Thursday, 27 March 2014

Pucón, Chile: Climbing the Volcano

I was excited when I arrived in Pucón, not because it has a beautiful lake, hot springs, rafting or canyoning. I was excited because of its proximity to Volcán Villarrica. One of only 5 volcanoes in the world known to have a permanent lava lake in recent times. Although, it is the least impressive of the 5.

Volcano Villarrica, Pucón
Volcán Villarrica from Pucón

Pucón is very touristy little town with its streets lined with tour operators and hostels. It has a really cool feel and was my first well known destination that made me discover Google is not so high and mighty. Once you reach this far south in Chile and Argentina google maps will only show one street in some very established cities, although it still manages to show the location of businesses just not the streets to get there.

I was lucky enough to line up a couch with one of the very few active hosts in Pucón. My host, Katherine, also happened to work in a hostel and knew everyone and everything about this town. I met Katherine at her hostel along with her 2 children and another French guy that was also couchsurfing at her place. After grocery shopping for dinner and alcohol we were of to here place about 15km outside of the town, where an Israeli couchsurfer was also waiting.

The Volcano from Katherine's bedroom window

That night after an awesome dinner cooked by the Frenchie and many glasses of wine I was off to bed. Somehow I scored a queen bed to myself. This is a luxury to a traveller and my first in over a month.

The next day I was on a bus into Pucón to organise trekking the volcano and to have lunch with Katherine, the owner of the hostel and the other 2 surfers. That night the Frenchie and I spent the night at the hostel so we could conquer the volcano in the morning. We received "mates rates" for our stay.

The next day I awoke at 6am excited to reach the summit of this volcano. We left with our packed lunches, water and sunglasses. With a wind jacket, waterproof pants, boots, gaiters, ice axe, ass protector, helmet, gloves, crampons and backpack all being provided by the tour company.

After a 40 minute bus ride full of Israelis we were finally at the starting point of our trek. 800m up the base of the 2,850m volcano. Following 2.5 hours of hiking, including a couple of breaks, we had reached 2,000m metres in altitude and the start of the ice. The wind was incredibly strong and we received the bad news that it was too dangerous to continue in these conditions... I was incredibly disappointed.

The view from the starting point 800m

This sky lift can cut out the first hour, but that's not for me. 1,200m

That night we were back at Katherine's place where she was hosting a party with around 30 or 40 people. It was good fun but I was dead to world shortly after the BBQ. It had been a long day and I was the first to call it a night. I was back to life at 9am with people still going strong... Chilean parties!

The next couple of days involved hanging around new CSers, exploring the town, checking out the many second hand shops (1 with everything for 1 dollar) and meeting up with another local CSer, Carolina, who shouted me food and drinks at a cool little bar.

The Lake

The other activities were quite expensive here in comparison to other places so I gave them a miss. I did white water rafting for free in French Basque Country and Hot Springs in Galicia for only 5 Euro. However, the volcano was a must and I wasn't leaving until I had stood on top of this smoke breathing giant.

It was time for my second attempt! I changed tour companies due to some personal conflicts with one of the tour operators on my first attempt. This time the conditions were perfect and after 2.5 hours of hiking I was back at 2,000m of altitude. This time putting on the crampons (steal spikes for the boots) and pulling out the ice axe.

   After another 2.5 hours of a struggling hike on ice, passing deep ice crevasses and taking in amazing views of the landscapes below, I was on top of this smoke blowing volcano with a massive open crater. Unfortunately the lava is too deep to see on the angles available without being suicidal. It was still amazing and an accomplishment that I will remember for a long time.

Volcano Villarrica
Next to the crater of the smoking volcano, 2,850m

After an hour on the top the wind changed direction and I got to taste the toxic smoke... it actually smells terrible and really irritates the nostrils. I was coughing a little but not enough to wipe the smile from my face.

It was now time for the descent. This time sliding down the ice on our bums using the ice axe as a break. There were a series of 5 tracks that reminded me of bobsled runs. 1,000 metres in altitude in less than 30 mins. This beast that took 5 hours to conquer only took 1.5 hours to descend. There were beers waiting for us to celebrate.

1 of the 5 ice slides... those little dots are people
A Ski Lift Destroyed in the 1970 Eruption

I spent 2 more nights at Katherine's place before saying goodbye.

