10/7/12 – 13/7/12 – Pucon, Chile
Everyone is somehow magnetised to Pucon by Volcan Villarrica. People come here to climb it’s 2870 odd meters of glory to a summit that drops into a bubbling caldera of lava and swirling methane gas. It’s a common summertime activity and can be perilous and unpredictable in winter when the entire mountain is snow-covered. We were hoping we might at least get an opportunity to choose whether it might be a viable thing to do. Otherwise we’d be basking in it’s shadow, enjoying the local surroundings, reputed to be naturally beautiful with some great gustation options. Win-win if you ask me.
We get our first glimpse of the conical, snow-capped volcano when turning off the freeway to the town of Villarrica. It’s magnificent of course, solitary in it’s beauty along the horizon, but difficult to view from a moving bus. We get into Pucon mid-afternoon and check into the wonderful Donde German Hostel. A newly renovated, chalet/artisan style hostel with a wonderful wood fire in the main living area and a wonderful room we managed to secure on the top floor with stunning views of the volcano, a bathroom you could ice-skate in and as it was a family room, a number of beds from which to choose.
We rush out and take in the views. The volcano looms over Pucon. It’s impossible to not be drawn to it’s magnificent shape and height and I wonder if this hopeless magnetism is the reason people again and again choose to live at it’s feet. And it’s not like their romantism is without risk, Villarrica is one of Chiles most active volcanos and has recently erupted in both 1964 and 1971. Perhaps their contentedness comes from the disaster infrastructure in place at the foot of the volcano. There’s foolproof direction evacuation signs showing the cartoonised volcano erupting and two street-sign stick-figures fleeing for their lives. There’s also a traffic light system in town with a key explaining each light. Green – the world is safe. Amber – heightened alert, the volcano is active. Red – Apocalypse. This system is coupled by a tower siren that at random intervals throughout the day (including early morning) trumpets it’s test tone throughout the region. You know.. that Britain air rain siren drone that jumps into your brain and resonates almost indefinitely.
So the first thing we did is get lunch.
And we found this great little corner boutique cafe where I had a wholegrain (wtf..!!) sandwich with beautifully smoked salmon with that perfect little Chilean avocado and fresh lettuce.. mix in a bit of olive oil and natural sea salt and it was an absolute delight after weeks of stodge.
We again met Mike here, the Californian from Bariloche. He was here to take in the volcano and scout any seasonal work opportunities if they arose. We spent some great afternoons together taking in Pisco Sours, a local Chilean Pisco, with sugar, lime and sometimes egg. More a cocktail than anything else and as Anthony Bourdain has described ‘kind of feminine’, but nice none the less and not without some great conversation.
Wandering around the rest of town you get the feeling that it’s closed for the season. Don’t get me wrong there’s plenty happening but off the main drag it’s feels like a coastal caravan park in winter. Many of the tour operators are closed as are the bars and restaurants. The places that are open are charming, most have that snow chalet style with log fires and smokey pizza aromas. But there’s these awesome pub-style bars and restaurants that would be overflowing at the seams on a sunny summers day that are recluse and closed now, chased away by the bite off the Villarrica lake.
The day after arrival brings in the clouds and like Puerto Varas, it wouldn’t be until our departure that we see the might of the Villarrica volcano again. A symptom of the season which also meant that unless we had a few extra days to spare, waiting around for a clear, confident climbing day, we would be simply soaking in the beauty of the town instead, minus the ominous view of the volcano.
So we called up Mike again and took in several local walks around town, one along the pebbly beach of the lake. Wandering up to the break, you can feel the frigid coldness of the water. The waters edge leads up to a dry, thatchy swampland at the foot of the surrounding mountains that seemingly stretch endlessly into the cloud cover. The thatchy swamp opens up to an abandoned camping ground; chairs stacked up, fire-pits cold with the chill of winter, wild animal droppings all over the plots that would be canvas to canvas in summer.
A peripheral benefit to volcano towns is that generally there’s the chance of thermal hot springs nearby. We had booked a night-session at nearby Los Pozones, leaving at 8pm and returning shortly after midnight. Being the devils that we are, we bought some cheap Chilean rum, got Mike to invest in a mammoth 2.5 liter bottle of Coke and all shared the wonderful image of some quiet drinks under the stars, broiling away in a Chilean hot spring.
Well after a hectic mini-bus ride on a freezing night with 8 other traveller’s we’re instructed by a bitter old spa-keeper ‘Sin Alcohol’. Fine. For us that means we hang onto our rum a bit longer. Poor old Mike is stuck with a mammoth bottle of Coke to carry around for however long it takes him to polish it off.
From the car-park there’s minimal lighting down to the springs at the bottom of the hill, but it looks like a smurf village; mostly because it’s such a long way down.. so it’s tiny, but also because there’s only the glow of orange incandescent light blubs lighting the path and illuminating the wooden change-rooms. We descended the path to the springs and strangers became familiar as we all change in the open confines of the wooden change rooms into our swimwear. The wood is all dewey from the cold of the night and we make a dash back out and along the pebbly path to the nearest spring.
Descending the wonderfully crafted stone steps you feel fine pebbles under your feet and that immediate sting of warmth. The pool was heated naturally to a beautiful 36 odd degrees. It wasn’t long until it’s almost too hot and you’re waist high out of the water, trying to cool down. We hopped to the next pool which is a milder 32 degrees and shoulder deep in some parts. I had been feeling bad for Mike because he was lumped with a massive bottle of Coke to now look after but fortunately there was some reprieve as some of our fellow travelers had managed to sneak in a cheeky bottle of red past the bitter old spa-keeper AND the straight-from-a-horror-film mini-van driver. Our delightful night of conversation and natural thermal comfort amplified by the natural surroundings and the nearby fast flowing river.
The next day, the volcano clouded in, we again met up with Mike and took in a walk up to the local cemetery, at the back of town, winding it’s way up a nearby hill atop which stood, arms outstretched, a statue of Jesus, protecting those at rest. As on similar occasions we had been chosen by a local canine to be company for the next hour or so as we explored the surrounding forests and local township. It reminds you that it’s not always a human initiated relationship and we found ourselves sheltering this poor canine from other local hounds intent on defending their territory. At the end of our walk, the dog stopped, turned to us and gazed for a moment, then turned and walked home. It was the end of a 2 hour relationship, both parties thankful for the company and not necessarily expecting to see each other again.
We also said goodbye to Mike over a local pizza, some more beer and Pisco Sours. He was heading back to Bariloche for a bit and we were heading north. Unable to hang around for a summery day to climb or even see the volcano again, we leave somewhat regretfully. Nex
t stop, Santiago, Chiles cosmopolitan capital, at the tail end of an 11 hour bus trip along the Andes.