Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Santiago to Sur Chico Chile

The bus trip from Mendoza to Santiago took about 8 hours including the  2 we spent at the border crossing. Our route from Mendoza to the Andes wound past several vineyards, giving me ample time to bid farewell to wine country. It will look so different if we come back in December when the vines actually have foliage and fruit. But even in their desiccated dormant state the perfectly straight, precisely spaced rows of vines pruned expertly in preparation for a new growing season were beautiful. Beautiful and full of potential. 

The pass through to the border was gorgeous. Luckily the road was free of snow! We passed a few deserted ski hills before we gained enough altitude to actually see one that was still open. The border control immigration and customs was a surprisingly well organized affair but it took us nearly 2 hours to get through nonetheless. Formalities were completed in two stages: first we walked from the bus into the station where we got our exit stamps for Argentina and our entry stamps for Chile. Then we had to wait on the bus while the line progressed through Chilean customs. Eventually we were lead off the bus into another area of the station where we were assembled in two rows and instructed to put our bags on the tables in front of us. A police dog walked the tables, sniffing all the bags while an official took our customs declarations.

Having been through a Chilean border crossing once before we were prepared for it to be thorough and remembered the stringent regulations about bringing in fruit, nuts, seeds, etc. This time I took care of our grocery bag and answering the official's questions about what we were carrying. One thing they seem extra concerned about is honey. So, I assured him we weren't carrying honey as he began his inspection of the grocery bag. Half a second later he pulled out our jar of homemade aji that was wrapped in a plastic bag, obscuring the contents. Thrusting it in my direction, the official repeated his question about whether we had honey. Again I said no and told him it was salsa picante but he undid the bag to check anyway. We got searched again after the x-ray scan showed a honey-jar shaped container. They take the honey thing very seriously. So, in short, don't even think about bringing honey across the border into Chile. They'll getcha.

One of thousands of flags displayed in recognition of Fiestas Patrias.
We emerged on the other side of the pass under a hazy (smoggy?) sky and arrived in Santiago a few hours later. While reading up on the city in preparation for our arrival we discovered that we would be there for a national holiday known as Fiestas Patrias. It's sort of an independence day but relating to both Chile's emancipation from military dictatorship as well as earlier liberation from colonial rule. We thought it would be neat to see yet another country's national holiday. What we didn't realize is that this year the country had been granted basically a 5-day weekend because of when Fiestas Patrias fell. Moreover, the traditional way to celebrate involves going out into the countryside or to a big park where there are fondas (at least for families; if you're a young adult it seems the beach is the preferred destination). As far as we could gather, a fonda is a food or drink stall set up temporarily for a giant party with a whole lot of drinking, music, folkloric dance, traditional foods, etc. We didn't get the chance to experience it. Instead, we found ourselves in a city normally inhabited by nearly 6 million people but which had virtually become a ghost town. There was practically no traffic and only a handful of people walking around. Shops and restaurants were shut. Even grocery stores were closed. Liquor kiosks were wide open though. At first I was describing it as the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse but there really wasn't enough carnage to justify that depiction. Maybe more like post-Rapture. But even that.... everything was meticulously closed up, barred, gated, secured: evidence of a premeditated mass exodus rather than an unforeseen event. Suffice it to say it was an utterly surreal experience simply finding the city so quiet and more or less inhospitable.

To make matters worse, we'd been counting on using the post office in Santiago to send home a parcel of things we'd been carrying since Buenos Aires. Topping things off, once we got to our hostel we discovered that all of our cables for charging iPods and Kindles were missing. We don't know what happened to them but we checked with Karma and they weren't at Little Tibet. Hence, we were left needing to replace a pair of cables in a city where nothing was open. Lacking any other option, we decided to hunker down and wait out Fiestas Patrias.

