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march 10, 2005 -> land o'lakes: chile and argentina

Snow was falling.  It was difficult to see more than a few meters ahead.  Our guides had warned us that we might have to turn back.  But we had to take the chance; the weather was forecast to worsen tomorrow.  An ice-glazed chairlift saved us an hour of walking.  The wind picked up as we ascended; the snow pack became harder and icier.  Atop a wind-whipped ridge, the guides helped us strap on our crampons.  It was still touch and go with the weather.  Half of one group had already given up.  After a quick snack below the final pitch, we began zigzagging up the slope, passing areas of ice and snow sculpted by wind and the dramatic temperature difference between night and day.  There were bubbling formations like cauliflower florets, branching crystals like fire coral, and wavy sheets of ice blown sideways like fluttering flags.  

Ten minutes later, we had pierced the clouds and reached the skies.  Far in the distance, another volcano poked through the grey clouds.  The smoking crater of Volcano Villarica rose above us.  We were shocked when we reached the crater's rim.  We had heard that the volcano was active, but this was hyperactive.  Great gouts of crimson lava were being spat hundreds of feet into the air.  It fell to the earth in loud slaps and quickly cooled, red to black, liquid to solid.  The throat of the volcano glowed red, and acrid gusts of escaping gases roared out of the bowels of the earth, burning our eyes and making us gag.  It was not hard to see why so many cultures saw volcanoes as the very portals of Hell.  We seemed safe enough, but I kept thinking that there was no way in Hell that we would be allowed to climb this volcano if it existed in North America or Europe.  During our time at the crater rim, the clouds had parted and we could now see Pucon and Lake Villarica far below us.  Volcanoes and lakes define the Lake District, an outdoor wonderland in the southern third of Chile and Argentina. 

In Chile, the Lake District comprises Regions IX and X, stretching from Puerto Montt in the south to Temuco in the north.  On the other side of the Andes, a similar area extends from Bariloche to Neuquen.  Fed by glaciers, dozens of large lakes have formed on both sides of the Andes – all with stunning mountain backdrops.  Often likened to Switzerland, the Lake District is full of tourists, both local and international.    In several areas, it is possible to cross between Argentina and Chile via the lakes.  The most popular (and expensive, at more than US$100 each) is the Cruce de los Lagos (Lake Crossing,) which carries tourists from Puerto Montt, Chile to Bariloche, Argentina using a combination of buses and boats.  Along the way, they see several volcanoes, a beautiful waterfall, and stunning lacustrine scenery.  But cheaper options exist.  We crossed from San Martin de Los Andes, Argentina, to Pangupuilli (near Pucon,) by way of beautiful Lago Pirihueico, and spent only US$15 each.

Many tourists take the Navimag boat from Puerto Natales (near Torres del Paine National Park) to Puerto Montt.  We flew from Punta Arenas to Puerto Montt as part of our round-the-world ticket.  It didn't take long to figure out that we didn't want to spend much time in Puerto Montt.  It was a filthy, smelly port town with a lot of desperate-looking people.  We ran into Olaf - a retired Swedish university professor who had been on our Antarctic cruise – and had a wonderful seafood dinner at a restaurant built over the bay.  The next morning we caught a minibus to Puerto Varas, only 15 minutes away, on the banks of lovely Lago Llanquihue.  In contrast to Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas was clean, compact, and quite beautiful.  The perfect cone of Volcano Osorno rose above the other side of the lake.  Since we weren't doing the expensive bus-boat crossing to Bariloche, we opted to do a day-hike in the area that would finish with a cruise through Lago Todos Los Santos (All Saints' Lake.)  The lake journey was beautiful, but the hike was a tad boring, and we ended up nearly spending as much as we would have for the Cruce de los Lagos!  After a few days' rest in Puerto Varas, we caught a bus to Bariloche, the preeminent resort town in the Lake District. 

Bariloche was located in a beautiful setting, but the city was no longer beautiful, and it had long outstripped its resources.  I kept thinking of my hometown in Idaho, also located on a beautiful, island-studded lake, and surrounded by mountains.  Would my little Sandpoint turn into Bariloche in ten years?  I hope not.  The compact downtown had no traffic lights, and long lines of impatient drivers at every intersection made pedestrian crossings extremely dangerous.  (In Bariloche, several taxi drivers blamed the influx of Chileans for the snarled traffic.)  It was difficult to find accommodation, the tourist office was understaffed and the hotels often full.  We were lucky: we managed to find a small inn a few kilometers out of town.  The buses that carried locals and tourists from the city center to the outlying areas were always packed.  Tourists had two choices: eat dinner at seven, or wait until ten or eleven when the restaurants finally started clearing out.  On the positive side, there was a good selection of restaurants, bars, and clubs, and a variety of Spanish schools for long-term travelers.  We ended up spending a week there while we attended Spanish classes. 

Bariloche had lost its charm, but the surrounding areas were magnificent.  From the top of Cerro Campañia (reached by a short chairlift,) we looked over a maze of lakes, islands, peninsulas and bays.  High mountains rose just to the east.  An extensive network of hiking trails and refuge huts link the peaks; many tourists spend several weeks in the area doing day-hikes and longer treks.  We were a bit tired of hiking, so decided that a bicycle trip sounded good.  In one very long (and extremely painful) day, we biked the Circuito Chico (Little Circuit,) a 60-km route that took us past most of the lakes and to some incredible viewpoints.  Along the way, there were some fantastic restaurants overlooking the lake, but as is the custom in Argentina, they did not open for lunch until 1:30 or 2:00.  By four, near the end of the circuit, our butts were bruised and our stomachs were growling. 

In Patagonia, we had noticed the striking differences between Chilean and Argentine resort towns located just across the mountains from each other. Following the 2002 financial collapse in Argentina, Chile was (in GDP/Capita terms) much richer, yet every Argentine town was much more sophisticated than its Chilean counterpart. Ushuaia was much nicer than Puerto William or Punta Arenas, Calafate much more urbane than Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales. This continued in the Lake District. The Argentines had fallen on hard times, but they still had class. The Chileans didn’t quite have the same appreciation of aesthetics. (To be fair, Puerto Varas and Pucon were far better than average.) Moreover, service levels in Argentina were much higher than in Chile. These observations, coupled with Argentina’s relative cheapness, meant that we (and many other tourists) ended up spending most of our time in Argentina, ducking into Chile for the can’t miss sites like Torres del Paine and Pucon.