Day 1 - Black water
The Villarica traverse had been on my mind for a while - it's a 80km hike along three volcanoes and starts out in Pucón and ends near the argentinian border. And because the time I could stay in Chile was coming to an end (as a swiss person I can only stay there for three months at a time), I planned to do this trek and then hitchhike across the border into Argentina.
So on the 10th of march, me and my new friend Michael that I had met in Pucón, waiting for better weather to a) do the trek and b) summit the active volcano Villarica, began our little adventure. We left the hostel at around 10 a.m., went to a place where we knew the WiFi password (because the WiFi at the hostel had been dead last day due to the strong winds that also led to power outages in all of Pucón) to download the maps on the phone and tell a few people not to freak out if they didn't hear anything from us in 7 days (in my case that included my parents). So after that was settled, we put our heavy packs on our shoulders and walked to the road that led to the national park that the trek is in. Even though, this trek was shorter than the Circuito Cóndor that I had done before, I had more food this time. I would soon be asking myself why. But at the time I bought my food I remembered arriving at the end of the circuit pretty exhausted and feeling like I probably hadn't eaten enough the days hiking and camping.
We tried to hitchhike to the park administration and got picked up by a family from a nearby town that was on a family trip up there. We registered for our tour and payed the 7000 pesos fee. The park ranger explained the trek to us and recommended us to start out with two rather long days because in that sector there wasn't a lot of water to be found. Now we still had to go further up hill, to the ski resort, where the trail starts. Luckily, I had heard some Swiss German in the adminstration building and so I quickly started talking to the two fellow swiss people and asked if they would have space for two more people to go up to the ski resort. They said yes and so we all hopped into their car and drove to the same place I had started from to climb the volcano a few days ago. The two were really nice - it turned out that they had lived in Bolivia for nine years and so we talked a lot abourt this country that I am drawn to so much, more than any other country in South America actually.
Once we arrived at the top, we thanked them, said goodbye, lifted up our backpacks and took off. It soon became clear that the winds had not died down at all since the day we both climbed the volcano. It wasn't as bad because we weren't on a steep, icy glacier where a strong gust could actually blow you off your feet and down towards your grave, but it was still a bit inconvenient. For some reason there was also a stray dog following us, so when we decided to eat lunch in one of the small and less windy valleys we had make sure not to feed him accidentally by dropping food - because we feared he might follow us forever after that. In the end he still stuck around for over two hours before finally disappearing.
I felt my backpack more than I had expected. But I remembered the first day of my earlier trek and it had been the same, so I wasn't too worried. At first, we hiked through very sparsely vegetated areas where our surroundings were dominated by volcanic lava flows. Then, we entered a wonderful forest and came by some beautiful ponds inside it. When we finally arrived at the location where we were supposed to camp we had only come about 12 kilometers and taken almost 6 hours (including breaks). And the worst part was: there was no good water here. The first riverbed was dry, the second only carried water that was almost black from the volcanic pebbles and sediment it was carrying. Not really drinkable, but we didn't have a choice. We tried if the stuff would sediment out, but the results didn't make us very hopeful. Then we tried to filter the water through teabags, which kinda worked but was very slow and also not 100% effective. So in the end, Michael ended up cooking his gnocchi in the tomato sauce he'd brought along and I just ate an energy bar, some piñones (the seeds of Araucaria trees) I had brought along, and trail mix. I really hoped to find clean water the next day.
Still, the food had given me new energy and so I decided to go photograph the sunset. The view was great from up here and I took a few nice images. Then, we went to bed.
Day 2 - Longer than expected
We knew that there was quite something in front of us, about 17km of trail. So we had decided to get up early and planned to leave by 8 o'clock. Sunrise was at 7:41 and so I went to take pictures of the volcano. I was hoping for an image with some morning light on the cloud of smoke emitted by the volcano. But because there was a lot less wind this day, the smoke wasn't blown up into the air that far and there wasn't a lot to catch light. I still took a few images, also to illustrate the color of the water we were drinking.
Before we left I went down to the river again to refill my bottle with water as we weren't sure where there would be another water source. I found a little side arm of the river, where the water was more calm and thought, maybe this water is better and with less debris. I filled my bottle and took a sip. This was actually drinkable, there was very little debris in it and so I started pouring it down my throat. How annoying, I could've cooked dinner yesterday! Then we took off, this time going quite a bit faster than yesterday, because we didn't want to spend the hottest hours of the day where there's no shade, possibly even with very little chances of refilling our water bottles.