Our first evening we had the dreadful experience of attempting to dine at one of the bars near our hostel. After surveying the hand-written menu posted beside the door, Chris ordered an "Italian" style hot dog. It ended up being a Viennese sausage topped with more than an inch of mashed avocado, diced tomatoes, and at least half a jar of mayonnaise. Vile. Anticipating that the cuisine would be about that calibre, I had elected to just drink my calories, suffering through a mediocre pisco sour. Luckily a street vendor strolled by and we snagged a small bag of highly palatable spicy peanuts to round out our dinner. The next day we chanced upon the tasty seafood restaurants in Mercado Central while looking for fruit or any sort of nourishment really. We had an expensive meal (crab stew for Chris and grilled salmon for me) but it was worth it. Our evening hunt for sustenance was also providential. Following the echoes of a crowd down a corridor between buildings we stumbled into Patio Bellavista - a huge inner courtyard area full of decent (open!) restaurants just off the same strip where we'd found the bar the previous night. Pizza, steakhouses, seafood, Peruvian cuisine... even a McDonalds! Our dining woes were over!

South America's tallest skyscraper under construction in Santiago.

Brightly painted stairway on Cerro Sta. Lucia.

It looked like something was going to happen...
why else would they have put up barricades??
While we waited for the resurrection of civilization in Santiago we took the time to visit a few parks near our hostel. We climbed up Cerro Santa Lucia, one of two hills in otherwise flat Santiago, to stroll through the botanical garden and check out the cool castle that overlooks the city. Walking past the Plaza de Armas on our way back we discovered that barricades had been set up to close off the plaza and there were a few dozen cars parked in front of one of the government buildings. National Police were securing the area, television crews were setting up equipment, and a sort of marching band had assembled on the street across the park from us. So, we figured there was going to be some sort of speech or formal celebration of the national day. We found a spot along the barricades and waited. And waited. And waited. There were other people waiting too. If it weren't for their collective patience we probably would've concluded nothing was going to happen in the foreseeable future and left. But they persisted so we persisted. After more than an hour some mounted police rode up to where the marching band was and the music started. Then they walked away from the square, disappearing around the block kitty-corner to our vantage point across the square. Next the doors to the church across from us opened and a large group of people filed out. We couldn't really see anything but the camera crews monitored their movement. Some of them got into the waiting cars and others crossed the square and walked past the barricades and then us. That was it. Apparently we waited more than an hour to watch the start of a mini-parade and a bunch of politicians/bureaucrats leave church. Maybe we saw Chile's president. No idea.

Marching band assembled in front of a church across the Plaza de Armas.

Feeling more ambitious the next day we climbed up Cerro San Cristobal, the larger of Santiago's hill-parks. There used to be a funicular (trolley car that ascends and descends steep hills) and a teleferico (gondola) but both are out of service right now. So we hoofed it. The views from the top were spectacular, especially looking east towards the mountains. Aside from a zoo, a children's park complete with two swimming pools, and a botanical garden, the park has a giant statue of the Virgin Mary that overlooks church pews separated by gorgeous flowerbeds built right into the hillside.

The Santiago skyline. Just a bit smoggy that day.

Finally it was Thursday. The extra long weekend was over and Santiago came back to life. Our first stop was the post office where we were overjoyed to part with a big box of our personal belongings and some gifts. Hands down, best post office experience yet. It was the absolute model of efficiency! Slow clap for Chile. Next we tracked down an electronics store recommended by our Santiagan friend Marco (met him in Puerto Iguazu) but had no luck replacing our lost cables. We returned to our hostel to pack up and catch a bus to Valparaiso. Good thing we have to come back to Santiago before we fly home because we sure didn't get to experience much of what it's really like!

Valparaiso, or Valpo, is a beautiful city of colorfully painted houses perched precariously over the ripples of 42 hillsides overlooking the sparkling port. Extremely steep, winding streets reminded us of Quito while the abundance of ceviche joints brought back memories of coastal Peru. We stayed at hostel recommended by our friends Colin and Michelle - an old warehouse converted into funky accommodations and an art school. There we made friends with Kevin, a Poli-Sci/Economics graduate from North Carolina who was on a 9-month teaching stint in Santiago. The three of us took a short walk up from our hostel to get a better look at the port. Valpo has an incredible amount of graffiti. Good graffiti. We could hardly go a dozen meters before Chris stopped to take yet another shot of the interesting artwork.

