A Little Taste of Walden

Getting from Bariloche in Argentina to Pucon in Chile is not a difficult process unless you try to buy your tickets online. I had read several places that there is no direct bus from Bariloche to Pucon and our online searches seemed to confirm that. So we ended up buying tickets from Bariloche to Osorno and then when we tried to buy our tickets from Osorno to Pucon, that particular company wouldn’t allow us to pay with anything but a credit card issued in Chile. Very helpful. When we went to the bus station in Bariloche to buy tickets, I got in a little argument with the girl who insisted that we buy the tickets for the bus that left at 2:50 rather than at noon. She told us that we could not make the noon bus because it takes 5 hours to get to Osorno and we were leaving at 7:00. I realized later after I bought the 2:50 tickets, that she hadn’t been taking into account the fact that the time in Osorno is one hour earlier than in Bariloche.

We decided that it was no big deal. We could have lunch there and explore the town. But when we actually got to Osorno we changed our minds. We saw that the reason that Osorno was not listed in the Chile guidebook was that there is nothing to see in Osorno and it’s not particularly picturesque. Since we had arrived with plenty of time to catch the noon bus, we thought it would be better to take the earlier bus and then have some time to explore Pucon, take care of some business on the internet, and do some grocery shopping. The cabin we had booked was about 30km from the town, and the owner was going to pick us up at 7:00, so we would have a couple of extra hours to spend in Pucon. That would have been a great plan. But…

Pucon is a small town. It doesn’t have a central bus station; every bus company has its own terminal. There isn’t any lobby, there isn’t any baggage storage. Still our plan may have worked if it wasn’t pouring down rain. I mean really pouring. Fan-freakin’-tastic. So I had to do what I have long known I would have to do and have long dreaded: I had to have the phone conversation in Spanish.

I called the number I had written down and an older lady answered. “Parque Tinquilco?” I asked, completely screwing up the pronunciation because I hadn’t really looked at it before.

Then came such a messy, ridiculous exchange of bad Spanish and English that I can’t even duplicate it. The gist of it was that the woman, who happened to live four blocks away, told us to come to her house to wait for her son, who I assumed was the owner of the cabins. I actually had no idea, but she was offering us a dry place nonetheless.

We walked the four blocks and by the time we got to her house, everything that we owned was soaking wet. She fluttered around us like a concerned grandmother, offering us coffee, bathroom, internet. She said that she had called her son and that he would be by to pick us up in 25 minutes. We already felt like huge pains in the ass, but what else could we do? Stand in the rain for three hours?

As we sat having our coffee, she turned on the television to amuse us. She was looking for CNN, but she came across a video karaoke version of “Living La Vida Loca” and she stopped there and sat tapping her toes and looking admiringly at Ricky Martin. After that, she left it on the music channel and when a new video would come on, she would tell us about the artist. We even saw a video by the white-suited ass-clown that had kept us awake on our bus ride to Puerto Madryn, but sadly, she could not remember his name.

I had recovered my Spanish enough after the phone conversation to have a bit of chit-chat in between videos. But as time ticked away, we could tell that she was desperately trying to come up with ways to entertain us. She even took us into her bedroom to show us the hostel next door that she owned and her car that she hasn’t been able to drive lately because of a heart operation. She was really straining, and she kept trying to call her son to see where he was.

Eventually her daughter-in-law came to get us and we were treated to an incredibly bumpy ride over a dirt and gravel road all the way up to the cabin. It was still raining heavily when we pulled up and dragged our still damp things out of the car and into the living room of the cabin. The place was huge—living room, full kitchen, two bedrooms, a wood-burning stove, all sitting on the farthest corner of the property right next to their dock on Lake Tinquilco where kayaks and row boats sat waiting. I was immediately glad that we had booked an entire week in this place.

Because we had already been enough trouble, we told the owner’s wife that we would go into town by ourselves the next day and get groceries rather than have her wait for us. So for dinner we went to the main house where the owners, Carlos and Gianna, have a small restaurant for the lodgers and anyone else who might happen by.

We opened the door to the house and finally got to meet the fabled Carlos who strode over to greet us with a Pisco sour in his hand. The first thing I noticed was his hands which were approximately the size of the paws of a full-grown grizzly bear. He was the kind of man who just seems larger than he actually is. His shoulder-length black hair stuck out in a terribly unruly manner from under his knit cap and flecks of dirt and splinters of wood clung to his pants. He greeted us gregariously in Spanish and we proceeded to have a fairly lucid conversation whereby all parties seemed reasonably satisfied that they had understood the gist of it.

