Un Poco Loco en Los Lagos

In the weeks following my last post, I have had ups and downs and everything in between. It is a period I am now describing as my “midtrip crisis.” Once I arrived in the Lakes District, I hadn’t planned to spend much there. I was nearing the halfway point of my 6 months and feeling like I still had a lot to see in northern Argentina and Chile and wanted to visit 3 more countries beyond that (plus Patagonia is expensive!). The logistics of making my way up and down the continent were constantly on my mind and sort of making my head explode. Also it might sound crazy, but Patagonia is almost too beautiful and I felt like I’d nearly O.D.ed on gorgeous scenery. I actually said to someone, “I think I need to go to a shithole just to clear the slate and remember what ugly looks like.” It’s true, though, after a time you reach a saturation point and stop appreciating things as much, especially when you are in the head space that I was.

Yet another gorgeous lake

At this point in my trip, the journey became almost as much of an internal one as an external one. It was the most alone I’ve felt out of all of my previous months. Before I would usually find someone to do stuff with and if I couldn’t find anyone and still really wanted to do something, I was fine just going off and doing it on my own. However, I had gotten into this mentality of trying to get through the Lakes District as quickly and cheaply as possible, so I was camping and staying in a new place nearly every night and not really meeting anyone. For a solid week I was on my own or in places with only Spanish speakers. This was great for my Spanish and to a point I was still enjoying my solitude, but I have found that I max out at around 10 days without a travel buddy of any kind.

The famous palafitos of Chiloe

During this period, though, I also had one of my favorite experiences of the trip. Through a travel friend I got connected with a family that lives in Castro, Chile on the Big Island of Chiloe. It is a really special place with mystical folklore, delicious seafood, incredibly kind people, colorful churches, and unique stilt homes called palafitos. The scenery here is quietly beautiful with forested, rolling hillsides dotted with farmland and commanding water and mountain views across the bay. It doesn’t hit you over the head like a big glacier or spire mountain, but is absolutely lovely in its own subtle way. I found it eerily familiar at times, basically a hybrid of Whidbey Island and the Pacific Coast of Washington. Chiloe is even famous for apples and salmon just like the Northwest.

My hosts, Gustavo and Paola, a young couple with two small children, couldn’t have been more welcoming and generous. Within minutes of arriving I was seated in the backyard with their family and friends, eating a piece of lemon pie and drinking creamy hard apple cider. That night, in typical Chilano style, we had a late dinner after everyone departed. Paola made one of her salmon specialities, with longaniza sausage, tomatoes, oregano, and cheese (a kind of “salmon pizza,” Gustavo joked). It was paired with Chilote potatoes in all colors and sizes, a pimento salad, and lots of wine. Then I got a nice long sleep in their daughter’s room, a.k.a “el palacio rosado” (or pink palace) and felt a little like a princess–just so taken care of. We had two wonderful nights like this.

My hosts, Gustavo and Paola

Initially, I had been worried that the language would make things awkward, since Paola doesn’t speak English. Gustavo knows some, so we got along well in Spanglish, but even when it was just Paola and I visiting some of Chiloe’s little towns and churches together, we got along well. I feel like my Spanish is passing the survival mode and starting to approach a conversational level, but I really need to study to progress since there are still a lot of words I don’t understand, especially in rapid fire Chilano Spanish. And to be honest, Paola does absolutely everything at rapid fire.

During my short stay on the island, I also paid a visit to my old friend, the Pacific Ocean. Since I was a little girl, I have always felt a deep connection with her and it felt comforting to wade in the water with the sand between my toes, the wind in my hair, and to just lay in the sun. It was a brief moment of calm just as the ‘crazy’ started to creep in from all the alone time. I seriously have never had so much alone time in all my life.