We hiked through stunning landscapes of hardened lava flows and wonderful Araucaria tree forests. And we also came across water sources, first a river with less debris than the first one and then we even found a river with completely clear water. If they'd only told us this at the administration, we could've hiked a little bit further and enjoyed dinner and breakfast...
We were in awe of the landscape and progressed steadily, but I did definitely feel the lack of a real dinner and breakfast, especially on our last ascent of the day.
When we finally arrived at our destination, the second administration, we checked in with the very helpful park ranger. He gave us a more detailed map and marked the spots, where we would encounter water. Very useful. He also made a remark about climbing the next volcano, called Quetrupillán, which he said would only take two hours from the next campsite. We were really hungry and as soon as we got to the place where we would camp this night, we fired up our stoves and began cooking. I was so hungry that I just went for the first thing I pulled out of my food bag, ramen noodles. I added some dried soy chips and started cooking. Soy for 7 minutes in hot water, add ramen, wait 3 minutes, pour away excess water, add spices - done. That was a big portion, and even though I was hungry, I almost had to force myself to eat it all. But I knew that I had to - after missing dinner the last night I had to make sure to eat enough.
After we finished, we started looking at our next day. How far would we go, when should we start?
There was a big climb of about 700m and a distance of about 11km waiting for us, so we decided to try to leave by 8. We also talked about what we wanted to do the following day. We had both brought a lot of food, but for different reasons. Michael had brought it for having a ton of calories available, while I had brought more food in order to be able to stay out there longer and possibly stay in the same place for two nights and just generally walk a bit less every day. So we decided that we might split up in two days. But before that we wanted to reach the "base camp" for summiting the volcano that the ranger had talked about. And the plan was to climb the volcano the morning after we would arrive there, to observe sunrise from the top.
So we went to bed soon, to get enough rest for another tough day the following day.
Day 3 - Fantastic sunset colors
We didn't actually leave before about 8:30, but that was still okay. We started hiking up the mountain at a respectable pace for our heavy backpacks I would say. Soon we had climbed about 300m and so we stopped at a water source, drank a bit and filled up our bottles, as this would be the last water source before arriving at camp in still about 7km. We battled another climb of 300m, eating through beautiful forest that included more araucarias and arrived at the highest point of this day right around noon. So we sat down in the shade of a big boulder that sat there alongside a few others, on the top of a mountain. For me, lunch consisted of some more trail mix, an apple, some granola bars and also a few piñones that we had collected along the trail. We fried them in Michael's little pan, eating them like chestnuts during fall time. In fact, piñones resemble chestnuts quite a bit. Not in their form, but in the taste and the color of the edible part.
After we finished that, we started hiking down into the valley again and once we arrived there, we had to start hiking up another 4km and about 150m in height. Not much, but considering the hiking we'd already done up untill this point, it was a lot harder than expected. We had to stop and allow ourselves some rest, granola bars and water. But with some fresh enegery, we made it to the top and were greeted by a stunning valley where there were a few little waterfalls and rivers, in an otherwise seemingly quite dry environment. Soon we found a nice campspot, near to one of the rivers. I put my tent up to let it dry out - it had been a bit wet in the morning, from the condensation overnight. Soon thereafter I went down to the river to wash myself a bit. The water was freezing cold, but I managed to still get in there. There was even sort of a shower, a small waterfall that had a little pool on its bottom where one could walk in and hold the head under the waterfall. That's what I did to clean my hair. Afterwards, I went back to the tent and we both cooked some nice, tasty dinner. For me that was ravioli with tomato sauce and for dessert some Oreos.
Soon, sun would be setting and so I picked up my camera and we walked in the direction, where it would set. While I was walking towards a deep valley carved by the river, I noticed a very cool waterfall, where the water seemed to flow right out of the ground and over the surface of a big boulder, before it fell down into a little pool. And while sun was setting, I took a few images of that waterfall, but also of the fantastic sunset colors in the opposite direction. It was an amazing sunset, and it didn't seem to want to end - the clouds just kept changing their colors. I was sure I got some nice images.
Day 4 - Volcán Quetrupillán
My alarm woke me up at 4:45 a.m. I gave myself five more minutes and then got up. It was cold outside and most of my senses told me to get back into my warm sleeping bag. But, we had decided to climb the volcano for sunrise - I couldn't bail.
