Saturday, June 1, 2013

Winter is coming

       I think I can say I have done the coolest thing in my life at Pucón, Chile. Pucón claims to be the extreme adventures destination in Chile´s lake district. It´s a small town surrounded by mountains, lakes, volcanoes, waterfalls, and rivers. It reminded me of Sisters, Oregon. Small town in the middle of forested mountains and snow. In Pucón you can hydro...something, when you wear a wetsuit and body board down river rapids, go white water rafting, hike, climb the volcano, horseback ride, and zipline.

Volcán Villarica standing over Pucón

       We didn´t do much on our first day since the weather was bad. Our main goal for Pucón was to climb Volcan Villarica, an active volcano that stands overlooking the town. If you´re lucky when you get to the summit and look down into its crater, you can see lava! The weather is really unpredictable and the trek is completely dependent on the weather conditions. We decided to stay an extra night than originally planned so we could climb this beast on a Wednesday. Even then, it was still just a possibility. *Fingers crossed*

       Our second day, it stopped raining, so we took a bus to Parque Nacional Huereque to hike around and see the lakes and waterfalls. This place is literally dotted with waterfalls. I felt like I was in Oregon again, amongst green trees and post-rain, muddy hiking trails.

The waterfall is actually taller than it looks here in this oddly wide photo

        That evening our trek guide met with us to give us our briefing. Good news! Weather forcast for Wednesday was clear. All trek groups were going to try to climb the volcano. I was so excited, and also really scared. I heard the last bit of the climb up is a steep glacier and you have to wear crampons (spikes) and use an ice pick. I was imagining climbing vertically up a wall of ice. I have never done a trek through ice or snow before. But our friend did the climb the previous week and she was we would be fine, too, right? If she can do it, we can do it... right?

Our trek guide is the owner of his tour company. He provided us with hard shell snow pants and jacket, snow boots, crampons, ice pick, backpack, helmet, and gloves. We also had a second trek guide. I found that reassuring because the other groups only had one guide. I also found it really reassuring that our guide climbs this volcano nearly everyday during busy season (Jan-Mar). The longest consecutive time he has climbed this 2800 meter volcano was 28 days! During off-season, he works up in northern Chile at the mines to control avalanches there, as well as at ski resorts. What a badass. Also, that day was his birthday! All he wanted to do for his birthday was climb Villarica and then go have an asado (barbecue). He was so happy and his cheerfulness was contagious and it was just the best day ever.

Rocking the crampons

        We were picked up at 6:45am from our hostel and arrived at the base of the volcano at around 7:45. During the drive my blood was pumping with adrenaline. I was so excited! We started hiking up at 8:00. I think living in Cusco at close to 4000 meters and doing the treks there has turned me into a bit of a mountain snob. I looked up at the volcano, turned to Mallory and said, ¨You know, this really doesn´t look that bad.¨ About a third of the way up, the ice and snow got thick and we stopped to put on our crampons and learn how to use them and the ice pick. We practiced sliding down the mountain and braking ourselves with the ice pick. Then we continued on up, stomping through the ice, higher and higher, and steeper and steeper. Towards the top, we were climbing up a 45 degree angle... on glacier ice. This is the part I was scared of. I really had nothing to be scared of. We weren´t scaling up a wall. We zig-zagged our way up, stomping with the crampons, and using the ice pick for support. I really enjoyed the crampons. They made me feel invincible, like I was defying gravity, haha. Don´t get me wrong, if you don´t stomp hard with the crampons and you slip, you will slide down FAST.

I don´t have a protractor, but it sure felt like climbing up a 45 degree angle of ice

        Since the weather conditions can change at any second, our guides have to check the weather at every break  to make sure it´s safe to continue on. The previous climb up the volcano the week earlier, the groups were nearly at the summit, but the conditions worsened, so they had to turn around and climb down. Luckily for us, we had the most incredibly perfect weather conditions imaginable! The view from up there was beyond breathtaking. It was surreal. You could see the other snowy volcanoes and mountains, the blue lakes, the green and orange autumn colors of the forests. We reached the summit close to 2:00 pm. We walked up to the edge of the active volcano´s crater and could see smoke rising from its depths... and... smell the rotten-egg odor of the sulfur. Unfortunately, no lava. I didn´t particularly want to dive in to see it, either. Smoke and sulfur smell was good enough for me.

The crater at the summit. The photo didn´t quite capture the smoke, unfortunately.

     The descent was so BEAUTIFUL. I have already described the picturesque view. Just imagine facing that while hiking down about 1500 meters. Normally when I´m trekking, I have to remind myself to look up and appreciate the surroundings because I´m so focused on watching where I´m stepping. The best part about crampons and ice is that there are no rocks, poop, or tree roots to avoid. All you need to do is stomp into the ice and enjoy the view. It was AWESOME. Best $80 I have ever spent. We arrived back at the base at 3:30 pm. We made really good time. We were told that groups usually finish the trek at 5:00 pm.

The summit of Volcán Villarica!

     Later that evening, we went to Los Poscones, natural thermal baths a 45 minute drive away. The nice thing about being surrounded by volcanoes, is having thermal baths or hot springs nearby. It was a great way to relax our tired muscles and end an incredible day.

Coolest thing ever

       Next we bussed further south, but back to the Pacific, to Chiloé. Chiloé is the big island of Chiloé archipelago. It is well known for its seafood and indigenous folklore. The chilotes (the people of Chiloé) have thrived on rural fishing. Salmon farming has been recently introduced and now the economy has turned to industrial fishing. It´s really unfortunate because these newly introduced salmon are not native to the area and are causing disastrous ecological consequences. The mythology of these islands is really interesting. The indigenous chilotes believed that the serpent twins, Ten-Ten and Coi-Coi created the archipelago in a battle with each other. Ten-Ten is creator of earth and raised the hills. Coi-Coi is creator of the sea and raised the waves. Their mythology involves superstitions like brujos and brujas (wizards and witches), and Trauco, an evil spirit that hides in the forest and preys on unborn babies within their mothers´ womb. La Pincoya is the goddess of the sea and is married to El Pincoyo, god of the sea who seduces her with his singing. We checked out the towns of Ancud and Castro. Both are cute sea-side towns. Los palafitos (houses on sticks) built over the water and painted bright colors are iconic in these towns.

Los Palafitos

The brightly painted Iglesia de San Francisco in Castro

Chile has been good to us this past month, but it´s time for Argentina (granted, we´ve already popped in its borders when we went to Mendoza) and its side of the Patagonia. Onward south! Winter is coming!

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