Happy New Year!

I think we’re going to remember the last day of 2011 for quite some time as it’s not every day you climb to the brim of an active volcano that is covered in snow, and then slide all the way down on your bum. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

We arrived in Pucón last Thursday morning after a pleasant 10 hour (780 km) overnight bus ride from Santiago.  Pucón was added to our itinerary on the recommendation of many travellers we have met over the last couple of months.  We’re glad we listened to the advice of so many strangers.  As we neared Pucón, we felt like we were travelling in Ontario cottage country; it all looked so familiar, from the landscape to the types of trees to the style of houses.  It was like the mirror image of Ontario in the Southern Hemisphere.  We felt so at home.

The town of Pucón reminded us of Banff in the summer time.  This was obviously a tourist mecca that offered outdoor enthusiasts plenty of options. In the winter, people flock here for the outstanding skiing and in the summer, for the biking, rafting, hiking, kayaking, fishing, birdwatching – you name it, you could do it here.  Located on the shores of a huge lake, it offered swimming and boating too. The beach was made of coarse stone that resembled gravel, but that didn’t stop the tourists from sunbathing and swimming.  The town was bursting with restaurants, bars, and boutiques, and gorgeous flowers everywhere.  We loved this place, the energy, the atmosphere, the whole look of the place.

We settled into our hostal, called Ecole, which we loved – felt like we were in a cottage with our pine panelled room. We spent Thurday exploring the town and checking out the adventure options.  We decided we would go mountain biking on Friday and then hike the Villarrica volcano on Saturday.

Little did we know our cycling route would be so strenuous that we could barely walk our bikes up many of the hills – probably not the wisest thing to be doing before a major hike.  Our goal was to cycle to the Caburgua waterfalls, supposedly an easy 20 km bike ride from town, or at least that was how Chris understood it when he got directions.  But first, we got lost and went about 5 km down the wrong road.  Getting lost seems to be something we do quite easily these days, whether on foot or on a bike!

Once we found our way, we enjoyed the stunning views – snow capped volcanoes served as a backdrop to picturesque meadows with sheep and horses grazing contentedly.  We were exhausted by the time we reached the waterfalls and wondered if we could somehow hitch a ride back to town like we had done on our Baños bike trip – but no such luck. We were pretty exhausted by the end of the day – it was much more challenging that we expected and we were wondering if we were doomed for our hike the next day.

The water was icy cold – too cold to swim.

Back at our hostel, enjoying a well deserved “cerveza” after the bike ride.

After biking, we headed over to the shop to get suited up for the big hike.  There we learned we were part of a large group – close to thirty people plus all the guides.  The next morning, we met at the shop at 6:45 am and by 7:30 we were at the base of the mountain trekking to the chairlift.  Taking the chairlift was optional but highly recommended; everyone in the group took advantage of this option.  We were surprised at how high we already were once we got off the chairlift.  We donned our helmets and listened to the instructions on how to use our ice pick to stop ourselves in case we lost our footing and started to slide down the mountainside out of control, a visual I didn’t really need.

A hot day ahead of us!

I’ve never used an ice pick before!

There were lots of other groups on the mountain that day which I wasn’t too thrilled about. It was downright crowded.  Guess it was to be expected as this was one of the most popular activities and it was the last day of the year.  We started the hike in single file, ascending at a slow, steady pace.  The first half was actually quite easy – we found the pace very slow and the slope was not too steep.  And our footing was quite secure in the snow.  All that changed in the second half when the pace remained the same, but the slope became much more vertical.  We were all huffing and puffing as we reached the top.  Imagine walking up flights of stairs for over 4 hours steady – you’d be huffing and puffing too.

Feeling good at our first rest stop – but we’ve barely begun.

Hordes of tourists making the trek.

About half way there.

Can you believe this slope?

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – yummy!

Caught with my mouth full.

Spectacular scenery even though visibility was obscured by the continuing
ash being spewed by a nearby volcano that had erupted six months ago.

Having fun with the ice pick.

It got very steep near the top.

