I am writing this post from an apartment in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with a fan on full blast and having just had a cold shower to try and deal with the heat and even worse, the really high humidity. Right now, the snow, rain and wind in the south of Chile seem a world away. But more about Rio later, this is about the two weeks I have just spent exploring the IX (Araucania) and X (Los Lagos) regions of Chile. I truly think these regions have some of the most amazing landscapes in Chile with the added bonus that the climate is not as harsh as further south in Patagonia. I have become fairly used to seeing the gigantic Andes towering over Santiago, but in the south there is not only the Andes, but within it, there are some of the most picture perfect volcanoes you could ever imagine. Literally giant volcanic cones with snow-capped slopes and in some cases plumes of smoke too, reminding us that the earth is very young and extremely active here. The geographer in me was very excited with these amazing vistas. So being surrounded by volcanoes for much of the trip, it is fairly obvious that many of the activities I did revolved around climbing, hiking, photographing and generally admiring these natural wonders.
My first volcanic experience was high up in the Andes close to a place called Icalma and very close to the Argentinian border. I went there with Patricia (who is a German friend I met in Santiago who is now living in the south) and her Chilean boyfriend, Alfonso. Patricia is volunteering with a rural tourism network and through this has got to know many of the Mapuche people living in the region who are involved in tourism or artesania (handcrafts). So we went to stay with Hector, a local guide, his family and his parents on their small farm. Again I loved getting to meet Mapuche people and again, so many of the stereotypes I have heard from other Chilean people were unfounded. Hector took us in his little old car to try and climb an extinct volcano nearby (Batea Mahuida) which is characterized by its flat top.
The first obstacle was trying to get the car up the road as far as possible which was rather difficult in the soft sand and in the end we had to slide back down the steep road for about 150m due to the sand. We started to walk up the rest of the road, but the weather turned bad and clouds obscured the volcano, but just when we were probably going to turn back a car approached. I didn’t understand the conversation between Hector and the two guys in the car, but soon the driver was getting out to clear the back seat and give us a lift further up. I was a little confused when I saw the handcuffs and gun he had, but they seemed nice enough and obviously everyone else knew what was going on. I was still lost throughout the 5 minute journey and only after they dropped us higher up the slope, did the snippets of conversation I had caught make sense. They had been asking Alfonso and Patricia about two black guys who had been on the same bus as us from Curacautin and where they got off and where we thought they were from. It turns out they were drug traffickers and this route to Argentina is famous for this type of activity due to its remoteness. Never a dull moment in Chile! But back to the volcano…in a small break in the low clouds we got a view of the lakes nearby in Argentina and the extinct crater lake of this volcano. We still decided to walk up to the top (being flat and not very high, this wasn’t that difficult), but the weather was icy and it was extremely windy and we actually didn’t even have a view from the top as we were in the clouds. Thankfully Hector knew where he was going as I would probably have got lost trying to get down in the clouds. Back at his farm later on, the weather cleared, we had a gorgeous sunset and view of the volcano. Typical…
The next day we went walking in the mountains with Hector’s mother, who as a fairly old woman had far more energy than Patricia and I and even bought knitting along on the walk. We were looking for a cow that was pregnant and had not returned to the farm for the previous two days, so we went looking for her to see if she had given birth somewhere else. We didn’t find her (she found her later all fine and still very pregnant), but had a great walk through Araucaria forest , finding petrified wood (picoyo) for Alfonso to use for artesania and we even hopped across a dilapidated fence to say hi to Argentinian soil…no wonder drug traffickers like this area…
The next two days were spent in the most magical national park I think I have visited so far this year, Parque Nacional Conguillio. Alfonso, Patricia, Fito (a friend of theirs and local guide) and I headed to the park early on Saturday morning. The rain of the previous days had disappeared and we had two days of gorgeous weather. This was extremely lucky as the weather in the south, even in summer, can be very rainy and cold. We did have a bit of bad luck though, in the form of a puncture about 4kms from the entrance to the park. This shouldn’t have been a big issue and I thought the tyre could be changed while we admired the amazing views of Volcan Llaima nearby, however it turned out that Alejandro did not have the ‘key’ to release the spare tyre. No cellphone signal in this area, meant that we picked up all our bags and food and headed towards the park and Alejandro walked in the other direction to get a lift back to Curacautin and fetch the vital key. The walk wasn’t so bad, apart from the fact that we hadn’t packed with the idea of hiking a few kilometers with everything since we were expecting to be dropped at the campsite. We got there in the end and set up camp near a beautiful lake with a snowy, Araucaria covered mountain backdrop. Fito knew the park officials and so we were let camp for free and almost ‘illegally’ since apparently the camping season had not officially begun. This meant that we had the whole place to ourselves which was fabulous. The two days in the park consisted of lots and lots of hiking through Araucaria and Congui forests,
around lakes and up mountains to get amazing views of Volcan Llaima (meaning Tongue of Fire) and Volcan Villarica a few hundred kilometers further south. There are also two other volcanoes in the area, so this region is incredibly active. Volcan Llaima last erupted on 1 January 2008 and the lava flow is still very much evident. This is one of the most active volcanoes in South America and has a history of the most violent eruptions. But never fear…at the entrance to the park was a sign board stating that the danger of an eruption was low…phew! Volcan Villarica I will talk about later, as I got up close and personal with that one…Hiking with Patricia, Alfonso and Fito was good fun and we had many many laughs. Plus Fito had an amazing knowledge of the fauna, flora, geography, volcanology and culture of the area, so it was brain overload on the interesting facts. But by the end of two days of hiking we were exhausted and rather glad to get back to Curacautin for a well deserved shower and comfy bed.
