After spending a week in Santiago resting, resupplying, and enjoying the company of good friends, I was anxious to get back to the wander. Four months into this trip my powerful lust for the open road has somehow yet to diminish, a fact often both shocks and annoys Kel who has now taken to calling me “Gipsy”. I’d object if I did’t think the title fit so well. We caught a southbound bus out of Santiago heading towards the beautiful Chilean lake district, journeying for two days and pausing only to overnight in the cities of Concepcion and Temuco to break up the ride. The scenery along the route was stunning and helped build our anticipation of what was to come. We had entered a rich emerald green pasture land, and peering east though the windows of the bus we could see the beautiful spine of the Andes with its long procession of snow-capped volcanoes guiding our path. At long last we arrived at our first destination. Villarica is a small village nestled on the shore of a lake by the same name. This would serve as our gateway to a spectacular arrangement of deep blue lakes, raging rivers, towering waterfalls, ancient forests, and even more magnificent volcanoes. For the next few days our base would be Hosteria de la Colina, a very nice B&B run by two ex-pats from Oregon and Montana. Glen and Bev, the proprietors, were excellent hosts, and Glen’s limitless knowledge of every backroad, village, trail, and lake in the area proved invaluable on numerous occasions.
Our first excursion took us to the nearby lakeside towns of Lican Ray and Coñaripe. One great thing about the lake district is that the entire area is served by a network of small buses that only cost a couple of bucks to ride. So, to get to these other little towns, all we had to do was walk ten minutes from our B&B to the center of Villarica, look for the bus displaying the name of the town we were interested in, and hop on. In Lican Ray we took a little hike along a peninsula that jutted out into Calafquen Lake. It had several different vantage points along the way with each providing a new and beautiful view of the lake and the mountains that stood behind it. At the end of the hike we passed through part of a village of the Mapuche people, a group of indigenous inhabitants of south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina. The Mapuche have an interesting history. Despite lacking a state organization, they managed to successfully resist several attempts by the Inca to conquer them, and when they were done with that some of them then proceeded to hold off the Spanish for another 300 years. Tough folks indeed.
After our hike we grabbed another local bus over to Coñaripe to spend the rest of the afternoon. From there, after negotiating a ride from a very nice man with a rickety little van that had definitely seen better days, we headed up to one of the many surrounding hot springs. Now, let me just say that I’ve been to a hot spring or two in my day, but nothing I’ve ever seen prepared me for this one. Termas Geometricas hot spring complex is by far the most beautiful and luxurious I’ve ever visited. They had 17 different pools in all, each one set within a narrow rocky canyon and connected by wooden walkways. These spotless, slate-lined pools hung next to the cliff side and were surrounded with natural vegetation that had an almost jungle-like appearance. There was also a changeable sign at each one indicating that particular pool’s temperature which was checked several times daily for accuracy.Luckily for us the complex was pretty empty when we arrived, so we had the whole place almost entirely to ourselves, hopping around from pool to pool like two Goldilocks in search of just the right temperature. After a couple of hours of soaking we were like two relaxed raisins. Our driver (who waited patiently for us in the parking lot the entire time) took us back down the hill, and we bused it back to Villarica.
Although the buses were serving us quite well, we were anxious to explore some more remote places and also have the ability to just pull over on the side of the road and take a picture or go for a hike whenever and wherever our hearts desired. We talked to Glen at the B&B about recommending a local rental car agency, and he offered to just rent us his own 4×4 truck for the same price as would have landed us a little econobox from any rental shop in town. This struck us as a fine idea, so the next day we set out for another adventure, scoffing at our complete lack of the requisite international driver’s license. This time we headed up towards the high mountain border with Argentina. The pavement eventually ended and we drove up a dirt road, marveling along the way at the many pristine alpine lakes and rivers. This was also the home of the giant araucaria trees which are living fossils whose species dates from the time of the dinosaurs and some of which may be 1,000 years old. We parked the truck and went for a short hike through a bamboo forest in the shadow of yet another volcano. Lingering spring snow soon made the trail impossible to follow, so we headed back in the direction we came, taking a side trip down another remote road to an area with three huge waterfalls. On the way back to the Villarica we stopped to explore the town of Pucon which is well regarded as the premier tourist destination in the lake district. This town is THE summertime party place for Chileans, and it’s chock full of all manner of restaurants, bars, clubs, and hotels. Since it was still a little to early in the season for party time, we decided to look for the next best thing we could think of…mexican food. I had read that it was possible to find an honest-to-goodness real burrito in Pucon, and sure enough after looking around a bit we finally came across a little restaurant called Latitude 39. It’s run by a couple of very friendly gringos from Oceanside, CA, who drove their truck from there all the way down to Tierra del Feugo a few years ago. At conclusion of that epic voyage they decided to settle in Pucon and now dish up the incredible tacos and burritos we had both been craving for months. It was love at first bite! While hanging out there we met a few other Americans, all nice people who had come to the area for one reason or another and just never left. We hung out with them for a couple of hours chatting about their lives in Chile while watching the smoking volcano that hovers above the town. Eventually we had to return Glen’s truck though, so swapped a few email addresses and said our goodbyes.
