Dipping a toe into Patagonia

Patagonia is not for the faint of heart. Interminable bus journeys, inhospitable terrain, bone-chilling temperatures and sky high prices mean that many travellers skip it all together. I was planning on going, I really was, but when I met traveller after traveller heading down there with sleeping bags and tents as basic necessities, four week itineraries planned out, I realised I was vastly unprepared. I didn’t even have a coat.

And so, whilst I left the true land of ice and fire for another time, I still wanted to get a taste. I headed to the Lakes District in Chile, or ‘baby Patagonia’ as I overheard it being charmingly referred to.

I took the overnight bus down from Santiago into Pucón. It was one of the most challenging bus journeys of my life with a not-so-small toddler screaming and writhing all night in the seat next to me, regularly squirming free from his mum’s weary grasp to place a grubby palm in my face, steal my blanket or yank my headphones off. I have no idea how I made it through without hurling myself (or him) from the bus. But I did. And as I stepped down onto firm ground, bleary-eyed and every so slightly broken, I could be forgiven for thinking I’d taken the wrong bus, and somehow ended up in Switzerland.

Cozy cabins lined streets marked with quaint wooden signs painted with pictures of mountains. Everyone around me look like they’d strolled in from the pages of a Snow and Rock catalogue – all clean hair, fresh faces and can-do attitudes. My hostel was a picture-perfect wooden chalet, with a wood burning stove and bunkbeds tucked away in the large sloping eves of the attic.

I stumbled in gremlike-like, unwashed and unslept, my backpack catching in the door. In my haze, I overheard two people discussing the afternoon’s excursion to the volcanic hot sprints. With a rush of longing, I realised that the only thing I wanted to do in life was to boil myself alive in mineral-rich mountain water. I asked to go too. By coincidence, I also found out that two of the girls I’d spent new year with in Valparaíso were also in Pucón and heading to the pools that afternoon.

I have no photos from the volcanic pools because I can say with absolute certainty that if my phone or camera had come anywhere near being taken out of my bag, I would have dropped one or both of them instantaneously into one of the steaming pools. This being the case, words will have to suffice.

The pools are high up in the mountains. The van taking us there trundled for an hour, climbing steep dirt tracks, its engine groaning under the strain of the slopes. We eventually arrived at the broad opening of a wedge-shaped crevice in the rock, two large cliff-faces forming walls that narrowed into the distance. Either side, waterfalls tumbled from high above and long tendrils of leaves draped against the grey stone. A raised wooden deck cut a path through the middle and disappeared into the forest beyond. Stone pools line both sides of the path, steam rising invitingly from their surfaces. Each had their temperature displayed on slate in crisp white chalk. 39. 42. 37. 34.

I got changed in one of the outdoor huts and, feeling rather ridiculous and slightly chilly wearing a bikini in the fresh mountain air, choose my next steps quickly. A nice 39 degrees to start. I lowered myself into the the steaming pool and felt every muscle relax and every murderous thought about the screaming bus-child disappear. I submerged myself under the gloriously warm water and wondered why life had ever bothered evolving out of its warm, primordial ooze. I decided I’d start a new life there in that pool, and began to daydream about my new aquatic existence. I said a fond farewell to life on land and sunk deeper. I think I fell asleep momentarily and dreamt I’d grown gills. Everything was perfect. And then I got a bit too hot and had to get out. I stood on the side, fanning myself, looking like a lightly poached lobster.

And the next three hours carried on in much the same vein – boil, cool and repeat. We followed the wooden path as far back as it would go – to an icy cold waterfall at the apex of the wedge. I steeled myself to walk across the shallow pool that surrounded the waterfall but after a split second of immersion in the bitterly cold water, my toes went numb and I waddled out, keen to return to full steaming submersion.

After drying off and having one of the best cups of teas of my life and a pumpkin soup, I took the bus home. I was woozy with tiredness and lay on my bed for a quick nap that rushed headlong into deep blissful sleep. That night, a boy in my dorm fell out of his bunkbed and plummeted several feet onto the floorboards below. Apparently it caused quite a fuss in the room. I slept through the whole thing.

The next day a group in the hostel offered to take me to El Cañi, a national park. We set off relatively early, taking the bus around half an hour out of town. The entrance was unassuming, marked only by a small wooden board painted with its name and a cartoon of a deer. We set off, and I quickly realised I’d made a terrible mistake. What I assumed would be a leisurely hike was in fact a thigh-burning scramble over several hours to the peak of a mountain. It was unrelentingly uphill. I quickly discovered that the companions I was with were not in fact people, but mountain goats cunningly disguised as people. They bounded through the forest, round lagoons and up the steep slopes with agility and grace, one of them mockingly smoking a cigarette. I wheezed and panted in their wake.

For the first time since day two of the Inca trail, I was engaged in deep psychological battle with my own willpower. I negotiated, I pleaded, I offered it bribes – look, I know everything inside you is telling you that this is futile, and pointless and unnecessary. I know that we have the power to put an end to it with a few words. But please, please just keep putting one foot in front of the other. This can’t last forever. It’s not going to kill you… probably. Do you want another banana? We can have wine tonight…

When we eventually made it to the top, I took myself off like a cat to die. I sat alone on a rock far from the group and put my head between my knees. I stayed still, letting waves of relief and nausea wash over me. After about ten minutes I got up, my legs feeling light and unsteady, and clambered over the boulders to see what all the fuss was about.

We were sat on a rocky outcrop with a sheer drop of several hundred feet beneath. Through the spiny branches of monkey puzzle trees, over the lush green forest and the deep blue lake far in the distance, were the snowy peaks of three volcanoes. Faint wisps of smoke hovered above their jagged tops. The view was majestic. We sat precariously close to the edge, admiring all we could see and feasting on the best ham and cheese sandwiches of my life.

That night after a knee-knackering descent back down and return to town, I hobbled out to meet the girls from Valparaiso for drinks in one of the cosy bars lining the main street. We sat discussing our days and lives back at home, and I forgot all about the very real possibility that my legs were going to seize up or drop off.

After a large jug of sweet wine with strawberries, we parted ways and I went back to the hostel to prepare for the next day’s bus journey, edging my way even further South to the mystical island of Chiloé.


3 thoughts on “Dipping a toe into Patagonia

  1. It sounds fantastic, Rachel. And so few people go. Sorry to hear about your unexpected climb – I would also have gone away to die, like a cat, having reached he top.

    I am sitting in Heathrow, about to fly to Dehli – with the world’s worst toothache!


      1. Thanks, Rachel. Toothache is getting better, if not totally cured yet. Hope you are feeling better too.


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