Ups and Downs in Huerquehue

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March 30th 2015
Published: April 1st 2015
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Nick: I'd been looking forward to the Chilean Lake District since we had started planning our trip. It was always our intention to spend a few days here relaxing, getting in some good walking (given that the trip down to Patagonia hadn't featured in our original plans), and generally catching up after the first three weeks of travelling around South America. As a 'home from home', we couldn't have chosen much better. As noted on the journey from the airport in Temuco down to our base in Pucon, this particular part of Chile was uncannily like good ol' Blighty, with plenty of green fields and deciduous trees - and even the odd herd of Jersey cows! To boot, our hostel was wonderfully homely, and the owner, Rodrigo, was an absolute gem. With a proper kitchen and dining table, it was the ideal place to spend a few days doing a bit of cooking and relaxing in the evenings. Being a small hostel, there were only ever a handful of other guests around, which made life easier when it came to use of the shared facilities and also engendered a relaxed social atmosphere. We loved it already, and were looking forward to spending the week there.

For all of the comforts of our cosy hostel, however, Pucon is very much an outdoors-ey place, with a plethora of national parks, waterfalls, hot springs, hiking trails and - the jewel in the crown - a bona fide (currently active) volcano! Indeed, it is a popular holiday resort for Chileans, although I was later told that we were now outside of the holiday season for the locals, and that the town would now be dominated by international visitors. Despite the assortment of activities on offer, we decided to spend our first full day getting to grips with the town, sorting out our grocery shopping for the week and general pottering about. Over breakfast we familiarised ourselves with our latest collection of hostel-mates: a trio of young Danish lads - of whom one had connived to lose his passport and was therefore presently kicking about in Pucon awaiting delivery of a replacement - and a Brazilian couple who were visiting as part of their holiday. As has been typical of most places we've visited everyone spoke exceptional English, which was fortunate as our collective Danish and Portuguese ain't up to much.

After brekkie, we took a stroll through town with the Brazilian couple, ending up down by Lago Villarrica, before we took our leave to go and pick up the groceries. With a decent-sized supermarket near our hostel, we were spoilt for choice for our meals. After all of the meat-dominated meals in Brazil and Argentina, we ended up requisitioning a load of veggies and other bits and pieces, so that we could have at least one week of a slightly less carnivorous diet. We pottered for the rest of the day, taking another wander about town and generally planning how we would spend the next few days here. During the evening we cooked some dinner (seafood risotto) and through the wonders of modern technology watched a bit of telly on the BBC, before bedding down. We had opted to spend the following day walking around the main national park nearby, 'Huerquehue'. The only bus that went to the park left at around eight thirty and so we were to be in the park bright and early with a full day ahead of us. With only one bus heading to the park (due in part to the fact that we were here in the off-season), it was stuffed to the gunnels and we were lucky to get a seat for the fifty minute journey, with many others crammed into the aisle. On arrival at the park, we all spilled out of the bus at the starting point of a number of hiking trails. The weather was absolutely perfect, with the sun shining brightly but a wonderfully crisp chill to the air, and we were well layered in t-shirts and hoodies to keep warm. We picked a trail that would take us up to a trio of mountain lakes located adjacent lay to each other, approximately 8km away. After the longer walks we'd undertaken in Patagonia, this sounded like an ideal, gentle first walk of the week. The Brazilians (who by now surely have earned a name-check: Hafa and Gabriel) had also come along for the day, and we struck out as a foursome ahead of everyone else from the bus, trying to stay ahead of the crowd. The first stretch took us alongside another lake - you will by now be starting to appreciate precisely why the region is known as the Lake District - which was just beautiful, glittering in the morning sun with a thick layer of mist rising from the surface. The path wound through a cool, shady forest for twenty minutes or so and was relatively easy going. The Brazilians were keen to get around the trail and back in time for the return bus at half-past one, so they could squeeze another activity into the afternoon; Sarah and I opted to take things a more relaxed pace, and so as they steamed ahead and into the distance, soon found ourselves on our own with no-one else for company but the wonderful scenery.

We soon left the first lake behind us, and the path started to ascend. After ten or fifteen minutes of walking up the incline, the hearts were starting to pound a little harder and a layer or two of clothing came off. We wound our way through a lush green forest for around a hour or so; the trees were absolutely huge and we estimated many of them to be a good fifty metres tall, or maybe more. We'd managed to stay away from any of the other walkers, and there only sounds as we walked were those of the many birds singing in the distant treetops, and the distant rushing of water. Intermittent side trails occasionally cropped up, which took us to see a number of waterfalls, each of which was slightly different from the others. A further hour into the walk and the trail continued to climb almost continually; it was pretty much like climbing stairs for hours on end. By now our calves were burning and we were having to stop periodically to catch our breath and drink some water. It was well worth the effort, however, as we were now a good distance up a mountainside and our location offered a fantastic view down over the lake we had walked past earlier on. We could see the Villarrica volcano in the distance (and close to Pucon), a plume of grey smoke continually wafting from its aperture into the blue sky, as a reminder that it was still very much alive and kicking!

As we got closer to the end of the trail, although still very much on a upward trajectory, we bumped into a small foursome of retired married couples from France (including one ex-pat Englishman) with whom we end up talking as we continued to climb. They were a chatty bunch and seemed to know a lot about the unusual trees around the park, pointing out some distinctive features such as the very thick bark which were an evolutionary feature to protect them against lava (they later confessed that they had been on another tour and were simply regurgitating the facts!). Lost in conversation, the final ascent went pretty quickly and we were at last at the lakes we had been aiming for. We sat down on a rock by the prettier lake for a well-earned rest and some lunch, some delicious prawn and avocado rolls lovingly crafted by Chief Sandwich Officer (First Class) Sarah Adams. The lake was crystal clear and looked inviting - indeed, one of our new French friends went in for a paddle around - but we gave it a miss in the end. After lunch, a few minutes rest and a brief encounter with an irritatingly persistent wasp, we said au-revoir to our new friends and struck out on the return path.

Working our way back downhill for the two hours was decidedly easier than coming up, although not as straightforward as it may sound, and we were amazed how far up we'd come, stopping en-route to take a few more snaps of the valley and lake below and the distant volcano. The weather was getting a lot hotter and by the time we had made it to the bottom we were both pretty knackered. The bus to take us back to Pucon was due shortly after five o' clock and we had an hour to wait, most of which was spent -predictably - napping with our heads in each other's shoulders. In due course, the bus arrived and took us back to Pucon, where we grabbed a refreshing and well-deserved cold beer. Back at the hostel, we were glad to have some leftovers from the previous evening, thereby avoiding the need to cook; much as we were both enjoying being able to cook, we were pretty bushed! After dinner, we had another quiet evening sorting out some further planning. The Danes had earlier told us what an amazing time they had had at the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, so we were moving things around and seeing how we could fit this in to our existing plans, given that Bolivia was to be our next destination.

There was, however, one more sight to be seen in the day; Rodrigo, our hostel owner, came in to tell us in his usual quick-fire Spanish that the volcano was erupting! Fortunately it was more of a 'come and see' than a 'run like hell', and we went outside to take a look. Okay, it was not the massive blasts of magma shooting up in a shower of sparks, or snaking rivers of magma running down the volcano - rather, it was a slight orange glow against the night sky, flickering with different levels of brightness a bit like a distant candle - but despite that, we both still found it pretty incredible, particularly given that it was only15km from where we stood! Duly impressed, we went back inside and before long, with heavy eyelids and heavy feet, we took ourselves to bed.

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