Strolling the streets with Kevin.
Designs made with bottlecaps (left wall) and broken tiles (right wall).
On our way back to the hostel we collected a couple that we'd actually met in Santiago - Karolina and Fredryk from Sweden. They had spent one night at our hostel after finding themselves in a rather dodgy accommodation their first few nights in Santiago (i.e. by-the-hour rooms) and they'd been thinking about going to Valpo next too. We told them where we were staying and they decided to book there too. The five of us ended up combining our dinner efforts and sharing a nice meal together at the hostel, enjoying some Chilean malbec and carmenere as well. We even went out to a nearby bar for a couple of beers so Kevin could fully enjoy his mini-break from Santiago.

On our way up to La Sebastiana.

The next day we all went up to see La Sebastiana, the former home of Chile's most famous artist/poet/diplomat, Pablo Neruda. It was a pretty cool house, full of random artifacts from old ships and antique furniture. The ocean views were spectacular. Since the house is now a museum there's an audio tour you can listen to as you wander around. That was good because I didn't really know much about Neruda himself before going there. Fascinating man.

La Sebastiana.

You weren't allowed to take pictures of Neruda's house - just the view from its windows. And what a view he had!

Bathroom. These three colors were all you could get for bathroom tiles back in the day so Neruda bought all of them to make a more funky bathroom.

After a quick set-lunch at a little comedor near La Sebastiana we wound our way down to the waterfront and walked northwest until we reached Ascensor Artilliaria - a funicular that takes you up a cerro (hill) of the same name. At the top there were great views of Valpo and the sea along with dozens of touristy trinket shops and some cafes. We decided to walk back to our hostel, trying to make our way from cerro to cerro without descending to El Plan, the flat, waterfront portion of Valpo.

Eye see you funicular. Oh groan.

View of the port.

Enjoying the sunny day and good conversation with our friends we weren't paying much attention to our surroundings other than ensuring we kept heading in more or less the direction of our hostel. As we passed a dilapidated building at the intersection of three steep streets an old woman called out to us in Spanish but we didn't understand her. She pointed in the direction we were going and wagged her finger. Then she pantomimed driving. We thought maybe she was telling us to watch out for cars whipping around corners on the narrow streets. Continuing in the same direction we made sure to stay on the sidewalks where they existed. Then, from an upstairs window down a shaded sidestreet a shirtless man asked us in English where we were going. We pointed down the street and he shook his head, pointing back up the street.  So we went that way instead, figuring it must've been a dead end the way we were headed or something. A little ways further I was deep in conversation with Fredryk when I heard Karolina shouting at us to stop. I looked back and she was standing with a woman who was shouting and gesturing wildly at us. A minibus was passing at that moment and the woman flagged it down, then starting yelling for us to get in it. We were terribly confused, hesitating where we stood, but then she started pantomiming having her throat slit and pointing in the direction we were headed. That message was blatantly clear. We got on the bus. In all the chaos we barely had time to thank her before we pulled away and left her on the curb, shaking her head at the stupid gringos. We still have no idea what the danger was but I'm guessing we were lucky that woman intervened. Kevin had to catch a bus back to Santiago that afternoon, leaving us and the Swedish couple to continue musing about the afternoon's misadventure.

For our final day in the Valpo area we decided to visit the city of Viña del Mar. It's more of a vacation destination than Valpo, having access to nice sandy stretches of beach, dozens of waterfront hotels and condos, as well as a fancy mall. Perhaps it will come as a shock that the mall was the real reason for our visit. Usually we avoid malls like the plague but we still needed to find replacement cables for our devices and we figured this was a good bet. We were right. It took far longer than we'd hoped but we managed to find both types of cable. Hurray! After a quick lunch in the foodcourt we made our way down to the beach to meet up with Karolina and Fredryk. We spent the rest of the day relaxing in the sun, watching kids (and some crazy adults) brave the frigid waters of the bay.

