A Travellerspoint blog

February 2010

Pucon and the Lakes District

Volcanoes, lakes and hot springs, these are a few of my favourite things

15 °C

Pucon and the Lakes District
January 26 - February 3 (9 days)

Hola amigos!

Well, after finally leaving our adopted city of Vina del Mar, we had an eventful bus trip south to Pucon, in the heart of the Lakes District.

The buses here make our Grey Hounds and Fire Fly Expresses look outdated! Chilean buses have fully reclining seats that turn into a “semi-bed” (or you can take a full sleeper bus with a complete bed). We were immediately lulled into a sense of security and comfort that ended abruptly about 3 hours after departure in the Santiago bus terminal. As our bus was reversing out with new passengers aboard, another bus was reversing at the same time and they somehow slammed into each other (well, given the general chaos at the bus terminals it wasn’t such a surprise!). The bus window on the opposite side of the aisle to Ben and I shattered, but the glass panel remained in place. To our surprise the driver continued to drive and we sped down the highway at 100km / hour. Ben and I asked if it was safe, and we were told that we were going to the bus depot to transfer to a new bus, and not to worry. However a short 20 minutes later there was an almighty explosion as the shattered window gave way and glass exploded everywhere. By a miracle the 3 little children who were seated near the window were untouched by the glass, and Ben and I were fine, just a little shaken by the suddenness and volume of the explosion. We all transferred to a new bus, and continued our journey without event. The strange thing was the way it was accepted so calmly by all, even the father of the 3 children who had only just escaped flying shards of glass. In his words: “These things happen”. Ah, the Chilean way of going with the flow!

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As soon as we arrived in Pucon we fell in love! The town looks like it belongs in a movie set! Beautiful log cabins lined the streets, with open aired cafes full of glamorous people sipping espressos and chubby kids eating “helado” (ice-cream). Adventure tourism shops are everywhere, and there is no shortage of thrill seekers or tourists wanting some outdoor action. The tourist dollar means prices are high, so much so that a hot chocolate cost aussie $5. The centre piece of the movie-set town is the Villa Rica volcano that sits majestically in the back drop, snow capped and mighty. Beautiful Pucon itself is a lake town, set on a magnificent lake of dazzling blue calm water where mountains meet the water’s edge. The lake beaches have black, volcanic sand and are very popular with Chilean tourists who are quite happy to pay $5 for a beach umbrella to give a bit of shade. Ben and I thought it was a much better idea to spend our $5 on a beer at the beach cafe, where they not only provided shade and a view of the lake beach, but also live music that was fantastic!

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So, the highlights of Pucon in a nutshell;

Thermal Springs (Los Pozone in Rio Liucura Valley). WOW! Nothing beats soaking under a star studded midnight sky in hot thermal springs!

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Bike riding; We rented bikes for the day and rode up up UP UP and UP to a waterfall 5 km out of town. It should have been an indicator that it wasn’t a clever idea to bike ride when the locals pointed and laughed!! I pushed mine up most of the hill, but to Ben’s credit he was able to ride up most of the way. Sweat sweat and more sweat! But a stunning waterfall with a 95 metre drop.

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Hired a car; After physically exhausting ourselves with the bike ride we decided to hire a car and drive around the lakes and waterfalls instead! We visited Lake Carburga to see “Blanca Playa” which is known for its white sand. Haha! I think the locals must sit and take photos of expectant tourists, waiting to be dazzled by the white sand, only to find a murky mud like sand instead! So glad we had the car so we could drive straight out again! From there we visited more spectacular waterfalls and lakes. The area is really just so beautiful, and reminded us a bit of New Zealand.

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Music Festival; We met up with a great bunch of people (all Couch Surfers) and spent a night at a music festival. The night was meant to start at 9. Ben and I got there at 10:30, worried we were a bit late. But in true Chilean time the first band didn’t start until after 11! We boogied away to a rocky mix of jazz and reggae. Lots of fun!

