End of the Dragoman Dream!
So, having been in the process of making plans to move to Denmark, it appears I have, inadvertently, moved to Chile instead. I review in my head what I knew about Chile before I started planning this trip. Very little:
Long and skinny
Lots of mountains
Led by a dictator for many years who was bessie mates with Margaret Thatcher because he supported her in the Falklands War against, in the words of the Sun Newspaper, the Argies!
That’s it! Of course, I know a bit more now! I may even be faced with taking the citizenship test at this rate so need to gen up!
Chile is the second richest country in South America and only just below Uruguay. It is well above Argentina and the rest. Thank goodness I’m not stuck in Brazil. When I visited there for only two weeks we were mugged three times and once was by street kids who looked as if they were about ten years old. They circled us as if they were casing the joint and tried to grab the jumper draped round my shoulders then, all of a sudden, they ripped the pocket off Richard’s shirt. He’s 6 foot, I might add, so it was a bit of a jump! There was about £30 in there and they grabbed half out of the gutter and we grabbed half. I should also mention that they were armed with large bamboo sticks! Mind you, I’ve dined out on that story for the past 26 years so it has been worth far more than the £15 we lost! Oh and the pocket was ripped off cleanly so he’s still wearing the shirt today!
Chile has 6,000 Kms of Pacific Ocean coastline so that probably equates to a lot of deck chairs! There are some German settlements so I am sure they get their towels down early every morning!
It’s also got the largest swimming pool in the world. Is that really necessary Chile, when you have so much coastline?
For all my literature loving friends and Joy Tugwell, my poet friend, Chile is affectionately known by its inhabitants as the “pais del poetas” or the “country of poets” because it has two famous poets, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda who won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Chile’s Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth and it reminds me that there is one other thing I knew about Chile before I came- lots of miners were stuck deep down a mine and we all held our breath until they were rescued and became celebrities over night! When I look up the specific details on Wikipedia I find it was 33 miners, trapped 700 meters below ground for 69 days in 2010.
Chile has over 1,300 volcanos and some of them are very active, including Villarrica Volcano that I am sitting right beneath as I write this! Just incase we may forget, it is constantly churning out steam and smoke and there are evacuation signs everywhere. It is also known as Rucapillan, a Mapuche Indian word for ‘devil’s house’. It last erupted in 2015 when it spewed lava and ash up to 1000 meters in to the air. 3000 locals had to be evacuated. There is a siren that is regularly tested so I am ready day and night to evacuate!
The Patagonian Ice Field which Chile shares with Argentina, is the third largest in the world after Antarctica and Greenland.
Chances of passing the citizenship test: fair to good, so long as they don’t ask me any questions in Spanish!
So the Dragoman Bus Trip, which should have been 101 days long has ended after only 18 days! To be quite frank, I’m bereft about this! I have been playing it out in my head for about a year. A one way ticket to Cartagena in Columbia not Pucón Chile where I find myself now!
Mind you, it could be worse! Pucón is surrounded by stunning scenery and is on an idyllic lake which forms part of the world famous Chilean Lake District. According to my copy of Lonely Planet, “There are few areas in the world which can match the Lake District for scenic grandeur.” Just think, I could have been stuck in one of those God forsaken towns on the east coast of Patagonia. That place where I had a midnight ding dong with a bus driver. It just doesn’t bear thinking about.
We say goodbye to Carmen who has been our trusty steed for nearly 3 weeks and Jazz gives us the balance not used on the kitty for the sector up to Santiago. He tries his hardest to get me to sign myself off the trip but, as I point out, it is Dragoman dumping me, not the other way round so that ain’t gonna happen! I have my insurance claim for curtailment to worry about.
Aussie Heather, Scottish Christine, American Jason and I swap a Dragoman tent for an airbnb. I can probably drop the nicknames now we don’t have three Amandas and two Heathers. In addition, it turns out that Aussie Heather is a fraud. She’s not Australian, she’s a New Zealander. She moved from New Zealand to Australia when she was 23 years old. To be fair, she probably did tell me that early on but there was a lot of detail to take in!
Our airbnb is in a gated community on Lake Villarrica, 1km from the centre of Pucón. It’s very posh but it’s not Chile in any way shape or form! When you step out of the front door it’s like being in one of those apple pie American movies where everyone has got straight white teeth. At the moment, as it is mainly for rich people to take their holidays, it is deserted and feels like a ghost town. There are more staff watering the plants each day than there are residents. It’s not why I came to South America but I take some deep breaths and focus on the lake, the mountains and the volcano which are truly spectacular. Plus, we’ve got it for a song in the current crisis!
The three bedroom holiday house is luxurious and is owned by a rich Chilean man who can only be in his thirties. He’s done better than most people in their thirties in the U.K. who only dream about owning a home. He lives in Qatar so must have a highly paid job and his airbnb picture shows him wearing a salmon pink jacket! Not sure how he gets away with that in Qatar! Heather and Christine kindly say I can have the king sized room with dressing room and en-suite and they will share a room. Real home from home. It may be because I had to put up with the kiddies bed in Ushuaia but more likely because they both go to be at about 7.30pm and I don’t!
