Pucon, Chile

Volcano Villarica – We are coming for you!

Returning to Santiago from Easter Island, we’d booked a couple of nights in an “American” hotel (Ibis) near the bus station because: we had a free night on hotels.com, it was on the route of the airport bus (Centropuerto), and the buses to Pucón left from the south station right next door. At check-in we got a slip of paper the size of a stick of gum with the WiFi and password. After 10 minutes in the room trying to connect our iPhones and iPad to the internet, we had to bring our devices downstairs to the front desk. The guy immediately knew the problem and showed us that you had to go to www.ibis.com if it didn’t automatically come up, and enter the login. Since “everyone” has this problem, you’d think they’d add that little detail to their little paper. It didn’t matter, the internet still sucked. The plus side was the room was small but nice and the air conditioning worked, which is a must if you want a fighting chance of surviving the Santiago heat. We spent two days there arranging the bus, working on the blog and grocery shopping (where we learned from a freaked out employee after we tried to pay with a credit card, that you can’t use the self checkout unless you have cash – to her relief, we did).

Beautiful, rose lined, O’Higgins

We boarded the JetSur bus around 10am and settled into our Salon Cama bus seats. This was the only direct bus we could find and given that it was at least 10 hours, we coughed up the 30k CHP ($45 USD) each for the lower “first class” section of the bus. It was actually very comfortable and had a door separating this section from the bathroom and boarding doors. Our big bus stopped in Villarica where we had to switch to a shuttle bus for the trip around the lake to Pucon. All-in-all the trip was about 10 hours door to door. We arrived to find out the “guest house” El Colono was not at the Palguin 590 address given on booking.com but was across the street at 595, immediately adjacent to a busy bus station. Actually, it was adjacent to 3 bus stations. To add to our disappointment, the handful of reviews (one of which turned out to be by the owner himself) didn’t do the place justice – in the worst way: the scarred room walls were badly in need of painting, the ceiling was bare, partially painted, particle boards, the thin carpeted floor was littered with crumbs and dirt, the window didn’t close all the way, no towels, the list goes on. We went out the first night to some of the tour companies, but they were only open until 8pm on Sundays, so we went on to the grocery store and then called it a night.

The next day dawned a beautiful day and the smoking volcano above the town was a constant awe factor. Today was planning day so we wandered about town visiting a lot of tour operators. The plan was to do biking, rafting and climb that beautiful active volcano. We found, per person in CHP:

  • Pucón Adventure: 20k for rafting, 80k for the volcano (cash only)
  • Summit Chile: only offered volcano tours, 80k cash or 85k credit
  • Sierra Nevada Adventura: 85k for the volcano and 22k for rafting

We were also able to find another hotel to stay in, the much, much, much (wait one more), much nicer Hostel Graciela, that was actually cheaper (after a little bargaining with cash) and included a nice breakfast, toiletries and towels.

We had decided we would bike to Lake Caburgua tomorrow, so we spent the afternoon hunting for bikes. We went to the most notable bike shop in town, Freeride Pucón which charged 15k for a full day bike rental, but they did not have a bike small enough for Cynthia. He did, however, kindly point us to 2 other shops, which included Sierra Nevada Adventura, which thankfully had a bike sized for each of us and charged 12k for a full day. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering down to the harbor, to the black sand (weirdly more like gravel) beaches and through the Plaza de Armas.

We finished the day at La Maga steak house with a very nice bottle of red wine and a huge (500 g) open fire grilled steak; which was very rare. When we sent it back, the waiter commented that if it’s too rare, they can recook it, if it’s too cooked, they can’t uncook it. We learned later in our travels, to get a medium rare steak, you have to say “a punto menos”.

The next morning, after having them inflate the tires, we mounted our mountain bikes from Sierra Nevada and hit the road. Leaving town was very easy, there was a bike path along O’Higgins and Camino Internacional, but that disappeared just after the airport, about 3 miles outside of town. From then on it was a mixture of riding on the gravel shoulder or the slim paved part of the shoulder. It narrowed so badly at one point, that we moved back to cross behind the guardrail at a blind bend in the road and had to squeeze our bikes through the narrow posts of a sign. After that, Warren strapped my headlamp onto his helmet, pointing backwards, and rode behind me; we hoped we were safe. To add insult to injury, the last 4 miles or so on S-905 was uphill which, on heavy, unfamiliar bikes, was a real slog (but on the way back was amazing as we barely had to pedal!). Almost 15 miles later, we finally made it to the lake.