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National Park Huequeque; This is a national park well known for its beautiful mountains and lakes. We did a 14 km day hike through lusciously dense pine tree forest, although a torturous hill! Again we just kept going up up UP, until it reached the point where it really wasn’t much fun anymore and we wondered how high the hill climbed! When we did get to the top it was well worth it- a pristine mountain lake awaited. It was way too cold for me to jump in, but Ben stripped off and swum out to the cliffs that came down to meet the lake. It was such a beautiful park and worth the aching body to explore it!

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Climbing Volcano Villa Rica; Our alarm went off at 5am, and tempted as we were to kill the alarm and go back to sleep we managed to drag ourselves out of bed, put on our hired climbing gear, and stumble onto the mini-bus that took us to the base of the volcano. We had chosen the perfect day to climb, as there was neither wind nor clouds to threaten our ascent. The first 2 hours of the climb were fun. The panoramic views of the Villa Rica national park and the Lakes District were breath taking. The snow was luscious and pure white (except for where walkers had been and it was dirty looking). In parts the snow was soft and our boots sunk in, but as we got higher the snow became icier and we had to use the snow picks to dig in to secure our route. As 2 hours turned into 3, and then 4 the layers came off slowly as our bodies got warmer and warmer (and sorer and sorer in my case!). We reached the crater after 4 ½ hours of climbing and while everyone else ran to get pictures of the volcano crater I collapsed in a relieved heap! Then came the wind gusts which blew toxic volcanic fumes over us all. Black gas passed over and through everyone and all the asthmatics (including me) started to wheeze and cough, and reach for our ventolins! Not quite the romantic crater moment I had envisioned! Just as I was thinking “It doesn’t matter this is amazing! Incredible!” my contact blinked out of my eye, leaving me half blind on a craters edge! At that point I just had to laugh and eat a lot of chocolate!!! The crater itself wasn’t full of red lava like the movies, but was a dusty ash, with black volcanic sand and toxic gas. The view from the top was worth the sore muscles and sulphuric air. The decent down only took an hour, as we slid down the snow and ice on pieces of canvas like toboggan sleds! It was by far the most fun part of the day, and Ben and I had competitions to see who could get the most speed going down the mountain (I won of course.......really... cough cough!)

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And that is some of our highlights of Pucon!

Following Pucon we caught a bus to Puerto Montt, a not-so-inviting port town that had only one highlight for us: the boarding of the Navimag ferry, a 4 day cruise along the south coast of Chile. We would never have been able to afford this cruise had we not been given it for an engagement pressie, and let's just say - having just come off the cruise - it was a pressie to remember.

So much so we'd like to dedicate our next blog to it.

So ... stay tuned!
Much love
Chelle and Ben

Posted by CBAdv2010 22:16 Archived in Chile Comments (5)

Vina Del Mar and Valparaiso

Living domestically by the beach and the sea

sunny 25 °C

Vina Del Mar and Valparaiso
January 16-25 (9 days)

After bidding chiao chiao to Santiago (note: no-one, anywhere says Adios, or Hasta La Vista baby here - they clearly have not watched Terminator), and saying goodbye to our decadent hotel, we started the slumming it part of the trip by heading to Vina Del Mar, about a 3 hour drive north of Santiago. Chile has got a first class transportation system and you really do travel comfortably - no rickety-rackety death traps round here (yet!). It almost feels like you are doing it too easy, and I'm assuming our Sydney state transport ministers went to a different school of politics than our Chilean friends.