That night we decided to splurge on a nice seafood dinner, ostensibly spending the money we'd "saved" by not getting mugged the previous day. After consulting Tripadvisor we chose an interesting restaurant where the chef comes out and talks with all the patrons before deciding what to make them for dinner (we were dreaming of Tiestos in Cuenca). Unfortunately it ended up being closed for renovations so we went to another place nearby. The food was delicious! We started with baked oysters and then 3 of us had fish dishes with risottos and Chris opted for crab stew again. We also sampled a few regional microbrews that were quite tasty.

Chris and I had been having some difficulty deciding where to head after Valpo. Part of this indecisiveness related to knowing we're traveling in sort of an off-season for most of what interests us about Chile; it's just getting to be spring here so most of the hikes and outdoor activities we'd want to do aren't open/available yet. The other part of it probably stems from us getting a little bit tired of travelling. GASP!! I know. What a horrible thing to say! How could that be??? Don't get me wrong - we are still loving this adventure and being off work for such an extended period. It's just the logistics of actually travelling that get to you after a while. Sure, we love being places and doing things there, but planning transportation, accommodation, etc gets tiresome after 9 months. Also, we really felt like we didn't want to just go to some other city, same old same old. We wanted to get out in nature and use our new tent and camping gear! Again, this was complicated by uncertainty about weather conditions. We finally settled on heading a few hours south to the small city of Talca - a good base for some multi-day hikes into the national park Altos de Lircay.

We arrived in Talca too late in the day to get any information about trekking in the park and we needed time to pick up supplies, particularly a lightweight campstove. So, begrudgingly, we booked 2 nights in a hostel to give ourselves an organizational day before escaping into the wild. First thing the next morning we visited the local Sernatur (government-affiliated tourist info office). We were disappointed to be told that hiking in Altos de Lircay was not recommended at this time of year but the clerk recommended a refugio-style hostel in another area near Talca. Refugio del Tricahue, located in a valley near the park of the same name, offered good access to day-hikes AND a fully-equipped kitchen available to campers. It sounded perfect.

We spent the rest of the afternoon stocking up on food supplies for our stay at the refugio. We scouted out the central market for cheaper fruits and veggies, scoring a tasty set-lunch at one of the little comedores inside. It took us quite a while at the grocery store as we struggled to plan out meals for 4 days. Sheesh, our domestic skills have sure gotten rusty with all this time on the road! In fairness, the planning was a bit complicated by the fact that we weren't sure whether the refugio had a fridge. So, we had to plan meals without any raw meat or other ingredients requiring refrigeration. Eventually, after a quick trip back to the market to buy bags of nuts and dried fruit, we felt we were set - although we shuddered when thinking about how heavy our packs were going to be.

Tricahue parrots - where the park gets its name.
The next morning we caught a minibus to the town of Armerillo, asking the driver to drop us off at the refugio. It all worked perfectly and we were greeted by the owner, Dimitri (a Belgian expat), and his two dogs, Kxai (catch-eye) and Bkn (bahcun). We were immediately enamored with the setting - a wide valley, bisected by a river, overlooked by scrub-covered rocky peaks. The refugio itself was tucked into a quiet treed area behind Dimitri's own home. Our campsite was sheltered by bushes but still nice and close to the main building of the refugio (i.e. the kitchen and bathrooms). We settled in quickly, gleefully putting up our tent in the fresh air and sunshine. Next we (and the dogs) went for a short hike - a circuit called El Tata just inside the Park. It was beautiful. El Tata is actually the name of an ancient tree that towers over a small river rushing around huge boulders and deadfall. It was such a pristine setting. Just what we'd hoped for!

Kxai looking out over the valley on our hike to El Tata.

