Pucon

After a restless overnight bus ride, I got to Pucon on a frigid wet morning.

This region, known as the Lakes District, feels a world away from Santiago in landscape and lifestyle. A small town turned outdoor mecca, the draw to Pucon was obvious for me.

After getting lost and then set straight by a little girl, I found my hostel, Ecola. It was early enough that the night receptionist was still on duty. He had no idea how to check me in, and kindly asked me to wait an hour until the daytime receptionist came in. As long as they had WiFi, I was okay with that.

By inquiring what the password was, I met Andre.

He is an interesting character. As a bald, middle-aged black man with big eyes and an English accent, Andre sort of sticks out in southern Chile.

As soon as he saw me, he asked where I was from, sure that he recognized me. I said I grew up outside of Denver, Colorado, but that I had lived in Boulder for the past four years. As it turns out, Andre spent much of the last decade living between Boulder and Vail, even teaching some classes at CU. While it is feasible he really recognized me, I may have just been dressed for the part, as I happened to be wearing head-to-toe Patagonia gear (“Pataguichi” as Andre lovingly calls it).

In any case, we had a lot to talk about. Andre recently moved down here, living on some land his father purchased in the 1970s during the oil boom. Basically retired and raising the son he accidentally fathered down here, he works part time at the hostel to keep himself busy.

Pucon felt like home in a funny kind of way.

I had high hopes of climbing Villarrica, the steaming active volcano that looms over the town’s adjacent lake, but was told early on that my chances were slim to none over the next few days. This was due to a forecast that said this cold, drizzly weather was here to stay.

Having been blessed with good weather wherever I’ve gone over the last month and a half, it must have been my turn to have it quite literally rain on my parade. I could have let this ruin by time here, but of course I know how to make lemonade out of lemons.

As it turned out, the three days I spent in Pucon were some of the most relaxing I’ve had. 

The cozy little town, which Andre aptly compared to the funky Colorado town of Nederland, is a wonderful place to be cooped up in when the weather turns sour. With the whole lakes district having been settled by German immigrants in the middle 1800s, the buildings are simple wooden things, with an old world charm. Most are still heated by wood-burning furnaces, which makes the whole town smell like Christmastime.

Ecola is an especially nice hostel, complete with a fabulous vegetarian restaurant. The ceilings are charmingly low, the floor boards squeak just the right way, the beds are soft and stacked twelve inches thick with blankets, and the furnace burns all day long. Much of my days were spent catching up on blogging, reading the news, researching job opportunities for when I get home, and drinking cup after cup of coffee.

In short, Pucon gave me a long overdue dosage of hygge. But it wasn’t all down time.

Just because I couldn’t climb the volcano or hike a dry trail, doesn’t mean I couldn’t get outside. 

On my first day I scouted around Pucon’s endless outdoor agencies, seeing what I could actually do. The logic I learned: when you can’t help getting wet, the best solution is to get wetter. Besides its many stagnant bodies of water, the lakes district also has a lot of rivers. Usually more partial to land sports I decided it was time to try something new.

I signed up to go rafting my first afternoon. Because you need a minimum of four people to paddle a raft, I was biting my nails until the 11th hour to see if I was actually going. Thankfully, a threesome of French dudes were looking for a body to complete their raft.

As if we were enlisting in the army, we were dealt our gear in an assembly line manner, then briefed on our mission. As it turns out, rafting is not as hard core as I thought, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

Our guide was a pudgy grey-haired Chilean who was hilariously animated on the river. Knowing little English he would freak us out by dramatically bellowing “OH MY GOD!” as we entered a set of rapids, steering the boat backward, sideways and into rocks to spice up the class III river.

With low clouds acting as a ceiling, there was more beautiful place to be than looking at the wet, green hillsides in the middle of a rushing river. Too bad my camera isn’t waterproof.

The ride itself lasted just over an hour, and we were greeted with hot coffee at the end. Not the extreme sport I think it’s capable of being, but a great (chilly) activity to balance out the cozy rest of my day.

I got back to the hostel in the early evening, warming up my bones with a long hot shower. Getting back into hygge-mode, I put on my llama sweater for the evening.

My two roommates were a couple of nice German guys. They were super friendly, inviting me to hang out with them and their friends following dinner. After stretching my belly wide with a giant vegetarian burrito, I found the guys and their friends. All hailing from Deutschland, the group of five called themselves the “German Gang,” but I don’t feel right using the word gang to describe this lot.

In all my travels I’ve never met such dorks. They had a bottle of pisco and a liter of beer right in front of them, yet all I saw them do that night was crowd around the computer and watch GoPro footage from their collective outings.

After watching 10 minutes of unedited footage of these guys pussyfooting their way down a waterfall rappel, I realized how suicidally bored I was. Time to escape. I respectfully excused myself to drink a beer, watch a show and go to sleep.

