"Hello. Welcome. The owner's not here, but I will show you to your room. There are no dorms available so you've got a private room. Your lucky day. This place is full of Israelies."
These were the first words spoken to us by the ever-so-stoned replacement hostel proprietor when we arrived in Pucon at 11:30 at night. We followed him up a flight of stairs to our room, while trying to decide if he was racist, and then sat there and listened tentatively as he tried to sell us on Pucon's many activites that were all apparently "owsome" while the wind kept blowing the bedroom door shut, making him jump every time and scream "Sheet!" He finally retreated to join his other red-eyed friends on the patio and let us go to sleep. Funny thing about hostels, we've learned it's much better for the guest if the people working there are stoned (as is probably more often than not). At our last hostel in Bariloche, for example, we went to pay before leaving. The guy told us it was 80 pesos instead of the 90 it was supposed to be. We thought we were going to save an easy 10 pesos until he couldn't change a hundred peso note and a staredown ensued. In the end, he had to accept the 50 we had in smaller bills. Win. This is why I love lazy hostel workers.
So we awoke in Pucon after a full day on buses or in bus stations feeling rested and ready to book some activities and see the town. Pucon is a town that's known for its adventure activities. The streets are lined with log cabin-esque buildings and street dogs (as we've seen a lot of lately). The location of the fire station on the main street next to the municipal headquarters featuring a stoplight display system indicating the danger of the volcano (green means business as usual, yellow means lots of smoke and maybe start packing your things, red means RUN...and grab an extra pair of underwear) reminds you that this is a town 25km away from one of the world's 10 most active volcanos (with a lake on the other side so as to slightly hinder evacuation attempts). We booked in to climb the Villarrica Volcano, which last erupted in 1984, and then to soak in the hot springs that night. We would leave for the volcano at 7:00, come back about 4:30, then hot springs from 8:00 to midnight. A very full day.
Then we walked through a makeshift skate park swarming with 12 year olds in baggy pants to get down to the black sand shore of Lake Villarrica. We walked up and down the beach debating what was better--shoes off or shoes on--and waited for the sun to go down. After we watched the glowing red ball dip down into the lake, we walked back to the hostel for dinner and an early night for our 5:30 a.m. start the next day.
In the adventure-company's kit-room we were fitted with enormous black boots (weighing in at about 2lbs. each), waterproof pants, backpacks, waterproof jackets, oven mitt-sized mittens, 'gators' to go over our pants and shoes, a neck/face protector and crampons. Yes, crampons. Here's how that conversation went: Guy who worked there: 'Do you have crampons?' Andrea: 'I'm sorry?' Guy: 'Crampons. They're for protection.' Andrea: (thinking his accent was quite strong) 'Oh I know what they're for.' Guy: 'I'll get you some.' (Guy looks at Vern) 'Do you have crampons?' Andrea and Vern: 'What's going on?!?' They guy returns with 2 sets of shoes with huge metal spikes on the bottom and that's when the penny finally drops and we realise what he's talking about. CRampons. They're for snow. For walking on snow. Whew.
We get all our kit and make the long ride to the volcano. Almost everyone fell asleep on the way there and we arrived just as the sun was rising over the mountains. It was stunning and really inspiring for the day.
We had about 10 people in our group to start and 3 guides. I had sussed out our group and there were 4 other girls who looked a bit weaker than me so I was relieved to think I wouldn't be the weak link in the group holding everyone back. There was a chairlift to get up the first 400 meters or so, but we decided to save the $20 and walk up it ourselves. The problem was 6 other people on the group decided to take the chairlift (including the 4 weaker girls!!) and it was just Vern, myself and two other guys. The two other guys turned out to be avid hikers who had hiked their entire way through Patagonia and described the 9-day Full Circuit Trek in Torres del Paine carrying a 33kg backpack as 'easy.' 'Crap', I thought (maybe not that exact word), I'm definitely the weakest link in this sub-group of us not taking the chairlift. Now, I do realise that 400 meters sounds like nothing, but we had been told that this part of the hike would take an hour. And it did. And it was a very long hour. And I thought I was going to die. And I thought I was really going to die when we finally reached the top and we were told we 'only' had 4 and a half hours left. And then I laughed and asked the guide in all seriousness that it does get easier from here on out, right? (mucho mas facil?) I mean, why else would they have a chairlift for only that bit? And then it was his turn to laugh and tell me 'no.' it didn't get easier. 'Sheet,' I thought.