Our first night ever in the tent went very well. Despite barely-above-zero temperatures outside, we were warm and toasty in our mountaineering tent and down sleeping bags. I was really happy with the sleeping mat too. Good call upgrading to the self-inflating ones. The best thing is that we managed not to let in any of the tarantulas. Yah. Well, technically they're just tarantula-like spiders. But that doesn't make them any less scary. We had to leave our big backpacks outside the tent, on the ground in the vestibule. As expected, there were totally spiders under our bags the next morning. Chris had seen one when he went to get something out of my bag and then wasn't sure where it ended up. Fearing that it was squashed on the bottom of my bag I went to have a look, nervously tilting it until I could see that the bottom was free of spider guts. I decided it would be a good idea to get my bag off the ground so I picked it up and walked it over to a tree where I hung it on a sawed-off branch. Only when I stepped back did I see the giant spider crawl off the strap where my hand had been a mere moment ago. Shudder. I watched it move from my bag onto the tree trunk and waited until it was a safe distance away from my bag before I grabbed the bag and returned it to a stool-seat near our small picnic table. Into the wild indeed.

Later, we took Dimitri's advice to make the most of a sunny day and hiked up a small mountain called La Campana a few kilometers from the refugio. Dimitri drew us a map of how to reach the trailhead and we set out after packing a lunch and recruiting Bkn as our unofficial guide. Dimitri had mentioned a gate we'd have to pass through about halfway to the trailhead. When we reached it we found it closed, locked and bordered by barbed wired stuffed with branches to close up the gaps. There was also a big sign announcing that this was private property. We weren't sure what to do since Dimitri had clearly told us to pass by the gate. Eventually we decided to just go for it. I had to lift the dog over to Chris before scrambling over myself. After glancing around to make sure no one had seen us we continued down the dirt road. Not far along we came upon a truck and a man working in the bushes. We said hello and made to pass him but he called us over, asking where we were going. We pointed up at the mountain and said we wanted to go up there. He said something about this not being the way so we produced our hand-drawn map, telling him we were friends of Dimitri and that he'd said we could go this way. The man was clearly bemused by this and began giving us a bit of a hard time about the gate we'd obviously climbed over, ignoring the "keep out" sign and other deterrents. Abashedly, we apologized and asked if we could please pass. He admonished us for a few more minutes before waving us on. Awkward....

La Campana. The higher peak in the background was our final destination.

Woodpecker we encountered during our hike.
A little while later we found the 4x4 road that was the start of our path. The hike was grueling. Steep inclines on slippery loose rocks and sand; dry heat and no wind. Everything was burning by the time we made it to our next landmark - an antennae about 2 hours from the start of the 4x4 road. From there we got on a small trail to make our way up to the summit. Bkn was suffering a bit from the heat but was having no trouble with the ascent, bounding up the trail and then waiting for us in a shady spot. When we thought we were finally nearing the peak we climbed up around it only to see the true peak emerge, towering another 300 or so meters above us. It was a tough but rewarding journey. From the top we had 360-degree views of the surrounding valleys and mountains, including a snow-capped volcano in the distance. It was beautiful. Aside from being incessantly pestered by big, flying beetles while we ate our lunch, it was absolutely perfect. I even stretched out on a sun-warmed slab of rock for a power-nap while Chris took photos.

We took a slightly different route back to the refugio, avoiding the private property we'd crossed on the way up to the hike. Interestingly, when we told Dimitri about our encounter he immediately asked whether we'd told the man where we were staying. Haha. It turned out that we were kind of pawns in an ongoing dispute about public access to hiking trails in the area. Dimitri told us that some of his neighbors have decided not to let people pass through their properties anymore, meaning that some hikes are now totally inaccessible. Dimitri's having none of that and, evidently, continues to send his guests the same way he always has. He told us that he still runs every day through the exact property we crossed and that the man doesn't say anything to him. Usually. Haha. Oh well. In another land (not mentioning any names, ahem, USA) we probably would've had a shotgun pulled on us for trespassing so really it wasn't that big of a deal.

