Five and a half feet of snow in 17 days and temperatures of five below zero drive you to extreme things. For me, it drove me south. When I say south, I don’t mean Florida or Aruba; I mean the southern hemisphere. I felt compelled to journey to a place where I could experience a reversal of seasons. Being in a warm place that was still technically in winter was not good enough. Our Boston winter was turning so grim I needed to go somewhere that was legitimately in summer. Summer is more than weather; it’s a way of life that people get into. You get to see a whole group of people let their hair down. It’s almost like seeing your boss a little drunk at a cookout. No matter the type of person, the summer version is always at least a touch more carefree and pleasant.
Of course I planned my trip to Chile and Argentina long before I knew Boston would turn into Hoth of Star Wars or the direst winter north of The Wall. But once winter decided to rear its foul, butt-ugly head in late January, my month-long trip became all the more compelling. But being the ill-mannered bitch this winter was, she saw it fit to delay my trip one day by way of a three-day snow storm. I detest the naming of non-hurricane storms but this one deserved any of the following names:
2) Lord Vader
5) Elevator Fart
My Nigerian cab driver took me to the airport in a relic of a Ford LTD Crown Victoria. I’m often too thrifty to bother with such highbrow transport but Superstorm Stalin had shut down the MBTA that day. I forget why, but we discussed the various aging trends of different races. I thought that white people get more wrinkles, gray hairs and hair loss than black folks as they age.
My cab driver replied, “Maybe but black people tend to die younger.”
I thought on this briefly and offered a positive perspective, “Okay but at least you look better when you die.”
On my way down to Atlanta, I sat next to Jana and Rick, a married couple in their 50’s and 60’s who were on their way to Mardi Gras. My next aviational leg to Santiago had me sitting next to a Chilean native that was now a hospital chaplain in Dayton, Ohio. Life takes us to interesting, unique places. I bet no Chilean guidance counselor saw that one coming. His name was Raul and when I told him that was my chosen high school Spanish class name, we formed a bond so strong I knew I could count on him to watch my back as I gobbled down a sleeping pill. By “watch my back”, I mean “make sure the stewardess puts a breakfast on my tray table even if I appear to be dead”. Anything else that may happen to me was of small import.
Prior to leaving, I had reserved a car through a gentleman named Andres. Outside the airport, I met one of his employees who introduced me to my vehicle. I left Santiago immediately and headed to Valparaiso. Once there, it only took me two hours to find my hotel. I asked about 12 Valparaisins and was given confusing directions not just from them but from people they would call on their cell phones to let me speak with. I appreciated the immense efforts they made but I hope to never get lost in Chile again. Also, I’m not sure if you call Valparaiso residents “Valparaisins” but I will do so any way since “Valaparaisin” contains the word “raisin”.
When I finally arrived at my hotel, I got out of the car and for the first time noticed that it not only appeared to be a few years older than the 2014 or newer model I was promised but that the tires were more bald than me in 20 years. And, the maps and air compressor he claimed would be in the car were also missing. On top of this, I would later discover that my wiper blades were less effective at removing water from a windshield than a comb and that the mobile phone that came in the car that was supposed to have 40 incoming/outgoing calls had two which I believe is about how many calls you get when you’re arrested.
Costa Azul is owned by an amiable Slovenian couple named Luka and Nina. This small guest house is in the congested neighborhood known as Playa Ancha which is perched on a hill that overlooks downtown Valparaiso and the harbor. Valparaiso is, what someone told me, a “quirky port town”. That description definitely functions properly. There are steep hills with small buildings clinging to them, giving the appearance of a layered cake. Oh, and the bus drivers are crazier and bolder than a drunken Jedi pilot. My bus driver bombed down steep curving streets like Steve McQueen in Bullitt. So that’s the best way to envision this experience: if Steve McQueen was in Valparaiso, was trying to get his pregnant wife to the hospital or was simply late to work and happened to be driving a bus.
The next day I left Costa Azul and said farewell to Luka and Nina. I once more internally remarked on Nina’s Slovenian attractiveness. Luka isn’t unattractive but he’ll simply have to find space in someone else’s fantasy.
Eleven hours later, I arrived in Pucon. I passed so many hitchhikers along the way that you would have needed to hire at least five school buses to pick them all up. If I was someone that liked using the phrase “Damn Commies!”, I would have been in a state of ecstasy.
Once again, it took me an hour of multiple sets of contradictory directions to find my lodging. Ellie’s B&B is run by a nice lady and her teenaged daughter. It was great to find out that this guest house was a mile or so away from a smoking, active volcano that was due to burst any year, showing higher than normal seismic activity. And just like Valparaiso, I appeared to be the central body of a planetary system comprised of barking dogs. Some of these planets were domesticated but many were quite feral.
