I woke up in a different world. I stretched warm in my seat and felt the life begin to return to arms, legs and mind. I stifled a yawn and scanned up and down the aisle, warm bodies slept wrapped in a fog of dim darkness as the bus rumbled gently towards daybreak. The first blush of dawn crept across the sky, from the east wisps of red and yellow silhouetted rolling hills and gave life to clouds hanging limply in the cold sky. I wiped the beads of condensation beginning to form on the windows and watched as the world began to emerge from the inky darkness around me. The dry, dusty hills that had raised their cactus burdened crowns into the sky at sharp angles had been replaced by soft, billowing slopes that wrapped themselves in thick blankets of trees and brush. The piercing blue sky devoid of clouds was replaced with thick brushstrokes of grey, consuming the horizon with a wet cold. This was Chile but this was a different world. This land seemed to swell with life, the dark wet green of the forests swarmed up to the edges of the packed dirt road, groups of birds took flight and squawked their annoyance at the passing of the bus. I rubbed the weight of sleep from my eyes and felt the stirring of the warm bodies as slumber melted away to the rising sun, out in the distance a fiery giant came into view. The first volcano seemed to erupt from the very trees that had hidden it from the angle of the bus. Its mighty stone body loomed high above the world, ruling the land from the heavens, its crown of snow and rock circled by clouds. The sight of the volcano sent a concussion through my body, I could feel a roaring thunder crash through my nervous system, deafening my veins, resounding in every muscle and reverberating through my skeleton like a drum. I was a conduit for the might of the giant, I wanted to roar back, to scream, to praise, to glory in the presence of nature’s fury. From the left corner of the window, further in the distance but towering with the same regal authority as its companion came another volcano. The two giants now seemed to boom to one another, reverberating off the hills and streams and trees and world, they called to one another in the deep bellowing wind, in the shrill song of the birds, in the soft grumbling of the dirt. Like the armies of Castile I had come to conquer, to crawl on hand and foot out of the damp brush, to claw and cling at craggy rock, to march defiantly through snow and ice and fire, to stand at the peak of Villarrica and gaze down on an entire continent. Through the silent emptiness of the breaking dawn the two giants roared to one another, and I roared back.
My first experience travelling alone outside of Santiago happened soon after returning from the Elqui Valley. After the departure of Oliver I spent a day at the Hostel Bella Vista, enjoying wandering around the barrio Bella Vista and relaxing in the nearby Parque Forestal. I decided that the following day I would take a bus south to the town of Pucon in Chile’s Lake Region. My goal was to trek Volcan Villarrica, one of Chile’s most active volcano situated among hot springs and beautiful lakes. I purchased my ticket from the Estacion Central for the following day and returned to the hostel to chat and drink with other travelers. The next morning I checked out of the hostel and headed to Parque Forestal to read and relax in the shade, I had purchased a ticket for an overnight bus as the trip was just shy of 12 hours and had plenty of time to kill in the park. Fortunately I was not alone for long, the city of Santiago is plagued by packs of stray dogs that roam the streets and parks looking for food, and after settling down under a tree with my book I was approached by a small white mutt looking for an amigo. Many of the strays are former house pets and are simply looking for companionship, mostly all of them recognize a gringo as a sucker for food (by now I had allocated a daily budget to buying food to give to strays). So I spent much of the morning and afternoon napping and playing with my newest Chilean friend who I had named Señor Blanco (Mr. White.. no relation to Walter White).