We started climbing upwards in complete darkness, the moon had set at around 2 a.m. and if it weren't for our headlamps we would have had no clue where we were going. We started out going along the trail onwards on the traverse because we thought that we would thereby reach a ridge that would lead to the crater. We soon left the trail and began hiking over ruff terrain. Sometimes, stones wouldn't be as stable as I thought and they would tumble when I set my foot on them, sometimes we had to go up steep slopes of scree, where each step would also mean sliding down a bit. But that would all not have been such a problem if my headlight hadn't stopped working after the first 30 minutes. I had realized that it wasn't very bright and wondered if I had put it in the dimmed mode, so I turned it off to turn it back on again, which would reset it to full power. However, it never turned back on again, the batteries were empty. And I had left my backup batteries in the tent. After that we depended on Michael's light solely, which worked but definitely wasn't the most convenient. We ended up realizing that we had taken a big detour to the east, which hadn't really helped us at all, because neither had we climbed that high, nor approached the crater that much. After a bit of confusion because on my map the bottom of the crater was marked as the top of the volcano, making me think that the peak was about 300m less tall, we realized that we still had about 400m up and 4km in distance to cover and there was only one hour left until sunrise. If there had been a trail, that would've been doable, but at that time we were still without. Because we also had to climb down a bit afterwards and find a crossing over a frozen and super slippery snowfield, it soon became clear that we wouldn't be able to reach the top by sunrise. So we decided to stay below the top to watch the sunrise. There was a wonderful sea of clouds below us and we witnessed the first rays of light creep down the Villarica volcano. It was absolutely stunning and I got some quite special photographs. Afterwards, we climbed to the top of the crater, where we were able to see in the other direction, where sun had actually come up. The crater was really fascinating, as there was a big icefield inside it. We threw some volcanic rocks onto the ice and watched them slide down its slope and enjoyed the warm sun on our faces. Then, we decided to get back to our tents.
That proved to be more exhausting then I had thought at first. Even though we encountered a trail and could go fairly straight towards our "basecamp". Michael took down his tent, ate breakfast and soon started hiking further on the trail again. I had decided to either stay another night here to explore the area a bit more, or not go far at all today, maybe 5km. So I took it slow and ate breakfast. It had been clear from the beginning that we might not do all of the trail together and that was totally fine. I had told him that I wanted to take my time to photograph and enjoy nature, maybe camping at one spot for two nights, something he didn't want to do. We said goodbye, knowing that we would probably meet again somewhere on both our travels, to do more hiking together. Either more down south in Patagonia, or in Bolivia.
I ended up staying another night in the same spot, photographing a waterfall we had encountered on the way down from the volcano. However, there were a lot of quite thick clouds blocking much of the sunset light and so I was a bit bummed out I hadn't continued on for at least a bit.
Day 5 - The short one
After I had stayed two nights at the same place today I wanted to progress to the next campsite. That was at Laguna Azul o de los Patos, yes, a lake that has two names. The blue lagoon or the lagoon of the ducks.
The lagoon was rather near, only about 5km in distance and more or less at the same altitude as my previous camp. However, there was a hill in between, so I had to climb up about 250m - not much.
That seemed like a pretty relaxed hike and so I wasn't in a hurry to pack my stuff and leave camp. But at around 11 I got going. It turned out to be quite easy walking, even though the 250m climb was pretty much straight from the beginning, without any flat stretches. When I got to the top I saw something strange, at first I thought it was a weather station and I asked myself why there would be a weather station here. But as I came nearer, I saw that there was also something buried in the ground and finally, I could read what was written on one of the silver boxes distributed around the tower I'd seen. It was a volcano surveillance station! I took a photo (which you can see in my online photo album) and went on to the edge of a cliff right next to the station. There was quite a drop, I would guess around 100m, and the rock didn't seem to be the most stable, so I didn't go too near to the edge. But what was even more fascinating than the cliff was the lake below. The Laguna Azul o de los Patos. All I could see was it's dark blue color and it's beautiful shape. I stayed up there for a while, soaking in the clear air and the wonderful view. Then, I began walking down towards the far end of the lagoon, where the campsite was marked on my map. It was quite a steep path down, my bag definitely didn't make it any easier. Soon I got to a nice, flat area, where there also was a small forest. And it was clear that this was the campsite. Why? It was filthy. In fact, it was so dirty - trash mainly - that I thought about leaving and finding another campsite. But apart from the trash, which included pieces of glass on the ground, which had me worrying about the integrity of my air mattress at night, it was a really nice place. So I relaxed some more at the lakeside, before starting to explore the surroundings a bit further. To one side, there was a big and ruff lava field. To the right of it a small forest of low growing trees and behind that was the sink of the lake - a small river of cristal clear, pure water meandering through a small valley that it had carved.
When I returned, I pitched my tent in an area that I thought would be fairly safe from winds and also seemed like no one had camped there before, so I didn't have to worry about pieces of glass slicing open my sleeping pad at night.
