Thursday, December 18, 2008

Our Final Days in Pucón

Even though everyone had had a full day the day before, we only had two more days in the Lake District and wanted to take advantage of the beautiful weather. What to do? There were so many options. Due to some members of the family feeling a bit on the sore and tired side, we decided to go for drive to another lake that we had heard was warm due to the volcanic activity in the area.

The drive was of course beautiful but when we arrived at the lake, we discovered that, although it was warmer than Lake Villarrica, calling it warm was a bit of a stretch. We did, however, find that there were kayaks, canoes and peddle boats for rent for about two dollars an hour. We saw some islands out on the lake and so everyone picked their watercraft of choice and headed off. Andrew and Chris got in one kayak, Morielle and Fiona in another, and Julia, Elli and I got in a peddle boat (I would have preferred the kayak, but Elisabeth was worried about capsizing). The kayaks quickly got way ahead of us, as we peddled our way towards our destination. Unfortunately, if you peddle there, you have to peddle back again. The kayakers were there and back within an hour, but it took us an extra half hour to finally make it back. We were definitely ready to eat.

Elli in our peddle boat.

So much for finding a warm lake! That's the lake we paddled out to is in the distance.

We found a nice restaurant where we were the only customers. Since everything was cooked from scratch, we entertained ourselves with fancy napkin folding and were soon joined by our waiter who demonstrated some really fancy folds. We enjoyed our meal, and headed home.

At lunch with our napkin creations.

Our waiter entertains us with some fancy napking folding.

Our last day it was raining, so we took care of laundry, wrote some blog posts, played cards, and relaxed. Tomorrow we would begin our journey home.

With rain comes rainbows.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Beginning Our Journey Home

The next day was clear and beautiful again. We got ourselves packed and hit the road by noon. We were sad to leave such a beautiful place, but happy to be heading back home again. We’d been gone for almost three and a half months, and our cups were full of many wonderful lifetime memories and cherished experiences.

Our beloved cabaña that made our stay in Pucón so comfortable.

The kids couldn't resist a roll down the hill in front of our cabaña.

We had decided to stay for the night at Casa Chueca again as it was at our midway point between the Lake District and Santiago. We arrived in time to swim, take a walk, and relax. The next day we checked out at noon, and since it was only about a four hour drive to Santiago and we didn’t want to be stuck in a hotel room in the city any longer than we needed to, we opted to take a side trip to some waterfalls. It turned out to be a really long side trip as we had to drive the last 45 km or so on a dirt road, but we did see some more beautiful waterfalls and a completely different part of Chile.

One of several lovely waterfall.

Another waterfall that we hiked into.


We arrived in Santiago quite late and headed to bed. Tomorrow we would be flying to Buenos Aires and then taking the Buqueus back to Montevideo.

More adventures in Chile

The next day was a rainy one and we all took it easy with the exception of a shopping trip to Pucon to buy food and look at the local crafts. We stayed one more day at La Colina hotel before deciding to move towards Pucón at the other end of Lago Villarrica. Our hosts had recommended some cabañas overlooking the lake where we would have the ability to cook and spread out a bit. We had thought the view at La Colina was gorgeous, but the view from our cabaña was unbelievable! We decided to make this our home base for the next week and settled in. Sadly, I also came down with a nasty cold. I can’t, however, imagine a more beautiful place to be sick. I spent a day in bed resting, but that didn’t mean I was deprived. The view out my window of the lake and the mountains in the distance cheered me up and made my sick time more bearable.

This is my view out the bedroom window!

Another bedroom window view.

On Monday Andrew took Chris and Elli fishing, catching two good sized rainbow trout. We cooked them for dinner and were amazed at how pink the meat was. It almost looked like salmon. We were told that this was because of what they ate. Everyone concluded that it was some of the best fish we had ever eaten.

Elli and Andrew on their fishing trip.

Chris with his fish.

On Tuesday, I took Elli, Chris, and Julia on a horseback riding trip and then to the hot springs, while Andrew took Morielle and Fiona to climb up the volcano. Fiona and Morielle have written about their experiences on their blogs, so I’ll just post my favorite picture of them at the top. The rest of the kids and I had wonderful day riding on the back roads through the mountains. In addition to the stunning views, I particularly enjoyed my saddle. The traditional gaucho saddle has got to be the most comfortable, practical one I have ever used. If I could have figured out a way to bring one back home with me I would have. As always, the volcano was almost always in view, but it was amazing to think that while we were riding, the rest of our family was somewhere up on that looming mountain.

Elli and her horse.

Along the trail.

