South to Pucón, December 15-18

From Santiago, we spent two days driving south to the town of Pucón, making a few stops along the way. The wine-country town of Santa Cruz offered a nice combination: Alex and Tim explored an extensive and unique museum, while Jennifer and Emily indulged in a girl's lunch out, complete with pisco sour. (In addition to Santa Cruz, on the same stretch we passed Los AngelesSanta Barbara, and San Francisco.) We resupplied the camper with fruits and veggies at the extensive market in Chillán, and stopped by the surprisingly impressive Salto del Laja waterfall (photo 1).

When we've stayed overnight in the Andes foothills, Jennifer and the kids have sometimes started back to the Pan-American the next morning on bikes. Poor Alex seems doomed to drag behind in the camper while everyone else enjoys two wheels, little traffic, steady downhill, and spectacular scenery. (Jennifer, who's usually the driver at home despite her admittedly inferior maneuvering skills, hasn't even tried driving the camper yet. Except for the blatant unfairness in terms of one-way bike rides, it's probably for the best.)

The town of Pucón receives even more hype in our guidebooks than San Pedro: "the adventure sports capital of Chile" (Bradt Trekking Guide), "the best small-town tourist infrastructure south of Costa Rica" (Lonely Planet), and "one of Patagonia's great tourist destinations" (Rough Guide). Given our initial dismay with the dusty, campground-less reality of San Pedro despite glowing guidebook remarks, we modified our expectations for Pucón. But if anything, it's at the other extreme: When we arrived, the kids declared that it looks more like Squaw Valley or Chamonix than like the other small towns we've visited in Chile. We hate to admit it, but we took to the place immediately.

Pucón's primary draw is its dramatic setting and plethora of readily-accessible outdoor activities. The #1 geographical feature, by far, is Volcan Villarica, a large, perfectly-shaped, snow-covered, and very active volcano (photo 2) that looms over the town and smokes continuously. The #1 adventure activity, by far, is climbing the volcano.

We couldn't possibly pass up this unique opportunity, so early morning on our second day in Pucón (which also happened to be our 19th wedding anniversary), we set off on the popular, guided, equipment-supplied climb. It's hard to summarize such an epic day in a few sentences and photos. Several factors play into the success and comfort of the climb: weather, snow condition, wind, and seismic activity. We were extraordinarily lucky with sunny skies and no wind -- on some days it's bitterly cold. (We knew the conditions must be exceptional when our guide, who climbs the mountain almost every day, snapped some photos for himself.) Thanks to several days of sunshine in a row, the snow was soft. That meant we could ascend without using crampons, which we carried "just in case," since many days are icy. As for seismic activity, different family members have differing views on whether it was a good thing or not that the volcano was relatively quiet the day of our climb (though we still heard plenty of rumbles from the crater) -- apparently on some days it does toss up the odd splotches of lava and hot mud.

The climb up (photos 3 & 4), a stiff 3500-foot ascent over only 3 kilometers, was entirely on snow until the very top (where the heat of the volcano doesn't allow snow to stick). Ice axes were supplied, but they weren't safety-critical thanks to the soft snow condition. Circumnavigating the colorful smoking crater at the top (photo 5), with incredible views in all directions, was magnificent.

The descent was a kick: we went down on our bottoms (photo 6). First, we learned the proper sliding technique, now making good use of our ice axes (for slowing and stopping). Emily and Jennifer were a little nervous at first, but soon got into the "slide" of things, particularly when it wasn't too steep. In some areas, sliding tracks had seen so many bottoms that it was a bit like bobsledding, without the sled (photo 7). We were able to slide all the way down except for slogging about 30 minutes in our (by that point) very wet gear. It was a day to remember.

It turns out Emily wrote up her own account of our climb for her friends, which she's agreed to share. Don't miss Emily's volcano story.

On our first day in Pucón, in addition to settling into a new level of culture (e.g., an elaborate Swiss raclette dinner, and real espresso instead of the ubiquitous Nescafe), we embarked on a substantial mountain bike ride -- considerably tougher than it appeared on the crude map we were given by a bike shop. But after several days with lots of driving, we were ripe for getting outdoors, regardless of the challenge -- at least that's what we said after an hour or two had passed since completing the ride.

Unlike elsewhere in Chile, in Pucón we found a nice campground on the edge of town by a lake, suitable for the camper. (We were "small-world" surprised to run into the same big orange adventure-bus of Brits with whom we'd shared a parking area back in San Pedro.) With electricity at the campground, we were finally able to light our Christmas lights, to everyone's relief. In other Christmas news, Emily and Tim have been working diligently on several holiday songs arranged for french horn with piano accompaniment (photo 8). A concert should be forthcoming when the big day arrives.

Next: We'll spend two more days in Pucón, selecting from an activity menu that includes horse-riding, forest canopy "zip-lining", hiking, and whitewater rafting. Then we'll drive further south to the town of Puerto Varas (billed in one guidebook as "the next Pucón"). With essentially no adjustment to our travel schedule, in Puerto Varas we'll meet up briefly with our next-door neighbors -- including Emily's best friend, so you can imagine the excitement. They'll just be arriving for a Patagonia winter-break vacation.

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