In a spur-of-the-moment decision, I decided to head to Pucón for the weekend with a group of friends, other La Chile students who apparently like me felt the sting of a short break. After begging off work for the next Sunday, I caught a bus out of Santiago at midnight on Thursday night to head south. That’s right, south, as in closer to Antarctica.
I booked the trip from Tur Bus, opting for “cama,” rather than “semi-cama,” for the almost 10-hour trip. Cama, which means “bed” in Spanish, actually turned out to be ridiculously comfortable, particularly for such a looong trip. I settled into the seat, fired up a few TED talks, and was out like a light before they turned off the lights.
I was going to put this part at the end, but I think a bit of context would go well here. Pucón is a very small town, with a relatively small business sector, and is almost entirely run on tourism. The main drag is filled with tourist agencies, booking agencies, bus companies, hostels, restaurants, outdoor gear sellers, etc. It is surrounded by mountains, more mountains, and volcanos, primarily Volcan Villarica, which looms over the city (picture below).
I got into Pucón at 9:45 Friday morning, and reuniting with a few others in my group that had taken the same train. We headed over to the cabin that they would be staying at (I tagged onto the trip after they had made reservations for a cabin, so I was staying at a nearby hostel). We managed to reach the other folks in our group, who had arrived about an hour earlier, and headed to “downtown” Pucón to meet them for breakfast. I swung by my hostel and checked in, dropping my stuff off, and we found our friends at a café.
After a quick reunion and some delicious food, we formed a plan to head to one of the local hot springs. We hopped a bus, arriving about 45 minutes later at the springs. The hot springs, called Los Polzones, were quite amazing. Next to a river at the bottom of a chasm, the hot springs were set up in five separate pools alongside the river, many with changing rooms that had ladders leading directly into the pools. We clamored into the changing room and, freezing in the winter air, we jumped into the pool. And then we jumped out, our skin pink from the boiling hot water. The water was extraordinarily soothing, as shocking and unsettlingly dehydrating as it was. We hung out for several hours, including checking out one of the other pools that was much more comfortable, more on the order of a very warm pool (and apparently comfortable enough for a couple in the corner of the pool to fool around, seemingly unperturbed by our presence). The air was also freezing, which made the whole experience pretty interesting, and very fun.
Wet and oddly exhausted, we hiked back up to the office and caught the bus back to town, spontaneously bursting into song at several points along the way, annoying our busmates with everything from Disney songs to Otis Redding to Queen.
We got back into town and immediately headed to a restaurant called Mamas and Tapas (food+puns = happy) that had 20% off Mexican food(!) and 2-for-1 drinks for Happy Hour. I can’t really articulate how much we’ve all been missing Mexican food, particularly after eating some form of it at least 4 times a week every week my entire life.
The food was delicious, and the beer tasty, and we all crashed happily into our respective beds that night. The Tree House Hostel, where I was staying, turned out to be a really nice place. I had requested the cheapest bed, assuming I would be spending all of my time with my friends, so I ended up in the bottom bunk in a room with two bunk beds, the only person staying there. The hostel also had a nice sitting area, complete with a wood-burning heater, a kitchen and free WiFi.
The next day we all got up early to catch an 8:30 bus to a local national park, whose name currently escapes me, to spend the day hiking. While I had no idea what to expect, this was certainly not it. After an hour-long bus ride going up, up, and further up, we suddenly found ourselves precariously driving through snow-covered, steep roads with nary a tire chain in sight. Nevertheless, our driver seemed unworried, and sure enough, we arrived safely.
The park is a massive, massive place. We headed off on the “Tres Lagos” (Three Lakes) trail, heading toward, unsurprisingly, three giant lakes. Still, almost immediately we ran into such strange, beautiful sights. We started off surrounded by snow, as several of the photos I’m uploading would show you. It wasn’t snowing currently, but it had clearly recently fell, as there was fresh powder all around us, giving a very interested “untouched” look to everything.
We took a slight detour, ducking into a tree canopy for a while, which was quite strange, as the terrain changed completely. Inside, it was a lush, green forest that looked more like a rain forest than an Andean wonderland. But then we stepped back out into the snow, and the terrain changed faster than something out of World of Warcraft. (Shut up nerds, you know what I’m talking about. Think Arathi Highlands -> Alterac Mountains, but faster.)
We continued to hike for several hours, and one point realizing that we couldn’t make it back in time for the 2:30 bus, and that we may as well trek on until the 5:10 bus. It was cold, and the hiking was tough, but the scenery was beautiful and everybody in the group felt the fatigue by the time we stopped for lunch, in front of an amazing waterfall. We unpacked our makeshift lunch, which one of our group was brilliant enough to bring along: turkey and cheese sandwiches, potato chips, fruit and, of course, chocolate; and we noshed like you couldn’t imagine.
Full, but feeling the fatigue, we trekked on, stopping at the top of an especially large hill to form an “ohm” circle and regain our energy, though our attempts at a common mantra mostly just ended up with us bursting into laughter.