When I arrived in Bariloche from Chile, for one day I had a brief break from life totally in Spanish or totally inside my head. By coincidence I met up with my friend, Edwin from Ushuaia. All the hostels in town were booked up so we “embraced the homelessness” and had a fun night drinking a few beers and camping in a sneaky, free spot by the lake. We had hoped to travel together in the Lakes District, but it just wasn’t in the cards. He had already seen everything and was on his way north, which was a bit disappointing. The same day we parted ways, I found out my Aunt Mary had passed away and it was really hard getting that news when I was alone again and feeling out of the travel groove. It’s awful to be away when something like that happens. The next day I had planned to go on a 3 day trek and, though my heart wasn’t really in it, I went anyway figuring I’d find someone to walk with since the trails in the south were so packed with English speaking travelers.

Crazy ridges around Refugio Frey

Ironically, just when I was craving company, I found myself totally alone. There were a few other big groups of Argentine families and hikers, but not many, and for the first time ever in Patagonia I had every view point completely to myself and even an entire camp. It was a gorgeous place in a basin surrounded by cathedral like ridges with a lovely cascading stream coming through. I reveled in my solitude here and enjoyed dinner under a big open sky full of stars. However, something woke me up in the middle of the night and I couldn’t get back to sleep. Something cracked and I just couldn’t stop thinking…about my travel plans, about my family, about the friend I’d just said goodbye to. When you are totally alone in the wilderness like this, every thought gets amplified because you have no one to distract you or to get feedback from. I was also incredibly sleep deprived from the constant movement and staying up late the previous nights hanging out with Gustavo, Paola, and Edwin. To make matters worse this sleepless, “monkey mind” trend continued for a week. It was beyond frustrating. I had my first breakdown of the trip off in a secluded part of my second camp on a boulder overlooking a huge valley. It was a sunny, clear day and the landscape was incredible, but I couldn’t enjoy it. I felt almost sick from my tiredness, loneliness, and the loss of my aunt. In the words of The Hangover, I felt like a one woman wolf pack and as many of you know I am a hypersocial animal. I really needed to get out of the woods and around some people.

The one woman wolf pack

The next morning I practically ran off the trail, hitched back to town, and went directly to El Bolson, a mountain town a few hours south of Bariloche that turned out to be a little hippie slice of heaven. It is less touristy and busy then Bariloche and attracts both bohemian and hiker types. When I first arrived, I wasn’t sure what the big deal was, there isn’t much to the town, but within an hour I was in a happy place, sitting on the lawn in the plaza, drinking an artesanal beer, and watching some live music and people dancing around with scarfs, or juggling, or whatever — you know hippie stuff. The place is totally tranquilo and helped me relax a bit and take my mind off of things. I made friends with a few of the vendors at the market, who took me under their collective wing. One was a Colombian man, who made the most incredible jewelry of wood, bone, stones, and other found objects and had been traveling around South America for 14 years selling his work in small markets. Together we found a nice campground just a few minutes walk from the plaza and ate dinner outside under a magnificent sunset at Carlito’s, an inexpensive little parilla place with a ridiculously friendly owner.

Sunset in the plaza at El Bolson

I absolutely fell in the love with this little town. Everyone was just so open and friendly. Though, there is a lot of nice trekking to do in the area, I completely took a break from it and just took in the atmosphere of the place. I went for a walk and sat with a family that sells made to order jugo de frambuesa (raspberry juice) along a dusty road with an incredible view. I ate the famous Jajau ice cream in the plaza and in the space of maybe a football field watched a blues band, a jazz jam band, and, randomly, an Argentine Celtic band. I chatted with people in the plaza from all over Argentina and South America. The main question I always get is, “how is it traveling alone?” And to be honest, at times I get a little bored with myself, but at other times, like in El Bolson, it is the best. Often you meet more people when you are on your own and you can literally do anything you want, even if that means doing nothing at all.