Playa Negra, Carburgua Lake

There was a very beautiful beach, Playa Negra, that was surprisingly quiet. We sat down under a tree near the bike path and had our sandwiches (along with a nice dog that, when he figured out we were not going to give him food, just laid down and slept right behind us). After lunch we stopped at the small grocery on the way out of town to replenish our water supply then rode to Los Ojos del Carburga. This is a formation of waterfalls and pools of very blue water. We were a bit confused because there were two entrances, but we passed up the first one and took the second one and rode our bikes on the dirt road to the guard shack, definitely thankful for our Buffs covering our nose and mouth with all the rode dust kicked up by the cars driving to the site.

At the shack, a woman was outside collecting 1500 per person. We pulled up next to the first car in line. She saw us and came over with a key motioning at the gate we were next to. It was chain locked and behind it was a bike rack in the grass. We locked up our bikes, returned the key and paid. We walked maybe 50 yards through a parking area and some small gift shops and a canopy ride that looked lame. All the places had signs not to ask them about the falls. We walked the left path to the waterfalls and the right path to a pool; the waters of both a sparkling clear blue. We kept seeing people on the other side but found no way to get there. We obeyed the signs and didn’t ask at any of the shops in the parking lot. We surmised that the two entrances probably meant two different owners, one on each side of the stream.

We made our way back to town on the main road again. With the “scenic” bumpy dirt road as the other option, our butts told us to stick with the scary paved road. Back in town, we had more hours we could ride, but our rear ends were having none of it, so we dropped off the bikes and stopped at Kayak Chile where they tried to convince us a Ducky kayak tour would be better than rafting. The cost was 25k per person for a double kayak which included: a cooler with some beers and soda for after the ride, changing rooms, and he’d even throw in pictures for free. A bit pricey so we told them we’d think about it. We walked to Summit Chile to book the volcano but the day we wanted was already booked, so we walked to Pucón Adventure and booked with them.

We had a delicious and moderately priced dinner at Ruca Hueney. We had a burger that was pounded so flat it was more like a 6 inch pancake but was really good (and we learned later that lots of places in Chile/Argentina server burgers this way) and a stewed meat steak with a side of rice (also good). During dinner we had been watching someone with a safety vest put “tickets” on cars as they parked and before the car left, another person with a safety vest came and collected the ticket and their money. The waiter explained that the vested people were basically the summer parking meters.

We decided on the ducky tour since it was something we’d never done. We went back to Kayak Chile to put a deposit down but told them the condition was that they’d have to find a small white wine since Cynthia didn’t drink beer. They weren’t sure about that, so we told the two girls there were small boxes at the grocery store if it came to that. The one girl was taken aback “you drink that? I use it only for cooking!” Cynthia laughed, wagged her finger and said “Don’t judge me!”. They laughed.

Wednesday we moved out of the hovel and into room 7 at Hostel Graciela. The room wasn’t ready so she locked up our stuff and we walked around town, killing time. At a tiny sandwich shop, we ordered an italiano hamburguesa. We’d seen “italiano” on menus everywhere for hot dogs and other sandwiches and now discovered it means heaps of guacamole and mayonnaise (not a fan).

The hostel room was ready early so we put on bathing suits, packed a towel and change of clothes and arrived at Kayak Chile for the 2pm tour. It turns out that we were the only ones signed up so we had our own private guide, José, who was different than the guy we’d spoken to. While waiting for the driver, we were given wetsuits (that we hoped would fit) and fitted with booties and helmets. The driver was a bit late, so after strapping the duckies precariously to the roof, we headed out at 2:30 for what was supposed to be a 20 minute drive. Several wrong turns and 30 minutes later, we arrived at the drop point. Fortunately we had put our bathing suits on beforehand because there were no changing rooms (somehow that didn’t surprise us). Unfortunately, the only thing to hold onto while trying to wriggle into wetsuits was a dusty chain link fence. Warren hopped and danced but only managed to get the first wetsuit to his crotch. With more hopping and dancing, he did manage to get into the second one. He grinned and said it did wonders for his figure. I wondered how he was going to breathe.

Start of Ducky tour

After our onshore briefing, we pushed off into the river. It was extremely cold and unfortunately our guide wanted to make sure we could get back into the ducky if we capsized, so into the frigid water we went. José flipped our ducky and we spent what felt like an eternity righting it in the current and struggling to get back into it…all while not letting go of the paddle – not because it was a costly piece of equipment but because it could be useful in saving your life. That exercise was enough motivation for us to stay in the boat for the rest of the ride. The river consisted of class 2 and 3 rapids with one section a 3+, through which José strapped himself to our kayak to help guide us.