The next day was a ‘rest day’, which we spent meeting local artisans in Curacautin that Patricia has got to know. Being a small town news travels fast that there is another foreigner in town and I could have spent days meeting everyone who for some strange reason wanted to meet me. One person actually was a little disappointed that I was from South Africa, and sadly more white than them. My next adventure was in Pucon which is a very touristy resort town on the shore of Lago Villarica and I went with the sole purpose of climbing Volcan Villarica. Patricia decided to skip this part of the journey after the exertion of the weekend hiking. Again I can’t believe how lucky I was, as the day I arrived in Pucon the volcano was hiding behind thick clouds and the day after I summitted, the clouds and rain returned. So in a 24 hour window, which was the only day I had in Pucon I managed to do the hike. Many people I know have visited Pucon for at least a few days and not been able to do the climb due to weather.
I woke on the morning of the hike, opened my curtains in the hostel and was greeted by the Volcano with the snow capped peak a soft pink due to the rising sun. Wow!!! What a start to a great day!!! Volcan Villarica is 3487m high and is also one of the most active volcanoes in the area and it is constantly smoking. This was definitely the most technical ‘hike’ I have ever done (crampons, ice pick, helmet and gaiters were needed) and I can honestly say it was the most difficult hike of my life. This was mainly due to the incredible steepness of the volcano, the slippery ice, deep snow and really strong wind. I was extremely nervous during most of the ascent, especially after we witnessed a girl fall and fail to use her ice pick to stop herself. She fell about 500m down the steep slope and I honestly thought I was watching someone die. Our guide tried to run across the slope to catch her as she came past, but didn’t reach her in time. Thankfully there were lots of groups below us and two other guides managed to stop her. Miraculously she survived and didn’t even break anything. But if she had fallen in a different direction, the ending would have been very different. After that every step I took, I made sure my ice pick and crampons were firmly gripping the snow/ice. The going was very slow as we zigzagged our way up the slope and although it was tiring, I coped better than I thought I would. I sent a silent thank you to Guy for making me climb so many other mountains in Patagonia earlier in the year – good practice. Finally after 5 hours we made it to the crater on the top and I was so excited to peer down into the smoldering earth below…only there was no spitting magma as I had seen in many pictures, just really thick smoke which burnt your eyes and throat when you breathed it in. It was still an incredible experience to see the crater as well as the amazing view of 5 other volcanoes in the area (including Llaima where I had been the weekend before).
After about 20 minutes at the top, we were all totally frozen and the wind was so strong that we headed down. In all my other hikes on snowy mountains this year, I have always been more nervous going down due to the greater risk of slipping. This was no different, despite the crampons and ice pick, so I took it really really slowly. At one point Richard (our guide) told us that instead of zigzagging, we should just walk straight down the slope digging in our heels with the crampons. What the hell…he made it sound like we were on a gentle hill rather than a really really steep volcano!!! But in the end I trusted him and headed straight down, which worked well and was a lot easier on the knees. It also meant we went down a lot faster. About half way down, we changed tactic again and strapped on thick canvas ‘bags’ to our butts (almost like a nappy) and proceeded to slide down the rest of the mountain. Again, this seemed totally counter-intuitive to me as I had spent the whole day focusing so hard on NOT sliding down the volcano and now I was told to do it on purpose…But it actually was really fun and is quite slow. We made a long train of 8/9 people which made us go a lot faster and it meant we made it down the last half in minutes. Eight and a half hours later we made it to the bottom just as the top of the volcano was becoming obscured by clouds again. We were totally exhausted, but really thrilled at our achievement and celebrated with the best tasting beer of my life back in Pucon!!! This experience will definitely be one of the highlights of my whole South American adventure.
My final volcanic experience on this trip was about 7 hours further south of Pucon where Patricia and I visited Puerto Varas and Frutillar – two towns on Lake Lanquihue. We arrived in Puerto Varas to rain and again the volcanoes (Osorno and Calbuco) were hidden. Only on our second day in the area did the clouds clear and we got the most incredible views of picture-perfect Osorno. The bonus was that the clouds cleared while we were on the lake on an old wooden sailing boat watching a sailing regatta. The regatta was rather confusing to us non-sailing folk and we actually had no clue when a race was happening or who was winning, but it was fun to see all the boats anyway.
These two days of the trip felt like we were actually no longer in Chile, but rather in Germany. About 150 years ago, Germans colonized a lot of the south of Chile and their influence is still extremely strong today…in Frutillar the houses, immaculate gardens, names of restaurants and hotels, food, basically everything is quintessentially German. Patricia felt right at home. The only thing that would have reminded me that we were actually in Chile would have been the view of the volcanoes, but at this point they were still in hiding. The next day the clouds teased us the whole morning, but eventually in the afternoon cleared to reveal the volcanoes. I don’t know how to explain this, and some of you probably think I am mad for being so fascinated by them, but to me volcanoes have the most intense energy and I just couldn’t get enough of looking at them and admiring them. In actual fact, the local Mapuche people feel the same and only the Lafkenche Mapuche that live on the coast have shamans or medicine men as these people find the energy of the volcanoes too strong to live high in the Andes where the Pehuenche Mapuche live. But whatever it is about volcanoes, they have a definite unexplainable force and I would love to live somewhere in the south of Chile where I can see these amazing forms every day…who knows…
 The high Andes are home to the magnificent Araucaria trees which are native only to Chile and Argentina. The English name is Monkey Puzzle tree and according to Wikipedia the name originated when the tree was first grown in England someone commented that it would puzzle a monkey to find a way to climb it. This is due to the really sharp, geometric ‘leaves’ and really hard branches. The Araucaria trees hold a lot of symbolism and importance to the people of the Andes and the Piñones (seeds) are really tasty and are used to create loads of different dishes etc. They are also towering giants that grow up to xxm and can live to 2000 odd years.