After a week in Pucón I was on a bus to Valdivia.

Lessons Learnt:
If there is something you really want to do then stay until it is done.
Chilean CS hosts are awesome.
A Chilean surfer told me "Chileans don't have big homes but they have big hearts"... very true!
Seeing lava will stay unticked for now on my imaginary bucket list.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Melipeuco, Chile: Becoming a Master Brewer in the Mapuche Countryside

After getting off my first South American overnight bus ride I was in the town of Temuco. The buses in Chile are so much more comfortable than France and Spain while also being ridiculously cheap. I watched a movie in English and received a snack pack for breakfast. Although, there were no WiFi or power points... I slept without problem.

I was only in Temuco for just over an hour before jumping on another bus to the very small town of Melipeuco, about 1,000km south of Santiago and 40km west of Argentina. The heart of Mepuche land. My host, Christián, picked me up in his car and also had a French girl with him that was also Couchsurfing at his place. We arrived at his very rural place 15km outside of Melipeuco, the nearest town.

The House

Christián's father greeted us with lunch, a real homemade lamb cazuela. His father didn't speak English and Chileans are the Irish/Scottish of the Spanish speaking world, other Spanish speakers don't even understand them. So conversation was very limited with my level of Spanish but words aren't always necessary.

The rest of the afternoon involved visiting neighbours, by car, and receiving vegetables for dinner that we picked ourselves from their veggie gardens. This was followed by the 3 of us going for an afternoon run through the countryside. After dinner the Frenchie was off to Santiago.

Christián normally works in a university lab in Temuco, however, when he is on the farm he brews craft beer to sell. On the morning of my second day I was helping him bottle a batch that was ready and squirting 6.25 mls of sugar water into each bottle first, this gives it the bubbles after the sugar reacts with the yeast in the brew.

After bottling 120 beers it was time for Christián to show me the local area. The most famous landmark being Volcán LLaima, the most active volcano in Chile based on number of eruptions in the last century. Volcán LLaima stands at 3000m above sea level. We also visited a cool non touristy waterfall and ate some bush food.

Part of the lava field with the peak of the volcano behind the mountain in the background.

The lava field

Volcano LLaima
Volcán LLaima

Christián leading the way

The berries were lunch!

That night we grounded malt by hand for a new batch to be brewed the next day then we sat around drinking "mate" (pronounced mah-teh, a tea found throughout Argentina, Uruguay and the south of Chile). It's something I first tried in Madrid with 2 girls from Argentina. Mate is drunk a special and social way but I will save the details for when I write about Argentina. While drinking mate we attached labels to all the bottles.

The next morning it was time for boiling and washing the malt, an 8 hour process. I spent a lot of the waiting time exploring the nearby nature. We also went for a quick trip to Melipeuco. In the supermarkets in this town the shop assistent walks around with the customer and grabs everything that is asked for and calculates the total before going to the front counter to pay. Upon paying fresh homemade sweets are received.... customer service! But it would be very difficult without knowing Spanish.

Boiling the malt and water to wash the malt

Melipeuco with Volcán LLaima
With lunch I tried Chicha, a Chilean cider. Here you take the apples to a place and return a week later to collect your chicha. It is a very strong apple cider.

That night, after putting the brew in a vat, Cristián and I were on a 3 hour bus ride back to Temuco to his mother's place. His mum was very welcoming and provided me with another Chilean speciality, Humita, mashed corn that is cooked wrapped in its leaves.


The next morning I was off to Pucón.

The beer, Trakura, is a craft beer made predominantly with pilsner malt and some caremel malt. It was really good!

Lessons Learnt:
Chilean families are extremely friendly and make sure you are fed.
I love the countryside.
Becoming a master brewer.
Cazuela, Humita, Chicha and Terremoto (a cocktail, translates to Earthquake) are four amazing traditional Chilean things.
Craft beer tastes awesome but it's a lot of work.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Viña Del Mar, Chile: Back to School

Once I sorted out my language school at the last minute, I booked a hostel for 2 nights and jumped on a bus to Viña del Mar. However, my phone must have received one last email before I got out of WiFi range. On the bus I discovered the news that my hostel had double booked. I was going to arrive in a new city at midnight with no accommodation.