After we ate a bit at the top of the chairlift, we set off again. Juan, our guide, made me come to the front because I was getting left behind in the back. I was not happy with being the pace setter, especially since every time I needed to stop for a one minute break, the balding Ginger in our group kept yelling, 'Vamos!' and apparently Juan had heard that the weather was getting worse so we needed to hurry if we wanted to make it to the top. OK, I said, 'Vamanos!' We made it up the next hour or so and then we saw the snow and lots of other groups getting their snow equipment on. All I could focus on was the sight of them sitting down! A break! I was desperately hoping this wasn't some altitude and fatigue induced hallucination. It wasn't. I plopped down in the dark soft rocks/gravel and rested while taking in the view. It wasn't a clear day at all (as it had been the day before) and we were far above the clouds. We couldn't see any of the city we had come from, just long, thick clouds with mountain tops and other volcanoes poking through the tops. It was a really awesome view and this was the first time we had gotten to enjoy it because we were apparently racing those same clouds as they were headed in the same direction as us. We sat and ate more for energy and then donned our waterproof clothing and Juan helped us strap on our crampons. We were ready to hike up the snowy part of the volcano, which from the ground looked like a tiny strip of white against the dark brown and black rocks but from on the volcano the snow seemed to go on forever! We couldn't see the end at all! I eventually had to stop looking up because it was just ending in disappointment when it looked like we hadn't made any progress. I started looking down instead to see how far we had come, which did help, until I would get dizzy and almost fall. Had to stop that as well. But there was good news! As we started up the snow we could see the other members in our group (wearing the bright orange and black waterproof clothes) just ahead of us so we had almost caught with the lazy chairlift takers! That was motivation...Vamanos!!
But once we were kitted up we couldn't 'vamos' until we learned how to walk on the snow in crampons and learn how to stop ourselves with our ice picks if we fell. Juan demonstrated first and then picked Vern to try it out. Vern threw himself down on the ice with vigor and started to silde (the intended effect). Then he dug his ice pick into the ice and came to a screeching halt. Hurray! He was saved! I was dreading my turn, but apparently the fact that Vern knew how to stop himself from falling off a mountain appeased Juan enough so we pushed on. It didn't look fun and Vern slid down really fast so I was dreading the thought if falling so I only walked in other people's footprints and dug in my crampons hard with each step.
The volcano is so steep that you have to walk up it zig-zag, which annoyed me a little because I saw this as extra walking. But I guess not falling off the side of a steep, snow-covered volcano is worth a few extra steps. The volcano is over 2800 meters high, and the car dropped us off at 1400 meters. But the remaining 1400 meters take 5 1/2 hours total to climb because it is so steep. After the zig-zag snow walking, we were within view of the top! 20 more minutes, Juan assured us. This part had no snow because it's too hot near the top to stick. Along with no snow there was also no path on this part and we could feel the wind picking up as we scrambled up the large volcanic rocks. The heavy boots the company had given us proved useful at this part of the hike. 20 minutes later and we were indeed at the top. As soon as we stopped climbing, we were hit in the face with the smell of sulphuric gases. I replied in the deliciously dramatic fashion of covering my face, yelping and falling on the floor. Wasn't my proudest moment. After some hits from Vern's asthma pump, we sat in a more breathable area and took in the beautiful view high above the clouds. We also chatted with the other part of our group (lazy chairlift takers!) whom we had caught up with because of our lack of breaks. We peered into the crater of the volcano and unfortunately couldn't see any lava, but it did go down really deep! The sulphuric gas was so strong at the crater that you could only stand there for about a minute without wanting to throw yourself down it so we made haste and sat back down at our place to enjoy the view. After 15 minutes we started to make our way back down...the fun part! We were told that the volcano took 5 1/2 hours to climb up and only an hour to come down so we were intrigued. We had also heard about the ice slides on the way down, but we hadn't actually seen anyone going down yet so we didn't know what to expect. Going down the very top bit over the large rocks wasn't easy--proven by the fact that Juan came and held my hand for the whole way down after he saw the sheer terror in my eyes after almost falling once. So, I was escorted down the big, scary rock part and ready for the snow part again!
