Saturday, 11 July 2015

The Chilean Snowies

So a long weekend was coming up, and the weather in Conce has been very cold and rainy, so that left me little choice - a trip was in order! Deciding to go on a trip, see a new place, meet new people, is the easy part - where to go is more difficult. With a few options relatively close by - the beautiful (everyone says so!) city of Valdivia a bit further south, south again to Puerto Montt and Puerto Varas, or east to Chillan and the mountains. I decided on the mountains - a chance to get away from noisy, busy cities, do some hiking, see some snow in Chile and just have a bit of a hermit's weekend away from people.

Getting to Chillan should be easy, but as you know, nothing is particularly easy in this country. The bus trip is only 1.5 hours from Concepcion to Chillan, and very cheap (p2,500 = $5), and that went fine. Jumped off at the bus terminal in Chillan and found out that there is another terminal on the other side of town, and that was where my bus was leaving for the mountains. I hiked across town, asking direction often  - you need to ask multiple people, and I find that the more people you ask, the more instructions line up and you finally get to where you're going... it's like a game of 'hot and cold' where you're looking for something, and everyone else is yelling out 'You're getting warm! Warmer!" I managed to find it, and book my bus, but just missing one I had to wait more than an hour for the next. Wandering around Chillan waiting for my bus, I realised how 'normal' Conce is - it's a decent sized city, but this town is far more 'Chilean' and less cosmopolitan. The terminal is across the road from the markets, which I wandered through but had to get out quick - far too crazy for me! I found a supermarket to buy some bus snacks, and afterwards sat on the church steps to try and get some peace and quiet... ah but this is Chile! Busy streets, Micros (the local buses) zooming around in worse condition that the ones in Conce, market criers selling their wares, general hustle and bustle like only South America can do it, and when I thought it couldn't get any worse, a drunk came to my spot at the church, mumbled something, then fell over a meter away from me and went soundly to sleep... or at least I hope he was sleeping. I moved on and decided to wait at the terminal.

I'm sure I have mentioned bus terminals in previous entries, but this one needs to be mentioned. Chile, and the rest of South America, run on buses - they are the beating heart of transport here. Anyone and everyone travels long (and short) distances by bus - locals and tourists. At these terminals, the mind boggles at how it works - sometimes I feel that I am the only one that is stressed and confused. First you need a ticket - and the whole place is filled with ticket booths from many different companies. There are more than one booth for each company, spread out over the place, and I haven't worked out why, but I do know that there are always long queues, the service is slow, and the press of humanity is nearly stifling. Outside is just as bad - people fill seats with bags and food waiting for their ride home, stray dogs are a given, buses coming and going with no regard for people walking near them and the people equally not caring how close they are walking behind a moving 2-storey bus. I got my ticket (p2000 = $4) and waiting, lucky to have found a seat. A television was on, which also showed the time - there aren't normally clocks at these terminals, which you would think be a good thing to have when you have got a bus booked for an exact time (not that they ever arrive or leave in time). The television was playing music videos from the 80s, and I got to see "Born To Be Alive" and "99 Luft Balloons" in it's original German. The television itself was from the 80s too, I was sure. My bus pulled up, late, and I jumped on, only to kick someone out of a seat - the benefits of buying before the bus arrives! Off I went - another 1.5 hours to the mountains and peace and quiet!

Just a little cabin for the weekend...
Wood fire heater and a great kitchen.
The hostel's chill out room.
I arrived in Valle de les Trancas at around 7:30pm, and it was dark already. I got a nice view of the sunset on the mountains from the bus, and was looking forward to a nice cold beer and a warm bed. My hostel, which I didn't book for of course, turned out to be full. Why don't I book you ask? Where would the fun be in always knowing you have a room for the night? And besides, I never know where I'm going to be tomorrow. So anyway, the hunt for accommodation began - me wandering up and down the one street in town, trying not to slip on the ice and snow, and getting told 'no' at every hotel. Things weren't looking good, and I was starting to get angry with my 'happy go lucky' attitude to booking, but at least my building frustration kept me warm. I stopped in a minimarket to ask if they knew of a place, and as luck would have it they knew a guy. The shop was full of overly-noisy Brazilians buying all the beer they could carry, and I was nearly ready to walk out as they were rude and everywhere, keeping the 3 guys in the store busy, but I managed to ask a clerk, and he rang someone for me. I was then given directions to a place where I could stay - all in Spanish. I wasn't given a name for the place either, but headed of with the directions quickly scribbled in my small notebook (not Google Maps but sometimes better!), into the cold and dark night, ice on the road and barking dogs everywhere. My Spanish has improved a lot lately, and I had written everything down correctly, got the guys phone number, rang for help and eventually made it - to the coolest hostel I have ever seen!!