We continued until a particularly lovely view, pictured left, and started the long hike back, though mercifully most of the return trip was downhill. Slipping and sliding on the icy path, we emerged unscathed at a small house in a clearing advertising hot drinks.
We piled in, 8 of us in all, and crowded around the table of what seemed to be just a family living in the middle of the park that makes some spare money providing hot drinks for passing tourists. Clearly not used to receiving groups of eight, the lady of the house invited us in, cautiously warning us that her house is quite small, each of us making sure to wipe our muddy and icy shoes off before going inside, and eagerly ordering hot chocolates (Kyle, who had to be different, opted for hot tea).
We also took the opportunity to refill our water bottles, which we filled, drank on the spot, and filled again. We gulped down our hot drinks, and, gritting our teeth, headed back into the cold. A short walk later, and we were back at the entrance to the park with almost two hours to kill before the bus, so we headed down to the nearby beach and sat by the beautiful, still water and chatted and hung out until the bus came.
Everybody was way too tuckered out on the bus to talk, let alone sing, and most napped on the way back. We each went back and showered before heading over to a pizza place for some delicious slices, and too tired even to drink, we went our separate ways and crashed.
The next morning was much more relaxed, with nobody particularly eager to wake up at the crack of dawn to go on an adventure, so we met up around 10:30 or 11 for breakfast at a hostel/café that happened to be half a block from my own hostel.
That morning also marked the arrival of new visitors to the Tree House Hostel, two English guys and two Irish ladies, in separate groups, all in their mid-to-late 20′s. We all chatted over a cup of tea in the common room, and when I headed out for breakfast I invited them all to join. The English guys, Adam and Craig, both accepted, and we reunited with my friends.
After a delicious omelette with fresh vegetables, we sat around discussing what to do that day.
“How about we go skydiving?” one person said.
Um… sure. I’ve always wanted to go skydiving, though it’s never been worth the money for me. Here it was roughly $75, which is a steal compared to the states. But it has suddenly become a real possibility, and I felt my stomach drop, as I’m sure most people in the group did.
We checked on skydiving, and were told that we’d get a call soon to let us know how the wind was that day, whether or not is was safe to dive, so in the meantime we decided to check out “canopying,” or “zip-lining,” nearby. As it happens, we never did go skydiving, but the zip-lining was quite fun.
We piled into a van outside a nearby tourist office, one of Pucón’s several, the 10 of us cramming together and joking on the way (Adam and Craig decided to come with, the beginning of their impromptu day of crazy adventuring).
We quickly arrived at a small group of buildings next to a raging river, with a single zip line stretching across from the canopy of trees opposite us. A few guys in climbing gear came out to greet us, and latching us each into fully secure climbing gear and after a short tutorial, we headed down the river bank.
We quickly reached a wooden structure that we each climbed to reach the first line, Adam confessing to me that he had no fear of heights until 13 meters, which was the height of his climbing wall back home, and that we were definitely higher than 13 meters.
Zip-lining is an odd activity, because it could so easily go wrong, but never does. It’s like those roller coasters where you’re sure you’re going to hit your head, knocking it clean off, but of course you miss by more room than you’d think, and you were never actually in danger. We were never actually in control of our own safety, as at each platform we stayed buckled to one cable or another until one of the workers took us off one and quickly attached us to another, giving us a constant lifeline to the structure at all times. We approached the lines one at a time, and after the staffer buckled our harness to the line, we zipped down to the next platform, with nothing but a reinforced glove to slow our free-fall, counting on our own wits to keep us from hitting the trees along the way. Suffice it to say it was exhilarating, and actually not very scary after the first few lines.
The scenery was beautiful, as we crisscrossed a forest, shooting back and forth across the river, at times climbing several stories up to gain enough altitude to zip across again. The staffers had a fascinating leapfrog system going, with those in the back occasionally jumping ahead to continue to help those of us in the front, and each were very practiced at the art of zip-lining.
At one point I ran out of speed before reaching the next platform, not an uncommon occurrence, which forced me to turn myself around and climb hand-over-hand to the platform, pulling myself by the cord. When Hernan, one of the staffers who jokingly told me it was his “first day” on the job, reached the same point, rather than let himself run out of speed he gracefully kicked off a nearby tree, giving himself the speed to reach the platform. Similarly, for the final line, he zipped across the river, kicked off a tree root at the bank, and while in mid-air he unbuckled himself from the cord before hitting the ground. This was clearly not his first day.
The day was quite fun, though we never went skydiving, and we wandered the small town, buying cheap knick knacks and walking the beautiful black sand beaches. Later we all gathered at an Italian place to get a bite and wait out our buses, which were leaving around 8 pm (Sunday night). We chatted, joked, laughed and had a great time, and were sad to part ways at the end.
Props to those of you who made it this far.
Next time on Tall, But Jewish:
• Class Struggles – An Inside Look at the Chilean School System
• Pool with Chileans – No Women Allowed?
• Wining and Mining – Writing for the Santiago Times