¡Hola a todos!
I find myself once more with time to spare, as I sit here in a cosy, floor-to-ceiling pinewood furnished 'palafito' hostel in Castro, the regional capital for the Isle of Chiloe, just off the south-west coast of mainland Chile. Time to spare because, as I type, the rain is lashing against the window-panes outside, sending those inhabitants of this sleepy town brave enough to venture out of doors scurrying about in the street below. A 'palafito' is simply the local word used to describe a building that juts out into the water surrounding this harbour-town, held high and dry of the murky sea by wooden stilts, while the front of these structures rests upon firm land. Once a common feature of this town, there now remain little more than a hundred, apparently making them a noteworthy feature here. Of course, similar structures exist in urban coastal dwellings the world over but, the local "Chilotes" seem rather fond of them, so I shall not press the issue.
To back-track once again, ever so slightly, my final full day in Santiago became something of a one-man mission as I set about trying to hunt down a pair of suitable swimming trunks: I had decided against packing a pair, for reasons unknown now (if ever there were any of substance), but, while there had been no need for such swim-wear cavorting around the Argentine countryside, I had been fore-warned by my bus-tour company that I would have need of some here in Chile. I had been all for a little risque skinny-dipping but, silly me, I had forgotten that Chile remains a rather strict Catholic country and, never one to offend (less still become a source of mirth to) the locals, I thought it prudent to purchase something accommodating ahead of my departure date. Two hours, minus my first visit to a Dunkin' Donuts since last visiting my Aunt Lesley in New York when twelve years old (yes, it was brilliant), later, it was patently clear that shopping for swimming trunks at the beginning of the South American winter season was a rather stupid idea. Five shops, much broken Spanish conversation, a tube ride and a bus ride after this realization finally bought me to the most all-American of shopping malls I never expected to see anywhere on this sub-continent. The entrance-way was framed by a Starbuck's to the left and, yes, another Dunkin' Donuts to the right. My hopes lifted, my belly growled and, at long last, a grand total of five pairs of swimming trunks, in no less than two different shops, were found. Such choice! I eventually decided upon a pair of exorbitantly priced (for anywhere in the world, I assure you) board-shorts, courtesy of Quiksilver.
An hour later (I really do not take such frivolous purchasing lightly) I was stood in line at the bus-stop, awaiting my transport back to more familiar neighbourhoods. Unsure of whether I was waiting for the right bus, I asked a friendly-looking soul and we struck up a conversation, one which lasted from the onset of our bus ride to the termination of his journey one tube-stop before mine some thirty minutes later. During this time, the kindly young chap (perhaps four of five years older than I) paid for my bus fare on his card (it transpired that Santiago buses do not accept cash, only specially purchased travelcards) and chatted about home, work, travel, some of the many quirks of the Spanish language and its various regional and national dialects. I did not ask his name but, he was from Columbia and he was one of the most welcoming people I have had the good fortune to become acquainted with on my trip thus-far. In fact, he reminded me of Carolina, a lovely Columbian girl I befriended on a night out while in Buenos Aires earlier in my trip - these two are the only Columbians that I have met so far and their generosity and good-will, combined with the exceptional recommendations I have been given by so many of my fellow travellers, has convinced me that I detour into Columbia while visiting the north of South America, on my way up into Panama, would be a wonderful addition to my itinerary.
Early next morning saw me hop aboard the Pachamama bus for the southern loop of my Chilean tour. Pachamama is the name given to the Incan mother-goddess (there is such a figure in practically all polytheistic religions). She symbolizes fertility, both sexual and agricultural, and has a peaceful yet practical nature. I think, although I am not sure, that the bus company chose such a name with aspects such as the latter in mind. The group was fairly small - we numbered ten in total - plus our tour leader, Yerson, and our friendly, hilarious bus driver, Juan Andres. The group was quite an interesting mix with two couples, one a very welcoming French couple quite ready to take advantage of any alcohol-imbued 'celebration' to build a warm sense of camaraderie, the other a younger, quieter pair from Ireland (Gorey, would you believe). There was a German girl, whom I swiftly became good friends with, a more reserved German chap two years my junior and a rather subdued Canadian girl. Our party was completed by two Scottish girls completing their round-the-world trip with a short final leg here in South America. The nature of the hop-on, hop-off service allowed most of our party to hop-off in Puerto Varas, in the south of the main chunk of Chile (although still some way north of the most southern, glacial regions of the country). Therefore our time together was rather brief. The first day of our tour saw us arrive in Pichilemu, a quiet surfing town on the coast, west of Santiago. There really was not much time to do very much there; as it was our first day we were content mostly to simply take a leisurely tea-break and become better acquainted with one another. That evening saw us take the bus out to a headland from where we observed some hardy surfers battling relentless waves as the sun dipped, dropping unerringly into the blazing, far-off waters.
