Saturday, November 16, 2013

On Top of the World

This weekend is a significant mile marker: I have now been in Chile 4 months, and I only have 1 month left. It has gone by really quickly, but at the same time it feels as though I have been here forever. The idea of being back on DU's campus, hanging out with my best friends, skiing with my family, or even being able to interact in public without having to speak Spanish seems strange, like a far removed part of my former life experiences. 

Knowing that I only have a month left is sharpening my vision; I am more determined to make every second count! That was definitely my intention when I stretched the 4-day weekend our university schedule gave us (October 31st-November 3rd) into a week-long vacation (October 28th-November 5th) with my good friend Rachel. What's a few missed days of classes here or there, right?

Our first destination was Pucón, a tourist town that reminds me of many of the mountain towns of Colorado. It's located in the lake region in the south of Chile and is considered the northernmost starting point of Chilean Patagonia. Rachel and I essentially spent the entire week outside, which was awesome! We got in Tuesday morning and then took an afternoon bus into Parque Nacional Huerquehue (pronounced wear-kay-way, in case you're curious). We didn't have as much time as we would have liked, but we still got to see a beautiful lake and a stunning waterfall:

We also got to glimpse Volcan Villarrica from a distance (more about this volcano to come):

and some excellent wildlife:

The next day we went white water rafting in Río Trancura:

Thursday ended up being cloudy and rainy, so we had a more relaxed tour of the region in general. We saw los saltos de Mariman:

los Ojos de Caburga:

el Lago Caburga:

and finally, we soaked in a hot springs pool for a few hours. The view wasn't too shabby:

After relaxing plenty, we were completely geared up to take on Volcan Villarrica on Friday. Yes, we actually got to climb to the top of an active volcano! It was easily one of the most incredible experiences of my entire life. We started off trekking bright and early from the parking lot of the ski resort at the base of the mountain:

After about 45 minutes of hiking over rocky and sometimes snowy paths,we reached the glacier covering the majority of the mountain and our guide realized that the conditions were too icy to continue without crampons. We also had to walk with a pickax using it as a type of cane to stabilize ourselves, and if we were to fall, we would have to press the pickax into the snow as we were falling and dig it in until we came to a stop. Thankfully, this did not happen at any point.

Our hiking group was nice and small: Rachel, our friend Holger from our hostel, our guide Pablo, and I. Since there weren't many of us and we were all in good shape, we were actually the first group of the day to summit! This gives me great personal pride, because as Ricky Bobby says, "If you're not first, you're last." However, it also made trekking harder because we were "rompiendo las huellas," or breaking track, the entire way up. The effort was worth it to not get stuck behind the hordes of people following our footprints:

After a little over five hours, we summited! I can try to describe what it is like to be on top of an active volcano, but my words are a paltry substitute for the real experience. I can say that you are quite literally floating on top of the clouds, drinking in the beauty of the lakes and other volcanoes spreading out in a 360 degree landscape, and breathing in the toxic volcano gas curling out of the open crater, which makes your lungs burn. It seems like the perfect moment to play the Imagine Dragons song "On Top of the World" and so you do, albeit on low-quality iPhone speakers. You might have the urge to enjoy a Volcanes del Sur cerveza (Southern Volcanoes beer), in which case you will discover that pickaxes make wonderful bottle openers. You might even have the urge to pee into the volcano crater and try to "put out the fire." 

And then, after some magical moments, it is time to slide down the mountain. Yes, I do mean slide. We sat down, sometimes with a little plastic sled under our rears and sometimes without, and slid down the glacier to the bottom of the volcano. We had our pickaxes in our hand, held perpendicular to our leg, with the pointy part resting an inch above our thighs and the handle out to the side ready to press into the snow in use as a brake. I felt like a little kid on the sledding hill in my back yard... on steroids.

Needless to say, this was one of the most incredible days of my whole life! I just felt so alive, and yet I couldn't believe it was actually happening. 

After we got back to the base, Rachel and I headed back to the hostel. We found out that since we had technically checked out, we would have to pay $6 each to take a shower. Being the college students we are, we decided that was a highly unnecessary cost. Also being the college students that we are, we had decided to take a night bus into our next destination, the island of Chiloé. So, just a few hours after climbing a volcano, we took a 9 pm we took a bus into the next biggest city, Temuco, where we arrived a little after 11 pm. We then waited until 1:45 am for our bus into Chiloé. I have a few comments about this time: It was very cold; the stray dogs wouldn't leave us alone; the bathroom had closed; we were exhausted; and I smelled funny. 

The next morning at 10:30 am we got into the city of Castro, which served as our home base on Chiloé. When we went to our hostel early to see if we could leave our things there until we could check in, we looked like such a pathetic mess that the extra-kind owner not only let us put our stuff in our room, but also gave us free coffee and toast. It tasted like manna from heaven.

One of my favorite parts of our stay in Chiloé was our hostel because it was a palafito, or stilt house, right on an ocean inlet. 

The internal architecture was amazing as well.

I also enjoyed being in the natural beauty of the island! Saturday afternoon we went to Parque Nacional Chiloé:

As you might be able to guess, Chiloé has some pretty amazing seafood. Saturday night I ate curanto, which is one of the traditional dishes. Basically, you take a big plate and throw in a potato, a chicken breast, a sausage, and two types of fish, and then you throw a heap of mussels on top, and there you have it!

Sunday morning we went to the artisan´s market in Dalcahue (Doll-kah-way). Chiloé has quite a few sheep, so imagine walking into a giant tent and only being able to see fluffy wool on all sides, and you'll get the picture. We took a ferry out to the smaller island of Achao for a delicious lunch of salmon covered in a thick layer of cheese and various types of shellfish. In the afternoon we went to see the wooden church in Castro. Chiloé also has amazing wooden churches in every city and small community; it´s common for tourists to spend an entire day just going around and seeing churches, but we decided to just see one since we were short on time.

Finally, as we were walking back to our hostel around 7:30 pm, we were kicking around the idea of renting a kayak. Since it was later on a Sunday we weren't sure that we'd be able to find a shop, but we walked by one that was just taking in their kayaks. The man running the shop agreed to let us take one out for an hour, so we got to paddle around the inlet behind our hostel! We were not at all dressed for it (i.e. wearing jeans and tennis shoes), but when the opportunity knocks you have to take advantage of it. We came back soaked, but it was worth it!

To end this post, I would like to share some of the funny impressions people from other countries have about Colorado, since it was a topic that came up frequently in the hostels we stayed in. Here are the 3 things that never fail to impress them:
1. How High We Are, Part 1: People who have traveled to mountains in Europe or other parts of Latin America are always astounded that my home is at 7000 feet elevation, that we go skiing at 10,000 to 12,000 feet, and that we climb 14ers. Our eastern plains are as high as mountains in many other parts of the world, which tend to start much closer to sea level.
2. How High We Are, Part 2: Some of them already knew that Colorado had legalized marijuana, but those who don't are always surprised and ask lots of questions (yes, it really is legal; yes, stores can sell it like alcohol, but only in cities that have allowed marijuana sales; no, marijuana is not legal on a federal level, but the national government seems to be looking the other way; etc.) I love telling people that my neighbors in Palmer Lake protested the town government's decision to ban marijuana sales in our town, and that they actually organized to put the issue to a vote on the ballot this year because we need tax money so badly.
3. South Park is a real place. All of the places on the show, including Casa Bonita, with gorilla suits and cliff divers and all, are also real. I have been to both of these places.