Our second full day at the refugio was overcast, cold and rainy. We made a big fire in the refugio and spent the day reading and catching up on photo-editing and blogging. Another guest arrived that evening - Estelle from France. She had a conference in Santiago and had managed to barter for a few extra days off before it started so she'd flown directly from Paris to Santiago and then bused immediately down to the refugio. Despite all that travel she was remarkably alert and friendly. She did go to bed pretty early though!

The next day we decided to join Estelle on a hike up a volcano with Dimitri as our guide. The weather had cleared up and Dimitri was successful in getting permission from the carabineros (police) for us to enter the government property in which the volcano was located. We drove about 45 minutes in the direction of the border until we reached a control point. There ended up being some confusion (one bureaucratic entity not communicating with another) and we got tied up for a few minutes while Dimitri sorted things out and the guard made some phonecalls. Eventually we were granted access and headed on up the road, past a now-deserted townsite (we understood it was only inhabited during the construction of the hydroelectric dam) to a gate. Chris got out to unlock the gate but it turned out that we were given the wrong key. So we drove all the way back to the control office to exchange the key. We were just glad we hadn't walked all that way! The second key worked and a few kilometers further we arrived at the trailhead.

The scenery was magnificent ("magnifique", in the words of Estelle). We hiked up to the volcano crater in about 2 hours, finding it not as strenuous as the hike up La Campana, though the last portion of the ascent was up a steep pumice stone slope that made it feel like we slid back half a step for every one we took up. More breathtaking views welcomed us from the rim of the crater. The fiery red rock lining the hole and rim made it feel like we were on Mars. Gorgeous snowy peaks surrounded us and we even saw a condor soaring on the updrafts. Those are the times I really love traveling.

Starting the hike up the volcano.

Dimitri and Estelle decided to go down into the crater for their lunch while Chris and I walked around to the other side. The stones were so warm it was hard not to fall asleep as we relaxed and waited for the other two to rejoin us. Awesome, awesome day.

Just an average day, walking along the rim of a volcano crater. Yup.

Relaxing after lunch.

That night we had to go "out" for dinner because somehow we'd managed to miscalculate the number of dinners there'd be during our stay. Oops. Luckily there was a family-run restaurant called Fosforito just 300 m from the refugio. Estelle joined us and we had a pretty darn tasty home-cooked Chilean meal: cabbage salad with a lime dressing, vegetable rice, and chicken cooked in a vegetable and herb mixture. The family didn't interact with us too much but were very friendly and patient with our Spanglish. The father also "saved" me when a spider got between me and the exit as we went to leave. Eep!

Out of provisions and having already booked our bus tickets to head further south we had to leave the refugio the next morning. The weather had turned overcast again so I guess it was a good day to go. We had a few hours to kill in Talca before our departure so we dawdled around, having coffee at a cafe and then lunch at a "German" restaurant. With a little time left, Chris decided to run back to an electronics store we'd visited earlier and buy a protector case for our external hard drive. Meanwhile, I went to pick up snacks for our impending 8-hour bus trip. We'd agreed to meet on a corner by the supermarket. After shopping I went there and waited for Chris. And waited. And started worrying that I was in the wrong place (lord knows there's a reason I'm not the one in charge of navigation on this trip). I waited longer, nervously watching the time, and finally Chris appeared, jogging towards me looking apologetic and frazzled. Apparently the staff had taken forever getting the case out of their warehouse and Chris had no choice but to wait because he'd already paid for it. With minutes to spare and 15 blocks to the bus station we took off, darting around the lazy pedestrian traffic, sweating profusely from the afternoon heat. We just made our bus. Panting and fanning ourselves while the other passengers stared unabashedly at the crazy gringos we swore we would never cut it so close again.