We reached the snow on the way down and all immediately started sliding because we didn't have the crampons on for the way down. We looked like 4 grown people just learning how to walk. It was fine, though, because the snow was so soft that it was pretty fun. Then we reached the first slide. It looked like something you'd find at a water park, but with no tube. And no water. And the with the possibility of falling off a mountain. Fun! Juan mimed out what we were supposed to do--how to stop and steer with the ice pick. It wasn't the best time to have a non-English speaking guide. The two hikers went first, then Vern, then me, and then Juan in the back to pick up the pieces, should there be any. We slid for about 200 meters at a pretty good speed! Juan caught up to me in the end and gave me a push to speed me up even more. Then we got up again--wasn't easy in the soft snow--and went off in search of the next slide. After about 5 minutes walking we came to the next slide. It was long, about 400 meters, but not very steep. We set off down again, but more slowly because we were slowing down from all the snow we were acquiring under our bums on the way down. Once again, Juan came to the rescue and gave us some pushes and we made it to the bottom. One more slide left. We got to it and could see a group in front of us going down. Funny thing about this slide was that it went down the face of a cliff and you couldn't see where it ended. the other two had been very tame compared to this. We all peered over the edge and watched the guy who went first get banged around properly against each side of the hollowed out slide. We were all a bit more nervous than on the previous two. But, we did it, and Vern and I both ended up on a slide that was next to the original slide, but I relaxed when I saw there was no prospect of falling off the mountain. We came down to a large group watching and we were all laughing from the rush. Well, not everyone was laughing. Apparently there was blood on the side of the slide from people getting banged around and a few girls in the other group banged their elbows, etc. pretty badly. Oh well, we loved it!
That was the end of the snow part. An area that took us about 2 hours to climb was reduced to 15 minutes by a few amazing ice slides. The rest of the walk down was really soft sand so we literally just bounded down the mountain, letting our boots and shoe covers do the work to not let rocks in. We took giant steps and when we fell it was no problem because there were only very small rocks around and it was mostly running on really deep, soft sand. It was so fun to make it down a 2800 meter volcano in, yes literally, an hour! We got down to the bus with the other group that was ahead of us (lazy chairlift takers) that had an hour on us and we were so fast that we caught them in the end! We piled in the bus--every single person who sat down let out an uuuuuggggghhhhhhh cry because we all thoroughly earned that hard bus seat.
We rode back to town in an exhausted silence and de-kitted quickly once we reached the office. We went back to the hostel and had a quick nap before our night excursion to the hot springs. We met back at the agency office at 8:00 in our bathing suits and with towels in hand. We took the long ride out the the springs and walked around scoping out the numerous rock pools of different temperatures. They all glowed orange under low lights. We were happy about the low lights because we didn't want to think about what was floating on top of them! We knew how much dirt was on us from the volcano and that was multiplied by about 70 other people who were there. Also because rule number one was 'Es prohibido tener sexo' in the pools. I don't need to translate that. You know what it says. But the pools were so relaxing and they were just what we needed after our incredibly hard day of hiking. They were like a bath that never got cold, so absolutely perfect! We spent 2 hours sitting on the rocks in these natural stress killers and got back to town about midnight. We made it back to the hostel and had never had a better night's sleep!