La Araucanía, Chile

Buying a bus ticket in South America can be a bit of an ordeal, but in larger towns with a terminal it’s less of a hassle. Rather than have various offices and points of sale scattered throughout the town, Argentina’s Bariloche terminal has a dozen or so different companies and conglomerates lined up alongside each other. Because each kiosk doesn’t display easily visible timetables (if they have any at all), and there’s no centralized site online with every company’s routes and times of departure, it can be an adventure.

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Buenos Aires’s chaotic Retiro bus terminal, which is reminiscent of a war zone.

My Lonely Planet guidebooks for Argentina and Chile, although outdated, have lists of which companies go where from each town and serve as an excellent start. Looking online at various company websites, I found a convenient bus over the Andes to Chile that didn’t leave at an ungodly early hour. About $31 from Vía Bariloche, a reputable company about which I haven’t heard too many stories of sudden breakdowns in the jungle, the six hour ticket to Chile’s Puerto Varas was easy to purchase.

Entering Chile is a bit more of a process than going into Argentina, as the former has strict importation guidelines on agricultural products (read: no meat, vegetables, or fruit). While border formalities for entering Argentina can take a few minutes for an entire busload, in Chile it’s often much longer. But the sniffer dog’s habit of repeatedly running off into the woods, and bringing along random pieces of luggage taken from the inspection pile in an attempt to play fetch, provided entertainment.

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It’s pretty easy to swap out SIM cards while crossing from country to country. Data costs about 40 cents a day, and the card allowing you access to the network is free or only a couple bucks. You can recharge the pay-as-you-go plan in lots of different places, like supermarkets or newspaper stands. When I asked for a smaller SIM card for my phone, the attendant just said “no problem” and got out a pair of scissors. Apparently in the US they frown very heavily upon that.

Entering Chile was a bit of a shock with a sudden onset of well paved roads and a lack of the general “Berlin 1945” feel you get everywhere in Argentina. The bus dropped me off 4km south of Puerto Varas on the highway, which wasn’t a terrible walk into town. Though next time I’ll pick a company that has a dropoff point in the settlement.

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Walking to Puerto Varas around 9pm.

Disclaimer: Sweden is my favorite country I’ve ever visited, up there with Albania, Croatia, and Colombia, but Chile is quickly rising on that list. Puerto Varas is touristy, but the Swedish hostel I stayed at was lovely and the town is quite nice. Touristy towns in Chile don’t seem to have the “tourist trap” feel of Bariloche.

I spent a full day in town before heading up north to the Araucanía, Chile’s poorest and most heavily native region. Still, Chile is probably Latin America’s most developed country and the region seems more prosperous than just about anywhere in its eastern neighbor.

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The beach of Pucón, my base for hikes in the Araucanía, with the Villarrica volcano visible in the background. Pucón is touristy, but still fairly pleasant.

My first hiking excursion in Chile was to Huerquehue National Park, known for being easily reached by public transit and having pretty lakes. At 50km (31 miles) round trip, the hike from the entrance to geothermal pools just outside the park was steep in places but overall not terribly demanding. I have to admit the scenery wasn’t comparable to other parks in the region, but soaking in the hot springs at the end of the day was quite nice.

Back in Pucón I went to the Villarrica National Park office to talk to the rangers about trail conditions on the popular 80km (50 mile) Villarrica Traverse. Because of the previous mild winter snow is not an issue, and the ranger gave me a map of the trail plus transit info (there really is none other than hitchhiking and a bus at the end that leaves once a day at 5pm).

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The ski center, a pretty lonely place in summer but very close to the start of the Villarrica Traverse.

Rather than hitchhike the 20km (12 miles) up somewhat steep gravel roads, I decided to lengthen my first day and walk it all the way from Pucón. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful summer day, so why not? I’ve heard it’s an easy hitch, though. A little over halfway up I reached the Villarrica National Park entrance station, where I paid the entrance fee ($11, includes all camping costs) and registered my hike with the enthusiastic rangers.

“Now, son,” the ranger told me, “make sure you don’t drink that ash water on your first day. You’ll have so many bowel issues that…” He went on in vivid detail that seemed a little unnecessary, but he did give me useful up to date info on water conditions. Very important stuff on such a dry trail.

