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martes 17 de diciembre

Destino: Pucón Modo: Omnibus y Rafting Distancia: 155 kilómetros

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Valdívia a Pucón,Chile Yet another 6:00 wake-up call. I was in desperate need of a shower, but the wall-mounted bathroom water heater presented a real obstacle. The pilot light instructions were about as detailed as those on an airsick bag. But instead of two images clearly depicting: 1) Open Bag, 2) Gag, the heater’s instructions were much harder to pin down. The first image was that of a match being lit and a knob being turned. The second image showed a stick figure working up a mean lather and enjoying his hot shower. Unfortunately, neither of us could emulate the stick figure’s dexterity and shower savvy, so bathing would have to wait until Pucón. On the plus side, we were able to score a handful of shampoo packets that María provided in each guest bathroom. The Head & Shoulders miniatures were much appreciated as bar soap had been our sole means of scalp scrubbing and trail exfoliation for the past two weeks. Perhaps María would consider adding this subtle amenity to her already impressive full-color portfolio. At 6:30, we bolted down the spiral staircase out back and straight into María’s white Hyundai minivan which was idling in the driveway. With coffee mug in hand, María came out of the house, climbed in, threw it in reverse and launched into a dizzying sequence of stops and starts. We were not exactly sure what she was trying to avoid hitting, but our best guess was driveway air pockets. On the ride to the bus station, we were joined by a young Chilean couple who had also spent the night at María’s. We sat facing them in the back benches of the minivan, but none of us were in the mood for idle chitchat this early in the mañana. Five minutes later, we arrived at the Terminal de Omnibus trying to say a quick “good-bye” to María. Unfortunately, we were slow on the draw giving her plenty of time to come around to the sliding door and shove a fat wad of business cards in our hands, presumably for all of our friends that would soon be visiting Valdívia. Inside, we purchased two tickets to Pucón via Villarica on the 7:00 JAC express for 1,600 pesos 100

each. I grabbed a café con leche and a candy bar from the terminal café vendor for 300 pesos and we were off. The trip started like most of our bus journeys with only a handful of passengers, so Andy and I each staked out two seats and spread out in the back. This extra room would soon disappear however, as the 7:00 Valdívia to Pucón bus transports more than just tourists. The 7:00 express is also the morning school bus for young Chileans that live east of Valdívia and west of Villarica where the local grade school is located. Between 8:30 and 9:00 the bus made several stops, and we picked up over twenty-five polite, uniformed Chilean Catholic school children who either took seats among us or stood in the aisles. A few of the kids curled up and slept while the majority either talked among themselves or with the gear-laden tourists seated next to them. One very alert six year-old must have really overdone his morning Cocoa Puffs as he sang to himself for the entire thirty-minute ride to school. The kids got off at their school in Villarica and the bus emptied out; however, the drill would be repeated on the stretch from Villarica to Pucón, the site of another grade school. We arrived in Pucón (pop. 8,023) on a beautiful, sunny Tuesday morning. We were both psyched to see that the town had a bustling downtown full of hostels and outdoor adventure stores. Tourism had blossomed in Pucón ever since the federal government had completed the coastal highway from Villarica in 1940. Once places like the Hotel Antumalal (1945) began opening their doors, artists, intellectuals, and fisherman all began to flock to the secluded town. It was like a smallscale Telluride where everyone was really into sports and taking full advantage of the beautiful surroundings. At the bus station, we were unexpectedly greeted by a friendly, young Londoner named Paddy who gave us some good information about the various hostels and outdoor outfits in town. Andy and I just assumed that Paddy was a longtime 101

resident from the way that he spoke so knowledgeably about the town. We were surprised to learn that this was only his ninth day in Pucón. He and a friend from London were on holiday and had decided to spend the entire summer in Pucón before going back to the U.K. Anxious to

