Hello from Chile´s adventure sport capital Pucon, in the heart of the Chilean Lake District. I went to sleep on the night bus in the suburbs of Santiago and woke up in a completely different world. It was cloudy, damp and very very green, which makes a huge change from the dry deserts of the north. The temperature is also quite chilly here and it felt a bit like being back in England. The small town itself however bears resemblance to an apline ski resort in Colorado, with lots of new build condos and wooden buildings to cater for the tourists.
On our first day here we undertook an absolutely pointless walk to a "nearby" waterfall. Only it turned out to be a wild goose chase, first up a long and bland highway, and then far up a winding farm track which didn´t appear to lead anywhere other than a condo building site. We were told we would have been there and back in 2 hours but Joaquin is often way off on his timings, and after 2 hours we were still walking, so decided to turn back. The whole walk we were stalked by 2 dogs, who were very annoying. 1 kept walking in front of me and stopping so I would trip over it, and they kept attracting the attentions of other dogs who would bark through fences at them, or fight them in the street. I´ve never seen so many dogs in my life as here in Pucon, so we never got a moment´s peace. And unlike dogs in other parts of South America, the dogs here actually pay attention to humans, which is annoying.
There were fortunately no dogs where we went on the 2nd day - a 10km climb 1500m up to the top of the nearby Villarrica Volcano, which is still active and last erupted in 1984. The base for the walk was at an altitude of 1300m (4,200ft) and the summitt was 2800m (9,100ft), which seems low in comparison to Bolivian altitude. We were dropped off at a deserted ski resort, though why it was deserted is beyond me as there was lots of sun and plentiful snow - enough to cause the skiers in our group to drool a bit. It was a bit demoralising trekking up past the stationary ski lifts. Visitors in ski season (which is bizarrely summer here) can use those to get a head start, and it would have made life so much easier. We were kitted out in winter clothing, though it was warm once we started walking, and we had an ice pick and clamp on spikes should we need them. We snow was mostly very deep, and sometimes your foot would since 1ft into the snow, which made walking very hard. There was one large patch of ice down by the ski lifts which required us to use the clamp ons. They made the slippery surface easily walkable, but became a hinderance once we got back in the deep snow, so we took them off again. The walk to the top was a painful slog switchbacking up the steep mountainsides. Everyone was too tired to talk and we simply followed in the footsteps of the person in front as making your own path meant dragging your feet out of the snow. Our group was the first of the many walking up, so our leader set the path for the day which every other group followed. We had large backpacks on with equipment, clothes and lunch in, and even without the altitude of the Inca Trail I would say the walk was a lot lot harder. A large amount of people don´t make the top. After about 5.5 hours of climbing we did though, and were first up to admire the amazing alpine view. We could see several lakes and several active volcanoes (Chile has 55% of the world´s active volcanoes) and we also got a look down into the gargling and smoking crater, which would occassionally blow out lots of horrific smelling sulphur.
The best thing about being up first though was that we got to go down first, and going down is a huge part of the experience. Far from walking down, descending Villarrica is done sliding on your bum! We got given a bum protecting nappy like thing, a helmet and our ice pick (apparently that was the brake) and followed in the path of our tour leader who made a groove in the snow. It was fun to slide past everyone else coming up and I got great speed up (though also nearly stopped at some points). There were about 7 or 8 slides to where the moutain flattened off (a 30 minute walk from the van). On one of the steeper ones I went off at a right angle and in trying to correct myself managed to lose my ice pick (which thinking back could easily have ended up in my chest) and flip myself repeatedly 40ft or 50ft downhill! I had to scramble back to pick up my pick. At the end of the day everyone was aching and knackered and ready for bed early!
There was no resting today though as I signed up to go white water rafting on a nearby class 3-4 river. 8 of us went and I got put in a boat with a very working class Aussie couple from Sydney, as well as Amelia (who sadly leaves tonight). We were all kitted out in wetsuits, helmets and life jackets. Yet another costume I´ve donned on this trip (sadly no photos as a camera isn´t exactly the thing to take rafting). The lads went at the front with the girls in the middle and our guide at the back, and we got given a host of instructions to follow. The first part was really fun with some good rapids, and I got a face full of water numerous times. It wasn´t so bad though as the water was quite clear and refreshing and the wetsuits kept you warm. We were the first of the 2 boats and we coped OK to start with until we got to what I think was the only class 4 part - "The Fishman". We were instructed to keep paddling through it, and I did to the best of my abilities, but we couldn´t divert ourselves away from "the hole", which was a huge U in the river rapids. Whilst I had my paddle in the air we got flipped and flung underwater. It was a pretty scary few seconds, and with my heavy equipment on it seemed to take me an age to resurface. It happened so quickly too, and I took a mouthful of water as I wasn´t ready to fall in. When I resurfaced I was strangely quite a way down river of the other 3, who were busy being rescued, so I swam off to the side where the guide rowed over and picked me up. We all lost our paddles and 3 were retrieved immediately and one a bit later down the river. The Aussie girl was really panicking having fallen in so she was the one selected not to paddle for a while. There were plenty more rough rapids ahead and we kept approaching them sideways, causing Amelia to fall in once and the Aussie guy a further twice. The other boat remarkably stayed upright the whole way (apparently they watched our route and then went a different way). It was good to be in the action boat though. At a flatter bit in the river the other guide from the other boat picked me up flung me in, and at the end we had to swim to the side, so I was in the river a total of 3 times! All good fun though.
Tomorrow we have an early but not too long (6 hour) bus south to Puerto Varas, which is Joaquin´s home town and the most southerly point on my South American tour. I will update from there. Hope you are all well.