Our third and final adventure in the lakes district was my favorite and will probably wind up ranking among my top experiences of the entire trip. We had read many rave reviews about nearby Huerquehue National Park, and having a couple of days to kill in our schedule we decided to head there one morning for some hiking. Two quick and cheap bus rides later we were dropped off right at the park entrance where we paid our fee and began walking in. About a mile and a half later we reached the refugio where we would stay for the night. I had emailed the guy who ran the place the night before, and as luck would have it the last available private room was available, sparing us the potential hell of bunking up in a dorm room with lord-knows-what other oddball backpackers. Refugios are apparently quite common in the Chilean backcountry, but this was our first experience with one, and although we had no idea what exactly to expect, we definitely weren’t expecting much. Maybe a bed comfy enough to crash on for a few hours, maybe a simple meal we could choke down to hold us over until we got back to our B&B, but not much more than that. We arrived in time to find the owner Patricio having breakfast on the deck with some other travelers. He was extremely welcoming and friendly, looking remarkably like Chile’s own version of Jerry Garcia and immediately inviting us over to the table to have a quick snack of toast and coffee. We hung out there for about an hour, talking with a nice couple from Barcelona who were on their way out and another Australian couple who would also be staying there that night with us. Our bellies full, our veins coursing with caffeine, and our packs loaded with a simple lunch Patricio put together for us, we were finally ready to tackle the popular Los Lagos Trail, a dirt path that led a couple of miles up the valley to a series of alpine lakes and waterfalls. It was overcast and misty clouds gripped the mountains at low levels, but our host assured us this was a good thing because it would “add to the mystique of the lakes”. He couldn’t have been more right, too. The hike in was gorgeous, taking us up a well-marked path a couple of hours through stunning dense stands of old-growth araucaria and pines and huge ferns. As we neared the trail’s apex we began to encounter snow, so we grabbed a few sticks of bamboo to help steady ourselves for the final push to the lakes. Minutes later we were there, face to face with the most beautifully serene setting, a strand of three shimmering, crystal-clear lakes, each one more enchanting than the last. We explored around up there for a couple of hours visiting each lake, having our lunch while sitting on a boulder and snapping lots of pictures that would never hope to do the scene even the slightest bit of justice. On the way back down we took a couple of side trips off the trail to see some of the enormous waterfalls that were fed by the lakes above, eventually arriving back at the refugio and resting our chilled, tired bones in front of the warm wood stove. Patricio asked if we would be having the refugio’s dinner that night which we agreed to since we hadn’t brought any food of our own and were hungry from the hike. We figured he would slap together a couple of sandwiches or, if we were really lucky, whip up some simple spaghetti or something, but that was not to be the case this night. He then proceeded to go into the kitchen and spend the next FOUR HOURS crafting what would one of finest meals we’ve ever had. We weren’t exactly sure what he was making, we just knew was that the smells kept getting better and better. While he busied himself there, we whiled away the time in front of the fire swapping travel tales and pictures with the two Aussies and sampling a few of the many fine local brews from the impressive selection our host kept on hand. Finally it was time to eat, and Patricio dug into what turned out to be his enormous wine collection and produced a few bottles. We all sat down at a his giant wooden table and gazed in awe at what lay before us. Inside a huge metal pan was a curanto, a traditional dish from the Chiloe archipelago in Chile. It consisted of several different types of shellfish, pork loin, chorizo sausages, chicken, potatoes, and herbs all cooked up in a delicious broth of white wine and garlic. We were absolutely floored. For the next couple of hours we feasted like kings, listening to old jazz and funk records on vinyl while opening bottle after bottle of incredible Chilean wines and hearing Patricio’s stories about how he came to own the refugio, his history as an Emmy-nominated documentary film maker, and his passionate love of cooking. It was one of the most perfect evenings we’ve ever had, and when it finally ended we crawled into our cozy bed with full bellies and happy hearts.
The next morning we said goodbye to the Australians who were off to the next leg of their own South American adventure. Patricio’s cooking skills again delighted us when he presented a sampling of jams and duck liver pate, all of it homemade, to accompany our simple morning toast. Later on, with the resident pooch eagerly guiding us to each new location, we spent a little while exploring the rest of his property including the private lakeside beach and sauna hidden in the woods. All good things must come to an end though, and even though I could have stayed there for another month, we bid farewell to our outstanding host, slipped on our packs, and began the walk back to the park entrance to catch the bus back to Villarica, wondering the whole way if the last 24 hours had even been real.