens when the conditions are just so with pressure, heat, winds, and the formation of the mountains. Watch it he said, and predicted how the winds and sky would change throughout the day. We hiked slowly at first as Waldo excitedly pointed out different plants, valleys and lakes. He named them all, told of his experiences climbing, skiing, guiding there. He told stories of erruptions and evactations while he worked in this region, of friends killed, and communites rebuilding. It was clear he had a deep love of this place and I asked him why he lived in Pucon if he loved it here so much. Better schools, he told me. He has two kids that live in Pucon with their mother...and better pay, the tourists don't know about this place. But I felt blessed that he was willing to share this gift with me, it was easy to see why it held that special place for him.
Eventually the small talk and lectures subsided and the talk was purely technical...we were about to start climbing and it required concentration on both our parts. Villaricca was a good warm up for me of what was going to come. At least this way I kind of knew what to expect and already knew what it felt like to crunch and climb my way up the snow. I was following closely behind and for the most part it went smoothly. The angle of this climb was steeper than Villaricca and there was no established path. Waldo would stop and analyze the snow, looking at the angles, the lines and the consistency and carefully pick our path. He was zig-zagging up the face and I was carefully placing my steps in his. At areas where there was no snow-cover we had to climb and scutter up the rocks. In one area the angle was too steep and the rocks were too loose and I sat frozen not able to climb up or retreat back where I came from. Waldo told me to stay right where I was...not a problem for me at all...and he continued to climb. Soon enough a bright orange rope came flying past my face. "Take the rope," he told me and I was pulled up to meet him laughing. Several instances before had passed where he had offered to help me, and in my pride I told him I could do it on my own. This time, I had to admit it was beyond my ability, and I think he got a kick out of the prideful american girl asking for and accepting help. I may be proud...but I'm not stupid.
After about 4 hours of hiking, climbing, and zig-zagging our way up we made it to the cumbre, the summit. My first real summit. There was a little book there buried under some rocks and I got to sign it, date it and leave a note. Unfortunately the view was blocked by clouds. Waldo was a bit disapointed and tried to tell me what I would have seen. I didn't mind, what I could see what increadible...and I liked to watch the clouds wrap around the summit and me. I was literally in the clouds. We didn't spend too long up there, as we told Pedro a certain time to come and get us. I was excited to come down, sliding down last time was so much fun, only this time there wouldn't be established paths. It was harder when you have to make your own trail. We did a combination of seated sliding, standing sliding and walking. There was one point where the slope was far too steep to just go without other security measures. Waldo put in an anchor, tied a rope around me and slowly lowered me down. I had to climb down the crack of the rocks and snow and eventually I got to a safer spot where I could untie myself and continue sliding. Only once did I slide out of control and was rather painfully stopped by sliding a while through rocks...and the giant purple bruise on my backside was proof for days.
Pedro was waiting for us with the old truck when we got back to where he'd dropped us off. Some other friends of theirs were coming over that night and we had to get back to they could make an asado. The thought of a pile of meat after that climb sounded just perfect. They didn't let me help with anything when we got back, so I just cleaned up and curled up with a book until it was time to gather around the table. The friends were all very nice. They lived in the town of Lonquimay and were excited to see Waldo since it had been a while since he had been able to visit. They passed around the platters of meat and salad and bread and wine. They gave me the eye when I was pass up the wine. You're in Chile, you're among friends, you're celebrating...whaa?? And I heard it again, "esta chica tan sana..."
The last day in the valley, Pedro let us use the truck and Waldo took me all over the area. We went to the reserva and hiked around the lava covered base of Lonquimay and could see the river of lava that it left when it last errupted. Of course the day was clear, and Waldo said that we should try to climb Sierra Nevada today to get the view. I would like to believe that he was joking. I recognize it wasn't hard for him, but that climb was a challenge for me. We didn't have that long to explore as we had to catch the bus back to Pucon that afternoon. I had a bus to Barioloche the following morning that I couldn't miss. At this point I had already extended my time in Pucon by nearly 4 days and I knew there was more that I could see...but I can't see everything. Chile had already tricked me into 4 months and I was sure that the same thing would happen with the other countries once I finally got there.
I will never be able to see everything, there just simply isn't enough time in a single human life to take in and appreciate all the corners of this beautiful world. I have decided on this trip to be a combination tourist/traveller/resident...passing through some of the big sights and towns, passing through some of the smaller less know ones and brushing past the edges of the communities that border them, and dropping the beginnings of roots in other places - finding home and finding family what before seemed like impossibly distant pockets. I could run myself ragged trying to see it all, or get caught up the wonderfully slow pace that seems so characteristic of the continent and explore every inch of a small area. I am trying to do both, trying to allow myself to opportunity to get lost in something that is an unexpected suprise; to embrace the flexibilty of a plan unknown.
I thought I was just going to climb Villaricca...I thought by staying in a local's house I might learn a little about the town and save some cash...I thought I might stay for a day or two. Sure I climbed Villaricca...and then Sierra Nevada. I did learn a bit about Pucon...but also was shown the secret buty of the area that surrounds it, that so many people drive right past. I did stay for a day or two, and another day or two and another until a day turned into a week. Yes they laughed at my moments of rigidity but esta chica tan sana, may never drink or smoke, but this trip is a strong partner, and I'mholding on tight and slowly, learning how to dance.