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Published: August 17th 2012
summer sunset in the now-crowded marina
I always ended up here to watch the sun descend into the lake.
Paradise Lost: The Dreaded High Season
Picture-perfect Pucon is an off-season paradise, sandwiched between a forested lake and the smoking Volcano Villarica, one of the four most active in South America. When I arrived in late spring, the volcano was blanketed in snow, and all was dreamy and mellow in the little town of 25,000. I met and made friends on sunset walks along the landscaped, lakeside promenade.
Some of these friends owned restaurants and hotels; for ten months of the year, their businesses were slow and allowed them to enjoy life. Then, for two months in summer, all bedlam breaks loose, and my friends were buried in enough work to tide them through the rest of the year.
In the days before Christmas, the town swelled to 200,000, as refugees from the furnace of the capital, Santiago, joined families and students on school holidays. Once-deserted beaches were littered with crowds, the empty marina was filled with noisy rental boats, the volcano's snow melted in the heat and lines were interminable in the supermarket.
It's Christmas, Is There Room at the Inn?
Hostels and pensions filled, and I had to move
three times as my rooms could now be crammed with several backpackers. Yet I had to stay--I was waiting for my new camera to arrive from the US, clear Chilean customs and be sent to the Pucon post office. Between my camera drama and sending lots of Christmas cards to various continents, I got to know the helpful postal people pretty well. Hopefully, my camera would arrive before my visa expired!
A couple of the places I stayed were run by real eccentrics. In one, I was hounded by the narrow-minded, evangelical owner, and in another, there were tons of rules, but no soap, toilet paper or towels in the dirty bathrooms; it did, however have a perfect view of the volcano from the bedroom window. Few things are all bad or all good.
My fourth place was a noisy, no-name, no wifi pension with walls of cardboard but run by great people with whom I had fine conversations. Had I not been here for some time, I would never have found the little $10 pocket room to wait out the summer hordes. I always prefer to stay in one place during high season
rather than travel around, trying to find a bed in crowded dorms.
The Town Transforms
Springing to life were once-boarded up vacation homes along the lakefront promenade and condos on the exclusive, private peninsula (off-limits to us plebeians). Drab apartments, advertised as cabanas, filled. Restaurants opened and their tables gaily spilled out into the streets while a couple of discos pumped out late-night boogying music.
Weekends on the main street were packed with tourists, buskers and street vendors. I loved listening and swaying to the musicians and helping them draw a crowd. I'd toss bills into their pots to encourage others to do the same. Musicians enrich my life, and I love to reward and encourage them. I may not have money for restaurants, but I always have some for musicians.
The bathing beach was now crammed with colorful beach umbrellas ten deep and mate-sharing groups. Mate, rather like green tea, is an obsession in the "cone" of South America , and it's great to see young people drinking this rather than chugging beer as in many English-speaking countries.
Impromptu beach bars popped up, as well as every
sort of entertainment--many types of trampolines and bouncy houses, giant floating climbing structures, paddle boats, kayaks, windsurfers and paragliders. Chileans take their beach time seriously.
Equally crowded was the west-facing bay on the other side of the peninsula, perfect for golden/vermillion sunsets that turned rosy the volcano's ever-melting snow and seemed to set the bay on fire. With summer, the tranquility was replaced by a cacophony of motorized watercraft as the previously empty bay filled with temporary marinas for the armada of jet skis and motor boats that appeared. Still, sunsets continued to be glorious.
I often retreated to secret, peaceful places further along the lake and climbed through barbed-wire fences, newly-erected to keep the masses out of my favorite forests, which I generally had to myself. Curiously, the Pucon friends I'd brought to my secret forests had never been there, deeming them unsafe. Clearly, my ignorance of this was bliss!
One Sunday, I boarded a cute steam boat that chugged out the marina and around the peninsula that divides the swimming beach from the marina. We sailed around the forested peninsula with its private beaches and mansions to Pucon's bathing
beach. There, was a classic view of summer Pucon--masses of beach umbrellas, the Gran Hotel and forested mountains (see photo at right). Even the crowds couldn't eclipse Pucon's beauty.
Berries and Cherries and Humitas--Oh My!
Fruit and veggie street vendors had incredible summer treats--sweet, affordable raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and cherries. I got to know my favorite vendor well as I bought my daily pound of fruit--I was on a bit of a sugar rush all summer! Chilean food, especially produce, is gorgeous and either unavailable or very expensive in Argentina. I feasted on avocados, cilantro, basil, rye bread, olive oil, goat cheese, nicoise olives, and Caprese salads. This is the Mediterranean food I eat and love at home. I was in hog heaven!
On weekends, indigenous Mapuche women sold homemade treats from woven baskets. I'd buy delicious humitas, somewhat like Mexican tamales--moist corn masa (dough) with onions and basil mixed in, then steamed and sold in corn husks--finally, South American prepared food that I liked!
In South America with its upside-down seasons, summer brought the holidays. Normally in long-term travel, I get terribly homesick about now. I remember European
Christmases in Florence, Avignon and Santiago de Compostela where I'd burst in tears whenever I heard Christmas carols or California Dreaming on Such a Winter's Day. But these last two years, first in Uruguay and now in Chile, it's been hot, and there have been few carols, decorated pines or colored lights to remind me of home. Much easier!
Christmas Eve, I was with a walking friend, Estelle, her husband, and their wild, creative family, feasting, telling stories and singing. Everyone knows and loves the songs of the Chilean folksinger Violeta Parra, (which I have on a CD), so I even got to sing along. The following day, I had a long, lovely swim in the lake, much like at home where I walk on the beach on Christmas Day.
New Year's Eve Day down by the lake, I joined friends back home in Santa Barbara and all over the world, for a peace meditation. That evening, I joined Pucon friends to toast the coming year, join the throngs on the lake for a fantastic display of fireworks, and dance to a live band in the plaza.
I once read that
volcano and wooden buildings
early summer and still lots of snow
what you do on New Year's Day in a harbinger of your year to come, so I always like to have a fine adventure. I decided to hike on Volcano Villarica. While many come to Pucon to summit the volcano, it didn't attract me. I'd seen posters of hundreds of people in tour groups trudging up the volcano at an ungodly early hour and above the tree line with no privacy if you needed to "go" for the 4-6 hour climb. I'd been to the much more beautiful crater of Caviahue's volcano a month earlier and decided to let that suffice.
I hiked and hitchhiked up the road to the volcano, finally getting a ride with a charming family from northern Chile. We drove up to the ski resort, admired the view over the town, lake and other peaks, and walked a couple of hours up the desolate, black volcanic rock trail. On the way back we stopped for a beer in a hobbit-house of a pub. So, this coming year will bring me luck with hitchhiking, fine encounters with friendly people, and excellent hikes in exotic places with great views. I'm ready!
in mid-February, my camera arrived as the summer crowds were leaving, and the autumn rains were beginning. Once again, on the last day of my visa, I headed back over the Andes to Argentina's lake district and my friends in Bariloche. I'd left a day pack there and had planned to return for it after a week. Oops, I was five months late--oh well, time is relative. Hope my pack is still there....
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