We hit the highway in search of a river

A lovely shot of the rental car dashboard.
A lovely shot of the rental car dashboard.

Yesterday afternoon – no doubt related to the wet weather – my camera went on the fritz. It stopped working completely by evening, to my dismay. The next morning, it worked again, but sporadically. For every 20 times I press the shutter button, it may actually work once. Now there is a blinking green light on the front of the body of the camera that apparently indicates there is a problem, but not the nature of the problem. The blinking green light drains a full charge on the battery in two hours, but at least the camera takes a shot now and then. I’ve decided to leave the battery out until I want to take a photo.

What this means for you, dear reader, is fewer photos. Instead of 200 to choose from like usual, this time I had 24 (that’s including the shots of the car dashboard and the gravel road, and other dumb stuff when I got impatient and just kept pressing the shutter button but stopped aiming the camera). Time for the Nikon doctor when I get home, wouldn’t you think?

Dessert cookie
Dessert cookie

We woke up in our Villarrica hotel, got another fabulous breakfast and pinched some more hockey pucks with meat and cheese, and more of those positively sinful cookies. They’re like a whole dessert in a cookie and it’s enough sweetness to last a whole day. I think it’s layers of cookies, frosting, caramel and cream, and coated in a vanilla shell with a walnut on top. Margaret’s preference is the same type of cookie, only chocolate. Anyhow, in that way we secured another picnic lunch.

We hit the highways with a map we had picked up in Pucón a couple days earlier. I navigated and Margaret drove, and we cut through the gorgeous countryside from Villarrica and connected to the Pan American Highway, down here called Ruta 5, at Los Lagos. We drove for about 4 hours total, and reached our hostel in Puerto Varas at 1:30pm. Along the way we pulled over and got out lunch, and continued driving as we ate. We had an appointment at 2:30, and until we found our room were not comfortable taking a food break. We stopped in Los Lagos for petrol, which was a fun stop for me because a man working there spoke English and said he had become fluent when he spent some time at West Point Military Academy in New York. I told him I was also a veteran, and we talked military shop while Margaret stressed about getting the attendant to pump gas and then pay him (she had to break into my conversation to solicit for pesos). It was a bit of an abandonment of my traveling companion, so I tried to balance it out by pumping the man for ideas of what to see and do in the region, and he was happy to comply.

I tried to get shots along the way and my camera hardly ever complied. There were a lot of scenes like this.
I tried to get shots along the way and my camera hardly ever cooperated. There were a lot of scenes like this.
I can't get over what a beautiful country Chile is.
I can’t get over what a beautiful country Chile is.
The rivers and forests and mountains make for stunning scenery.
The rivers and forests and mountains make for stunning scenery.
We saw a lot of this today, but even Ruta 5 is beautiful in its way.
We saw a lot of this today, but even Ruta 5 is beautiful in its way. Margaret was impressed by the mostly empty highway, which made for low-stress driving.

We found our hostel in Puerto Varas with very little trouble, as the Air BnB hostess gave great directions from Ruta 5. We are staying at Galpon Aire Puro, a refurbished ginormous potato barn. It’s four stories, with shops in the first level, offices on the second level, the hostesses’ living quarters and guest rooms on the third level, and another guest room at the top. It is gorgeous. Our hostess is Vicki Johnson, a sparking, popping burst of positive energy. She showed us to our rooms, gave us tons of information about getting around town and where to find good food, then whirled out the door to meet a friend. We then had 30 minutes to wait for our scheduled pick up from the river rafting company.

The common room at our hostel.
The common room at our hostel looks out over the town of Puerto Varas.
Looking through the common room to the kitchen. Guest rooms above, and on all sides of the common room.
Looking through the common room to the kitchen. Guest rooms above, and on all sides of the common room.
The stairwell between all the floors of our hostel.
The stairwell between all the floors of our hostel.

The rafting company is Ko’Kayak, based in Ensenada. They sent a van to pick up rafters Jaime, Daniella, and Alicia and us. Daniella was doing the rafting trip as a birthday gift for Alicia who had just turned 15. Jaime was a Santiago transplant who came to live in Puerto Varas after visiting and falling in love with his novia (girlfriend). We met Michelle, our guide from Australia, who chatted with us during our hour-long drive to Ensenada and put us all at ease as much as we could be prior to a rafting trip. Margaret and Jamie had done this before, the rest of us never had and were somewhat nervous, not knowing what to expect.

The rain had been falling all day, from the moment we awoke, and we were wondering if the rafting trip would be canceled. But rafting in the rain turns out to be a great idea since you get soaked anyway. Michelle ran us through the safety speech, and then taught us how to paddle and which commands would be used. Then we changed into wetsuits, got fitted for helmets, and climbed into the van again for the ride to the river.

The rafting headquarters.
The rafting headquarters.
Getting ready for our safety briefing.
Getting ready for our safety briefing.
Margaret, me, and Jaime in our attractive rafting uniforms.
Margaret, me, and Jaime in our attractive rafting uniforms.

It was a small group and we all fit into one raft. Our first order of business was to get another safety lecture, this time from the man who introduced himself to us as our Angel. He was in a kayak and explained that if anyone went into the river, he would be the rescue crew. He explained what we had to do if we found ourselves outside the raft and floating down the river. Then we all climbed into the raft and practiced paddling. Michelle is fluent in Spanish and English, and switched back and forth with ease, giving instructions in both so everyone could understand. In fact, the command “forward!” got a little lost in the river noise, and I found it easier to listen to “adelante!” after a few minutes. (I think, for the next few years, any time I see the word “adelante,” I’m going to hear it in Michelle’s voice, shouted over wave noise.)