We were warmed by the hot air emanating from the mouth of the volcano as we peered into the caldera. Toxic fumes took our breath away and seared our lungs forcing us to retreat a few feet, gasping for some clean air to breathe. As I walked along the rim of the caldera (leaving Chris behind), I was astounded by the views both within the caldera and the gorgeous 360 degree vistas in front of me.  You could clearly see the lava flows from previous eruptions, not to mention more volcanoes and mountains in the distance.

We made it!

Peering into the caldera.

The rim of the volcano.

The view from the top.

After celebrating our achievement and the end of the year with champagne, we prepared ourselves for the descent – which would happen on our bums for the most part.  Imagine a luge, you know the kind you see during the Olympics.  Imagine the track the luge travels on.  And imagine the speed it goes and the way it slides from side to side as it builds momentum. Now, forget about the luge – our bodies were the luge and when we needed more speed, we sat on little plastic sleds. Our ice picks and our own strength served as the brakes.  The tracks were like tunnels of snow carved into the mountainside.

We did a test run without the sleds, where we all slid down the first set of tracks at a pretty decent speed, but nothing too scary.  It was a blast.  I felt like I was ten years old again. There were four or five more segments to go, each of varying length and slope. It took a little bit of practice to get your form (sitting upright, knees bent and feet together – total ab workout), and to handle your ice pick without gouging yourself, but after the first leg, I felt confident that I could manage the rest.

After the second segment, I was terrified.  I was going so fast down that hill and using every ounce of my strength to try to slow myself down, I thought my arms were going to fall off.  At one point, I was airborne after careening over a huge mogul, landing off the track, creating my own track as I continued to barrel full speed ahead down the mountain. I was sure death would follow next, but somehow I managed to get myself back into the track without seriously injuring myself.  I have to say, that segment scared the crap out of me, and with arms aching with fatigue,  I didn’t think I had the strength needed to keep death at bay on the next segments.  I mustered up my strength and courage to keep going and was relieved that nothing was quite as daunting as that second segment, and the rest of the way down turned out to be a lot of fun, with only minor moments of fear and terror.

That hike and slide down the mountain did me in.  I barely had energy to get showered up and eat dinner before I crashed in bed at around 7:00 pm.  Chris followed closely behind.  We had set the alarm for 11:00 pm thinking we would get up and get out and join the New Year’s Eve celebrations; but when the alarm rang, we both awoke, mumbled we were both tired, turned the alarm off, rolled over and slept til the morning.  Happy New Year everybody!

Video of our trek to the top of Villarrica Volcano.


Category: Chile, South America
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5 Responses
  1. Jurgen says:

    Hi Christina & Chris,

    Happy New Year to both of you! You guys really celebrated on top of the world! Thanks for your detailed and informative blogs. I’m enjoying them a lot. Safe and happy traveling.

    Jurgen

    P.S.: Here in Ottawa today it’s sunny but brutally cold (-27 with wind chill). :-(

    • christina says:

      Hi Jurgen
      I’m glad you’re enjoying the blogs – nice to know someone is reading them :) We’re currently on Chiloe Island which is off the coast of Chile. The island is dotted with tiny, sleepy fishing villages along the coast, and beautiful rolling hills and farmland in the interior. It reminds us of Eastern Canada. Every day we enjoy clear, blue skies and endless sunshine. Daytime temperatures hoover around high 20′s, low 30′s and it cools off nicely to mid-teens at night. It is quite idyllic, not to rub it in or anything, but facts are facts :) I don’t miss the Ottawa winter one bit. Take, care, Christina

  2. Laurel says:

    Happy New Year, Chris and Christina. We check in periodically to see where you are and what you’re up to. It certainly sounds like the opportunity of a lifetime. We’re wishing you all the best in the new year, and looking forward to reading more about your adventures.

    • chris says:

      Thanks Laurel, we feel truly blessed for being able to do what we are doing. Hopefully our ‘adVennetures’ are mildly entertaining to those who follow us on our journey! Soon, we will be heading down to Ushuaia, the southern-most city on the PLANET, where we hope to kick off the new year with a cruise to Antarctica… pretty exciting stuff…

      All the best to you and yours in the new year as well!

      Chris

  3. Angus says:

    Happy New Year guys. Love the blog, pics and videos. Looks like a lot of fun and a good work out.

    Angus