The restaurant was four or five tables in the downstairs part of their house. Next to the serving area on one side was the kitchen, and on the other side was the recreation area with couches and a big-screen TV. While we waited for our dinner, we munched on the most heavenly sopaipillas that I have ever tasted—soft, fried discs of golden-brown dough topped with a zesty salsa of tomato, onion, and cilantro. What gave these sopaipillas their extra flavor was the oil that they had been fried in which they shared with the battered trout.

Carlos and Gianna had company, so while we ate the two couples lounged leisurely on the couches watching some American Idol type show on the big-screen. The couples’ three children played an educational video game intently on a laptop at the next table. Every once in a while Gianna would get up from the couch and pour us some more wine. It was all a little strange, but the sopaipillas made up for any weirdness that we might have felt.

The next morning we boarded the minibus that conveniently stopped right outside the cabins and took a trip into the center of Pucon to stock up on food. When I set foot in the grocery store my heart actually leaped. It was enormous and it had all of the things that I hadn’t been able to find in Argentina: peanut butter, cream cheese (Philadelphia, nonetheless), sour cream, alfredo sauce, thick-cut smoked bacon, you name it. Even Adam, who generally loathes grocery shopping, was strolling the aisles gleefully. We stocked up for the week and merrily headed back to the cabin loaded down with tasty treats.

The next morning we arrived at Huerquehue National Park ready to hike the Tres Lagos trail. It was a little drizzly outside but it didn’t matter because this would be our first big encounter with the monkey puzzle trees. The first time I saw this type of tree was in Bariloche. I fell in love with its quirky, world-of-Dr. Seuss look. At the time I didn’t know what kind of tree it was, but I had read that a type of tree called “monkey puzzle” grew in the area and was just hoping that my new favorite tree would have such a fantastic name. Score.

But the few scattered monkey puzzles in Bariloche were nothing compared to what we found in the park in Pucon. The lakes on the trail were nice, but nothing compared to some of the lakes we had seen so far. That is the problem with hiking so much—you start to be unimpressed by things that you should be impressed by. But the monkey puzzles…they grew in huge forests on the hillsides and along the trail. Walking into a forest of them makes you feel like you are on a planet like Endor and you expect an Ewok to grab onto your leg and start shouting at you in Ewokese. Many of the trees were hosts to a neon green moss that made all of the trees look like they had been silly stringed. When we got back from the hike and I realized how many pictures I had taken of the monkey puzzles, I realized that my fascination may have been bordering on obsession.

*Side note*

I was standing in the bedroom looking at the package of toilet paper that we had bought. I called out to Adam who was standing in the other room, “Why is there a black man in a tuxedo on this package of toilet paper?”

Adam came into the room. “Jeez, my heart started to beat faster when you said that. I thought you were going to say that there was a black man in a tuxedo outside our window.”

“Why would you be afraid of a black man in a tuxedo?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t. I mean my heart started to beat faster because I was excited. We’re out in the middle of nowhere. How great would it be to see a black guy in a tuxedo just hanging around outside? Why would he be here? What would he be doing? Is he going to a party? Is he going to invite us?”

*End of sidenote*

One of the best hikes of the entire trip was the day that we climbed Cerro San Sebastian in Huerquehue National Park. It started off as a standard hike through the forest, but after about an hour we came to a sprawling meadow with monkey puzzle trees growing all around. Suddenly, an enormous, perfectly conical volcano popped up in the distance as if waiting until just the right moment to surprise us. We turned around again and there was another one. Both volcanoes were the perfect shape—almost too perfect. They looked as if they had been built for a school science fair by the overachieving parents of an elementary school child and that if we waited long enough, they would begin to fizz and erupt with vinegar and baking soda.

After we passed through the meadow, the climb got steeper, but the views got even better. Standing on the side of a cliff we looked out into what seemed to be the land that time forgot. I expected to see a brontosaurus calmly munching on one of the trees in the untouched forest or a feel a pterodactyl buzz our heads. Unfortunately, no.

