On Top of the World

Our first couple of days in Llao Llao were spent exploring the national park near our apartment. The walks in this particular area weren’t very strenuous—they were more like strolling trails, but nonetheless, it was gratifying to walk along the several miles of trails through the deep cool of the forest pausing occasionally on the beach of a lake. In the middle of one of these trails was a forest of arrayanes trees which have become one of my two favorite kinds of tree. I am absolutely enchanted by their white and cinnamon colored bark The only disappointing thing about the arrayanes trees is that from a distance they look like they would be slightly soft, faintly furry, even, but they are not. I know because I touched a lot of them to make sure.

Since these trails were so accessible, we passed lots of people who were out for an afternoon walk or heading to the beach to barbecue. Sometimes we would pass by a person trailing perfume and I would remember when I smelled more like that than faintly like hamster.

A few days into our time there, we decided that it was time to stop fooling around with the forest and start going after the bigger hikes up the mountains. There was a bus that would take us to the trailhead of the first mountain we were going to climb, Cerro Lopez, so we went out to the bus stop and waited. And waited. And waited. Apparently this bus didn’t come around as often as the one that ran up and down the coast. Finally we decided that we would just start walking and we could flag the bus down when it came by. Two hours later, we came to the conclusion that the bus was not coming, and that we would not be climbing Cerro Lopez that day. The road was about a 20 kilometer loop and we agreed for my sake that we would just walk the loop, see what there was to see, and try Cerro Lopez again the next day.

The first thing that we came to on our walking tour of “Circuito Chico” as it is called, was the road to Colonia Suiza or Swiss Colony. We ended up bypassing it that day, but I couldn’t help thinking what it might be like. I remembered the mail-order catalogs that we used to get from Swiss Colony around Christmastime, and I imagined a little village where everyone was busy filling baskets with beef logs, cheese balls, and petit fours. Alternately I thought that it could be like The Swiss Family Robinson where everyone was living in treehouses and coming up with crafty tricks to thwart pirate attacks. Ahh. I really had a thing for Fritz when I was little.

The next attraction on the circuit was the Punto Panoramico which was exactly what it sounds like. This particular punto had been hijacked by vendors and tour buses. It’s difficult to be awestruck by nature when there are 75 retirees from Boca Raton trying to get their cameras to work and deciding which authentic handcrafted woven necklace to buy for the grandchildren. We quickly moved on.

The next attraction was a dinosaur park that we had seen an advertisement for, but didn’t know anything about. Of course, when you’re dealing with replicas of dinosaurs verisimilitude is always debatable, but we could see even from a distance that the creators of the dinosaur models that dotted the park may have been working from a 19th century textbook with missing pages. It’s also possible that they may have been drunk. Pass.

A bit down the road we unexpectedly came across a cemetery where people who had died in the mountains were buried. Cemetery? Yes, please, especially if it’s a quirky one. It was a very small cemetery up on the hill with graves marked by headstones shaped like things such as chalets and skis. It wasn’t fancy, but there was something so appealing about the small, quiet, remote nature of it, although I guess it doesn’t much matter when you’re buried there. Plus, I wasn’t prepared to die a torturous death on a mountain just so that it could be my final resting place.

Almost at the end of the loop, we ended up taking a detour back to the park and taking the one trail that we hadn’t taken yet—the one up to Cerro Llao Llao. I was getting pretty tired, but I didn’t think the hill could be all that high. Forty minutes of some steep uphill climbing later, we stood on the top and marveled at the view. Hill after hill after hill dipped its feet into the cobalt blue lakes that spread over the landscape further than the eye could see. The giant boulder that we had climbed onto to get a better look seemed to be tailor-made for us to stretch out on and enjoy the late afternoon sun that gave the whole scene a hazy, dreamlike quality.

The next day we set off again to try to catch the number 10 bus to the trailhead of Cerro Lopez. We took the number 20 bus to the crossroads, but we had given ourselves way too much time and were standing at the bus stop about 50 minutes early. We decided, like on the previous day, that we would just start walking and catch the bus as it went by. An hour and a half and ten kilometers later, we were standing at the trailhead and watching the number 10 bus blow by. Unbelievable. So after doing our little warm-up walk, it was now time to tackle the real thing. Earlier as we were walking, Adam had pointed at a tiny speck of pink on the mountain and informed me that the little speck of pink was the refugio at the end of the trail that we were taking. I tried to act like I wasn’t totally dismayed by this information, but I don’t think I did a very good job.

