Monday, May 30, 2011

Weeklong trip to the Lakes Region -- Final leg: Puerto Varas

Our next and final stop was Puerto Varas, about 100 miles south of both Valdivia and Pucón.  Puerto Varas is a small, lakeside town (about 50,000 residents) that is well-known for its German heritage, the Osorno volcano off in the distance, and its kuchen (german cakes)!  Puerto Varas is often considered the "Doorway to Patagonia" and is is surrounded by lush green pastures and tranquil towns that are meant for exploring.

We arrived in the early afternoon drizzle, made our way to the hostel past the large, very-German-looking Puerto Varas German church.  That afternoon was filled with exploration on foot of the town and a trip to the much smaller, picturesque town of Frutillar -- to seek out the region's best kuchen.  (note to readers, you must look up the pronunciation of this word and repeat it in your most forced German accent throughout this post).  After a long walk from homely upper-Frutillar to the beautiful lower-Frutillar on the lakeside we strolled the quiet streets and made enquiries with the locals as to where we could find the best kuchen.  We were directed by a tour office guide (who looked like he knew his kuchen) to a small shop called "Kuchenladen".  There we enjoyed the dense pastry and a double café cortado, and, drunk on our kuchen we strolled back around the beautiful Teatro del Lago Theatre (considered the largest in Chile and the best acoustic concert hall in South America).

The next day Julia and I caught a bus east toward the Petrohue waterfalls, rumored to be a beautiful sight.  We explored the falls (swollen by the recent rainfall) and surrounding trails, and tried to picture the vista if the low, grey clouds weren't obstructing our view of the snowcapped Osorno volcano.  

After the waterfalls we flagged another bus to carry us on to Petrohue, which is not really a town but more a calm, ominous end of the line for travellers catching boats over the waters and into Argentina.  The low grey clouds and steep, densely-treed mountainsides that fall directly into the water give this area a rough and tranquil character. 

We made our way back to Puerto Varas, on a packed microbus half full of local berry pickers and their buckets of red berries.  Back in town we gathered our bags, sought out our final kuchen, and walked through the dark streets to the bus station to make our way home to Santiago.

The church in Puerto Varas.
View of Puerto Varas from the waterline.
German heritage in Frutillar.  Note to English speakers....this building is not what you may think it is.
The Teatro del Lago Theatre, almost out of place in this tiny town.
The theatre up close.  Very cool with the colored planks of wood.
Julia and me at the Petrohue waterfalls.
A random waterfall in the Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park (where we saw the big waterfalls).
Very lush vegetation.
The small harbor in Petrohue.
The forest ranger's post -- note the volcanic ashe that has consumed the building (that wooden piece to the right is the door).

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Weeklong trip to the Lakes Region -- Second leg: Valdivia

After a 4-hour busride southwest we arrived in Valdivia, a town founded in the 16th century by Chilean hero Pedro de Valdivia.  The town and its outskirts boast stone fortresses from the days when the Spanish fought the native Mapuche people and other forces.  The 150,000 inhabitants of Valdivia now make it a small, bustling modern city that is home to some of the most important universities in Chile. 

We cruised the fish market (muy autentico!) and gazed at the sea lions swimming near the shore, waiting for some fish scraps from the mercado.  In the drizzle we walked around the campus of La Universidad Austral and explored their botanical garden. 

On our second day we caught a small bus to Niebla, a place barely noticeable on the map to check out one of the stone fortresses built high above the shore of the river.  Interestingly, the 9.6 earthquake in 1960 nearly totally destroyed this fort, which was rebuilt in the 1990's (mainly as a tourist attraction, I would say).

Julia and I tried to leave Valdivia on Thursday, but the buses were unavailable due to the heavy holiday crowds.  Our final day in Valdivia was windy and wet, with the high winds tearing off the window on the roof of our hostel.  To keep our 55 year-old hostel owner from balancing on a 10-foot ladder, and for my own entertainment, I had the fun of doing some temporary window repair until a permanent replacement could be made later that day.  We spent the rest of the night without electricity and played cards with our fellow hostel-guests to pass the time. 
Fish market -- lots of fish, muy buen precio.
The sea lions wait for the throw-aways.
View of the river from the bridge to la Universidad Austral.
Beautiful tree-lined walkway to the university campus.
Sweet Pea (ahem, I mean Julia) standing on a fortress outside the city.  Pedro de Valdivia got his picture taken here too!!