We took a quick break at this lake during our horseback riding excursion.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Southern Chile at Last

The next day we hit the road again and made our way south into Chile’s beautiful Lake District.
The closer we got to the Lake District the more beautiful the landscape became. Looming majestically to our left during our entire trip south, the Andes mountains kept us in constant awe. Now, however, the vegetation gradually changed into pine and deciduous forests, and an array of wildflowers painted the meadows with many hues. At the town of Freire we left the Pan-American Highway and headed southeast toward the Andes. Our destination for the night was a hotel run by an American couple from Montana overlooking the Lago Villarrica and Volcán Villarrica.

Dinner at La Colina, a Bed & Breakfast run by an American couple who have lived here for 17 years.

We arrived just in time for a delicious dinner at their restaurant. The weather was decidedly cooler and we were glad we had brought our jackets with us. The next day we headed out to go exploring. Our hosts provided us with detailed maps of the area and we decided on a hiking trip to some waterfalls and then a swim in one of the many termas (hot springs) that can be found in this area. Sadly Julia wasn’t able to join us as she had come down with a nasty cold and needed a day of rest.

Hiking into the waterfall

This waterfall was tall and beautiful. Unfortunately my camera couldn't catch it all in one shot.

Hiking in the forest

An old steam engine we happened upon.

Relaxing at the hot springs after our hike

As we drove the back roads and took in the vistas, I quickly came to the conclusion that this part of Chile is perhaps the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life. I’ve always been a “mountain girl” having lived and spent significant time in the Sierras of California, the Cascade mountains of Oregon, and the mountains of Montana. In all of these beautiful places, however, only plant life that can tolerate severe cold survives. In the Lake district of Chile it is much more temperate and a remarkable variety of flowers, bushes, and trees are found. And because of the year-round rainfall, everything is verdantly green and lush. It almost looks tropical in places yet there are numerous pine trees and snow covered mountain peaks at every turn. Dominating the landscape, however, is the Volcán Villarrica, an active volcano with streams of smoke pouring out of the top. It is absolutely stunning! I could go on and on, but I will stop here and post pictures instead.

Happy cows

These beautiful yellow flowers were everywhere. Unfortunately, we found out later they are a pernicious non-native weed.

Volcán Villarrica - If you look carefully you can see smoke coming out of the volcano.

On Our Way to Southern Chile

Chile is a very long, narrow country and our destination in the Lake District was at least a ten-hour drive. We therefore opted to make the trip over a two-day period. This gave us a chance to appreciate the sites along the way. As we traveled back inland on our way to the I-5, we were again struck with how similar the landscape was to the central coast region of California where we live. Here in Chile there is also a coastal mountain range with small towns dotting the valleys. The climate is mediteranean and the land fertile. As we drove, we passed hectare upon hectare of grapes and other fruits growing, and saw an abundance of family farms growing an assortment of vegetables.

About mid-afternoon we began to get hungry. There were no major towns ahead on the map so we pulled over next to a gas station at a rather run down looking restaurant that served the local clientele. I wasn’t impressed by the outward appearance, but by this time everyone was famished, so we went in. In the States, if you stopped at a gas station restaurant you would be assured of finding canned, fried, or microwaved food items. Here there was no menu, only the three or four lunch offerings for the day. Not really knowing what we were ordering we got a couple of each of the items they had available, including something called cazuela. When the food arrived, however, we were all duly impressed! This was real home cooking; nothing was canned or microwaved as it would be in a similar type of restaurant in the states. I for one decided that in Chile you can’t judge a restaurant by its exterior. Cazuela, a delicious traditional Chilean soup was to become a favorite during our stay in Chile.

This restaurant didn't look particularly promising, but the food was great.

At one point during our journey south we got lost in a small town and accidentally took a one-way street going the wrong way. A police car just happened to be passing at the time and pulled us over. We had had several encounters with police in Argentina, all of them positive, but we didn’t know what to expect with Chilean police. The officer spoke no English, but was polite, explained that we were going the wrong way, gave us directions to our destination and sent us on our way.

Around 7:30 we arrived at a place I had found online called Casa Chueca. It turned out to be a very nice, somewhat rustic German-run hosteria in the country just outside of the city of Talca. We settled into our rooms and some of us had a relaxing swim before enjoying a simple vegetarian dinner with our hosts and the other guests. After being surrounded by Spanish for the past three months, it was a little surreal to hear everyone speaking German. Many of them did speak some English so we were able to meet an interesting group of world travelers and trekkers. The next day we would complete our journey to the Lake District of Chile.

The German owned Casa Chueca in the country outside of Talca.

