Sunday, February 20, 2011

Puyehue, Pucon and Villarica- end of March, early April 2008

From Bariloche I went to Parque Nacional Puyehue, to do a 4-day trek to the Puyehue volcano and its surroundings. I did the trek alone with 11 more people, which means I met three people on the highway going into the park, and 8 more in the first night's refugio. By the way, 9 of them were Israelis- apparently this is a highly Israeli trek, for some reason. 
The trek goes like this: you go up 1700m in 7 hours, to reach the crater of the volcano, which is inactive, filled with snow and has a great view of the area. Up there we made the obligatory "black coffee up on a viewpoint", and saw a group of condors flying high above us. Then you go down (only the last 500m, not the whole 1700...) and walk for half a day in a desert interspersed with basalt, obsidian and other volcanic rocks, sand dunes and multi coloured hills. Amongst my favorite sights on the way: a mass of jagged, shiny black obsidian that looked like a petrified dinosaur's tail jutting out of the yellow-white sand; a pretty big cave (probably 3m high and about 30 across) that had basalt boulders for a floor and a mini-glacier for a ceiling; and ice hiding beneath desert sand.
The cool thing about the second night's camp is that there are two streams running parallel: one cold, and one scorching hot because of the area's volcanic activity. So someone dug 2-3 man-sized holes in the ground, dug a trench from each of the streams, and voila: hot baths in the middle of the desert. The baths themselves are actually a bit disappointing, because although they're hot, they're only ankle deep- but it was still pretty cool. Another very nice feature in camp was that there was a shower- a warm stream's tiny waterfall, that used to drip down a wall, was arranged to drop its water 30 cm from it, so you can take a shower in it. 
On the third day we went out to see "the geysers". I didn't really know what to expect, and on the way there it was very foggy, so we didn't really see the area we started heading back. But what we saw there was amazing: it's a valley full of geysers, fumaroles, sulphur vents and other volcanic activity, with bubbling pools of silver mud, steam going out of holes in the ground, and earth coloured in unreal colours- red, bordeaux, pink, orange, yellow, white and lots of shiny (and gooey) bluish-grey. It was like something from out of this planet- the pictures I took cannot begin to describe it. It's one of the most amazing things I've seen.
The fog, which had had us quite worried most of the day, ended up being a blessing. I still don't know how we managed to get there, since the path was barely marked and we didn't have any idea where we were going (and I mean we really had no fucking idea, besides a vague direction- something like "east"...). We kept drawing lines and arrows in the sand so we could get back safely later, and we couldn't see more than 10m around us. But it all ended up adding to the mystery and eeriness of that geyser valley. We spent way too much time in there, going way closer to the geysers than we should have, and stepping on ground that it was very apparent was not firm- in fact, some of it was barely solid. But I loved that place, and am still awed by the memory of it.
Then, once we decided to start heading back, the fog magically lifted, and we could walk back with no worries, and even got to see the view we had missed on the way. The last day of the trek was just going all the way back down.
From there I continued with Kfir, one of the guys I met on the trek, to Pucon, a small town in the northermost point of the Patagonia Chilena, where everybody (and everybody is apparently 85% Israelis) comes to climb the Volcan Villarica, which is an active volcano. In the bus station we met Lynda, an Algerian/French girl that Kfir had met earlier, and decided to find a place to stay together. Following a tip, we took a cabin with 3 girls (also Israeli, of course...) that needed some more people to reduce the price, and it was pretty great- our own cabin, fully equipped with a nice kitchen, a parrilla (barbeque...), cable TV, and a pool outside. Not your regular hostel, I'd say. Then we climbed the Villarica itself, which would have been a great experience if our tour group had not included 18 people, 16 of them Israelis, and 10 of them crybabies and complainers... but it was still very impressive.
The volcano looks exactly like a 7-year old would imagine it: a perfect cone, the big crater on top that breaths smoke, a pool of lava that you can't see because it's so deep inside, strong smoke and sulphur smells- very very impressive. And the view from the top is breathtaking. Also, on the way to the top you do some ice-walking, with crampons and everything, and on the way down you slide on the ice... it's jolly good fun. 
After that we went- Kfir, Lynda, myself and 3 more people- on the Villarica traverse trek, which is a 3-day trek in the national park named after the volcano. The first day was great. We walked through a beautiful forest filled with local trees called araucarias and other pretty trees and bushes, stopped at a great viewpoint from which you can see 5 different volcanoes, and camped next to a beautiful lagoon. The 2nd and 3rd days... well, let's just say that the view is supposedly great, and you go through some very impressive lava valleys and cliffs built by old eruptions, but we spent the whole day inside a cloud, and most of it drenched to the bones from the rain... walking for 5 hours, building a tent, sleeping in it, waking up, disarming the tents and walking for 4 more hours, all in the unrelenting rain, was definitely an interesting experience. It was cold and pretty bad, but also amusing. And from that moment on I learned that I shouldn't trust the Chilean weather forecast- or any forecast, for that matter. It's better to take it as a recommendation only...
When we came to Pucon, still soaked, we took another cabin, and spent the night around the hearth (yes! A hearth!), with 6 big backpacks' contents hung in myriad ways around us. The next morning we all planned to leave town.

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