After saying “adios” to Señor Blanco I headed back into the Bella Vista to grab dinner from a favourite hole in the wall restaurant I had been frequenting. Along with my litre of Escudo (the Chilean equivalent to Molson Canadian) and set meal of chicken rice and veggies, I enjoyed a street performance by two chilenos who both played and dressed the part of john Lennon and Paul McCartney. While watching the street performers rocking out “Hey Jude” on the streets of Santiago the women to my right asked me in Spanish if I was English and pointed to the luggage tags on my backpack, I explained they were the flag of Ontario and that I was from Canada. She told me she was the owner of the restaurant and asked me to sit with her and tell her about what I was doing in Chile. So I moved to her table and we spoke about Canada, Chile and my plan to go to Pucon that night. After the performers finished up their set with “Come Together” the owner of the restaurant asked them to sit with us and proceeded to buy us all beer while I struggled along with my broken Spanish. After chatting and drinking for an hour I said goodbye and headed towards the subway to head to the central station to grab my bus. The buses in Chile, and South America for that matter, put Canada to shame, after waiting in the station for an hour I boarded my bus and was amazed. The “semi-cama” seats were large, comfortable, reclined almost horizontally and the bus was equipped with multiple televisions and an attendant who brought drinks and a meal soon after boarding, this all for half the price of a Greyhound ticket from Toronto to Ottawa. I was never any good at sleeping on trains or buses so I read by the light above my seat for a few hours and slowly dozed off, when I woke up it felt like I was in a different country. Everything was green and wet outside the windows, it reminded me of visiting family in England. We pulled into the small bus station in Pucon at around 8 in the morning, knowing that it would be too early to check in to any hostel in town I threw my pack over my shoulder and headed towards the “playa negra” and lake that the town lies along. On my way to the beach I was scouted out by yet another stray who followed me to the beach and played in the water, fetching sticks I would throw for her and sitting to rest beside me. Again being a sucker for dogs I gave most the breakfast I had saved from the bus to her (she ended up following me for most of the day, waiting outside the hostel for an hour as I checked in, falling in beside me as I left, and again at the restaurant I bought a cheap lunch from).
After walking from the beach I headed back into town, some of the original inhabitants of Pucon were German settlers, and it is evident in the architecture of the buildings and names of many of the streets. However the most memorable image of Pucon was the clearing of clouds and the first view of Volcan Villarrica emerging from behind the buildings, wrapped in clouds the volcano looked incredible, my blood boiled with excitement at the thought of trekking to the top of it the following day.
I walked to one of the hostels along the main street and booked a bed in one of the shared bedrooms for two nights, shoving all my worldy belongings underneath the bed I set out for a bike rental shop where I rented a bike and purchased a map to one of the nearby waterfalls popular among travelers. The going was hard but absolutely beautiful, I passed raging rivers and lush forests and as the clouds cleared the vista of Villarrica was awe-inspiring. I reached the waterfalls after a couple hours and was impressed by the beauty but disappointed that swimming in them was prohibited. I snapped a few pictures and caught my breath before picking up my bike and heading back over dirt roads to town.
On the trip back I was unlucky enough to get a slow leak that made the trek a struggle, having to stop to pump up the tires periodically and then continue on sweating through the middle of nowhere. I stumbled onto a small native town and “feria” or market but didn’t stop to look around. After returning the bike and heading back to my hostel I spoke to one of the employees about the local hot springs, he informed me that there were minibuses that went out to the springs every night and so later that night I grabbed my boardshorts and towel and headed out to relax in the natural springs created by the volcanic activity deep underground. The hot springs lived up to their name and it was difficult to stay in longer than 15 minutes. I returned to the hostel and went straight to sleep to wake up for the trek up the volcano at 5:30 the next morning. Upon waking we were informed by the hostel staff that the weather was not good and the trek had been moved back and to meet outside at 7:30. At 7:30 we all met and geared up and jumped in the van towards Volcan Villarrica. The weather still looked bad, the entire drive we were surrounded in a dense fog and the guide looked irritated. When we arrived at the base of the volcano the guide told us that we could head up the volcano but if the weather worsened we would have to turn around and would still have to pay full price. For me there was no question, I was leaving Pucon the following morning and I wanted to go up this volcano, five other people and myself stepped forward and said “let’s do this!”. We began the trek up and within five minutes the sky had cleared, the sun beating down on us beautifully and the bright blue sky shining. The going was tough, initially you are walking on loose volcanic rock and traversing small paths through the large rocks that dot the side of the volcano. I chatted with two American girls who were back packing through Chile and had out of coincidence met Oliver (my Canadian roommate studying in Vina del Mar) in Vina during their travels. We reached the point where rock meets ice and snow, marked by a small base camp and a Chilean flag.