The view from Casa Chueca

Saturday, December 15, 2007

From Santiago to the Pacific Ocean

We left Santiago and headed towards Viña del Mar on the Pacific Ocean. Fiona's birthday was the following day and we decided it would be nice to spend a couple of days on the coast before heading south towards the lake district of Chile. We were now in a new country and enjoyed noticing the similarities and differences between Chile and the other places we had been. The first thing we noticed was how remarkably clean, well-kept, and high-tech Chile was. There were very few bars on the windows, and the homes and yards were generally well cared for, (at least in the areas we drove by). In fact, we felt like we were in California much of the time. The plant life, the topography, even the smell reminded us of California. There were even California poppies lining the highways. And then there was the autopista, the South American extension of I-5 and part of the Pan-American Highway. This was the reason we had opted to go to Chile initially. We hadn't wanted to drive for 20 or so hours on the narrow highways of Argentina to get down to the Lake District. After six weeks in Argentina, we were quite happy to drive on Chile's well-maintained divided highways.

Elli with California poppies. We saw them everywhere.

Are we in the U.S.? Gas stations along the autopista were quite upscale. This one had granite counter tops in the bathroom. The prices are in pesos per liter.

Viña del Mar was pleasant, but a bit too touristy for our tastes. We did the typical tourist things like eating in a restaurant overlooking the ocean, shopping in the artesenal booths along the streets, and taking a ride in a horse drawn carriage to see the local sites. The latter activity was quite embarrassing for some members of the family. Christopher and Elli, however, were thrilled because the driver invited them to sit with him and let them drive the carriage through the streets. This was definitely something that would not have happened in California due to "liability issues."

Fiona's birthday lunch on the ocean

Our touristy jaunt in a carriage driven in part by Chris and Elli

Elli at the reins

Fiona on her birthday with the lights of Viña del Mar in the background.

Unfortunately, what we had hoped would be a relaxing few days became somewhat stressful when we discovered that Morielle had picked up a nasty lice infestation. It had been almost 15 years since I had dealt with lice and they’re never fun, but trying to deal with them in a hotel in a foreign country was definitely challenging. Since we had all been living in such close proximity I automatically assumed that everyone had them, but amazingly enough, after multiple inspections, it was determined that Morielle was the only one.

Finally on Monday we were ready to begin our journey again. We headed south along the coast, passing the famed city of Valparaiso with its steep hills and elevator cars (the “San Francisco of South America”) on the way, before heading inland again through wine country. We had a long day ahead of us.

It is hard to see in this photo, but there are two cars on the tracks. Because the city is built on steep hills overlooking the ocean, these tracks and cars are everywhere.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Over the Andes into Chile

Having determined which bus we wanted to take into Chile, we had to figure out how to get to the bus station in downtown Cordoba. Remember, our car fit only our bodies, not all of our stuff. We finally decided that the best plan would be for me to drive Andrew and Christopher to the bus station with all of our stuff. After we bought our tickets, I would drive back to Alta Gracia and pick up the four girls. We would then return the rental car and take a taxi to the bus station, leaving plenty of time to spare. Everything went according to plan, except that with traffic and few other minor problems by the time I arrived back in Cordoba, we were running about an hour later than we had hoped. I still needed to return the car, but we had allowed extra time, so I wasn't too worried. I had the address for the rental car agency and a good map. Unfortunately, we discovered that the agency wasn't actually at the address listed the internet. What to do? I tried calling them, but my phone was having some type of technical problem that wouldn't allow me to make the call. Now I really started to get worried. I retraced my steps again thinking that maybe we had some how missed it. Unfortunately, as I tried to retrace my steps, I got lost in the maze of one-way streets in the downtown area. As we drove down a busy main street, Morielle shouted out that she saw a sign for Alamo. Frustratingly, due to traffic, I couldn't get over and had to go back around again. More one-way streets and I found myself lost again. Finally, we located the sign and sure enough it was an Alamo; not the one listed on the internet, but still an Alamo. I pulled over and went into the hotel where the office was located. It was closed! Now I was really in trouble. Our bus was leaving in less than an hour and the only other place I could return the car was at the airport a good 30 minutes away. I talked to someone at the front desk of the hotel in my best Spanish and he offered to call the Alamo office at the airport for me. The guy on duty turned out to Martin, the man who we had filled out our initial paperwork with. Fortunately, he spoke fluent English. I explained my dilemma and he told me to just leave the car there at the hotel and he would take care of everything later. The man at the hotel desk informed me that the bus station was only seven blocks away. We'd make it, praise God!! We grabbed our stuff, walked rapidly to the bus station and arrived with about twenty minutes to spare. If Morielle hadn't "accidentally" noticed the Alamo sign, I don't know what we would have done.