The morning after I arrived, I managed to break the toilet. To be fair, the flapper (the piece at the bottom of the tank that is lifted up to let water out of the tank) was on its way out and I happened to be the straw that broke the toilet’s back. But because this happened on my watch, I travelled down to Chile’s version of the Home Depot with a photo of the piece I needed. I showed this photo to one of their employees who then took me to their lighting section. She pointed to a light and smiled. I showed her the picture again and said “toilet…agua”.
Before things spiraled further out of control by way of me attempting to install a light fixture in a toilet, another employee directed me to the plumbing section. Maybe she wanted me to install a light in the toilet like one would see in a swimming pool. Maybe “night peeing” is all the rage in Chile.
After securing the part, I returned to Ellie’s house and, in Spanish, had to explain to her daughter that although I broke their toilet, I was now fixing it. The whole ordeal made me yearn for constipation.
During the day, I hiked through the beautiful national park known as Huerquehue. Today, like all the days thus far, was enjoying the best kind of weather you could hope for in Boston during the month made popular by the band Earth Wind and Fire: September. The scenery was inspired, containing mountains, lakes and forests.
For dinner, I ate at a small table on the sidewalk outside of Club 77 and got the better of some fish, vegetables, potato balls and wine. I must say, the quality and polite prices of wine in Chile really do make up for all of those barking dogs and bad directions. As I sat there, I was entertained by musicians that stopped at all the restaurants and cafés along the street to play a couple of songs. Upon completion, they came to me with a hat and asked for money. Their music was good unlike the absurd techno blasting out of a slowly passing Jeep Wrangler, techno so terrible it literally sounded like a fax machine.
It was midnight when I finished up and as I looked around, I was amazed by all the families with children that were still out. No one looked tired. Midnight in Chile looked like 8PM in America.
The following day I drove downtown. Pucon’s center is a grid with noticeable bustle. I parked my car and was immediately approached by a man in a bright green vest, holding a handheld credit card machine. He put a ticket on my windshield and told me I would pay him when I return. Perhaps this system allowed some sort of financial benefit to the town and/or the driver but it also required a lot of employees to cover the entire grid. I found it odd, like some sort of pre-Industrial Revolution business model combined with modern technology. I thought parking meters sorted this process out but who asked me?
This experience seemed to be a recurring thing in Chile: a high employee to customer ratio. Every gas station I’ve been to has had more employees than a 1950’s American gas station. Nina and Luka in Valparaiso have also confirmed my sightings, telling me you will often see a high number of wait staff in restaurants and cafés. On the whole, I would say things operate less efficiently here but if that’s the cost I have to pay for friendly faces and great cheap wine, I’m most certainly willing to pay it.
I headed out of town and down a gravel road to a mountain’s edge. After a brief hike, I swam in Lake Villarica. It was a treat to wade in the water, while looking at the volcano who continued to puff away like an Italian mob boss.
On my way back to Ellie’s, I stumbled upon a fair where I drank/ate mote con huesillo. This is a strange affair consisting of sweet liquid, chunks of wheat swimming around the bottom like lazy catfish and a very saturated dried peach that floats on top. At the end of a muddy field stood a stage with large speakers on it. In the middle of the stage was a woman in a long, simple but somewhat elegant black dress which contrasted nicely with the extremely casual garb found on everyone else. This lady controlled various karaoke backing tracks with an iPad that she then sang to on a microphone. Her voice was good but she seemed a tad out of place in this casual backyard environment. In front of here were playing children and the occasional person crossing over to the other side of the field. Right next to her stage was a carnival game tent. All in all, it was a live performer’s nightmare.
After another marvelous, clock-stopping breakfast the following morning, I bid farewell to Ellie and drove south through precious natural landscapes of hills and fields and large lakes. I eventually arrived at my accommodation for the next two nights: Parque Ilihue which consisted of only a couple cabins that were wedged between a steep, small mountain and the southern shore of Lago (Lake) Ranco. As I settled in, I turned on the TV and watched Star Wars, Episode 3, Revenge of the Sith dubbed in Spanish; it didn’t matter what happened with the rest of my stay, this place getting a five-star review on TripAdvisor. For some reason, a Spanish-speaking Yoda made much more sense to me.
As I read in bed, I heard a horse walk up to my window, only a few feet away, and start eating. Of course, once again, this was followed by the sound of barking dogs which unfortunately bounced off the large rock mass standing tall and less than 100 yards away.
As I wrote outside on the small porch the following morning, six little pigs hustled over to my cabin. At first, it seemed like some dark, macabre form of room service. I didn’t recall ordering bacon though. But the cute little slobs grunted and jogged by me, running into a garden where they were soon shooed off by some kind of garden lady.
I asked Gabriel, the owner, if there was a way to climb the mountain behind Parque Ilihue. He said I could drive up. He then pointed to a specific point and brought a house to my attention that was so high up it was barely visible. Gabriel told me an old woman lived there and that she allowed people to enter her property and take in the view. In return, it would be considered amiable if you gave her a little something. I assume he meant cash but who knows? Maybe that high-altitude living has allowed for an undying amorous appetite in this older model.
