During our annual end-of-year pilgrimage to Chile we always “go somewhere” between Christmas and the New Year. Somewhere can be anywhere in Chile outside of the capital, Santiago. We have gone west to the coast, north to the desert, east to the mountains, as well as down to the Patagonian plains at the southern most tip of the continent. This year we chose to go to the lakes that snuggle up against La Cordillera and its string of volcanos about 500 air miles southeast of Santiago.
Usually up before dawn on Christmas morning to catch an early morning flight to wherever, this year we decided to sleep in and not leave until late morning. That was just fine because by 1PM we were landing at Osorno. There, two small buses met us and another fifteen or so travelers for the hour long drive to Puyehue and the Termas. The Termas de Puyehue is a large, all inclusive hotel with natural thermal pools and a selection of spa services. There is also hiking, mountains biking, horseback riding, and boating. Best of all there is something called “just hanging out.”
I decided that my four days there would consist of much hanging out, daily swims in the thermal baths, occasional massages, and leisurely afternoon hikes. It was not hard to follow this routine. I could have kept at it for several more days if it weren’t for the hotel. It was like a cruise ship. Everything was included but then there was a little too much regimentation, an over abundance of non-descript food served buffet-style, and a nice enough but ineffective staff that couldn’t resolve any problem without calling some “Big Brother” by phone. Not my style, but easy enough to ignore for four days when looking out over the forests, lakes, and volcanos that surrounded me.
On the first afternoon, after sorting out our rooms, eating lunch, and renting a car, the five of us headed out to investigate la naturaleza. First, there is the lake. Lake Puyehue is crystal clear, so much so that looking down at its rocky bottom, you see the rocks and pebbles so clearly, it seems as if there is no water at all.
Not just the lakes, everything is beautiful and pristine: The dense coigues and ulmo forests, the cultivated fields of raspberries, the rock-strewn rivers, the colorful wildflowers, even the well-kept livestock–the horses, sheep, cows, and chickens.
As we drove the 24 kilometers to the Argentinian border, we passed a solitary country church in a field. It was lovely. Its open door was welcoming, but to whom? There was no village or house near. Perhaps it’s just for us.
Ravines and rivers were everywhere and easily visible from the road, but wanting a closer look, we turned off and parked our bright blue Chevy (smaller and more gas efficient than its U. S. cousins) in a meadow close to several trail heads. After looking at the distance and destination of each one, everyone agreed on a 4 kilometer hike (That’s 1.2 miles each way.) to the summit lookout. Chosen because it gave the immediate gratification of a river crossing at the foot of a falls, we listened with excitement to the roar of cascading water.
The trail curved around and following the bank of the river. The falls were straight ahead of us just beyond the rope bridge we would have to cross to continue on our way. My heart was pounding just looking at the swaying foot bridge. A sign cautioned “only one person at a time.” I hung back to get my courage up. I kept saying to myself, just go for it. Finally, no longer able to stall without being too conspicuously behind, I forged ahead with my eyes locked on my destination. The crossing was so intense, I never even looked at the gorgeous falls rushing down on my left.
The trail then pitched upwards and entered the forest, a cool, dense wonder where tiny orange-red copihues, vibrant pink fuchsias, and pale lavender digitalis grew everywhere twining themselves around bushes and trees. Giant ferns and Chilean bamboo rose like walls along the path.
Climbing became more difficult as the trail switched back and forth to ease the ascent. Along the way we stopped to catch our breath and take in the views. Spotting a sign that told us we were only 300 meters from the summit, we were pleased with our progress. Collectively, we thought. That’s nothing. We’ll soon be there.
We kept at it, snaking higher and higher. After awhile, every time we rounded the next “S” curve we expected to see the summit. But, no. There was no end, only more trail.
Finally, another toppled-over sign announced, “200 meters to the summit.” This can’t be. We have only gone 100 meters? Antun and Luciana looked at me. I looked at them. I could tell that the objective of reaching the summit lookout was growing less and less important. My enthusiasm was waning, too.
“Let’s stop to take in the view.”
“OK, let’s do it.” Antun took the camera out of his pocket.
After taking in the mountain landscape, my gaze shifted closer in to the riot of vegetation around us. There on the path was a large blue-black bug heading for the undergrowth. “What’s that?” I asked.
“I think it’s some kind of beetle,” volunteered Luciana.
An insect lover, Antun now paid attention to our banter. “A beetle? Let me see,” he said as he took a stick and started to gently poke where we pointed.
Something flew up. “Woo, that’s no beetle,” He stepped away quickly and said firmly, “Stand still.”
“What is it, uncle?”
It’s a beautiful thing that can give you a very nasty sting. It’s an electric blue wasp. But, don’t worry. There’s no swarm. They are rather solitary, but this one is angry. Maybe there is a nest in there.”
“Leave it alone!” we cried. The wasp zig-zagged around us frantically as we stood frozen in place.
“Look at its luminescence. look that the bright orange feelers. They’re beautiful.” Antun whispered encouraging us to be brave.
“Please, don’t move. Let it be.”
After a couple of minutes, that seemed like hours, the wasp quieted down and we stealthily started retracing our steps back down the path. Only then did we realize that we hadn’t even taken its photo. No matter; I don’t think I’ll ever forget its beauty or the fear it provoked in us.
The wasp encounter was not to be our only brush with scary nature that afternoon. The next one soon followed. Just below, a giant spider crossed the path right in front of us. “Oh, my God.” I burst out as I pointed. “Do you see it?”
Both Antun and Luci looked. Luci laughed, “Tia, that’s just a hairy spider. When I was in kindergarten we used to pet them and let them crawl up our arms.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No, no it is true. They only look scary.”
Then I spotted another one. “No, this is too much for me. Please, let’s get out of here,” I begged as I leapt across the spot, powering my way down the trail.
As we neared the bottom of the trail, Nico and Haydee were waiting for us on a bench.
“Why didn’t you come up?” we teased. “You missed la avispa azul electrica y las arañas peludas.”
They laughed. “Then we made the right decision to enjoy the view from here. Let’s go.”
All original content copyright 2009 Mary E. Slocum