In Hot Water

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South America » Chile » Araucanía » Pucón
March 16th 2012
Published: March 19th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

Our four furry friends having led us back to the safety of Anticura, we head back to Osorno - a rather drab city even by Chilean drab city standards - where we spend the night in order to catch a bus to Pucón, located in the next province along, Region IX or Araucanía.

Everybody in Chile knows about Pucón. Arriving in town by bus it seems that everybody in Chile is in Pucón. After weeks - nay, months - in the wilds of Patagonia, it comes as something of a surprise to see streets bustling with people and dozens of restaurants, coffee-houses and tour agencies competing for your attention. Pucón has been compared to Queenstown in New Zealand, and it's true that it is similar in some ways - lakeside, upmarket and an absolute magnet for families and adrenaline addicts alike.

What Queenstown doesn't have, unlike Pucón, is a nearly 3,000 metre active volcano looming over it: an ever-smoking, ever-threatening reminder that here, despite the fancy shops, designer sunglasses, flash cars and expensive restaurants, Earth is in charge here. Volcán Villarrica, a perfect snow-capped cone which wedges Pucón against the lake of the same name, is why many people - we included - come to Pucón in the first place. The reason? To climb it, of course!

Wasting no time whatsoever, we make arrangements to climb the volcano for the very next day. From the weather forecast for the next week it seems that the Southern Hemisphere summer is drawing to an end rather quickly - climbing the volcano in cloudy weather is not an option. The next day, it happens, is the last genuinely lovely, clear day we will see in the South of Chile - a definite stroke of luck.

The alarm is set for five in the morning - very early starts are becoming something of a theme and I'm not sure I like it. By six we at the agency's office picking up our equipment bags for the climb: heavy mountain boots, gloves, helmet, ice axe (yikes! ice axe! are we really going to need an ice axe?), gas mask (ditto!), thick jacket, over-trousers, funny wrap-around miniskirt thing (again...twice in one week!) and an intriguing piece of equipment resembling an oversized plastic frying pan - you'll probably be able to see where this is going...

We're cheating, of course: we won't be climbing all the way up the volcano - good heavens, no. We're hoping to make it to the summit, of course, but we'll be starting the climb from the ski station approximately halfway up, courtesy of a convenient road and a ski-lift. We've heard, and read, that the route from the station to the summit is tough enough as it is so we're not about to make life harder for ourselves (in spite of what previous entries might suggest!).

A lot of people climb Villarrica every day during the summer high season. The steep, steep climb, first over loose volcanic rock and then icy snow, seems quite surreal at times: long lines of tiny human shapes dot the volcano's slopes high above and below, snaking up slowly like so many crawling ants. We pass the twisted remnants of a pulverised chairlift, an unsettling reminder (as if we needed one: we've got gas masks in our bags!) that Villarrica is very much active. Although tiring the climb is technically very straightforward: the ice axe turns out to be mainly a balancing tool for the icy bits. Every once in a while a loud whistle or the sound of dozens of people shouting "piedraaaaa!!!" rings out: rocks, some small and some not-so-small, dislodged by climbers higher up the slope, regularly roll down the volcano with leg-breaking (or worse) speed.

Within four hours or so we reach the volcano's summit, where a broad, deep crater lined with vivid yellow sulphur deposits belches a continuous stream of acrid gases. It has been necessary in the past - although rarely, we are told - to clear people off the summit pretty sharpish after abrupt changes in wind direction. An almost constant, deep rumble emanates from within the volcano's bowels. To top it off, Villarrica is one of very few volcanos in the world to have a permanent liquid lava lake within its crater. The level of the lake is variable, and while it's not easy to see at the moment, due to its low level and the quantity of smoke obscuring the crater's depths, we do get to glimpse a couple of bright, incandescent patches on the surface of the lake as the lava is churned within. Fleeting, but impressive nonetheless - lava isn't a very friendly kind of material and we're happy to keep a safe distance. Even more impressive is the stunning panoramic view from Villarrica's 2,847 metres, a 360-degree view of this lake- and volcano-studded region straddling the Chile-Argentina border. To the east, another perfect volcanic cone is visible: Volcán Lanín, significantly taller at 3,747m, which a few months ago we were gawping at from the Argentine side of the border. Other volcanic peaks - Quetrupillán, Llaima - and azure lakes - Villarrica, Calafquén - are visible all around. Spell-binding.

How do you get down a volcano? The same way you got up, surely? Not so in the case of Villarrica, where they do things slightly differently...After having had our lunch on the crater's edge and admired the gorgeous panorama beneath us, it's time to get kitted up in the heavy jacket and overtrousers we've been given, clip on the thick canvas miniskirt-thing as well as the mysterious flimsy plastic frying pan. We're not going to climb down Villarrica - we're going to slide down it.