I drove up the squirrely gravel road and looked for two hubcaps attached to a post; this marked the location. When I found it, I pulled over and began a small ascent up to her house. As I did, I heard voices from the property across the street. Due to the open, bowl-shaped area we were in, the sound reached me quite well, despite the 130 or so yards that separated us. I looked down and saw a very large pig running towards me. Unsure if it was some sort of dangerous watchpig, I stopped and a young man ran up to me. I explained to Francisco the purpose of my visit. He informed me that the house belonged to his grandmother and I was welcome to take pictures.
We walked through a few barking dogs and came upon a backyard that dropped off into nothing. And as expected, in brilliant non-American fashion, there was not even a hint of a fence or railing to keep humans and poorly kicked soccer balls from tumbling off the edge. Beyond this edge was a view of angels. I could see down to Parque Ilihue, the surrounding fields, the lake and all the mountain finery that bordered it. I thanked Francisco for his time, handed him a little cash and said “para la comida de los perros” (for dog food).
That night I ate at the Parque Ilihue restaurant. Much of what I ate came from the surrounding farm, including the pork. Sorry little piggies. Looks like I just ate your uncle.
At two in the morning, I received a text from Andres, the rental car gent, telling me that he emailed me a name and address of where I could get new tires. Initially, he proposed I pay for it and that he would reimburse me. I said no; he would pay for it. Ultimately, he sent me to the wrong city, forcing me to drive a little further out of my way. Fortunately, I was able to shop for gifts and play with a tiny kitten while I waited for the new tires.
With new tires, I drove back towards Puerto Varas. I tried not to reflect on how terrible this car rental experience had been. Thankfully I had it in me to let it go, reminding myself my days ahead involved great food and wine and lacked alarm clocks and hammers (I’m a handyman). Also adding to my amnesia of the foolishness was arriving at my next stop, Casa Ko, which was located 23 miles east of Puerto Varas and a couple miles off the main road and Lago Llanquihue. The setting was immaculate: a 60-year old farm house surrounded by trees and fields and a perfect view of Osorno Volcano. In fact, my bedroom had a small balcony that looked right at this volcano. Yet again, there were all kinds of animals, including a friendly goat that found my presence necessary.
Dinner that evening was memorable. The other guests and I ate fresh food (some of it grown on site) and shared stories. There was a Mexican lady in her early 50’s, a Uruguayan man and his Danish wife, a French lady and her British husband with their daughter and a young Swiss couple enjoying the last six weeks of an epic 10-month long southern hemisphere tour.
The next day I involved myself in a six-hour hike that climbed up part way of Calbuco, yet another volcano that was located just behind Casa Ko.
The following morning, I said goodbye to everyone and drove back through Puerto Varas, then south past Puerto Montt and boarded a car ferry that took me to Chiloe, an island just off the coast. I decided that I needed to see some penguins so I did the logical thing of driving to their home on the northwest side of the island.
Afterwards I checked into my guest house which was located a few miles north of Chiloe’s biggest town, Castro. It was on top of a hill and surrounded by rolling farm pastures so the view was solid but this place was not one that would ever taste my repeat business. Comparatively speaking, this place was not cheap which is fine as long as the establishment proves its worth. But my room, being a tiny little box that is located in a tiny little loft area that seemed to collect all the heat in the house, did not prove its worth. To make matters worse, my room had windows that didn’t open. Better still, due to the ceiling being pitched, the wall that contained the door was so low that you had to duck your head or suffer an unwanted head bang (which I suffered a few times). The lodging was worse than one could expect being a prisoner on a WW2 Russian submarine.
The rest of the place had some admirable qualities: there was a small restaurant that looked out onto the valley; there was a nice room with a small deck that shared the same view. But, the whole place suffered from diabolical craftsmanship. Much of the construction appeared to be completed by a dumb angry baby.
The weather was not as elegant as the lakes district, the traffic into Castro was a bit much, my lodging was below par, and the penguins were more boring than an ant farm. Chiloe was starting to feel like a low point of the trip.
This would all change quickly.
The next day as I walked back from a beach in Chiloe National Park, a lady ahead of me slowed down to ask me a question about a nearby path. Soon after, we were engaged in conversation as her two friends walked ahead of us. Isabella is a 34-year old environmental engineer from Santiago. She was visiting Chiloe with two friends. The first, Jesica, is a feisty accountant (who knew such things existed) from Vina del Mar. The second, Alfonso, is a lab technician in Santiago who Jesica and Isabella actually met for the first time in Chiloe a couple days previously.
By the end of our walk, we were already making plans to meet for a drink later. They even invited me to join them on a tour of a smaller island known as Mechuque, located just two miles off the eastern coast of Chiloe in the Gulf of Ancud.