The friendly duck at our hostel. 
Me, on a rickety ladder on the 4th floor of our hostel fixing the broken window .

Weeklong trip to the Lakes Region -- First leg: Pucón

In the week before Easter Julia and I set off for the southern Lakes Region of Chile -- mostly for an adventure but also to escape the stuffy air of Santiago and to experience some rain for once (it has rained -- really rained -- maybe twice in nine months here in the capital city).

Our bus traveled about 9 hours south through the night and dropped us off under grey clouds in Pucón, a small but bustling lakeside tourist town.  Pucón is best known as an adventure destination, with access to all the outdoorsy things that adventurers like to do:  mountain biking, rafting, rock climbing, trekking, etc.  We made our way through the quiet city streets (due to it being the off-season) to arrive at our quaint and comfortable hostel La Bicicleta.

The service from the hostel owner was great, and after some (real!) coffee Sweet Pea and I (I mean....Julia and I) rented two mountain bikes and reserved a spot in the volcano expedition crew for the next day.  With the bikes we made our way to the rumored-to-be-beatiful Ojos de Caburga (Eyes of Caburgua) about 8 miles away.  The gravel road was steep at times and the drizzling rain and low clouds made for an ominous and beautiful excursion. After a soggy picnic lunch we finally made it to the waterfalls.  We climbed around the falls and afterwards we asked the old man at the entrance of the gate for the story behind the "Ojos" -- if it was named for some mythical monster or had some other interesting folklore -- only to hear that Caburgua is name of the lake that the waterfalls help drain.  Disappointed, but not deterred, we made our way back to the city along the desolate paved road.  That night we shared a dinner in town with some of our fellow hostel-mates and prepared ourselves for the 6 am wakeup call to hit the volcano.

The next morning Julia and I arrived at the expedition office at 6:45 am, where we were handed our own mountaineering boots and a backpack filled with a jacket, outdoor pants, crampons, helmet ice axe and....a small plastic slide.  Our group of 20 and our 5 guides piled into vans and started the 45-minute drive to the base of the climb to the top of the 9,300-foot active volcano.  At the base we had the option to pay another 5,000 pesos to ride up a ski lift and avoid the first leg (of four) of the 3,500-foot climb.  Julia and I declined -- Julia being the only female in our group to do so -- and we started our ascent.  Each step up brought us closer to the smokey summit of this volcano, one of Chile's most active.  The hours rolled by and we were still climbing, taking in the sunshine and the spectacular views of Pucón, the lake, and the surrounding mountain range.  About halfway up our guides helped us strap on our crampons and we continued up the steepest part of the climp to finally come face-to-face with the sulfuric-smoke-spewing crater. We reached the summit at about 1:30 pm, after maybe 5 hours of climbing.

After taking in the views we started our way down, which included a few long sled rides on top of the plastic slides included in our trekking gear.  Exhausted and satisfied we piled back into the vans, made it back to Pucón, and spent the evening relaxing with a beer in our hands and looking at Villarica at a distance from our hostel balcony.

[A little story about the Villarica ("Viya-rica") volcano trip -- when I first saw the price of the excursion to the top of the volcano I thought it was way overpriced.  35,000 Chilean pesos (around $75 USD) seemed like a lot for a hike to the top of a big hill. I was completely mistaken and happily surprised with the result....]

Ojos de Caburgua, just outside Pucón.
Early morning start on the Villarica volcano.
Making our way to the top.
Our crew.
Sulfuric smoke from the crater.
At the top, I never knew just how awesome crampons are.
The crater!
Julia sledriding back down.
View of Villarica from our hostel balcony.  This was the only clear day for the entire 8-day trip!