pucón = whitewater get in on the outdoor action, Andy and I checked out a whitewater outfit called Trancura and booked ourselves on the 14:30 trip down the Tacamuna Alto river, a challenging two-hour trip with Class IV and V rapids for 3,500 pesos each. Our next assignment was to seek and secure lodging which we managed to do quite easily. After a not-so-informative inquiry at the Tourist Information Office, we backtracked to town. We decided to check out a place on the main drag, Avenida O’Higgins, that caught our attention: The Hostería Salzburg. The sign out front promised reasonable rates and an “ambiente europeo.” Inside, we were welcomed by Maria Scharler Zehentmeyer, a sweet, grayhaired Austrian who was neatlydressed in a flowery red-and-white outfit with shoes and stockings reminiscent of the garb of her mother country. When she told Ambiente Europeo... us that a double would only cost 7,000 pesos (US$15), we didn’t even bother haggling. The place was postcard perfect: a two-story wooden Hostería Salzburg gingerbread house situated on the corner with a nice yard and well-manicured grounds. The interior was spotless with a large dining room downstairs and five guest rooms upstairs. Maria gave us room number 102

five, definitely the pick of the litter. The small room had two twin beds, two nightstands, two lamps, two water glasses and one spectacular view of the Volcán Villarica, an active six-thousand foot volcano that looms over the horizon. We immediately opened the double windows, and the crisp mountain air flowed right in. After a quick wardrobe change to T-shirts and hiking shorts (it was now 70° outside and rising), we set off in search of food. We looked at the menus of three different pizza joints but settled on a cornerside restaurant at the corner of Brasil and Ansorena. This place served the biggest hamburguesa that I had ever seen in South America for only 2,000 pesos. It was topped with lettuce, tomato and fala and served with papas fritas which was almost too much food. Still, we polished off our Chilean Extra Value Meals and went back to the Salzburg at 13:30 to start getting ready. At 14:45, a loaded minivan with three guides and eleven other paying passengers picked us up downtown for the trip upstream. We were packed in the vehicle like sardinas chilenas, but it made for good conversation. We were introduced to a German guy named alto: tall, upper portion hostería: hostel Verner and a fine, blonde Australian girl fecha: date named Michael. The two of them had been detalle: description boleta: ticket, receipt persuaded to go on the trip by our mutual ambiente europeo: a friend Paddy who had come along for the European atmosphere. volcán: volcano ride as well. It was good that we established hamburguesa: hamburger a rapport with those three, because they were fala: avocado papas fritas: french fries soon to be our fellow raft mates. The van came to a halt in the middle of a grassy field next to the river where the other sardines and I climbed out. The three instructors seemed to have a good system going as they unleashed the four rafts, unpacked the gear and passed out the wetsuits in a matter of minutes. We were then briefed on the whitewater mission before us. One of the instructors, Javiér, gave good instructions in both English and Spanish since most of our crew members didn’t speak much of the latter. Javiér came across as 103

being very intense. He barked commands at us during our onshore practice session, but it was only to get us ready for the raging rapids ahead. The five of us sat onshore and moved madly around inside the rubber raft while Javiér shouted things like “High Side Right!”, “Backpaddle!”, and “Full Forward!” After twenty minutes of dress rehearsal, our guide decided that we were ready for the big dance downstream. The trip would give us the opportunity to tangle with six challenging sets of Class IV and V rapids. Our teamwork was nothing short of atrocious through the first set of whitewater. Javiér’s commands were loud and intelligible; however, executing those commands was a real task for our multinational crew. The problem being that the “Right Side” and “Left Side” commands imply forward paddling on one side and simultaneous back-paddling by the crew members on the opposite side of the raft. As a result, we went through the first set of rapids practically sideways with everyone paddling in the same direction. The combination of a Chilean rafting guide shouting Spanglish to a Brit, a German, an Aussie and a couple of gringos was borderline hysterical. Our teamwork finally started to gel during the third set of rapids which were much dicier than the previous two. Of the four teams in our rafting party, we were the only group that made it through cleanly. This was a real bonus considering that the size of the river rocks was increasing along with the speed of the chilly current. At the halfway point of the journey, we steered the raft over to the bank in order to avoid the unrunable Class VI segment of the river appropriately named, “Hell.” We walked single-file over the rocks in our wetsuits, life preservers, windbreakers and boots for ten minutes until we reached a jagged thirty-foot cliff at the base of Hell. One by one, we all made the plunge off of the cliff. The racing current below carried us swiftly 104

