Part 1: Volcanoes and Beer
And I'm off!!!!
At the start of my solo travels in South America, I had two items at the top of my Chilean bucketlist: climbing Volcán Villarica in Pucón and sampling artesanal beers in Valdivia. So, with my agenda set, I hopped a 9 hour night bus to Pucón, Chile. Even though I would only be traveling alone for a week, I was still a bit anxious about hitting the road on my own. I arrived to Pucón in the early light of dawn and wandered down sleepy streets until I found Nativa Hostel. The young hostel workers were just rolling out of bed but still greeted me cheerfully and offered me a breakfast of fresh-squeezed juice, coffee, and bread as I waited for Beni, the owner, to arrive.
A couple hours later, Beni got to the hostel and I made my lodging arrangements and booked my volcano climb for the following day. Then, it was off to the beach! The touristy town of Pucón sits on a magnificent lake with black stone shores. The beach was crawling with eager young salesmen offering lounge chairs, juice, and quitasoles (beach umbrellas). With a steamy sun overhead, it took little convincing for me to rent a quitasol. Then, I plopped myself down for the day to finish reading Isabel Allende's La Casa de Los Espiritus. As it turned out, this would be the only day I actually spent alone.
That evening, I cooked up a cheap yet satisfying dinner of pasta and tomato sauce and chatted with fellow travelers, bonding over unique cocktails with flavors like espresso and raspberry. The next day, my new French friend Melanie and I were picked up early by the tour agency and taken to the base of Volcán Villarica. This was actually my second attempt at climbing the volcano since the last time I had tried (over a year ago), the weather made it too dangerous to continue. Luckily, the skies were clear this time and the prospect of climbing was promising. We paid the 6,000 peso fee to take the chairlift to the starting point and started climbing!
Volcán Villarica is one of the most active in South America and is constantly spewing sulfuric smoke, visible from miles away! The volcano is a perfect cone with an altitude of 2,847 meters. Since the starting point for climbers is higher up, we would only be tackling about 1,000 meters, which was still a 4 hour climb! Volcán Villarica hasn't had a major eruption since 1971 or even a minor one since 1984 but the continuous stream of smoke rising up from it's peak was still thrilling, if not somewhat unsettling.
The climb itself was very straightforward and, though the final section was steep, it was much easier than I had imagined, especially compared to the grueling three-day ascent of Cotopaxi I completed two years ago in Ecuador. At the top, we got a nice whiff of sulfuric gases and heard the rumbling of the magma deep in the crater below. Incredible. We snapped a few victorious poses and then strapped on our plastic sleds for the best part of the climb: sliding down the volcano!
Thanks to countless previous sliders, the downwards paths were deeply engraved into the snowy descent; in fact, several appeared to be pre-made slides with their snowy walls that extended upward 2 or 3 feet. We raced down the mountain with snow flying up around us, kicked up by our boots and slides. Needless to say, it was thrilling!
That night, the hostel hosted a Chilean-style barbecue and then we geared up to celebrate our successful climb. Beni took a group of us out to a local discoteca and we danced the night away.
The next morning, I woke up early, bid farewell to my half-asleep friends, and got a bus to Valdivia, the city of rivers. Prior to arriving, Puerto Natales had been my pick for most beautiful Chilean city but now Valdivia is certainly a contender! For some reason, Valdivia is not as popular of a tourist destination for most travelers but it is every bit as impressive in terms of natural beauty with rolling, tree-covered hills and an impressive network of rivers extending across the center of town and beyond. In addition to the beauty of the city's location, it is also a rocking college town, home of la Universidad Austral de Chile, among others. During the summer, the students aren't crawling the city, but the young vibe is still present.
I found Airesbuenos Hostel and was preparing myself for a full day on my own until I entered my dorm room, met my Swiss roommate, and then set off to see the city together. Our first stop was the Mercado Central, where we tried a specialty called choritos al ajillo, a bowl of mussels seeped in warm juices with garlic and chili powder. Divine. Then we explored the bosque (forest) on the campus of Universidad Austral before hopping a local bus to the Corral, a small nearby town that offers ferries to nearby islands. We decided to save the islands for another day and, instead, visited the 17th century Spanish fort in Niebla. Then, we made our way to the Cervecería Kuntsmann--my reason for coming to Valdivia!
The Cervecería was packed with drinkers and diners and had a decidedly German feel. I was surprised to learn that Kuntsmann, though with a familial tradition dating to the 1850's, has really only been around since the 1990's. Considering its decided popularity in the rest of the country, I had assumed it had already transcended generations. We made our way to the bar and ordered the tasting: ten different Kunstmann beers, 2 of which are unfiltered and only available on site. The new arándano (blueberry) beer was particularly delicious. After a few sips, my Swiss friend revealed that she hated beer, which was unfortunate in terms of good beer-drinking company, but fantastic in terms of beer-sharing! So, 18 sample glasses later, I was feeling quite content and decided to splurge and order a plate of typical German "spetzle," a delicious bowl of some sort of dumplings with cilantro. All in all, a great experience.