Once I arrived I tried unsuccessfully to find a WiFi connection. Luckily for me I walked passed a hostel that had one bed left just for one night... I took it. Then I discovered another email from the hostel I booked saying they could give me a private room for the 1st night for the same price since they double booked but also had absolutely nothing for the 2nd night... too late.

The next day I left my luggage in the hostel, contacted the other hostel to let me know straight away if they have a cancellation, then took off to look at rooms in proper apartments to rent for 2 weeks... This was really going to test my Spanish. The first place I looked at was perfect (gym, swimming pool, BBQ, sauna and modern) except for location. The young Chilean couple in the other room had a 4 year old son, I ate lunch with them and watched Thomas y Sus Amigos (Thomas the Tank Engine)... It was good for my Spanish.

Upon returning to my hostel I received the good news that the other hostel had a cancellation and booked me in. I checked in before going to view 2 more properties, both with the same landlady that speaks no English. These were very close to my school so I chose the one with 5 Chilean housemates and saved about 70 USD compared to the language accommodation. Using the phone to type numbers to negotiate price, due language barriers, reminded me of Thailand

That night was a massive party at the hostel with about 30 people (mainly Chilean and Argentinean). I tried Pisco for the first time, the spirit of Chile and Peru, sometimes straight from the bottle. After drinking at the hostel, and in the street we eventually arrived at a club to dance the night away. I even experienced the very traditional Chilean recipe of Italiano Completo on the way home, a hot dog with avocado, tomato and mayonnaise (think flag, not cuisine).

Here is a video someone made on the way to the club, watching is optional. Facebook Video

After the big night I went to meet my landlady, Patricia, to settle into my new home. She taught me that "caña" means hangover in Chile. In Spain it's your standard glass of tap beer and my most common order. So before and after I guess.

The next day I commenced class, 5 days a week 9-12:40 for 2 weeks. School organised many activities during the week. Including  traditional Chilean cooking, asado (BBQ), touring the beautiful Valparaíso by bike and kayaking in the ocean next to seals.

Boiled Pumpkin and Flour... Sopaipillas

Then fried in oil

During the first week I also got back into running most days and went to Patricia's daughter's 20 birthday.

At the end of the first week 3 housemates moved out and 3 new ones moved in. One was an Australian, Tom, he was on a one year exchange program. I also experienced my first earthquake which became a regular occurrence.

 The next week involved many nights out. One night started off with Tom, a group of US exchange students and I drinking at our place, then led to doing boat races at a bar with some additional new Chilean friends. Then I was at McDonald's ordering a happy meal (caja feliz) and giving the toys to a Chilena, Camila, and saying it was a present for our baby... A quiet drink at home can escalate to parenthood with a stranger.

Before the boat race

The next day I thought it might be a good idea to get to know the mother of my future children (mum, this was a joke if you're reading). So I met up with Camila for beach tour. I found out she was a 21 year old psycho, I mean psychology student, and a genuinely really cool and funny girl.


The rest of week involved school, the beach and clubbing.

School was complete and my 2 weeks were up! The day before I was due to leave I arranged with Patricia to stay another week then met up with Camila in the near by town of Valparaíso, the town of her birth, where I ended up giving her a tour (the best parts of my bike tour from the week earlier)... Valparaíso might sound familiar,  it is the world heritage city in Chile that recently had a massive devastating fire. It is a really old port city and actually home to the Chilean Congress (I was surprised to hear congress sits here instead of Santiago).

The rest o the final week involved planning my next destination, reading about Chile, running, drinking with Tom and the exchange students and more time with Camila.

At the end of the week I went to Camila's place for dinner, I had already cooked for her twice, so it was her turn to try demonstrate her skills. She succeeded.  The next day it was time to say our goodbyes but not before she cooked lunch and acted as my translator for my first haircut in 7 months... A very awesome girl that is welcome in Australia anytime.

The Last Supper

Next stop the countryside outside the tiny town of Melipeuco.

Lessons Learnt:
Pisco is a dangerous drink.
Chilean Spanish is very different to Spain.
You never know who you will meet.
If you're enjoying somewhere/something then stay longer/do it more.
Time is the world's most valuable resource.