That night we all met at a small bar restaurant in Castro. As earlier in the day, there was that fantastic group dynamic of two people (Alfonso and Jesica) doing their best to make sure that Isabella and I were given ample time to talk alone. Yet, this “rare time” was tempered with some group chat. As my conversation with Isabella evolved, so did my boldness. After discovering that Alfonso and Jesica were heading back to Santiago in a couple days and that Isabella, who was in the midst of a glorious, welcomed “in between jobs” spell with no set plans for the remainder of an open-ended vacation, I asked her to join me for the remainder of my trip. Before she could reply, I told her to think on it.
The next day, the four of us took a boat to Mechuque. There we watched the preparation of a cuisine unique to Chiloe: curanto. Curanto is literally made in a large hole in the ground. Hot stones are placed down first with layers of shellfish, chicken, pork, potatoes and sausages above. On top of that, large green leaves known as nalca are placed with a wet sack, dirt and grass above, creating a crude pressure cooker-like environment. When the dish was complete, the 50 or so of us on the tour sat at long tables and tested this ancient dish. As I sat down, I noticed I was only one of two “gringos” and the only American on this tour and most likely on this tiny island. For some reason, that made me slightly proud.
During the meal, Isabella looked at me and with slightly imperfect yet alluring English, spoke, “I have thought about the proposal you made about the travelling and my answer is yes. I would like to go with you if that is okay.”
To me, this was jazz. I did a decent job of suppressing my boyish excitement. I was trying to talk but at the same time making sure I didn’t botch this choice opportunity.
That night, we all met again in Castro for a drink but this time others from the tour joined us. One was the only other gringo on the tour, a Swiss gent. When he heard my last name, he exclaimed, “Coxen?! Your name sounds just like the Swiss German word ‘koksen’ which means ‘doing lines of cocaine’!” Was it too late for me to become an 80’s Swiss metal god? I felt that this small fact about my name was clearly enough to take me to the top regardless of my age or gray chest hairs.
The following day I left Chiloe. Isabella’s plan was to stay another day in Chiloe and then visit a friend in Puerto Montt for a night. I directed my car and my leisurely energies to Puerto Octay, a small town on the north side of Lago Llanquihue. My lodging was located a couple miles north of town. This guest house called “Zapato Amarillo” or “Yellow Shoe” was run by a fantastically pleasant couple comprised of a Swiss man named Amrin and his Chilean wife, Nadia. That night I dined in fine style with two older couples: a Chilean couple from Santiago and a German couple in the midst of a six-month, multi-country, bi-hemispheral journey.
The next morning I made it so with a truly effective breakfast in the dining room that looked out at Osorno Volcano, the same volcano that my room in Casa Ko across the shore looked at. Looking at this volcano while I ate was not enough. I had to walk around it, close enough to be fried by one of its deadly burps (although that would be highly unlikely since this volcano has not suffered acid indigestion since 1869). So I got in my filthy car and drove towards the volcano. My plan was to hike around an elevated hike that took me part way around Osorno and gave me a potent view of Lago Todos Los Santos.
I turned off the main road and onto a 13-mile gravel road that ended at the trail head. At the beginning of this gravel road, I spotted a woman in her late 60’s and a young boy on the side of the road with their thumbs up. Of course, I took this as the international sign of hitchhiking. Had their thumbs been turned down, I would have taken that as a sign that they were bitchhiking. I pulled over and picked them up. I didn’t understand all they said but I did learn that the five-year old boy was the lady’s grandson. I forget the young lad’s name but I will never forget his drive and ease with correcting my Spanish grammar and pronunciation.
After dropping them off, I carried on up the slowly ascending gravel road that grew narrower. At the road’s end, I parked my car at a small house that served as a tiny, rarely used café and lodging for a young German man named Karl. A friend owned the property but Karl had volunteered to oversee this remote outpost for several months. I looked around and tried to imagine such a sparse existence and its effect on the mind. He was a man in his 20’s with no TV, internet connection and practically no electricity (save the little he had from a small solar panel). He seemed to linger as I prepared myself for my hike. Clearly he knew I wanted to be on my way but I could tell he yearned for some human contact.
When I returned from my hike, he came back out and we talked some more. He became eager to discuss his existence with me. I often show a soft spot for those that live willingly or unwillingly on the fringe. He told me that pumas often haunted him at night but that he had a weapon to defend himself from ridiculous puma attacks. He then went into his house and returned with a black handgun.
I was starting to get nervous.
I also noticed a knife in a leather sheath hanging from his hip. Was that there before? I don’t think it was but I couldn’t be sure. However, I did remain calm.
He removed the cartridge and handed me the weapon for my inspection. The gun smelled of oil, telling me he kept this sidearm in fine working order. I gave it back to him and he reinserted the cartridge.
Oddly, he put the gun back into my hand and said, “Fire it if you like.”