Soon clouds rolled in and it became cooler, so I put on another layer. Then, I went into the lava field for photographing its structures and the mountains in the background. However, with the clouds in the background blocking a lot of the sunset colors, I didn't quite end up with what I wanted - still, I got some good impressions of the ruggedness of the lava field I think.
That day, a few more hikers arrived at the same camp. Almost all of them were doing the shorter three day version of this trek, where you take a car to the camp we started at on day 3. There was a group of four Israelis that had just finished their military service and there was another group of three (one Dutch girl and a Chilean couple) that I only got to know the next morning, because I was already inside my tent when they arrived (which was after sunset).
Day 6 - Meeting Kyra
In the morning I did not get up for sunrise, but I was still up before everyone else. I went into the lava field to photograph some of the interesting structures that could be found there. However, it was pretty cold, the sun being blocked by clouds and a cold wind blowing through the channels of the lava field. So after a while I got back to my tent and started to prepare breakfast - oats with water and some berries from around camp. Pretty tasty, albeit cold, as I was saving gas in order not to end up with hunger but without gas to cook my dinner.
I watched the odd group of three that had arrived after sunset, as I was eating my breakfast. I wasn't sure if they were a family - parents and daughter, or just friends... It seemed like they were locals, boiling water for preparing mate, but then again they spoke English at times, but with an accent. They had two tents and their skin colors didn't really match up, so probably friends and not family. The girl that I first thought could be the daughter (pink hair, I doubted that the mother would have pink hair) was jumping around in a weird way (or was she dancing?) and I couldn't quite make out why, until I realized that she was just wearing leggings and a not so warm jacket - she was cold!
After I had packed everything into my big blue backpack, lifted it up and tightened the straps, I walked towards the hiking trail. On my way I met the Israeli group and we chatted a bit about the trail ahead. The pink haired girl from the other group joined us as we were speaking about the coming stretch of the trail and how fast we wanted to progress. It came out that they hadn't looked at the map too carefully and would've walked in the wrong direction if it hadn't been for our talk. But all in all, it was a short encounter. I said goodbye, thinking that we wouldn't see each other again. As the next few days should show, I was completely wrong.
I started out first and progressed quite fast. The terrain was rather flat and the relaxed day before made walking fast quite easy. The trail led through a landscape dominated by volcanos. Ashy slopes, little vegetation and lots of differently colored rock. The overcast sky played its part in making me feel like being completely alone in this doomsday landscape.
After a few hours of walking like this, I came to the last pass I had to cross. It was accompanied by a drastic change in scenery. All of a sudden there were lush green grasslands with ponds and little streams. The view was amazing and as I walked down I saw many locations where I could take pictures. However, I decided to go down further, to the next spot where my map had a campsite marked. When I came across a waterfall I had a little break, just because I felt like it. I wasn’t tired or anything, I just liked the place and I still had enough time. Hidden from the trail i found a perfectly flat surface with some small plants growing on it. It seemed like this would be another little pond in spring or when there was a lot of rain. I made up my mind that I would go back up to the pass for either sunset or sunrise and so I decided not to go further down to avoid having to hike up even more. The flat spot I found was perfect for camping and so I pitched my tent and made some soup.
When I walked back to the waterfall to wash my pot and spoon, I first saw only the pink hair, but soon I realized that the girl from earlier today was sitting next to the waterfall, staring at it. I wondered where the rest of her group was, but probably they were somewhere near. We talked for a bit and I kept wondering what she was doing. Was she here in Chile just for a few weeks? Was she traveling for longer, like me? And what threw me off a bit was the golden ring on her hand. Had I been right, where they a family and she was the mother? I didn’t ask immediately, but I really wanted to find out more. So I asked her if they wanted to camp at the same spot as I - this way I would for sure find out more. She said that she would love to, but had to talk to the rest of her group.
When we said goodbye they had already passed and so Kyra - that was the girls name - had to run after them to ask what they thought. But she didn’t return, apparently they wanted to go further down, to the lake nearby.
Soon I packed my backpack again, just with my camera, lenses, filters and tripod - nice, only about 10kg. I walked back up to one of the spots I had seen earlier on to photograph at sunset, I wanted to get some images of the next volcano, called Lanín, and I was lucky - the sunset and the landscape worked together to create some wonderful vistas.
Day 7 - Pancakes as a bribe
Because I had already photographed the scenes around me in the late afternoon and evening of the past day, I decided not to photograph that morning. Instead, I packed up my tent after another breakfast of oatmeal and got going. From now on it would be all downhill, till the road that goes over the pass between Pucón and Junín de Los Andes (Argentina).