And so we headed south, out of "middle Chile" to the region known as Sur Chico. Some of you probably noticed no mention of any visits to Chilean wineries and now I'm telling you we left that part of the country. I know I know. The problem is the lack of accessibility. To visit any of the regions you pretty much have to rent a car and call ahead to make reservations at each winery. That may not sound like much of a hassle but this is Chile, not Canada. Booking a tour is possible in Maipo or Maule but they are outrageously expensive and actually don't include transportation (I think they'll arrange it for you at an extra cost though). We decided it just wasn't worth it. Personally, I think that Chilean wines tend to be less exciting than those from Argentina. In general they seem to be more about maintaining consistency in bulk production than in developing character wines at the boutique level. But I will definitely admit that I haven't done any in-depth research of the Chilean wine industry so maybe I'm just telling myself that so I feel better about skipping its wine country. On the other hand, it's true that wineries are all quite similar so once you've done a few tours it's kind of pointless to do more unless you really want to see a particular operation. That said, we decided to invest in a few private tastings of our own (i.e. just buying bottles from the supermarket to drink at our hostels) instead of visiting more wineries. Maybe we'll regret it but for now I'm happy we spent some time in Tricahue instead.

Our next destination was Pucon, a small tourism-driven town in the La Araucania part of Sur Chico region . Pucon is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, offering river rafting, lake kayaking and other water sports, a seriously imposing snow-capped volcano to summit, dozens of hiking and mountain biking trails, and canopy activities like rappelling. There are also several thermal baths to recover in afterwards. Our plan was actually to see if we could do a multi-day hike into Parque Huerquehue. Once again we got in too late to get any information on the day of our arrival. Even worse, the next day was Sunday and the Conaf office was closed. Our hostel's owner was a helpful resource, however; Peter, an expat from Holland, told us we could do a day hike in the park but that there would still be too much snow to do the full trek. We resigned ourselves to that plan but decided to wait for the weather to improve, spending an extra day in Pucon.

That night we made the most of the poor weather and visited the Termas Pozones - the area's most natural hot springs, consisting of rock-lined pools next to a rushing river. An Aussie girl named Rebecca (Beck) joined us and we added another couple during the drive in the minibus. It was a lovely evening - once we found the hottest pool and opened our box of wine.... I know. Box wine? For shame! It was all about not having glass bottles on the rocks. Safety first people! The other couple turned out to be a good source of info on car rentals in Bariloche as they'd done just that in order to make the trip to Pucon. We're planning to rent a car in November for when Tim and Kayla meet up with us so it was good to get the scoop on their experience.

The next day was a mostly lazy one. We definitely could've done the day hike in Huerquehue - the weather turned out to be much better than forecast - but we hadn't picked up food or anything so we stuck with our plan to do it the following day. In the meantime, we took a picnic lunch to a small park on the lake and then walked along the beach for a while. The beach wasn't actually sand but coarsely crushed lava - not so gentle on the feet! We spent the rest of the day making some upcoming travel plans, lounging in the hostel with Negra (the dog-in-residence), and getting organized for the next day's hike.

Lago Villarica.

There's a volcano hiding behind those clouds...

Another attempt to capture the volcano peeking through the clouds.

An early-morning bus ride brought us to the entrance of Parque Huerquehue. There were 3 other gringo couples on the bus; one of them, a Belgian couple, were actually from our hostel. We set out in our individual couples but crossed paths a few times along the way. The hike itself was awesome. Not too difficult, save for the condition of the trail. It was really mucky and there was even a layer of snow at the highest elevations. Nothing we couldn't tramp through though. The path started at a beautiful lake and then wound up past two waterfalls before going over a pass to 3 more gorgeous lakes. We endured the cold in order to have our lunch looking out on one of the pristine lakes. Super super day.

Starving after our big hike, we decided to treat ourselves to a dinner out (we've been cooking a lot lately). We stopped at Latitude 39, owned by a couple of Californian ex-pats. I had a delicious deer burger and Chris had fish tacos, "Cali-Mex" style. Mm mm mm. The owners were chatty and excited to hear about our travels. They did a similar thing many years ago before settling in Pucon. We confided that Chile is the first country we've been to on the trip that we could actually see ourselves living in. Not anytime soon though - don't worry Mom. And that was it for our time in Pucon. Which is good because this may be the longest blog post to date. I'll leave you with the incredible photos Chris took during our hike in Huerquehue. Next stop - Chiloé island!

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