Ascending Villarrica from the ski station takes between four and five hours; getting back down takes perhaps 30 minutes - it's fast! Steep, deep channels in the snow and ice have been carved out by hundreds, if not thousands, of other climbers' backsides. The descent is what the ice axe is for: it's our brake. And, boy, do we need one. The half-hour descent along perhaps half a dozen separate slides is both thrilling and terrifying, complete loss of control always only a blink of an eye away. Worryingly, the ice-axe-brake appears to have no effect whatsoever on my speed, although I manage to get the bottom having avoided any serious high-velocity collisions (ouch!). For the next few days, sore ribs (from clamping the brake against my side in a vain effort to slow down) and a very sore tailbone (going over fallen volcanic rocks at speed is not very nice, although I suppose it could have been much, much worse) are reminders of this most unorthodox method of descent.

Where there are volcanos there are usually hot springs, and this region of Chile is no exception. The immediate vicinity of Pucón is home to dozens of separate springs, some huge and well-developed, others tiny and little-visited. Since reading about them weeks if not months ago, Alex has been desperate to visit one particular set of springs called Termas Geométricas. They are located about a hundred kilometres away from Pucón on the northern shore of Lago Calafquén near the small lakeside town of Coñaripe. Due to the springs' rather tricky access and our desire to spend most of the day there, we decide to hire a car in Pucón for the day. Within an hour and half, we have passed through the towns of Villarrica, Lican Ray and Coñaripe and are ascending Volcán Villarrica's south face along a winding, potholed mess of road towards the termas. We are almost the first visitors of the day.

The Termas Geométricas defy satisfactory description. Set in a deep gully whose vertical walls are festooned with dripping ferns and fuschsia bushes, the springs consist of seventeen separate pools strung along the gully floor and connected by a network of red-painted wooden walkways. It is simply beautiful. The pools vary in temperature from a cool 32 degrees to a hot-hot-hot 42, the temperature of each being indicated on small wooden signs by the edge of the water. Lush growth of ferns and Gunneras between the pools, a natural river rushing beneath the walkways, hummingbirds feeding on fuschia nectar overheath, cooling water dripping from the walls of the's a sublime way to spend the day. Which we certainly do: before we know it almost five hours have passed and we look like two pale pink prunes. Two very tired pink prunes - lolling about for hours in very warm water has the most unbelievably soporific effect! The drive back to Pucón from the hot springs is under the most torrential rain. Summer really does seem like it's over now.

Before we leave the south of Chile there is one more hike we want to do. The trail - a full day's walk in each direction - crosses Parque Nacional Huerquehue, an expanse of highland lakes and monkey-puzzle forest to the north-east of Pucón. Just as important is what lies at the end of the walk: a tiny settlement with a some almost completely undeveloped hot springs - the Termas del Río Blanco. Once again leaving the bulk of our things behind at our hostel, we hop on a bus which takes us to the western entrance to the park, barely an hour away from Pucón. The national park guards at the entrance try to scare us, with stories of the walk taking ten hours or more and of terrible weather approaching, into chopping the walk into two sections which involves (surprise, surprise) spending the night at a park-run campsite for the criminal sum of 15,000 pesos (about twenty pounds! for a campsite!). Undeterred, we hoick on our packs and head off into the park. The trail, otherwise deserted, first leads us up a very steep and muddy hillside (complete with the most unbelievably weird and psychedelic slug-like creatures, see photo!) to a high plateau dotted with small, peaceful lakes and populated by thousands of wonderful monkey-puzzle trees. These trees are called araucarias here (in Argentina they are knows as pehuén) - after the native Mapuche (called araucanos by the Spanish) people who have for centuries lived in this part of South America.

Fortunately for us, the weather holds just long enough for us to make it to the Río Blanco dry. Almost the instant we finish setting up our tent, the heavens open. And they do not stop - for 48 hours. Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain. It's torrential and it...just. Won't. Stop. But no matter, of course, for we are here to bathe in lovely, natural stone-and-sand pools filled with beautifully hot water. Like a pair of frogs we spend almost the entire next day immersed up to our chins in hot spring water, letting the sky sprinkle our heads with cooling, refreshing rainwater. Absolute heaven for sore ribs and tail-bones! Getting out of the pools into the rain, trying to get dry in the rain before pulling on damp clothes and damp waterproofs in the rain, cooking in the rain...well, that is very much not heaven but it's worth it. Even worse is the prospect of having to walk back across the park - minimum 8 hours, probably more as the entire trail is likely to be a quagmire by now. Fortunately for us there is a nice man in the village who will take us to a bus stop some ten kilometres away, from where a regular bus will apparently whisk us back to Pucón. The morning of our departure brings out the Sun (typical!) and to my amazement the tent is actually dry by the time I pack it up. The man drops us off as promised at the side of a featureless gravel road - no markings, no bus stop, no sign. But, sure enough, within twenty minutes a bus appears out of nowhere and takes us back. Hours of walking through mud neatly avoided: result. The bus ride from Río Blanco back to Pucón passes through the Mapuche heartland of this region - bitter disputes between the Santiago government and the Mapuche people over land rights are an ongoing feature of life in this part of Chile.

We're back in Pucón in plenty of time to have a tasty dinner before we catch our first Chilean overnight bus to Santiago. The south of Chile will be but a memory by the morning, and the north ripe to explore...

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