Our second full day was our longest drive, just over 700km in total and so we saw very little, apart from some by now seemingly familiar wine territory as we hurtled past in our "Pisco bus" as it had been christened by our resident Frenchman, Laurent. The tiring nature of this day meant that we had the next day free in our destination town, Pucon, lying in western foothills of the Andes, in the east of the country. In fine weather, Pucon is a veritable treasure-trove of adventuring delights. It boasts an impressive local volcano, which it is possible to climb on fine days as well as the assorted usual suspects of river-kayaking, white-water rafting, mountain-biking, horse-riding, canyoning, hiking and much more besides. Unfortunately, while we were resident the town was besieged by (what seemed in my mind at least, although I do have a rather imaginative thought-factory) a continuous storm of biblical proportions. Nay, I say this only to console myself; the weather was poor enough that the volcano remained invisible for the duration of our stay, let alone its being inaccessible to climb. We instead settled for rafting a Grade 4 river, which, I confess, was still a lot of fun. We grappled with four sections of rapids, including one that had been sufficiently swollen by the falling rain as to constitute a small waterfall. Two further sections of rapids were off-limits due to just such a situation of having become dangerously enlarged by the wet weather. At one of these junctures, when we were forced to walk beside the river for some distance, the only way to rejoin the river was to leap into it from an overhang - brilliant fun, and I barely paused at the crucial moment! An accompanying camera-man caught many of us on a cam-corder setting and one girl must have been talking to our guide, while touching his knee no less (a fact neither missed nor passed over in silence by her boyfriend), for a good minute or so before taking the plunge. After the elation of our watery adventure, we spent the evening relaxing at a magical series of outdoor thermal baths (a great day then for my expensive board-shorts to begin the arduous process of paying for themselves), complete with beer and much laughter due to the enforced, noisy emissions - sometimes accompanied by rather colourful language - garnered by the steeply varying temperatures of the various pools, combined with ice-cold showers pumping water straight from the fast-flowing river that bordered the complex. The evening was completed by an intimate meal back at our lovely hostel, cooked by Yerson and Juan Andres and accompanied by much wine and Pisco, an alcoholic liquor whose origins are jointly claimed by Peru and Chile. In essence, the drink was invented by a chap in Peru, using a white grape varietal more commonly found in wine but, while that country suffered poor harvests before the drink could be bought into production, the Chileans had got wind of the suggested formula and started producing the stuff further south. Suffice to say, it is rather lethal (varying anywhere from 30 to 50 percent alcohol) and great for boosting that afore-mentioned camaraderie.
The following day took us to Valdivia, lauded by some as Chile's most beautiful city and renowned for its university and historical significance as an access point from the Pacific deep into the area's coastal region through a system of large rivers. Again, the weather was far from its best, so we contented ourselves with a tour of one such hill fort used by the Spanish to protect the area from enemies, complete with informative museum - alas, my Spanish barred me from any deeply meaningful discoveries but, I had fun trying to decipher some (well, all) of the information boards nonetheless. Later, we headed to the water-front in the downtown area to observe a sizeable contingent of sea-lions, enticed into the harbour by the salivating prospect of free food from careless tourists enamoured with the hulking beasts. A further glint of silver-lining was provided by the discovery that while we were in Valdivia, South America was celebrating its version of Mother's Day (causing a brief palpitation for your forgetful writer - fortunately, I soon reminded myself that I had remembered in March) and also happened to be the home-town of Yerson's mother and grandmother: lovely!
Our final full day as a group took us to Puerto Montt and then slightly north to Puerto Varas for the night. It was in Puerto Montt that we were introduced to the remarkable maritime culinary delights of the locals - ensconced in a cosy, perhaps slightly cramped, 'palafito' diner, I tasted fantastic 'caldilla del congrio' (conger eel soup). The harbour-town also offered an array of craftwork produced by local artisans but, I was more interested in viewing the variety of shipping vessals bobbing the other side of the quay, as well as observing the local fishermen going about their laborious details, though there was not in fact very much to see at the time of day we were present. Finally, we continued on to Puerto Varas and to our last supper together in the decidedly interesting family home of Gonzalo, a yoga teacher very in touch with his spiritual side, and his delightful family. After Gonzalo had spoken to me briefly about the home's "energy", we sat down to a second traditional meal cooked by Yerson, followed by drinking and story-telling late into the night. Unfortunately, the evening was eventful for two saddening reasons. First a member of the group fell ill: Yerson and Catrina, the French lady, tried to nurse her using alternative therapy that centred upon harnessing the "negative energy" of the illness and casting it out of the sufferer. Unfortunately, they succeeded simply in making themselves physically sick as well, Yerson especially. I am far from enlightened about such therapy and therefore shall not comment upon a topic that I know so little about but, the evening certainly soured slightly at this point. Secondly, heart-rendingly, my German friend Johanna made the discovery that her grandmother had passed away earlier that day back home. Her grief touched us all and, besides comforting Johanna, thoughts naturally turned to home for us all.
The following day I waved goodbye to my friends, after enjoying a lovely afternoon exploring some of the natural beauty of the area surrounding Puerto Varas with Johanna. By early next day I was once again alone, content to remain in Puerto Varas while the rest of the party who had left the bus flew further south to see glaciers and seek out day-hikes, activities that I feel I covered sufficiently in southern Argentina last month. I have spent the time becoming better acquainted with Puerto Varas, its surroundings and now the neighbouring Isle of Chiloe. This post has gone on far long enough and it is at this moment that I have become aware that the rain outside has, finally, ceased. I shall, therefore, leave matters at this juncture presently and devote more time and detail to my latest experiences in my next blog.
¡Saludos a todos!