Upon arriving in Vina Del Mar, we were picked up by "crazy Mirta", who was to be our host for the next 9 days. Mirta ran a family hostel in Vina, and spoke as much english as I (Ben) do Spanish - i.e. hardly a brass razoo. Mirta was highly flappable, very eccentric, and couldn't stop talking - an absolute crack up. Mirta's hostel also became a place where we got a taste of actually what it might be like to live in Chile. We originally went for 2 nights, decided we'd do some intensive Spanish lessons in Vina, and ended up staying for 10. We were based off the main city streets out of tourist zones and had a self-contained room that felt like our own unit. It was all highly domesticated, even if it required creativity in a kitchen the size of an airplane toilet and a lack of luxory items like salt and oil.

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Vina Del Mar sits on the coast-line of Chile and has long stretches of beaches that are heavily populated even on overcast days, and each beach is an eclectic mix of rainbow coloured umbrellas, merchants selling ice cream, water and beach toys, and girls and boys in skimpy swimwear - no budgie smugglers coming out from here though! On our first day of arriving in Vina Del Mar we met some Argentinians in our hostel who took us to Renaca beach, the most popular beach. Renace, like most Vina beaches, is for sunbaking not swimming as the waves are all dumpers amongst a competing body of rips, and the water often plunges from waist height to metres deep in the space of centimetres. Not that this stops people jumping straight in of course - but us beach-hardened Australians are far too smart for that.

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The city of Vina Del Mar itself is, like Santiago a very safe tourist-friendly place and very well policed - in fact they are everywhere, on horses and dirt bikes (true!). Chelle and I were trying to think of how we'd describe Vina and along the beach coast-line we would call it the love child of the Gold Coast, and inner city Sydney - trendy, tanned, hot and slightly identity challenged. There are skyrisers lining the horizon in all directions and there's plenty of obviously touristy set-ups for cafes and restaurants and the token casino on the beach. There's also, however, some upmarket shopping and dining to be had. It's an interesting mix, which often shares only one common denominator - Sydney prices.

Away from the coastline Vina Del Mar has wide open streets, with a market stall to be had every few metres and street performers EVERYWHERE: clowns, jugglers, fire twirlers, puppeteers - even some Australian dancers!! (OK - that may have been us). Interestingly a lot of the performers choose the traffic lights as their chosen stage, waiting for the red light before starting a quick 2 minute routine. Certainly beats those windscreen washers, and I'm thinking I might be writing Sydney council a suggestion letter.

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We were also fortunate to be in Vina on the night of the Chilean elections when Pinera - the billionaire harvard trained economist - got voted in as president, marking the first time the right had got back in power for about 5 decades. We went down to the CBD of Vina to be a part of the atmosphere and crazi-ness that surrounded it. Horns were honking consistently for hours and flags were everywhere. It felt more like a soccer match than a political election - I guess us Australians just don't care enough to get this excited about politicians.

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About 15 minutes from Vina Del Mar - and in some ways a world away - is the port town of Valparaiso. Whereas Vina can often be quite monotone, Valparaiso is an explosion of colours in all directions. It has high built narrow streets with walls covered in street graffiti, and is peppered with hostels, art galleries and cafes once you start exploring away from the main plaza. A very eclectic artisan style city, it also boasts the funiculurs, cable railways that date back to late 19th century and assist with transportation up some of the steep hills that surround the city. Many are part of the historic quarter of Valparaiso which has been protected by UNESCO.

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Whilst one can get lost in randomly walking the streets of Valparaiso, it also does not feel like a safe city at night, and so our visits there consisted primarily of day trips. We were lucky in our timing as the annual Valparaiso Vivo ("I live") festival was on, and on the last day a parade is held down the main streets of the city which feels like a mini Rio Carnival. People come from all around South America for it, and form a mix of drummers, dancers, floats and musicians. It's an energising atmosphere and helps to make up for some of our pain at not being able to be in Brazil for Carnivale over the next month.

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The carnivale ended our domesticated Chilean experience and it was time to catch an overnight bus 14 hours south to Pucon for some adventure and to really get stuck into travelling.

So ... to Pucon we go!
Love
Ben and Chelle

Posted by CBAdv2010 21:02 Archived in Chile Comments (2)

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