I tried to hide my surprise and confusion and asked, “Uhh, where do I fire it?”
“Wherever,” he replied with a casual tone that I could not yet discern was genuine or not.
I aimed at a pile of wood. Out of all the inanimate objects in my field of vision, I felt the pile of wood was most likely to be guilty of some reprehensible transgression. I pulled the trigger. The sound echoed of the mountainsides dramatically but something was missing. I felt virtually no recoil. I told Karl that I expected the gun to kick back when I fired it. With a smile that most people would miss, he informed me that this handgun contained only blanks that were only intended to scare off animals with a loud sound. And from what I could tell, it also did a grand job at scaring off any potential café customers. I handed the gun back to him.
God, this was all bizarre. The handgun exchange now seemed to me as some sort of test. Perhaps part of him hoped I pointed the gun at him so he could test his Rambo knife on my American flesh. Maybe I was imagining all of this. Maybe these were my final moments on Earth before I was killed by a tortured German hermit.
As he showed me around the outside of his cabin, I looked in a window and saw the type of poster on a wall that you typically see in the dirty back office of a mechanic. I could also hear the angry sounds of death metal music that could not be played too loud due to the small amount of energy at hand. I then turned my head and saw an axe freshly stuck into a large log. Or, I thought, I guess I could be killed that way.
But suddenly the tone of the situation changed a little. He began to show me the remains of a ten-room hotel on the property that burnt down in 1997. He and the owner were slowly in the process of rebuilding it. I now felt slightly more at ease; from the little I know, it seems bad for business to murder a tourist before opening your doors.
I bid Karl farewell and realized or hoped it was my imagination to blame for my apprehension. I hoped my time spent talking to him was mildly therapeutic for him.
The following day I picked up Isabella from Puerto Montt and together we drove towards Argentina. After a multistage, complex border-crossing procedure, we made it to Villa La Angostura, a lovely, nicely-paced mountain town on the northern shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi. The day before, I emailed our hotel, Hosteria Pichi Rincon to tell them I was now travelling with a friend. She asked me if I wanted a room with two twin beds or one matrimonial. Wow, I thought, this is a crucial junction. I have to decide if Isabella is going to be a “two twin bed” friend or a “matrimonial bed” friend. Would she be offended to find a room with only one bed? Is the fact that she decided to travel alone with me enough to assume a matrimonial bed status? And if that is the case, will she think of me as a boner-less wisp if I don’t request a matrimonial bed?
Although single, I had felt I had been sidelined with some sort of mysterious, unknown injury that had kept me out of the Lust Olympics for a long time so I felt incredibly rusty with all of this. But, the previous looks in her eyes told me there was a good chance that she would become a “matrimonial bed” friend (but I couldn’t be 100% sure).
I chose the matrimonial.
Fully comfortable and confident with my decision, Isabella and I followed the friendly manager, Rosana, to our room. With great anticipation, I waited to study her face. It would tell me all I had to know. The door opened. There it was: basking in the afternoon sunlight, a neat and sexy matrimonial bed. I turned my head to her but then caught some other awful ogre in the background. On the other side of the room was also a twin bed. Damn! This could screw up everything! I felt mixed signals were now being transmitted. I wanted to take that stupid twin bed out the back door and set it in fire in the back lawn.
She put her bag on the twin bed and I put my belongings on the matrimonial. Damn it.
After unpacking, we sat down on the romance-wrecking twin bed and discussed our dining options. The hell with this, I thought.
I kissed her.
And the response was positive.
But being classy, respectable and hungry grownups, we took a time out from this baseball game with a runner on first so we could secure some dinner. After our meal, we picked up a bottle of red wine and a Cuban cigar. The plan was to walk around while I smoked. We shared a lot about ourselves on the ride to Villa La Angostura but suddenly the stakes were raised. The subject of “last time we had sex” bubbled up to the conversational surface. Before I tell you the amount of time for me, I must warn you that it is Rated G…“G” as in it has been so long that my sex life could be discussed with a general audience or in a Disney movie and “G” as in “Grim”. I took a deep breath…”Four years.”
“Mentira (Lie)!” she shouted as her mouth dropped and her eyes bulged. It always gives me great pleasure to tell something to somebody that throws their face and body off the neutral ground they tend to gravitate towards.
Isabella asked me a few times if I was lying. Once she was satisfied I was telling the truth and the shock subsided, she clung to me a little closer and displayed what can best be described as smiling body language. We continued to walk a little and after some bold thought she turned to me and asked me with a welcome South American confidence and comfort, “Will you have sex with me tonight?”
Good Lord. I couldn’t believe this four-year drought might actually come to an end. Rain clouds were gathering and the glorious sound of thunder grew louder and the first majestic drops were now striking my face. With an Irish Catholic awkwardness that will never be capable of destruction, I told her, “Well, uhhhh, sure…of course!”