to the rafts and our three guides waiting on shore. The second half of the trip presented the river’s greatest challenge: a Class IV/V segment where we had to head full speed to the left of a boulder, shoot through the whitewater, then “Full Forward” between several large rocks and, finally, “Highside Forward” to brace ourselves for the final breathtaking plunge. It was awesome; we executed perfectly

and emerged without a scratch. The high fives were flying all around as well as rounds of “gracias” to our outstanding guides. From there, it was back to the shore where we peeled the wetsuits, threw the rafts on top of the van and drove back to town. After only eight hours, we were beginning to feel right at home in this outdoor sporting paradise. It was no wonder that Paddy looked like a local after only a week’s stay. Had we not already made contact with John, our weekend social director up in Santiago, we could have easily spent three or four more days in Pucón. Back at the Trancura office, we milled about, talked to the staff about other trips and found out where to grab a cheap cerveza. The grueling whitewater had left us parched, and an ice-cold barley pop was the only logical remedy. Two of our raft compañeros, Verner and Michael, decided to join us for a cold Royal Guard on the deck of the Estrella Café located next to our hostel, the Salzburg. 105

While on the patio of the Estrella, we struck up a conversation with another guy from London named Tim. A professional photographer, Tim was exploring the Chilean countryside with his fiancée. We exchanged stories from the road telling Tim about the great trekking down south in Torres del Paine, and he filled us in on the nightlife that we could look forward to up in Santiago. Fearing that we may not find his favorite hotspots, Tim jotted down a rough street map on the back of his bar tab. He recommended hostels, bookstores and a nightclub called Oz where, rumor has it, the techno flows mightily. After a beer or two, our whitewater team all struck out in different directions: Verner on the night bus to Santiago, Michael with her girlfriends back home to Antofagasta, and Andy and I back to Trancura to sign up for the highly-touted Volcán Villarica trek the next morning. Once there, we put our names down for the first group trek at 7:00. Evidently, Pucón was brimming with early-risers that week as nineteen other people had already signed up for the same trip. Understandably, we were not overly psyched to see that fourteen of the nineteen were Israeli soldiers and their girlfriends. Couples and newlyweds are not the ideal team members and trail companions if making good time is high on your priority list. Still, as evident by the ages listed, they were all pretty young. In short, the chance of us getting up and back in time for the bus to Temuco and the night train to Santiago was pretty good. We each paid the young cashier, Patricia, 16,000 pesos and got fitted for some serious climbing boots with three-inch spikes. Andy finished first and waited for me outside while I continued talking with Patricia and making last-minute adjustments on my equipment. Once that business was taken care of, we crossed the street to the supermercado to buy pavo, queso, lomo, pan chocolate and bananas for the early morning trek. We also picked up four more black cans of Royal Guard to chill us out during showertime at the Salzburg. Before going out for drinks down the street, we packed our bags, fixed our sandwiches and made sure that we would be ready to go first thing in the morning. 106

At 23:30, we met at the very popular Bar 77 down the street from the Salzburg on O’Higgins. There we split a large pizza napolitana and a liter of Becker bier. At midnight, Paddy and his friend Nic, a former London stockbroker turned full-time adventurer, showed up for a pint themselves. Nic had moved to Colorado one year ago where he lived and worked as a ski instructor before moving to the Southern Cone last month. We shared a few rounds with our new amigos británicos before deciding to head back to the Salzburg. Walking back to the hostel, we noticed that the sky was starting to cloud up. This did not bode well for our chances of climbing Volcán Villarica. We would have to worry about the weather in the morning, because it was already 1:30 and time for lights out.

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