It was a great ride, although Cynthia, who was in the front, didn’t much care for the parts where she was swallowed up by a huge rush of water (from his laughter it seemed Warren liked those parts the best). After about an hour, and a hard paddle to the shore, we hauled the ducky to the waiting car and were rewarded with a cute little bottle of red (oh well) wine and some beer. We took turns changing into dry clothes behind our towel (still no changing room) after which Cynthia finally stopped shivering. We were glad we had a water proof camera because those were the only pictures we did get. Back in town, we stopped by Pucon Adventura to get fitted for the gear needed for the volcano. We marveled at how caked in dirt the shoes were. We didn’t care though – tomorrow we were going to climb the volcano!!!

José recommended the pizza at Pizza Cala for carbing up for the volcano hike. There was an ingredient on the menu “morrones asados” that google translated to Roasted Morrons. We laughed and finally asked the waitress who had to go inside to ask someone else what the English word was. It was roasted peppers. The pizza was fantastic! We decided to get an after dinner drink so we went back to Bero and this is when we realized they gave you the yummy potatoes for free with your drinks. Oh well, we needed to carb up for the volcano anyway

Rising before dawn we made it to the tour operator by 6am and got all our gear: waterproof pants and jacket, “waterproof” mittens with liner gloves (although we highly recommend your own gloves), boots (now fairy clean), helmet, crampons, ice pick, diaper (explained later), plastic butt saucer (also explained later) and gas mask. All but the boots and helmet had been neatly packed in a backpack. They had written our names on a piece of tape on our helmets; Warren’s read Shang since he hadn’t realized the guy was asking for his first name during the fitting. We stuffed our food and water into the packs. The equipment guy quickly stopped someone from bringing along a banana; evidently they get crushed, creating a real mess to clean up.

Crampon and ice pick training

The van was a bit late (seems to be a theme with drivers here) so we didn’t leave until after 6:30. It was a 45 minute drive to the ski resort at the base of the volcano. We were lucky enough to be there on the first day in almost 2 months that the ski lift was running. Riding the ski lift cuts more than an hour off the total hike. It’s an expensive 10k ($15 USD) so we worried not everyone in our group would do it, but thankfully they did. By 8am we were on our way! The first part was mostly loose volcanic rock. As soon as we hit the snow line, we stopped for a rest and put on the crampons. From there it was switchback after switchback.

We had a mother and one of her kids give up, so one of our guides had to go with them. That left 6 of us with a guide and a trainee. Unfortunately, we seemed to be the fastest climbers and the trainee was not allowed to lead a group alone, so we were forced to remain in one agonizingly slow group. The two guides were up front together chatting and would constantly stop abruptly to wait for the slower ones causing us to continually bump into the backs of each other. We finally convinced the guides to reorganize the line so we were up front with one guide and the other guide was in the back so we could maintain cadence because the stopping and starting was very frustrating. After about 4 hours of climbing, with several brief stops to eat and rest, we made the crater. The stench of sulfur, if you got a good whiff of it, was quite overwhelming, hence the gas masks. The crater was spewing plenty of smoke but crane our necks as we might, we were unable to catch any sight of lava. However, the crater itself and the views from the top were amazing!

We only had about 15 to 20 minutes on the crater and it was time to head down. Being on top of an active volcano looking into the smoldering crater was awesome, but there was one more thing we were looking forward to on this climb: sliding down. Instead of climbing down, they carved several sections of half tunnels in the glacial snow for the decent. We (with the guides help) got into our diapers – thick canvas ass covers designed for the slide down. On the slow sections, we were instructed to use the butt saucers to help us gain some speed. Using the ice pick as a rudder and brake, we gleefully slid down the slope of the volcano; sometimes at thrilling – or frightening depending on your viewpoint – breakneck speeds! We were instructed to stretch our legs out if we were going to run into someone to avoid twisting a knee or ankle – they were protected by their backpacks anyway. Running into someone was unavoidable but often helpful to them as this usually occurred when they were stuck on a hump – it killed your momentum but they’d be gleefully launched onward. Unfortunately, the snow ended and we had a long walk on a deeply gravelled road to get to the parking lot, choking on the dust everyone kicked up around us. Now we understood why the equipment was so dirty when we’d gone for our fitting!

What a week! Onto Puerto Varas for some R&R.

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