Before we knew it, we were in the Petrohué River in the Vicente Perez Rosales National Park and our first rapids were right in front of us. It’s apparently a category 3 river, but I am ignorant of category definitions. I can tell you what it means though: giant waves that smash you in the face! It was terrifying at first. I’m a bit of a shy person in new situations and with new people, so I hadn’t said much to anyone since the van pick up. M and I were placed in the front of the raft, and right out of the gate we were rocketing down cliffs of water and facing huge walls of waves that just came right at us. I had the presence of mind to notice the aqua colour, the triangle shapes of the waves, the way the water was so clear we could see the black rocks below, causing all the commotion, even though we were separated from the rocks by a lot of water. The only time I have ever experienced waves like this was surfing, so I noticed how nice it is to get a faceful of fresh water vs. sea water. And likewise, how lovely that the water was warmer than the Humboldt Coast ocean I have known. The Pacific Ocean off Trinidad California is around 52 degrees in the winter when the best waves are available. The Petrohué River was much warmer – maybe 65 degrees – but that’s a guess.

Anyhow, despite my shy quietness up to that point, and despite my ability to find the good in the experience, at first I was scared out of my mind and let fly some expletives. At one point I actually yelled at Margaret, “I can’t believe you got me into this!” I hollered, as I flailed with the paddle while the nose of the raft was airborne, and then squeezed my eyes shut as the next wave smashed into my face. I said to Margaret, “Yeah, I think I change my mind about going rafting,” and she thought I was serious. But…I had realized I was going to live after all, and I was just kidding. After two sets of rapids, I found that it’s pretty easy to stay in the boat. Also, Jaime was sitting right behind me and laughing his head off. I relaxed and began having a marvelous time.

My camera was not working anyway, so I had left it behind and thus I cannot show you the absolutely stunning scenery we saw from the river. Stunningly beautiful. The river was wide and warm (well relatively warm), there were birds and plants to identify. I decided to leave my glasses behind too, but was still the first person to spot a kingfisher. We had a long discussion about the hillsides covered in Nalca (Gunnera tinctoria), that apparently is delicious. {postscript: M and I tasted some later, and it does taste much like rhubarb. Though another name for this plant is “giant rhubarb,” it is not actually related. The plant has been introduced all over the world and in New Zealand and Ireland has created a weed problem.} I could not stop thinking of how the scenery at the river looks like Japan, with the steep lush mountains rising out of the river.

Our Angel circled the raft in his kayak, played in the rapids, and stationed himself off to the side to watch out for us every time we went through rapids, but there were no accidents and everyone had a great time. Eventually Michelle suggested that we could get out and float in the river (buoyed by our wetsuits), and Alicia, Jaime, and I did. Margaret used the rescuing skills that we were taught, and hauled us back into the raft when we were done swimming.

After only about an hour of rafting, we rowed to the beach and the crew waiting for us hauled in the equipment while we went to the van. During the long ride back, we all got pretty chilled in our soaked suits. We changed back into dry clothes with lightning speed, and met up again to share hot coffee and tea and empanadas. I had heard about Chilean honey, and thought that honey was honey. But Jaime insisted that I try Miel, and it turned out to be amazing! I wish I had the means to buy twenty jars of it as gifts for all of you, but my luggage was already full. Jamie explained that the flavor came from a particular tree that the bees flocked to. I shopped for the honey later and couldn’t tell how to ensure that a particular jar contained honey from the tree I wanted…since I imagine bees to be reluctant to take commands from beekeepers. After empanadas and miel on crackers and coffee in our bellies, we were all good friends despite the language barrier.

Ko’Kayak took us all home and M and I turned in for the night. Though we wanted to explore Puerto Varas, it had truly been a long day.

9 thoughts on “We hit the highway in search of a river

    1. Oh probably, but I chose procrastination in the short term, and after the Nikon spent a night in the warm hostel, it was much more reliable. The green light continues to flash and eat up my batteries. So, I popped out the battery when I wasn’t using it. This caused me to miss a couple of photos that were time-sensitive, but it was a good compromise. The alternate would have been to try to communicate my need to a shop owner in a language I do not speak, and to possibly be trapped too long in a town, waiting for the repair. I’m home now and camera repair is high on my to-do list.

      As you will see, I did manage to get some great photos in my last couple days in Chile.

  1. So this was your first time rafting? With all those great western rivers? I’m so glad you experienced it! Rafting has always been one of my most favorite things to do and it’s been too long!

    1. Oh gosh, that’s the end of your posts about the trip! Well, Crystal, I love that you all managed to explore local culture, art, architecture, and natural resources. Hiking, rafting, and music. Awesome!

      1. Well, it’s the end for now. I had a hard time posting during the last few days in Chile, so I am not caught up. But now I am home with consistent power access and consistent Internet, and no busy tourist schedule, so I’ll wrap it up in a week or so. Eeek, and I also have to write my annual Christmas letter and publish the December edition of the Cherokee newsletter. Yikes. It’s a good thing I am a writer.

    2. Yes, I was scolded for that by another Idahoan. I actually grew up about half an hour from probably the biggest rafting area in Idaho, on the Salmon River. But you know, when you live next to a tourist destination, you often don’t think to do what the tourists are doing. It’s ok that my first rafting trip was in another country because at least I finally did it! I can see why you like it.

  2. What a shame about the camera; however, your words depict your adventures and the scenery. I don’t know what model the camera is, but you may find it just as economical to buy a new one, which you may be able to buy in Chile?

    1. Oh, you know, that is a very good thought. I am home now, but wish I had thought of it while there: to consider buying a new one vs. repairing this one. Things in Chile were noticeably less expensive, and cameras could have been a bargain. Oh well, on my next trip maybe. I’m glad my words filled in the blanks. I know some people prefer (or only have time for) the photos, but my secret pleasure is often in the writing. 😉

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