The next day was much like the last – coffee, internet, hygge – except I substituted rafting with another water sport: ducky.

Ducky is a hybrid of rafting and kayaking. It looks and acts like a long kayak, except it is inflatable and far easier to get back in after you fall out. After the previous day’s rafting trip, it was nice to be closer to the water and in control of my own craft. I fell off once, caught between two conflicting rapids, but it just meant I would enjoy my inevitable hot shower even more.

With the dribbly weather keeping other tourists inside, I had the guide to myself. The young beer-bellied Brit was more agile in the water than one might expect from his appearance, but his social skills were lacking given his profession. It was a fun trip back down the river regardless. 

I Skyped my best pal Joshua for well over an hour that afternoon.

As much as it often pains me to think I’m leaving South America soon, I have a lot of things to look forward to. I have raved about the endless flow of travel friends, meeting people from across the globe, but I may have hit my limit. As refreshing as those relationships can be, it can get old asking the same questions, getting to know people at the same surface level, and starting over.

I’ve come to miss the close friends and family I have back home. I miss talking with people who already know me, people I have a history with. The same idea could be applied to the places I visit with such haste – so interesting to get familiar with so fast, but never too far beneath the skin. It’s exciting to think I’ll be going home to see people who are excited to see me. I’m still tortured by the idea that I won’t be traveling in a couple weeks, but that’s for another time.

I wrote into the evening, ordering nachos for dinner (besides my friends, I think I also miss Mexican food). I had an offer from one of the German Gang to go out to a bar with some people, but I was digging this mellow lifestyle in Pucon and had learned my lesson about these friendly Germans.

Having saved the final episode of Breaking Bad on my iPad, sitting like a bottle of fine wine, I decided that this was the night. It may be a less exciting read than some of my adventures, but I was a pretty happy camper in this little town.

Having to catch an afternoon bus out of town, I wanted to fill my last day in Pucon with something other than just hanging around.

I had been hinging between two ideas since the previous night: rent a bike and get some exercise or visit one of the many thermal hot springs scattered around the area. At some point in the night my aching, road-battered body made the decision for me. Hot springs it was.

There was really no better way to conclude the relaxing time I had in this town. Despite having the opportunity to soak in some thermal baths at least half a dozen times on this trip, this was the first time I took advantage of it.

After my obligatory coffee and scone breakfast, I checked out and caught a collectivo out of town. I rode for 45 minutes, getting more and more remote, until it hit the end of the line. Along with a round Chilean woman who got off the bus with me, we were the first people to arrive there that day.

After paying the entrance fee, it was a long, steep walk down a gravel road, which switched back and split several times without any signage defining the way. With a good four hours before I had to catch the bus out of this place, I enjoyed the stroll, taking pictures of the green pastoral scenery around me. When I hit the river, I was there.

The series of small shallow pools looked like they had been designed by zen masters, with fine pebble floors and crystal clear water. 

While I’m a little too self conscious to call what I did meditation, I certainly found my happy place alternating between hot and cold pools, healing my tightly bound muscles. I really enjoy pushing my body between extremes, the way it makes my head spin a little. At the same time, each new sensation feels like a shock and a relieve in relation to the last. Along with the physical benefits, my mind went on a roller coaster ride as well. 

Again, with the newfound reality that I’m going home, I’ve found myself reflecting more and more about this trip: What have I gotten out of it? How have I changed? What comes next? A blog is perhaps too public of a forum to detail these thoughts, or maybe I just haven’t processed things enough yet, but my mind continues to shift its focus toward home. With 11 days left (as of writing this) I am trying to resist this tendency, but I am starting to develop answers to the questions I first asked myself two months ago.

After several hours of soaking it was time to dry off and catch the bus. 

After trekking back up to the road, however, the bus had either come early and left, or it had not come at all. With some time to spare before my big bus left Pucon, I chose not to worry until the next bus didn’t come. Thankfully it did after a hour and I got back to town with just enough time to get a veggie burger at Ecola before I had to leave.

I got to Puerto Montt that night. 

With my plane leaving in the morning I was looking for nothing more than a cheap bed close to the bus station. Thanks to a young Belgian couple with a more detailed travel guide than mine, that’s exactly what I got. For 7,000 pesos ($14, sadly cheap for Chilean standards) I got a private attic room with ceilings so low you couldn’t even stand up. 

I could have passed out but the Belgian couple invited me to dinner, and thirsty for a beer, I decided to accept. We walked through the sketchy port town to find a popular local restaurant that strangely resembled a Chili’s. After three days of reclusiveness in Pucon, I was a little starved for human contact. I still really enjoy talking to people without any commitment of future contact – it makes conversation interesting. 

After a nice visit with good food and beer, it was back to hostel. I went to bed knowing tomorrow I was headed somewhere I’d always dreamed of: Patagonia. 



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