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Araucaria

In the beginning of March we pedaled back to Chile over a small mountain road through National Park Lanín. By crossing the border we did not only enter Chile for the third time, but we also entered a large volcanic area full of classic volcanoes. Steep sided relatively symmetrical cones, which are caused by the build-up of layers of lava flows, volcanic ash, and other volcanic material. They look spectacular, especially the ones that are covered with snow and glaciers. Because of the volcanic activity there are also a lot of hotsprings or termas in this district. Those thermal baths are caused by groundwater that is heated by the lava under the surface of the earth. Some of the springs are very luxurious, and others are just tubs hidden in the wilderness. The one we visited in park Lanín was a small concrete building with next to it a well with steaming hot water. We hoped we could sit outside in the tub and enjoy the view of the mountains through the steam. However, as soon as we heard that the bubbling water out of the ground had a temperature of 75°C we knew that this was not possible at this site. Instead we were directed inside the house into a small, dark, and somewhat dirty cabin, where we could fill a plastic tub with a mixture of hot and cold water. We enjoyed the termas that was located on the slope of the volcano Villarrica more. It had a range of baths with increasing temperature, all situated outside except for the hottest (45°C) which was built in a wooden shed. Since we camped next to the springs, we had all the baths for ourselves during the evening. We needed the warmth of the water because that night it became very cold, with ice covering the tent the next morning.

Most of the volcanoes are still active. For example volcano Villarrica (2860m) had a major eruption in 1985 and still a plume of smoke comes out of the crater. When we cycled along the foot of this volcano from Coñaripe to Pucón, with sweat dripping in the eyes, we had to admit that our Chilean guidebook was right by saying: "The road over the pass and down to Coñaripe is in exceedingly poor shape, which keeps the traffic down and makes this a great route (though brutally steep) for mountain biking." It was however somewhat disappointing that, because the path runs through the forest, we couldn't get a good view of the volcano although all day long we saw a stripe of smoke above us in the air. No, with respect to the scenery the volcano Llaima (3125m) is much more beautiful. This even more active volcano is located in the quiet and excellent National Park Conguillío. Here we rode on our bikes through a surrealistic landscape of lava and ash, with here and there a piece of yellow grass between the black rocks. For many hours (the road of ash kept the speed low) we rode close to Llaima and imagined how it must have looked when the red, hot, magma, streamed out of its top. Most of the visible lava and the big lava river were generated during the big eruption somewhere in the 50's. The last eruption was in 1994 and today still smoke appears out of the top. The Coquille park is particular beautiful because next to the volcano near the lava rocks, a forest of Araucaria trees begins.

Llaima

Araucarias on the horizon

The Araucaria, which is also called the 'monkey puzzle tree' because of it strange shaped branches, is a very special tree. The ancestors of this specie already lived 200 million years ago, and today a single tree can live for hundreds of years. In the Andes those trees inhabit an extremely limited range from 37°27' to 37°50' S, at elevations from 900 to 1700m, but in and near Conguillío you can see plenty of the umbrella shaped trees. A mature tree (must be more then 200 years old!) which may reach 50 m in height and 3m in diameter produces in its top edible nuts. Those nuts, which we could buy in the regular supermarkets, are called piñones. After cooking them for about one hour we could eat them.

Hospitality

So far we didn't have had any trouble with the local people. On the contrary, we have only had good experiences. Both in Chile and Argentina we found the people helpful and they showed a lot of hospitality. For example, the 15-year-old girl in a small village near Buta Tranquil (Argentina) helped us finding a hostel for the night. When she heard that we had to pay about 10 Pesos (just 3 US$) she thought that that was really too much and she invited us to her house. Her mother was not surprised at all to see her daughter being accompanied by two Dutch cyclists and of course we could stay. In the dining room on the floor was plenty of enough space for our mattresses. The father, he is chief of police in the town, organized a traditional asado for his colleagues that evening. This means that a complete goat was mounted on a iron cross, that was put into the ground next to a fire. It took some time, but finally at 23:30 (it was just an ordinary weekday) the asado was ready. In no time the goat was cut in pieces and everybody started to eat as if this was the first meal in weeks. Chewing on a leg we gladly saw that the honor of getting the goat's testicles was give to two other guests who seemed to be very content with it.

Other times we are just invited to get something to eat or to drink. Like that time when we were still cycling in park Lanín. A bit hungry and tired of the hills and the rain that morning, we visited a lodge just to get a café con leche with some bread and butter. The two owners of the lodge had just caught a huge salmon in the nearby lake and used it to make a very nice smelling stew with potatoes and vegetables. While we were drinking our coffee they were mumbling to each other and before we knew it, a big steaming plate was put before our noses with the comment: "just to taste". Well, it tasted excellent!

The best experience of hospitality was our four days stay at a campo (farm) near Cunco in Chile. Our hosts, a 60-year-old couple had already invited us months before in the south of the Camino Austral near Puerto Yungay. They were traveling with their camper for a one-month holiday. Staying on the campo was great. Talking with the family and the two boys who work there was better then any Spanish lesson can be. We drank fresh cider made from their apple trees and ate fresh rabbit with the bullets still in the meat. We watched the popular TV soaps. We walked a lot over the land watching the animals and the plants. He was so proud of the Copihue flowers on his land, that we had to see all of them in the hidden places between the trees. His pride was not without reason because this protected Chilean national flower is quite rare. We tried to catch salmon in the (overcrowded) fishing ponds, but as always we didn't succeed in getting one single fish. (Maybe we would have had more luck if the boy hadn't fed the animals one hour before). We left the campo with a big pot of honey, over 1kg, enough for several weeks.
Ready to go to the crater
The farm was also a great base camp for us to wait until the weather was good enough to climb the Villarrica. Although it is a major tourist attraction, we enjoyed walking to the top over rocks, stones and snow. Unfortunately the smoke from the crater was to thick to spot the lava bubbling out of the earth. The sulphurous gasses, with a smell that reminds of chemistry lessons, were so strong that we had to wear gas masks on the top. Descending the steep sides of volcano was part of the fun, because with high speed we could slide down through the snow, now and then braking with the ice axe.
 

Contrast

In the end of March we took the road back to Argentina along the Lonquimay volcano. Crossing the border through the Andes we were again surprised about the big differences in climate between Chile and Argentina. In Chile there are plenty of lakes, rivers and enough rainfall from the Pacific Ocean to keep everything green. Just in one day cycling you come from this green landscape into a dry, yellow-brown desert in Argentina. The mountains seem to block all the humid, rain and clouds from the west. Because there are also fewer villages in this part of Argentina it is more difficult to find enough water. Therefore we must use a more strict water policy and use our 10-liter water bag again.

Back in Argentina also means being back in a country with a lot of problems. The politics are unstable: in the previous months six different presidents were in charge. Especially in Buenos Aires there are a lot of protests, but here in the west it is more quiet. The economics go downwards quickly. It feels strange that this makes living for us cheaper. When we arrived in Argentina in November, it was a very expensive country. At that time the rate of the Argentinean Peso was fixed one to one with the US dollar. However in the previous months, the peso has been set free and decreased drastically to a current rate of about 3 peso to 1 US dollar. Because the prices haven't increased that much, most of the goods have become three times as cheap!

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This page was last updated on Friday July 29, 2011
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