From here we started to trudge through hard packed snow, cutting across the side of the volcano on sharp angles as the incline had grown to steep to walk straight up. We made use of our ice picks as walking sticks and as we marched wearily past the line of clouds the entirety of heaven opened up before us. From here we could see for leagues, Villarrica’s two sister peaks could be seen far in the distance, both looming above the clouds singing to one another across the wind. Without the cover of the cloud we were at the mercy of the sun and I began to sweat. I took off my jacket to keep cool and the guide thought I was crazy but laughed when I told him I was Canadian and enjoyed the cold.
I asked the guide when was the last time the Villarrica had erupted and when it was due to go off again, he informed me that it was overdue for an eruption and essentially it could go off anytime, which I thought was pretty awesome. In the distance the clouds were regrouping to attempt another assault on our trek up the volcano, the guide told us if we moved quickly we could make it to the top before the storm came in. We increased the pace and sweltered under the sun and the struggle to the peak of Villarrica. Finally we made it, albeit in a swarm of cloud and fog making it impossible to see into the bowels of the volcano and watch its fiery insides thrash and flow like a sea of flame. I wandered around in the fog until I realized how shitty of an end it would be to fall into a volcano, and immediately returned to my group for the trek down.
The trek down consisted of us sliding down thin channels worn down by countless backsides of fellow volcano conquerors. The mighty and ferocious volcano was turned into a children’s slide and I laughed the whole way down. We returned to the van and headed back to town where we returned our gear and I called it a night. The next day I bought a ticket to the nearby town of Valdivia, a beautiful German influenced town that straddled the Rio Valdivia. I spent my first day searching for a hostel and after booking a room and locking my pack away I set out to explore the town, visiting an old Spanish fortification, the German museum, the Catehdral and the fish market which was overflowing with all the kinds of fish that the Rio Valdivia had to offer, as well as large seals who waited for the scraps of the fishermen.
As it was the slow season in Chile’s Lake Region I was literally the only traveler in my hostel and spent the night reading and relaxing. The following day I set out to make the walk 10 kms out of town to the Kunstmann brewery and restaurant. Kunstmann was a premium beer company in Chile, founded by a German family who had settled in Valdivia. On the walk to the brewery a car with a Uruguayan couple pulled over and asked me if I knew where the Kunstmann restaurant was and I told them that I believed it was further down this road a few kilometres, or at least that I hoped it was as I was heading there. They laughed and offered me a ride and I jumped in the back of their car and chatted with them about what I was doing in Chile until we reached the brewery and I thanked them and went to sign up for the next group tour of the distillery. Of course I was the only foreigner in the group and the guide told me her English was bad but that if I did not understand anything she would be happy to try and explain it slower in Spanish, I told her I would be alright and surprisingly I understood the majority of the tour. It was interesting to learn and see the process of producing beer, as well as the history of the Kunstmann family and brand. Of course the best part of the tour was receiving a free Kuntsmann mug and sampling the many kinds of beer they offered. By this point of the tour I had unofficially been adopted by a Chilean family of husband, wife, son, daughter and daughter’s boyfriend. Although they spoke no English and my Spanish was still sub-par they chatted with me the entire tour and refused to take a family photo without me in it. It was awesome to experience Chilean hospitality and the father made a great drinking partner as we both kept sneaking back to the keg together to get more beer. After thanking the family and the tour guide I set out in the opposite direction I had come in to make the walk back, this time the full way, I didn’t mind as I was teetering on the edge of inebriation and the countryside was beautiful.
I stayed one last night in the hostel and spent the following day relaxing and reading before catching my over night bus back to Santiago. My first month in Chile had been pretty incredible, and travelling on my own had been a great experience, blessing me with confidence in myself, in my Spanish, and in my ability to thrive in a place I knew nothing about. On my return to Santiago I began to prepare myself for starting my first semester at Universidad de Chile and look forward to the next adventure.