On our way back, we found a small supermarket that seemed to sell everything, making it the perfect target for rioters in the event of an apocalypse. To frame it even better, it was the type of store where the actual event took place: it was Tuesday at 10PM in Argentina and I was waiting in the line to buy a wine bottle opener, wine glasses, chocolate, chewing gum and some condoms while the man in front of me was waiting to purchase a Black & Decker power drill. This is exactly the type of experience I fantasize about when travelling. The lead up was great too. Isabella and I looked at condoms together which was a first. I usually procure these scandal makers on my own. Her presence turned out to be quite beneficial since I had never bought condoms in Spanish.
So there we were. An unlikely couple making our way back to our charming hotel with a wine opener, a bottle of wine, chocolate, condoms and some chewing gum. We just couldn’t lose.
The elements of the next day were ones that could all be found on the Periodic Table of Pleasure. There was a hike, a dip in Lago Nahuel Huapi, some fine trout at lunch, a professional nap and ultimately a fine dinner. At dinner, I had enjoyed one of the dynamics of Argentina’s struggling economy: the negotiation of the blue dollar (the unofficial rate between the peso and the dollar). Our sexy American dollars are highly sought after in Argentina to the point that most businesses (and individuals) accept and prefer them. This is important to know since the official rate, as in the one you would get at an ATM or when using your credit card, is around 8.5 pesos to the dollar while a good blue dollar rate will get 12 or more. You don’t have to be good with numbers to realize this blue dollar rate will allow you to get 50% fatter and 50% drunker on your vacation.
Before travelling to South America, I had read in a few places that folks you’re exchanging with prefer 50 and 100-dollar bills that are new. This is why I paid my bank a visit shortly before I left and loaded up on 50’s and 100’s that were paper cut new. This was all confirmed with the owner of the restaurant we were dining at who was willing to make a personal exchange with me. As always, Isabella’s perfect Spanish and lady manners provided the perfect lubrication to the process, keeping the deal squeak and friction free.
For dessert, we enjoyed red wine, rare time and a most tender therapy.
After breakfast, we said goodbye to Rosana and drove south to Lago Puelo. Just before our final destination, we decided to drive through Bolson to look for some good Cuban cigars (which were hard to come by). I was tired and at one point briefly drove down a busy wrong way while cars came right at me. In Boston, this would have caused rage beyond calculation. But here, it got me a guy who playfully said in a conversational volume “Hey hermano”. He called me his brother and his tone was one that could have been mistaken for friendship.
Once I gathered my wits and got back on the right side of the road, I began to notice how dirty the air was. At first I thought it was dust that resulted from the very dry conditions and dirt roads but once at our guest house known as Huala Hostel, the owner Dalva told us it was due to multiple forest fires that were not too far off. The smell, taste and sight of smoke were thick enough to stir up concern at first but the locals did not seem to be too worried with this chimney-like atmosphere. Well, I guess we could always chill in the nearby lake if the fire knocked on our door.
If you like meat, Argentina is your place. The quantity and quality is enough to send a vegetarian into a disgust-induced coma. This night we ate at Luz de Luna and absorbed a meal that, upon retrospect, should have been put into a time capsule to prove to future generations that they will never be as great as we are. It was merely a leg of lamb on top of some papas fritas but the lamb itself had been slow-cooked for several hours with a combination of rosemary, other spices and clearly a lot of love. This was easily the best lamb I ever had. You could practically will the meat off the bone with your mind, requiring little to no physical effort.
The staff was a bunch of sweethearts. They all seemed happy to be there and gave an inspired performance. I even had the honor of shaking hands with the chef who humbly described the culinary and enlightened journey of my dish. And, if you still had some available real estate in your belly after that victorious Viking conquest after-battle meal, you had a galaxy of fresh ice cream to explore (which we did).
Driving back from an afternoon of lake pleasure the following day, it started to dawn on me that Argentina looked like scenes out of Mad Max sometimes. The landscape was arid and many of the cars were cartoonishly old and battered looking as if it had been 20 years since the last new car was made. Cars that would have been scrapped before the Great Demise were still being used out of sheer necessity. These cars had mismatched hoods (and some didn’t even have hoods). They were often heavily damaged and held together with random materials and some desperate emotion.
That evening, Isabella and I ate at the same restaurant again and retired afterwards to Dalva’s relaxing yard. No matter where we went, Flora the small lady cat was sure to follow. Flora was one of Dalva’s many animals and once I gave her some leftover trout, she decided to attach herself to my presence. She even came into our room, jumped into my suitcase and onto our bed. It was like she was some strange alternative to the evening mint you might find on your pillow in a fancy hotel.