At the river, the last water source for some time and my campsite for the first night, a Chilean English teacher who carried everything in bags seemed to be forcing two friends of his on a death march that they really did not want to be on. He seemed mystified by my map, which I offered him since the entrance ranger had given me an extra. He said I could have some marijuana in return, but I declined while he and his friends walked somewhere off in the distance to collect 9 liters from a different water source. I had no trouble filtering the volcanic ash water with my physical filter, and promptly passed out.

I ran into the miserable Chileans later on in the hike, when the one who was actually in shape asked me to tell his straggling friends that he’d gone off to look for cell phone service. “I really need this to call for a ride back into town, I can’t believe there’s no service out here!” What did you expect in a remote valley surrounded by snowcapped mountains?!

I left them to their fate (I heard later on they weren’t at the same spot the next morning, so hopefully they’re not dead in a ditch somewhere) and hiked all the way up to a viewpoint covered in loose volcanic material. Because it was windy and I was tired, I just laid out my sleeping bag on the ash. Watching the sun dip below the Andes and the stars come out, I like to imagine I was looking at the southern cross. But I really have no idea and admittedly did fail the astronomy merit badge at scout camp. I had cell service, but turned it off. It’s nice to be disconnected.

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The weird Martian landscape in one of the valleys.

Rather than rush to finish up the hike, I decided to take it at a slower pace of no more than 25km (15 miles) a day, something I couldn’t really do on the Pacific Crest Trail with a marathon-a-day pace. A Canadian couple I met along the trail would power through the day and arrive at camp by 1pm or so, and invited me to camp with them each night. It was nice having someone to talk to in English, and they let me scan pages from their out of print and sacred Lonely Planet Guide to Trekking in the Patagonian Andes. There’s really no decent guidebook for trekking in Patagonia, so I often have to rely on blogs and national park offices for info on planning this trip. Definitely a big difference from hiking in Europe and New Zealand!

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Descending into a valley with more water and greenery.

The Villarrica Traverse is supposedly popular, but other than the Canadians I wouldn’t see hardly anybody else attempting the entirety of the main stretch. The solitude was nice, though near dirt roads leading to regional highways we’d see a fair amount of locals. One such group kept asking me about the prices of random everyday objects in the US, which was a bit bizarre. At least they weren’t trying to convince me of some weird conspiracy theories involving the CIA and a mysterious, shadowy corporation that controls all the news media outlets like I’d often hear in Argentina, where the politicians have become adept at blaming most of their problems on foreign countries (and don’t forget about the great patriotic war for the liberation of the Falklands from the military dictator Margaret Thatcher, leader of the third world impoverished nation of England).

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A panorama of a particularly nice viewpoint.

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Waiting for the Canadians at a rest stop on the highway to Argentina, heading towards the extension hike.

The trail dips for 15 minutes into Argentina, though luckily we didn’t have to go through border control. I wouldn’t have even known I was in Argentina if it weren’t for the GPS points of the trail I’d loaded into my phone for navigation backup. The Canadians and I decided to do a 25km (15 mile) extension of the Villarrica Traverse, which involved a 2km (1.2 mile) walk along the highway to a barely discernable trailhead by a bridge.

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A panorama of the extension hike, with Lanín volcano and Argentina’s Volcán Lanín National Park on the other side. I wasn’t able to go to the latter because of weather a couple weeks ago, so I was glad to finally visit it from the much less frequented Chilean side.

I didn’t see a single other person besides the Canadian couple on the extension, though it was well marked and easy to follow. The three of us ended the day where the trail seemed to vertically scale a cliff with the trail signs blown down. After talking a bit, we decided to spend the night there by a lake and take a much easier to follow (not to mention safer) nearby dirt road back to the international highway in the morning.

Within a couple hours of waking up I was walking along the highway to a nearby rest stop, with raindrops starting to fall from the sky. Rather than walk the 11km (7 miles) along the highway to the closest village and wait six hours for a bus, I found a good spot and stuck my thumb out. Within 15 seconds a local had pulled over and said he’d give me a ride all the way back to Pucón, almost an hour away, if I agreed to speak English with him.

Looking back, I saw my companions just a few minutes down the roadand told him if he was willing to wait and take the three of us he could get even more English practice (the Canadians didn’t speak any Spanish). He agreed, and we hopped into his bus. The guy was very friendly, refused to take any pesos to help cover gas, and dropped us off in front of our hostel. Chile is wonderful!

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