Our bus was scheduled to leave at 10:00 p.m. We were grateful to have been able to get tickets because the bus drivers were planning to go on strike at midnight (the second time that week), and any buses scheduled after that wouldn't be running. 10:30 rolled around and we were still waiting. 11:00 passed and still we waited. When it passed 11:3o we started to worry. What if the bus didn't arrive before midnight? Would it still leave? Finally, at around 11:50 our bus showed up. We all climbed on exhausted but relieved, and got ourselves settled for our 16 hour bus ride.

I thought the younger kids would fall asleep right away, but for some crazy reason they decided to show a cartoon until 2:00 a.m. It's pretty hard to sleep when there is a movie playing right in front of you. Finally, after the movie was over, we all fell asleep. The bus had "semi-cama" seats, which meant that they reclined quite a bit. It was not super comfortable, but was better than trying to sleep in an airline seat.

Sleeping in our semi-cama seats

When we woke up we were coming in Mendoza, the last major city before heading up into the Andes. We got a quick break at a gas station to stretch our legs and brush our teeth.

Andrew & Chris in front of our double-decker bus in Mendoza. Our seats were upstairs.

The Andes appear in the distance.

Driving up into the Andes

A really tall mountain.

We climbed back in and started our climb into the Andes. I was excited. I have wanted to see the Andes for as long as I can remember and now, here they were!!! I quickly decided however, that I had best keep my eyes on the mountains not the road. Remember my description of Argentine drivers? Well, our lives were now in the hands of an Argentine bus driver who passed trucks on windy mountain roads with a sheer drop off on one side. Lots of prayers went up over the next five hours and at one point I looked down one of these drop offs and saw a truck that hadn't made it. The truck was completely destroyed and they were in the process of trying to get the driver out as we drove by. I can't imagine that he survived. It was a sad and sobering moment.

A truck and truck driver that didn't make it.

One of the challenges I faced as a parent as we drove over the Andes was the graphically violent and sexual charged R rated movie they chose to show as we traveled. I finally had to have the younger kids cover their heads with a blanket and look out the window. I just don't understand why people show this kind of material when there are children present. What are they thinking? The imagery was horrific and instead being able to totally enjoy the beauty out my window, I had to deal with unhappy kids who didn't enjoy having to travel with blankets over their heads. This was one of the reasons I had hesitated traveling by bus in South America. A friend had warned me that the movies were usually pretty bad, and now I was having my own first hand experience. At least the view out the window was pretty. They both finally fell asleep. My other kids ended up sleeping through most of the movie as well, so we survived.

At last we reached the summit and arrived at the border between Argentina and Chile. We passed through customs with out any real difficulty even though two of our bags had to be searched. Then we began our decent in to Chile. For those of you who have never seen the Andes they are simply amazing. We took lots of pictures, but none of them do justice to sheer magnificence of these mountains.

The border of Chile was at the summit.

Another view of the summit.

Safely in the valley looking back at the Andes

Finally we arrived in Santiago. We were exhausted but grateful to have made it safely. The next challenge was trying to figure out how to pick up our car. As we stood there looking very much like confused tourists, an incredibly helpful Chilean woman who spoke English quite well came up and offered to help. Since our phone didn't work in Chile, she offered to call the rental car agency from her cell phone. Once we discovered that it was more than a half an hour away from the bus station, we realized that our original plan of sending either Andrew or me to pick up the car and then get the rest of the family at the bus station was probably not a good one. Unlike the bus station in Argentina, there really wasn't any place to comfortably hang out while waiting; and unlike Argentina, we really stood out in the bus station with our lighter hair and fairer skin. There was no way we could pass for locals here. We decided that our best bet was to all take taxis to the car rental place. We enlisted the help of the guy who appeared to be assigned to the task of matching riders with drivers. He took stock of us and our luggage and went to talk to the taxi drivers. They decided that we would all fit in one taxi, luggage and all. We couldn't believe it. It was just too funny. But sure enough, with his roof rack and trunk, all of our stuff fit. Andrew sat in the front seat with the driver and the rest of us climbed in the backseat of yet another car that was designed for only five people. This time, however, instead of trying to cram five people into the backseat, we were cramming six!!! But, hey, were in South America. Here can you get away with piling eight people into a five passenger car. We all got very cozy and off we went.

When we arrived at the rental car agency, we were thrilled to find out that they had another Hyundai eleven passenger van waiting for us! Finally we could spread out a bit and fit all of our stuff comfortably. We now were ready to begin our adventures in Chile!!