When we finished breakfast the next day, Isabella and I set sail for a southern village in the southern shore of Lago Traful known simply as Villa Traful. With no reservation and a positive attitude, we touched down on a lakeside camping/cabin arrangement with marvelous views and food. During our dinner outside on the deck, we experienced heavenly visuals and another of Argentina’s common elements. The element I speak of is a stray dog begging at your table. My first inclination was to ignore these dogs since I knew that no matter what I gave them, they would probably use it to buy booze. In all fairness, these dogs are looking for a combination of love and food and they’re usually nice but while I’m eating, I don’t often desire the presence of begging creatures. Sometimes the owner or manager may shoo them away but they always return.
After Isabella and I ate our breakfast the following morning at a table next to our cabin, another cat befriended me and became the lucky recipient of a bowl of milk.
The next day we drove north through cinematic countryside to San Martin De Los Andes. With its grid street system elegantly placed in a valley on the eastern shore of Lago Lacar, this town was already speaking sweet nothings to me before I even got out of the car.
On the way, however, I did have one minor altercation. One thing I really do admire about the South American lady is that she not only shows no fear with a roadside pee, she practically embraces the concept. So we pulled over to the side of the road to release our liquid tension. While she chose a spot right next to the car, I laughed at her indecent proximity to the road and dashed through some tall vegetation to attain more cover. Thinking all the while I was the wiser, I returned to the car and looked down at my legs; they were absurdly covered in sharp burrs. It took about 10 minutes to removes these little f#*ks, a process made worse by the sting I received by the sharp burrs themselves and Isabella’s vengeful laughter.
For the next three nights, we checked into Apartamento Maiten, located in a quiet corner of San Martin. We had a nice two-floor affair with a warm wooden interior, two bedrooms, a kitchen and an effective little balcony in the back. The next day, a maid called our telephone and asked when she could clean our unit. In efforts to preserve global resources and avoid an interruption, I told her not to bother. “Somos personas limpias (we are clean people)” was the reason I gave her which drew about 45 seconds of powerful laughter from Isabella who overhead my chat from upstairs.
We then made an effort to track down some lodging for our next stop. Although we didn’t know exactly where it would be, we knew it would on the other side of the Andes in Chile. First we decided to take a gravel road pass that took us into Chile and then take a three-hour ferry ride over a long thin lake caught between two mountains and ultimately to the beautiful Huilo Huilo national park.
This idea disintegrated when we discovered we wouldn’t be able to book a ferry until three days after our desired departure date so we pursued the idea of a more northern pass, Mamuil Malal. This pass was meant to be stunning and would bring us through Pucon where I was three weeks previously. Thinking we might get a good deal on lodging due to the end of busy season, we called several places in the Pucon area to get pricing. Unfortunately, prices still seemed locked in their high season mode. Although we didn’t book anything, we decided that the Pucon area would be our next stop and that we would book something later that day.
We headed into town and stopped in at a small bakery. On the wall, a flat-screen TV was showing the news. There was footage of a volcano erupting which naturally grabbed my attention but what really caught me off guard were the words below the footage: “Volcan Villarica, Pucon”. I looked at Isabella and said “Pienso que necesitamos buscar una otra via a Chile. (I think we need to find another route into Chile)”. The titillating combination of the volcanic eruption and my mastery of Spanish clearly distracted Isabella to the point she no longer owned the mental capacity needed to purchase something at the bakery (that’s how I saw it anyways) so we moved on to a nice little restaurant to order some takeaway. On our way, we decided to go back into Chile the way we came and to stay over at two of my favorite lodging options that Isabella could now see: Casa Ko and Zapato Amarillo.
Pondering the eruption a little more, I noticed two interesting elements of this event. One, it seemed like everywhere we went was falling apart after we left or right before we arrived. Both of us had visited Dalcahue on the island of Chiloe and a week later, a massive forest fire swept through the area. As I mentioned before, near Lago Puelo, forest fires were popping up like teen dreams before, during and after we left. Now Villarica blew its stack after I left. I wasn’t sure if this made me important in some way or simply some asshole that brought about bad fortune.
The other thing of note was that when we tried to negotiate with hotels earlier in the day before knowing of the eruption, I either couldn’t get a lower price or they were booked up. What?! A volcano was erupting in their backyard! Hotels should have been empty and we should have been given entire floors of buildings to ourselves for $5 a night and all the free shower caps we could handle. These hotels should have been starving for business, given the natural disaster.
That night we ate at Torino Bar and Bistro and ate a meal that is still waiting for words to be invented to justly describe it. All I can tell you is that my dish involved a pile of legendary meat covered in cheese and tomatoes with an appropriate amount of garlic found in each bite. In the end, a sensational crème brûlée took us to where we needed to be. We were so stuffed with edible pleasure after this that the only option was to burn off calories at a nearby lousy video arcade.
I’m not sure this fine meal was to blame but something unkindly lingered in my digestive track for the next several days causing stomach aches and brown problems. If I had to guess, my decadence hit a point of critical mass and became more than my body could bear. Luckily it did not keep me from making it back to Chile and to Casa Ko where we were still able to visit the pristine region of Cochamo.