Frozen in time - a leaky hose becomes something beautiful.
So, moral of the story is DONT BOOK! Well, OK, it is a good idea to book sometimes, like the start of the ski season which was this weekend... but it does make your life more exciting, and I have never had to sleep on the street either. Ok, so airports, back seats of cars and hotel lobbies, but never the street! Yet . So I sat down with my beer and my chips for dinner, and enjoyed being warm and having a bed for the night - I was content! I wasn't going to freeze on the street! Up early the next day, and ready for a hike to the refuge at Shangrila - about 6kms away. An easy hike, but the path was completely covered with snow, and as there were no signs, I had to hope that the person in front of me went the right way. I made it ok, and sat down to have lunch on the roof of the abandoned cabin, chilling and enjoying he view. People were camping nearby, but being Chilean they couldn't do it in peace, and a family who had hiked up just before me were pulling out their cameras and phones and striking silly poses for selfies and whatnot. Apart from the people, it was a perfect spot for relaxing - there were 2 stray dogs waiting for me to drop some of my lunch to them, but at least they didn't make any noise, and were much friendlier than the people.

After this short hike, I decided to head to see a waterfall before retiring for the day at the hostel. Along the way, 2 Brazilians stopped in their car and offered me a lift to the ski slopes. Why not? I have hitch-hiked before, and it is (relatively) safe to do it here in Chile. So up to the ski slopes to have a look around, and we even saw the waterfall on the way. This is where all the people were - this weekend was the start of the ski season. Although I wasn't skiing this time, it's always cool have a few beers, watch people fall over on the snow, and think how much money they are spending to fall over, and for all the equipment they have to rent for themselves and their kids. I was very, very happy with my $20 a night hostel, and didn't need to be sleeping right up here in the ski resort. The hot springs are also right near the hotel - the natural Termes of Les Trancas. I did think about jumping in, and it was only p8000 ($16) which is cheap compared to the ones in Pucon which where more around the $60 mark. I decided not to, as they were crowded and loud - music is always playing in Chile (most supermarkets have it blaring out the front, to attract customers... yeah I know), and of course the people were noisy too... there was even a 'pool' bar. Far too touristy for me... the smell of sulphur I can handle though, but surely you go to a hot spring to relax, right?

The following day, after a bit of a lie in, I decided to set off on another hike, a solo one. I came to the mountains for a break from everything, and I would get it. I started off following a path that a guy at the hostel had partially hiked the other day - and hand-sketched in my little journal, I was worried about finding it, but decided to keep going an just enjoy it. On the way, I found a house that had a big leak in it, spraying its water all over some trees and shrubs on the side of road - normally this would just leave a big muddy puddle, but in this cold, it had frozen the whole tree and all the small plants around it - just like the movie Frozen! I found the hidden path in the tree line that lead to the top, so no problem - now it was just up and up. This path was just up - no rest for the weak here. I plugged away, and although the views got better, it just kept getting harder - and it had nothing to do with the amount of wine I had drunk the night before... I sat down for (another) break, and I bumped  into some French hikers. They were stopping here, as further up the snow got really deep. I'm not much of a quitter, so I made the decision to finish what I started - and besides, if they weren't going up, I would have the top to myself! Ha! So up I went, up to where the condors soared and the French dared not to go.

Washing day the the Shangrila Refuge.
Although I came across knee-high and sometimes thigh-high snow, it was worth the trip to the top. There was just me and the radio station, the sun and snow, and nothing but complete silence. The best place for lunch and some down time. The peak offered a great view of the valley - from this vantage point Chile is quiet and relaxing, no noise or traffic. It was hard not to stay up here all day - I had made myself quite comfortable. I'd built a snowman, brought my book to read, had my camera, and was nearly ready to live up here - but as the sun started to go down, the temperature dropped, and I knew I didn't want to face the walk back down at dusk. The walk down wasn't as tough as the way up, but I still fell quite a few times, and had to crawl out of my foot hole. It was well worth it - I came back down with a sense of peace and relaxation that I had come here to find. A party at the hostel was just starting to kick off when I got back, but all I wanted was peace and solitude. I let them have their loud fun, not begrudging them, but still feeling what I got from the mountain. 

Being with nature is something really special - sometimes hard to find a place and really do it - and something everyone should do from time to time. Don't all rush off and do it at the same time though! All you need is a day here, a weekend a month, and it will take away some of the big city stress, frustration and anger with your job, and fill you with hope and good feelings. So, waiting for my early morning bus back on the Monday, I was happy. I met a Scottish girl also catching to the bus back to Chillan, and we had a nice chat on the way back - we did start speaking in Spanish at first though! We chatted and shared experiences, then we got on separate buses and went home - when you are happy you leave yourself open to meeting good people and good experiences. I got easy connections back to Conce, and was happy to be home too - the hallmark of a great break!

The Nevadas de Chillan.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...