Soon, I entered the forest and the trail went alongside a lake that was the most obvious camp spot for the past night, all the others on the trek had gone here to spend the night on the sandy beach at the one end of the lake. When I arrived there, they were just beginning to pack up their tents. Kyra and her group were there, too and so we chatted for a bit. I was intrigued by Kyra - she told me that she had a car and was traveling in South America as well and that she would like to do more trekking in the future, and that she wanted to drive to southern Patagonia on the Carretera Austral (the only road in chilean Patagonia). After maybe five minutes of talking, she asked me if I wanted to join her to the south in her car. I was a bit overwhelmed. We didn’t know each other the least bit and there she was asking me if I wanted to travel with her for weeks, even months! I told her that I would have to think about it, because I had already been to Patagonia on my trip and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go so far again - and of course I didn’t know if it was going to work between us, after all, traveling in a car together you need to get along brilliantly, otherwise it won’t be an enjoyable trip.
After they had packed up all their stuff, we started hiking again and Kyra and I got the chance to get to know each other a bit. I thought she was great fun, very open and interesting. She’d saved up money for this trip for years and then quit her job in the Netherlands to explore South America on her own. She tried time and time again to get a definitive “yes I will travel with you to the south in your car” out of me. But I kept telling her that I needed some more time to think. Even though at that time I was already pretty sure that I was going to give it a try, I just wanted to have at least one nights sleep in between the proposition and my decision. But - probably only because I kept refusing to decide - then she said the thing that sealed the deal for me: “If you come along I will bake you pancakes in mornings!”
Well, how could I have resisted?
Still we had a few kilometers in front of us and Susanna, the other girl in our group of 4 now soon got tired and her knees started hurting her. Without a doubt it was because of the long downhill stretch. I felt good, not tired at all and so I asked her if she wanted to give me her backpack. A first she declined, saying it would be way too heavy. Sure, I already had my 25 kg backpack, but I felt like I could still take some more. After all it was very easy terrain and pretty flat. So I took it, and it felt like almost nothing. I put it in front and off we went again.
When we arrived at the road, me and Kyra exchanged numbers so we could stay in touch and discuss, if, where and when we would meet. I told her that I was going to cross to Argentina because my Chilean visa was ending in a few days and that I would stay in some hostel across the border. Then, we said goodbye and I hitched a ride towards the Argentinian border, but not all the way to the border post. I wanted to spend another night at the border of Lago Quilleihue because I was hoping to photograph some of those amazing black-necked swans (Cygnus melanocoryphus) that I knew lived in the lake. I ended up pitching my tent on the opposite end of the lake of where I suspected the swans to be, because I wasn’t sure if I could pitch it on that end. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any swans that evening, but still I was quite content, because I was camping next to the mouth of a crystal clear river flowing into the lake.
Day 8 - Hitchhiking across the border
I woke up to a slightly underwhelming sunrise. But I wasn’t here for the sunrise anyways, so I got all my stuff together and started walking on the road towards the other end of the lake, where I suspected the swans with their beautiful black necks and contrasting red beaks. There was a short interpretive walk along the side of the lake and soon I saw them, but they were quite far away and shy. So I didn’t get the images I was hoping for, but still it was a nice experience being totally alone, observing the swans and different species of ducks on the water.
Then, walked back to the road and put out my thumb. It was cold, and there were few cars on the road going to the Argentinian border, and even fewer that seemed fond of hitchhikers. After over an hour of waiting in the cold, misty mountain air, I finally got picked up. It was a Chilean who worked in Argentina and told me he was going to the next village in Argentina. I was super happy that I finally got a ride and soon we were at the border crossing. The Chileans didn’t like the fact that I had told them that I was going to stay only 30 days in the country when I entered in December but ended up almost staying three months. But after a few grim faces and me promising that next time I wouldn’t do it again, they let me leave. Then, on the Argentinian side, they told me I needed to tell them an address, where I would go first. Of course I didn’t have one... But there was a map of a nearby touristy town with a few hotels, so I just randomly picked one and told them I was going to stay there - of course without the actual intention of doing so.
The second we got into Argentina, the road went from paved to gravel. And the landscape changed dramatically, too. Everything was covered in a sheet of dry, brown grass. I spotted only few green bushes and trees - always in a riverbed. I had experienced this before in Patagonia, but it was really interesting to see this sharp change in the vegetation again. From green to brown in just a few kilometers.
After I got dropped off I had to hitch three more rides to finally arrive in San Martín de los Andes, where I wanted to stay in a hostel for a few nights to relax a bit before meeting Kyra again to travel to the south together.