After a hike, we hung out with the locals that were all sitting in front of a house located at the trail head. Isabella was lovely enough to find me a soothing cup of Lady Tea (chamomile). She instead opted to have the traditional drink of Argentina and southern Chile: mate (pronounced mah-tay). I love mate and drink it at home in the states but I thought it wise to avoid any stimulating drinks in my current condition. However, stimulating ladies were still allowed in my daily regimen.
It was great to watch how these people drank mate and how communal it was. There was only one gourd on the table and it was shared by everyone that wanted to drink mate. Sticking out of the gourd was a metal straw that had a filter on the bottom to keep out the mate leaves that constituted at least 50% of the gourd’s content. Someone would typically finish the gourd off and pour some hot water back into it. Then someone else would come by a moment later and do the same thing. When the flavor weakened, someone would dump out the old wet leaves and replace them with new ones and begin the process all over again. Watching this, I had to guess that everyone in South America had contracted Mono within the same week decades ago.
At Casa Ko that night, we met a lovely team from Germany named Liselle and Raul. Raul was originally from Chile but had to leave 35 or so years earlier to escape the harsh political regime of Augusto Pinochet. Interestingly enough, his ancestry contained no Chilean elements. He was actually 50% Italian, 25% Spanish and 25% Irish.
Also intriguing was his look. His skin was tan and his salt and pepper hair was long and straggly and thinning a bit in the crown area. His short beard was white and politely matched his eyebrows. He had round cheeks and the eyes of William H Macy. And these eyes were always filled with life and activity. Liselle was also noteworthy in her appearance. She was very petite, probably not standing much higher than the kindergarteners she worked with at her job. Her hair was short and her smile had the staying power of a tattoo.
Isabella and I became quick friends with these two lovelies. In fact, Isabella became friends with almost everyone with undeniable ease. I’m fairly skilled at meeting new people but Isabella excelled at it which brought yet another welcomed level of vitality to my trip.
We left Casa Ko on what would be the first and only day of rain of my month-long sojourn. Due to the weather and my malfunctioning digestive services, we did something I love doing when travelling: we went to the movies. To me, watching a movie in a theater is like going to sleep. Coming out of the theater is like waking up. You almost forget where you are and your mind expects its familiar environment. Exiting into a Chilean mall was almost as good as the film itself (Kingsman).
When the movie ended, we drove north to Puerto Octay to stay again at Zapato Amarillo. We arrived at dinner time and sat across from a vivacious Dutch couple in their early 60’s. Karla was pleasant and most certainly the “straight man” in the double act. Her husband Richard was bombastic in both demeanor and appearance. This tall man had a face that provided no challenge to a caricature artist. His wild white-grey hair sprouted up from his head and then down the sides like a tuft of overgrown grass. His mustache and accompanying patch below his mouth were also white-grey.
To be just, his mustache was worthy of a dedicated wing in the Jedi Archives. It was a giant push broom of a thing with light tobacco stains towards the bottom. His nose looked as if it had been broken once or twice and hastily put back into place. And when he laughed, which was often, it was an all-encompassing laughter that somehow turned his face into even more of a caricature rendering. It was amazing to me how in just two days, Isabella and I met two different couples that we both would have felt comfortable engaging in some sort of multi-couple dancing event with.
The following day, we ran into Raul and Liselle in the German-styled town of Frutillar. We enjoyed an effortless stroll and dining experience with these two winners. We got a kick out of all the German themes that kept popping up. They were reminders that many Germans settled in southern Chile long ago. While most of these settlers were good folks, there were a minority of Nazis that fled to the region (and many other parts of South America) after WW2 in efforts to escape punishment for their war crimes. In fact, the night before, Richard and Karla told us how they happened upon some sort of remote guest house in a remote part of Chile that stank of a dark Nazi past.
After Zapato Amarillo, we made the long drive north towards Santiago. About two hours south of Santiago, we decided to spend a couple days in part of Chilean wine country. The area we decided on was Colchaqua Valley and the town was Santa Cruz. During our stay, we pretentiously visited a winery, an experience humbled only by the fact that we were wearing hiking boots.
On our last day, we drove north towards Santiago and with a little time to kill, Isabella decided to take me up in a funicular to the top of San Cristobal Hill where one could see all of the city and beyond. Back on the ground we ate at a restaurant nearby where I was able to savor some pastel de choclo one more time. Afterwards we drove to the airport. We sat outside for a couple hours. I was waiting for my plane and she was waiting for a friend to pick her up. The surrounding scenery may not have been dramatic but the weather and company were exotic to me.
We walked back into the airport. It was time for me to make my way through security. Before I went in, I paused and said some parting words to Isabella. She seemed a little sad. I looked at her and asked, “Are you going to be okay?” Upon hearing my question, she put a slightly out of character, defiant smile on her face and said, “Always.”