The trail started climbing immediately and went quickly from rocky and relatively easy to walk on, to deep, incredibly fine dirt which is a bitch to walk on, especially uphill. Adam is a pretty good judge of what I can do physically even if I’m not, and even he eventually seemed worried that I was getting too tired. My entire body was soaked with sweat, my face was dripping and dirty from the particles of dust that I was kicking up, and I was feeling a bit like Wesley in The Princess Bride when the man with six fingers takes a year off of his life using “the machine.” We stopped at a stream crossing to take stock. We had been going for about two hours and the hike was listed as a four hour hike. Now even though I usually feel like I’m going about as fast as a narcoleptic snail compared to Adam, we almost always, even with my slow ass tagging along, complete a hike an hour sooner than the time listed. But at this point Adam looked around and said, “I think we’re only at the one hour point right now.”

I was completely flummoxed and deeply discouraged. If we had already been hiking for two hours and we were only at the one hour point, this hike was going to take…eight hours? I am an adult, but it’s times like these when I wish that I could just fall on the ground and throw a super-tantrum. Instead I dragged along wondering for real this time if I was going to make it the entire way. Just when I was trudging up a particularly steep incline and cursing the dust out loud, Adam called down, “It’s right up here!”

Thankfully he had been wrong about us being only at the one hour point and we were only about twenty minutes from the refugio. When we got there, we had an astonishing view of the lakes and islands below us, but admittedly, we were not at the top of the mountain. Fortunately, Adam had a plan to remedy this oversight. There just happened to be a trail from the refugio that went up to a peak on the mountain range. “Come on, you’re not that tired, are you?” he asked.

I had to admit that since we had reached the refugio, I was feeling fine. Not wanting to seem like a crybaby-wussy, I followed behind. There was no actual trail, just a suggested path over the rocks marked by red splotches of paint and arrows. I clambered up and over the rocks as fast as I thought I could, but I kept falling seriously behind due to that pesky old fear of tumbling down a mountain in cartoon fashion, hitting every pointy object on the way down and culminating in an anvil dropping on my head. Finally it got to be too much for me. I crouched down between some rocks panting from physical exertion and fear. Adam crouched down next to me. “Do you want to stay here and wait for me?” he asked resignedly.

“Yes,” I nodded somewhat tearfully.

He pondered this for a second and then said, “Get up.”

“But…” I protested.

“Get. Up,” he said firmly and held out his hand. “You’re coming with me.”

The Jedi master was not yet ready to give up on his inept apprentice. Thankfully he did not.

When we got to the peak I honestly felt like I was on top of the world, that I was a giant straddling two countries. In one direction was Chile, the snow-covered volcano Tronador prominently on display. In the other direction was the entire lake district of Argentina, the vast blue going on seemingly forever like a recursive picture. We found a perfect windbreak overlooking the lakes and sat down to snack on our sandwiches—another unbelievable picnic spot. We kept talking about getting up and going back down the mountain, but we continued to find reasons to delay leaving. This is one thing about day-hiking that I am still unable to get over: you work so hard to get to the payoff at the end of the trail and then before you know it you have to head straight back down again. It’s like spending hours making a meal that people consume in twenty minutes. But I was just so elated that I had made it to the end and that I hadn’t missed such an epic view that I couldn’t complain.

If we wanted to make the 4:15 bus, we were going to have to hurry. So once we had climbed back down over the rocks to the refugio, we had to start running down the mountain. I was not terribly excited about this plan, yet I was also not excited about the prospect of having to wait another hour and a half for the next bus. I ran along behind as fast as I could, looking like Pigpen, enveloped in the clouds of dirt that we were both kicking up. Adam was going much faster than I was, but every once in a while I would catch a glimpse of him as he disappeared around a corner or down an embankment. I felt a bit like Alice chasing the white rabbit, but in the end we did not end up being late; we were dutifully seated on the side of the road waiting for the bus with several other confused tourists. “Is this where we get the bus?” “I don’t know, I think so.” “Do you know what time it’s supposed to be here?” “I have a schedule here.” “What does this mean?” “I don’t know.” “Does this mean that it doesn’t come by here at that time?” “I don’t know, this doesn’t make any sense.”

Well, surprise, surprise, the elusive number 10 bus never did show up. There were rumors going around that the 5:45 bus really did exist, but that would mean sitting on the side of the road for over an hour waiting for a bus that may or may not come. Unfortunately our only option, since taxis don’t often happen by that way, was to walk the ten kilometers back to our place. I was coated with a combination of sweat, dirt, and salt deposits. My face had brown smears all over it. I looked like a refugee in one of those Save the Children ads. I felt like I looked. But there was nothing else to do but pick myself up, forget about dusting myself off, and let the memory of a monumental experience carry me home.

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