On the way back to the hostel, we stopped by the main plaza to witness the spectacle of a beauty pageant in Valdivia. It seemed as if the entire town was out in the plaza though only a handful of the audience actually seemed interested in what was happening on stage. The fifteen or so girls in the competition paraded up and down the runway in bikinis while we stood shivering in our jackets in the crowd. My Swiss friend noted that they all looked the same which, from the standpoint of American political correctness might seem like a close-minded and offensive comment but, in fact, they did. The typical Chilean standard for beauty is fairly well-established: long brown hair, thin, and an hour-glass figure. After watching a few more struts down the catwalk, we continued on our way, never to know who the Reina de Valdivia would be.
The next day, we were off to see the islands! The same bus took us back to Niebla and from there we got on a ferry to Isla Mancera. The island was quaint and quiet, with the main attraction being the Spanish fort and the beach. We walked the loop around the island, snapped a few pictures, and got on another ferry to Corral. Here, there was a larger Spanish fortification with an impressive stretch of cannons facing the sea. Again, we snapped some pictures and then enjoyed a fish lunch at a local restaurant.
That afternoon, we joined an official boat tour and saw a different side of the river with cisnes con cuellos negros (Black-neck swans) floating gracefully by. Our guide informed us that these beautiful creatures are monogamous for life and, in true Romeo and Juliet style, are so faithful that, if one swan dies, its partner stops eating until it dies too. Now that’s love for you.
The boat stopped at an abandoned mansion whose owners left after the earthquake of 1960 whose epicenter was under the city of Valdivia. The land was forever changed, as the terremoto caused the level of the land to fall as much as 5 meters in some areas, which was in turn flooded by the ocean with the subsequent hurricanes. For this reason, huge stretches of former forests can be seen in the river, their stubby remains sticking up where there used to be shore.
The land surrounding the mansion was at one point owned by the logging industry but, when it was found that some of the species of flora and fauna dated back to Pangea (that is, when the entire world was made up of one continent), the industry decided to donate the land to the government so that it would be protected. After an once of cake and local liquor and a quick trip to Punucapa to try the sparkling cider, it was back to Valdivia where I enjoyed an impressive Brazilian jam session where the musicians wowed the hostel crowd with the hot Brazilian song of the moment, “Ai Se Eu Te Pego,” in 7 different languages. If you haven't heard the Michel Teló tune sweeping the planet, do yourself a favor and click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fo_Mtsnkeh0.
On my last day in Valdivia, I took a private transfer to the Valdivian rainforest, a pricey trip taken to see for myself if rainforests really did exist in Chile. After an hour of uphill driving, we arrived at the entrance and I spent the rest of the day hiking through the wet paths of this temperate--but not tropical--rainforest.
A BUMP IN THE ROAD
I am convinced that no travel is complete without some stumbing blocks along the way. Mine happened on my last morning in Valdivia. I logged onto the hostel computer to check my internet and was shocked to see an email stating that I had transferred 2,000,000 pesos (approximately $4,000) to some guy named Juan Gonzalez. Horrified, I clicked on the email link that always appears on bank emails stating, “If you did not make this transfer, click here.” I was directed to a bank website which asked for my login name, password, and digipass (secret code). Even though the bank doesn’t usually ask for your digipass to log-in, I figured it must be some sort of fraud protocol so I entered the information and waited. Nothing. So, I called the bank and found out that I had been had by a false email. In the end, the email was a fake, but, in putting my information into the faulty website, I had given the thief everything he/she needed to transfer 1,000,000 pesos (around $2,000) into his/her account. Yikes.
The bank assured me that I did have insurance that covered up to $5,000 of fraud but my Chilean friends informed me that, unsurprisingly, insurance companies aren’t too eager to reimburse the money, especially if the fault of the robbery lies with the client. As I already had a trip to the Valdivian rainforest booked, I decided to take care of all the details of the robbery the following day and tried to keep it out of my mind as I enjoyed hiking through the wet, leafy forest. It appears that Chile really does have everything: desert, mountains, lakes, glaciers, AND rainforest.
That night I took a bus to Puerto Montt and then spent all of the following morning taking care of tramites (errands) to try to recuperate the stolen money. I arrived at the police station at 7:30am and was told to wait in the lobby until two agents were able to take me to a different station where they could handle my claim. I was picked up in a cop van and driven to a small office where I explained the situation and the police took notes. Two painfully slow hours later, mainly due to the agent who apparently never played Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, I was given the form I needed and was off to make copies to send to the insurance company.
That done, I went to the bank, where an agent informed me that the police station had given me the wrong form and I had to go back and ask them to do it all over again. I was taking a flight in just a couple of hours to Punta Arenas and this news had me literally running across town back to the station. I arrived, angry and flustered, and, when I told the agent that I needed a different form, he told me that I should have gone to a different station that morning because they didn’t have permission to complete a “denuncia.”
My ability-to-deal level crashed and I broke down into tears. Thankfully, that was enough for the cop to go back, call his boss, and tell me that they would do the form I needed, even though they weren’t generally supposed to. Ten minutes later, with “denuncia” in hand, I was back at the copier, then back at the bank, and finally finished with everything needed to file the claim. I rushed back to the hostel, got an expensive cab ride to the airport, and made it to my gate just in time. Phew!