Published: January 16th 2007January 10th 2007
We´re still not working the Spanish lingo correctly. The bus back to Santiago was just under 7000 Pesos, being 14US. We got nailed for a short collective (fixed rate taxis), and then a 10 min cab ride in Santiago cost us more than the same 7000 Pesos for a 1.5 hour air-conditioned bus ride. Even funnier, an evening taxi taking 15 mins cost half of the other taxi ride, go figure…..
Entonces, we joined for our booked tour, Santiago to Rio via Ushuaia (southern most city in the world) with Dragoman Overland on January 3rd. Both very much looking forward to the Patagonia experience, we listened through the trip intro meeting with guides & drivers Zoe & Hugo. First surprise for Bin was that that contrary to African tours, on this trip there was no majority of Ozzies. Surprise for me was that my age was still well below the average age of all participants! There are retirees from the US, Ireland, and 2 near retirees from Australia. And then also a few younger Europeans. Trip will include a lot of camping, some hostels, a lot of participation and also cooking and doing the dishes. As there were too many
people signing up for the tour, Dragoman actually had 2 trucks going south, one with 13 and our truck with 16 passengers.
First night was still in the meeting hotel, and later in the morning we had Kirsten, a good work friend of Bin´s, joining us for the trek south. The night was still spent in Santiago, so we had some time to walk around, have a quiet dinner, and get to bed in time for an early start.
First drive day took us south towards the wine regions and then onwards to a campsite near a small waterfall. Real destination was Pucon, in the Vilarica National Park (with the same name volcano), but that was too much of a drive for one day. One first indication here was that no wineries were booked for a tour, so we were turned away at a first winery, pointed onwards at a second, and asked to wait at a third…. To find out that the tour guide had actually gone to see a doctor. Anyoldway, we did get a wine tour, not overly interesting, by a young lady initially refusing to speak English, and then turning out to master the
language well enough to sell bottles….. and for some reason the selling part took a long, long time, and paying in US$ had a price advantage of nearly 20%, so my wise decision/suggestion was that we could nearly buy a 4th extra bottle instead of 3, if we paid with US moolah, Kirsten making the cash advance with freshly imported currency.
As the whole initiation of the new travelers was a bit improvised, less structured, than it could have been, the first camp night didn´t go all that smoothly. But we did get a nice dinner, we did get the tents up in time, and everyone did get some sleep in the end. But there were already some arguments brewing here and there.
Second drive day brought us to Pucon in the end, a small city thriving on outdoor activities in the summer, and skiing in winter. Nice camp site, with reasonable showers and bathrooms, good supermarket, and plenty of choice for iced coffees for Bin !
We had to drop by the tour operator for booking the guided trek up the volcano one of the next days. And again, chaos, mahem, no structured questions, no clear
answers, maybe yes, maybe no, please sign there for US$90 per person. Don´t think either of us was sure what we signed up for, but we were starting at 7am the next morning.
So of we went, in small busses being raced up the mountain Niki Lauda style, till a first stop near a ski lift, some of us bursting for a toilet stop s the promised 10 min ride had taken a good 30 mins. Most of us not in the knowing that there was an on the spot payment of the optional ski lift of an extra US$10, and then turning out to be a ski lift without any chains or bars to keep you in your seat….. noice. Optional it was, but after queing with approx. 250 others, we did make it up in one piece, but still chaos ruled……
By the time we actually started walking it was already 9.30, so 2.5 hours gone just to get to the start of the trek. Project management is probably hard to find in this country. An impromptu instruction on how to use the ice pick, as it may save your life…. Ehm…. May.
itself took 4 hours through the icy snow, zig-zagging up the steep slope, occasionally stopping for a breather and a photo. Some getting a bit of altitude sickness near the top, but all making it in the end. The views are great from volcano Vilarica, but the ice & snow made it occasionally hard to keep your footing, and nearing the 2800m
summit, some of us did run out of breath a bit.
Most did feel a bit rushed, not getting that much time for a breather, or just to take in the great views (and snap them). Looks like the guides were on a schedule, probably for when the pub opened. In the back of our minds also that unclarity that we´d actually slide down the volcano, rather than walking down again. Considering the steep incline of up to 40%, the idea didn´t settle with most of our stomaches.
Funnily enough, this wasn´t on S American time, and we did make it up to the top in 4 hours, almost on the dot ! There was no more snow near the crater, and the rock was clearly warm from the activity underneath. There was plenty of steam
and smoke coming out, an occasional rumble as well, and when looking down we did actually see some lava being spat up. Not much, but still very spectacular !
We spend over 45 minutes at the top, quite enjoying the view, but then, alas, the same chaos in going down; what are we doing, what should we wear, how long have we got.....
After gearing up in waterproofs etc, we did walk down approx 500m down the same path through the snow/ice. Bin not feeling too secure in the process, but a guide from another trekking company was kind enough to help her down. In the delay, we missed most of the explanation of a guide on how to use that very same icepick as a brake when sliding down the volcano on your bum..... in the end, the only good thing was that we were last, so we could see the others experiment, as well as them evening out the snow track with their bums for a smoother ride for ourselves.
Needless to say it did out to be tons of fun, sliding down. We did get very frosty and slightly bruised, definately very wet, bums
after the 4 odd slides we took down, and did make it all the way down in about 1.5 hours ! A bit of bumping into people, a bit of padeling to keep the speed up from time to time, and occasionaly helping out fellow travellers who were a bit nervous, and not having any guides around to help them. All good in the end, with a bit beer at the end as a welcome chaser.
On day 2 we took it easy at the camp, taking a leasure steamer cruise on the lake for an hour, and then waiting to get picked up for the hot springs.... waiting.... in the end getting the owner at the camp site to call the same touring company that sort of got us up the volcano the day before, and no, we were supposed to get to their office, they never pick anyone up.... unlike they did the day before.... so we did get picked up, had to work out a deal/rebate, and then got taken of to the hot springs approx 40 mins out of town. Quite nice, but also after seeing the entry prices of the hot springs, the commision for the ride in was over 300%..... and as Bin said it quite well, Pucon has turned out to be a bit of a tourist trap, which concentrates on ´show me how deep your pockets are´...... which is quite frustrating considering how beautiful the volcano and the surrounding area are.
Shame shame, but all said and done, I think Bin would still love to head back up the slope, only to come down one more time, sliding through the snow, on a very numb bum !!!
Onwards, across the border, for the next stamp in our passports, to Bariloche in Argentina!