The only problem with El Bolson was that it was impossible to arrange a bus ticket to Pucon, Chile from there (my next destination). I went to 6 different bus offices and finally got the number for the one Chilano bus company in Bariloche and found out that the only way to get a ticket was in person, in cash, in the bus terminal in Bariloche. So with lots of reluctuance, I cut my time short there and went back to the town of Bariloche, which everyone raves about, but aside from the scenery I really wasn’t into. I did a bunch of running around to get my bus ticket then rented a bike and got the hell out of town. I rode the Circuito Chico, a rolling 27 km route, passed gorgeous, Mediterranean blue lakes, and craggy ridge lines. It felt so good just to be on a bike, zooming up and down the hills.

The next morning at the bus terminal preparing to head to Pucon, I was still feeling a little off and regretting leaving El Bolson so quickly. It was just such a great, cheap, and relaxed place where I didn’t feel like I had to do anything. This feeling was so strong that I seriously considered paying the penalty for changing my ticket and just going back there. I had this internal dilemma all the way up until they started boarding the bus, but since I had gone through so much crap to get the ticket in the first place I just stayed the course.

Hanging at the hostel in Pucon

That night I arrived in Pucon and my first two days I did literally nothing, just hung out at the hostel. My big activities of the day were repairing my now battle worn trekking pants and backpack and going grocery shopping. Since Pucon is a tourist town, it was nice just to be able to speak in English again. I met good people here and had some fun nights, playing cards, eating asado, and even went to this random warehouse club one night, but I was still having a hard time relaxing and felt completely travel weary. I wondered how I was going to see everything I had hoped to see and at the same time didn’t feel like seeing anything at all. After 3 months of the backpacker lifestyle, I was exhausted, but felt completely annoyed with myself. I just wanted to pull my head out of my ass and have fun. I am incredibly lucky to be here and to have this time in my life. At the time I knew this, but thinking you are grateful and feeling grateful are very different things. My New Year’s resolution was to fully appreciate the things I have right now and I was definitely failing a bit.

Though expensive, Pucon is a wonderful place with a million outdoor activities. I splurged a lot here since I realized I needed to stop being so cheap and treat myself a little. I got a massage and ate out. And finally when I was feeling up to it, I climbed Vulcan Villarrica, one of Chile’s most active volcanoes. This experience helped pull me out of my rut in a big way. Physically, it was super easy since I was in good condition after all of my treks. It was more of a mental challenge because of the steep snow, but the views were awesome since you can see several other volcanoes from the top and watch smoke come out of the crater. I also got one of my favorite photos of the trip sunbathing at the summit, which made it onto the “Wall of Fame” at my hostel (a bunch of photos of people doing silly stuff at the top). For the descent you get to sled down in these big glissade shoots, which was a blast and after the view, definitely the best part.

Sunbathing at the summit of Villarrica

The next day I did hydrospeed, essentially white water rafting on a kickboard. It was the typical group scenario, me with 10 Israeli guys. Overall super fun, but not quite as intense as it sounds. My last night I went to the nearby hot springs to relax with a British couple I had made friends with on the volcano. It was great until the ride back with a drunken Aussie and an even drunker American guy (I have never been so embarrassed to be from the same country as someone before). He kept leering all over my friend, Bryony, no matter how clear we tried to make it that she was taken. When we finally got through to him, he forgot almost immediately after coming back from a pee break on the side of the road. I guess he thought he was talking to me the whole time because he kept getting the two of us confused. When we finally moved her to a different seat, he started right in on me. The whole time I was trying to diffuse the situation by pointing out how gorgeous the drive was with the stars and moon and the fact that we’d just spent 3 hours soaking in hot water, but it was to no avail.

After all that, I was wondering what my next move should be. Lately every time I left a place or made a decision, I regretted it. Despite the fun I’d had in Pucon, I was still feeling tired of the tourist life. A few days earlier a women at my hostel told me about eco yoga villages all over South America you can volunteer at. I had heard of one near Buenos Aires and had hoped to visit it at some point, but together we found one a little over an hour outside of Santiago, Chile, which was much more in my general direction. My final day in Pucon I heard back from them and with that enjoyed my last cordero patagonico (lamb), which was even more special since I was going to be vegetarian for the next week, then boarded the night bus to Santiago. This ended up being one of the best decisions of my trip.

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