For too long I had been in Argentina and the southern half of the continent. When you start a six month trip, the time stretches out ahead of you in to the infinite. It wasn’t until I worked out that I would be spending less than a month per country (the original plan) that I began to realise how little time I actually had left to get all the way to Colombia, and still spend time there. From Bariloche then, I (and my travel buddy – Hi Mirjam!) had to get to Bolivia, and quickly. This is a long journey! I know some people would prefer to go all the way in one swoop, but I decided to take a few days to get there. Not too many. Firstly, the route was to take us in to Chile as we wanted to climb a volcano. As you do.
Volcan Villarica, situated near the resort town of Pucon in Chile’s Lake District, is how a child would choose to draw one. A perfect cone, it rises in an area of many similarly shaped volcanoes. The climb only took a single day, but it was a hell of a climb nonetheless, up to the top of the 2800 metre peak. Fortunately we did get a lift to where the ski slopes would be in the winter, but from there up was a 5 hour slog up steep slopes of rock and stones, followed by a tough ascent on ice and snow for which we wore crampons and had ice axes in case we fell. People die up here if they climb unsupervised or get unlucky with the weather, and there are signs (in Spanish, French and German only – make of that what you will) that instructs unsupervised climbers to turn back lest they die. On a particularly bad day in 2012, two tourists were killed when the weather turned (as it does frequently) and they slipped and fell 300 metres down the icy slopes without being able to stop themselves with their axes – and that was with a tour group! Fortunately we had good weather for the entire ascent, and the winds kept below 100kph at the top, but only just! The volcano was dozing when we were there, so there was no lava sighted but the acrid sulphurous smoke that caught the back of the throat was evidence of its presence. The views from the top took the breath away too. The descent was, predictably, much more enjoyable than going up. We donned waterproof trousers and a thick plastic cover, and slid down the snow on our butts. Great fun!
From Pucon, we headed up to Santiago and spent a night there catching up with friends I met in Paraty just before Carnival. Local food and beer with local friends? What more could one ask for in a single evening. Santiago turns out to be a really cool city, but the pollution detracts from this a little bit. You can barely see the mountains that surround the city despite them only being a scant few kilometres away. I recommend a visit to the markets and the local bars where you can hang out with locals drinking “Earthquakes” – a jar of (cheap) white wine, a scoop of ice cream (we had peach, but it’s usually pineapple) and a shot of Fernet. The latter is an Italian liquor, much beloved by Argentinians, but available in many places in South America. Supposedly this drink was invented by German journalists reporting from Valdivia in 1960 after the most powerful earthquake ever recorded at a 9.5 on the Richter scale. 9.5 is just unimaginably massive – a hundred times more powerful than the one that flattened Haiti in 2010, so no wonder they felt the need to drink something that made the legs go wobbly. The locals are not immune to the alcohol content, and the dive bars that are notorious for serving the drink, open early. The effect is… to be experienced just the once.
The next day initiated what I hope is going to be the longest bus journey of my life. I certainly have no desire to spend as much time on buses as I proceeded to do after leaving Santiago. From the capital of Chile, we boarded a bus destined for Mendoza in Argentina (keeping count of the border crossings still? That was number seven) where we had to hang around for four hours (not much fun – Mendoza is famed for its wines, but the city itself is pretty dire). After this, it was a long haul all the way up to Salta in the north. For me, I had to go on even further to see my friend Megan up in Tilcara. Total time in buses and bus stations? Thirty nine hours. No bueno.
Fortunately I had a warm welcome in Tilcara, and a red meat BBQ feast was just the ticket. It was a very different climate to what I was used to, and after several weeks in Patagonia, a sharp shock going from snow capped peaks and icy lakes, to vast desert mountains with huge cacti standing sometimes five or six metres high. I was expecting heat also, but one should never expect heat just because it is dry. The Atacama desert is cold! This is mostly due to the altitude admittedly. Tilcara stands at 2400 metres, which isn’t the highest town in the world by any means, but the nights are cold as hell. As soon as the sun drops, the temperature plummets. This was set to be a theme I’d have to get used to over the next few weeks.
A local town named Iruya (Ir-oosha) was visited, which was the most remote I’ve felt in a while. Walking through desert canyons and riverbeds was quite the experience, especially when accompanied by the locals.
This was all set to be a brief time due to the necessity of getting north, but it was a wonderful introduction to the deserts that cover the west side of the Andes for three thousand kilometres, and great chunk of Argentina to the east of them as well. It was here that I said goodbye to Argentina for the final time (eight!) and headed back in to Chile also for the final time to get to the jumping off point for the next big thing in South America, the Uyuni Salt flats, but that’s for another (proper) entry. See you then…