Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sunday 27 Feb: 24 hours of surprises

Somedays events just take you a different way to what you expected. And occasionally it just works out for the best.
I wrote Saturday's blog entry whilst on the ferry, predicting the evening would be uneventful. This is where I went wrong. It almost was - we cycled for an hour after the ferry docked, getting as far as the north branch road towards Coñaripe which we'd been warned was the toughest part of the route from San Martín. We'd already found the ripio so far to be tough going, so when we saw a campsite after 4km we decided to make it a short day, and start out early the next morning on the remaining 20k, hoping the traffic would be lighter and hence there would be less of the dense dust clouds. We were both feeling a little disapointed with the day, and wondered whether we'd made the right decision in San Martin to come this way. After a pasta dinner we were just preparing a cup of tea before bed, when our camping neighbour walked over and invited us to join them for a little food. We accepted out of politeness, a little embarrassed once again that we'd alreay eaten our first supper, and had no interesting food to offer of our own. Our hosts spoke less English than we speak Spanish, so it was shaping up to be a tad awkward occasion, when the bottle of whisky was produced from their drinks hamper. I'd already had a glass or two of their red wine by this point, so found it hard to refuse a wee dram of Mr J Walker's finest, especially as Emma was abstaining after starting the day with a hazy head.
It turns out Omar, our host, had been a hiking guide a some time in the past, in various places including Torres del Paine, and had mastered the art of speaking through gestures and hand signals. Coupled with slowly spoken Spanish and an almost saint-like patience for our slow understanding, we ended up spending a good four hours conversing in a way I never thought possible with only a few hundred words of shared language. More often than not the conversation reduced to language lesson, but this was in many ways the most interesting part for us, and Omar seemed to have a gusto for it too (weak Spanish pun intemded). His partner, Inis, retired to bed by this point, but we continued oblivious to how ridiculous our conversation must have sounded to any bilingual campers that were subjected to it! Inis works in the central market in Temuco, as a meat buyer, and hence supplied the extensive range or meats they'd cooked up which we enjoyed feasting on, taking a second grazing later on as we conversed. In all, it was a most enjoyable if unexpected encounter.
So our early start next morning turned into a slow crescendo beginning, with Emma on top form looking after a groggy husband. We still managed to get away at eleven thirty, not much later than usual, and started out on this road we'd been warned off taking. As usual forewarned is forearmed, and it turned out to be a lot less harsh than we'd expected. For the most part, the surface was better than the previous couple days, and being off the main route (and perhaps being Sunday) the traffic was much lighter and slower, throwing up much less dust.
It did involve a severe climb though, at first underestimated so we did the first half in the middle chain-ring, grinding out a stupidly low cadence that somehow seemed more reasonable when carrying a thick head. Eventually we conquered it though and were rewarded in a most unexpected way. From the top we could see over to the mountains of the next valley where we were heading, and there in the middle of them was volcano Vallarica, complete with gentle line of smoke and ash emanating from it's cone! Volcanos are always an impressive sight, but one covered in snow except the heated business end of the smoking cone; well that's something else. And to then consider that was the exact direction we were heading in...! Awesome indeed.
Another full-sized serious climb proceeded a late lunch - taken staring across at the now closer smoking cone (photo), and consisting of BBQ leftovers in baps (our thanks go again to Omar and Inis). And then a well-earned and fairly good fun - for ripio, descent took us into the village of Coñaripe.
The sight of the volcano had fired up within us a desire to take a guided trip up and gaze down into the abyss within it. Unfortunately the only (reputable anyway) guided trips out of this town, from hostel Chumnay, just go to the cojoining glacier for a profile view of the cone. Certainly interesting but not exactly what we were after. Coupled with the fact the girl covering the tours desk was not at all comfortable talking to us with our limited language we decided to move on (we've already noticed numerous times how our night with Omar has given us more confidence to attempt conversation, but several disappointments when we rediscover his communication skills and patience are not universal!)
On the way over to the tourist info cabin, a very helpful chap (with great English) recommended visiting the local geothermal springs ("termas" as they're known). This was something I'd previous suggested, but Emma wasn't at all keen on the whole Resort &Spa experience, preferring the idea of more natural hot spring baths. On looking at the photos in the office, they seemed to be more like the latter, and to my surprise Emma suggested we do go try one. Termas Geométricas is the most recommended (and most expensive) in that area, and the tourist info guy was very helpful explaining it's a very steep rough road - effectively climbing the side of the volcano - to reach it. So we quickly found a pitch for the tent and Dobbin, behind the town's main hotel, the Elizabeth, and marched up the highstreet to find a taxi or shuttle bus. I saw a minibus just pulling out, with Termas in the window, so quickly hailed it down. Some more half Spanglish later, and I was surprised to see the driver kick all the current occupants out, and offer us the whole bus!! Seems we'd just interrupted their family Sunday evening outing somewhere! There was no way for us to undo it now though, so we jumped in and he tore up the hairy mountain track to deliver us to the pools. Turned out we'd fortunately booked the full service, with entrance and return fair included for what turned out to be the going rate, so we added in a tip too for his efforts.
The thermal baths themselves are quite impressive, set in a spectacular gorge with a stream running through from a tall waterfall at the far end. There are 17 hot pools in all, interconnected via wooden boardwalks that have the hot water channeled underneath so one is always walking on a cushion of steam. All built up against the sheer sides of the gorge, and open to the sky (photo), it was quite amazing to arrive at 6pm just as the sun was playing on the trees hanging into the gorge, and climb into a pool of 38°C water. We tried pools from 36 to 40°, and always had each poll to ourselves due to it being quieter in the evening. By the time of our return bus at 8.30 we were quite well relaxed and refreshed.
A quick meal in the hotel, and we settled down for a very sound sleep; not bad given the 24 hours leading up to it, and the volcano smouldering over our heads!


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