And here comes the part that we’ve all come to expect: the part where Dawn freaks out. The steep climb turned to muddy, slippery, steeper climb, and I had to start using the surrounding trees to pull me up and insure that the trail wouldn’t become a very uncomfortable Slip-n-Slide. As usual, I could only think of one thing: there is no way I’m going to be able to get back down. At times like these, the only way that I can cope is to try to make my mind do something menial, even annoying. This time I began to silently sing the lyrics to the Mr. Ed theme song. Over and over and over. So it went a little something like this:

“Shit, shit, shit!…A horse is a horse of course of course…Holy crap, how am I going to…and no one can talk to a horse of course…What the hell can I grab onto?…that is of course unless the horse…Slipping foot! Slipping foot!… is the famous Mr. Ed.”

…Skipping the familiar part about Adam giving the pep talk and Dawn finally making it up the mountain…

From the top of the mountain we could see no fewer than seven lakes and five volcanoes. I’ll write that again in case you were doing that thing where your eyes are moving across the page but you’re thinking about something else. Seven lakes and five volcanoes. Where to look? I kept constantly spinning around in circles trying to find the perfect spot where I could take everything in at once.

And then, just like that, it was time to head back down. I inched my way down the steep, muddy path so slowly that if Adam hadn’t stopped to wait for me several times, he probably would have been back at the cabin relaxing in front of the fire before I even made it back to the meadow. On the way back we took a loop trail that led us unsuspectingly into…another gigantic forest of monkey puzzles! I started taking pictures of individual trees. So photogenic!

After our hike to San Sebastian, the weather turned against us. We were able to spend about an hour in a rowboat on the lake outside of our cabin before the clouds rolled in and we had to retreat. For the next few days it rained pretty much non-stop, but it was fine with us. We had a wood-burning stove that kept the cabin cozy and an endless supply of wood brought to us every day by Carlos. We had books to read and good food to eat. There was no pressure to do anything but relax because it was pouring rain. That week at the cabin turned out to be one of the most relaxing of the whole trip.

The whole time we were at the cabin, the two large black dogs that belonged to the owners guarded it. Anytime one of them would hear a noise—a cow, a bird, perhaps a sound coming from inside the cabin—they would start barking insanely. So even if our sleep was sometimes interrupted, at least we knew we were safe. However, it was really pathetic when it would rain and they would sit soaking wet in front of the big window and stare at us, willing us to let them in. I don’t really understand the concept of “outside” dogs, so it was heartbreaking for me. I know that they are used to it and that dogs have lived outside for 15,000 years, but I believe that a dog’s place is on the bed snuggled up with me, maybe even with his head on the pillow if that’s what makes him comfortable.

At the end of the week we reluctantly left our tucked away cabin with its view of the lake and complimentary guard dogs and got ready for our next stop. We had a 7:30 PM bus to Valparaiso, so Carlos dropped us off in town at around noon and we went to wander around the town. We had been to town twice to go grocery shopping, but we were in such a hurry to catch the bus back that we hadn’t really paid much attention to our surroundings. Pucon is the kind of town that I could see myself living in minus all of the tourists. Adorable wooden buildings. Fantastic restaurants offering a surprising variety of ethnic foods. A tranquil lake at the edge of town and views of volcanoes. And of course the guide dogs. As we walked toward the lake, a tan, short-haired dog with pale brown eyes trotted along beside us. “Hello,” I said, assuming the voice of the dog, “My name is Pierre and I will be your guide dog for the day.”

We walked along the street until we came to the black sand beach at the lake. At this boundary Pierre stayed behind and I figured that he had come to the end of his territory and that another dog would soon pick up where he left off. Just a moment later a healthy looking German Shepherd who was barking crazily at the sand when we walked by decided that we were worthy of an escort. He followed us along the beach all the way to the end where we turned around and retraced our steps.

There was a couple walking in the opposite direction, a dog gleefully basking in their attention. He looked familiar. “Is that Pierre?” I asked Adam incredulously.

It was. Pierre had not left us because of some imaginary boundary, he had left us for a couple that he liked better. He slunk by us, unable to look us in the eyes. To add insult to injury, the German Shepherd joined them and he and Pierre romped merrily around the beach. Pierre, you are a traitor.

But I had no time to chastise Pierre because we had a bus to catch. Unfortunately it turned out to be an overnight bus with about twenty overzealous middle-aged men who every ten or fifteen minutes would start screaming, “Valparaiso!” But who needed sleep? We were about to arrive in the city that is considered by many to be the crown jewel of Chile. We’ll see about that…

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