I have to head Jason off at the pass because for some reason he thinks it had been agreed that he can have the big room. Nice try, Jason! He got the single room. I would have arm wrestled him for the big room and probably won if I had to!
I come face to face with my first hair dryer for 3000 kms. I can’t describe the luxury of that blow dry! The before and after is a marked difference!
Dominic Rabb, M.P., Foreign Secretary, Brexit Supporting Bastard, Tory Scum etc, has sent me a message telling me to go home. Really, Dom? So instead of self isolating in the relative safety of the Chilean Lake District where they have had three figure cases and two figure deaths, you want me to transit back to Corona Island as Driver Darren grudgingly calls it when he sees our photos of the local scenery? That means getting on a bus to Santiago, going through several airports and travelling on at least one plane, then the underground and C2C train because Richard isn’t allowed out to pick me up? You must be kidding! Like with Bonking Boris, it’s two word, take your pick!
We have enough food to last us about a year. It’s looking as if that is not going to be a joke. We have inherited the food on the two buses meant to feed 43 people. We have:
46 bags of pasta
28 bags of rice
32 boxes of porridge
16 pasta sauces
17 boxes of milk
7 loaves and numerous rolls
9 packs of cheese/meat
8 packs of hamburgers
4 packs of vege burgers
1095 toilet rolls (not as good as it sounds because it’s single ply not the triple ply velvet I’m used to but can’t complain in these times of toilet roll shortages across the world)
3 half drunk bottles of wine
4 cans of beer
No prizes for guessing what we will be having for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the foreseeable future and it’s not pizza!
I have taken £20 off Dragoman’s bill to me but that still means they owe me £3,842.79. They may also have the three hundred and something bill for my flight home from Columbia in June added and I haven’t even started to calculate the bill for distress and anguish!
We meet the crew at the Pucón bus station to pick up the food and for a final goodbye as they head to Santiago by bus overnight to then fly home. Jazz has set up the Pucón Princess Group Chat for us and added himself so he can give us advice as he knows South America well. Unfortunately, he forgot Jason is part of the group so the poor guy is now a Pucón Princess!
Birds rule where we are staying. Large Ibis strut around, cara cara birds look bereft because the people they scavenged from have mainly gone home, wrens and hummingbirds flit around the garden and I haven’t even got to the 20 million parquets that roost in the large pine trees opposite. What a racquet they make at sun down and sun up. It really makes me miss our song birds back at home. Even those bloody magpies are better than this lot!
Our new trusty steeds are bikes borrowed for free from the Gated Community! Normally bike hire is ten quid a day around here so that is a big bonus and I start to go out on them regularly. One day Heather and I go to get our bikes from the communal rack and they are all gone. I’m horrified. I’m in love with my bike and the thought of being deprived of it gives me heart palpitations! Luckily, with the help of our good friend, google translate, we manage to get two bikes to keep at the property.
I roam far and wide on my bike, often with Heather but sometimes alone. The wide glaciated valleys are flat and the main route west, out of town, has miles of bike lane. Our first bike ride is anti-clockwise round the lake, over raging rivers and past attractive tree clad mountain ranges. Sometimes the road becomes a dirt track and is very bumpy, as is the case with this bike ride. I joke with Heather that we have lost our virginity but the seven children we share between us may prove that theory wrong! At one point we have to literally wade through a river with our bikes.
One day, Heather and I do 67 kilometres out towards the Argentinian border where the high Andres are rugged and spectacular. Now, the local tourist office are good enough to provide a local map but not good enough to draw the roads on it properly. What looks like a road linking back to make it a circular route after about 15 kilometres actually has a river between the two roads that they just drew over so we have to go another 20 kilometres to find a bridge to cross over and start the journey back on a dirt track. The tourists’ office’s name is mud! Mind you, the route back is so idyllic, it soon takes our minds off our aching limbs. It is full of flower meadows and scenes of open grassland with majestic trees and grazing cows. It reminds me of scenes from Jane Austen, just without the stately homes. At one point we see about 20 birds of prey circling over head.
Another stand out bike and hike is to a waterfall. Once we get to the really steep bit, we hide the bikes in a field, a delicate operation because I have to limbo dance under a fence that Heather is holding up. After a steep climb we pick blackberries for a crumble made with, of course, one of the 32 boxes of porridge oats! The waterfall is closed but we and a few others ignore this fact and climb down to a half way view point and then the plunge pool at the bottom. Here we venture behind the falls and have a dip in the plunge pool. Chilly but exhilarating!
My favourite solo bike ride is up a river valley with views that require multiple superlatives. Unfortunately, shortly after turning off the road to begin the three hour trek up to the waterfall I am attacked by a vicious Alsatian. There are dogs everywhere in Chile and Argentina and most have a bark that is worse than their bite. A few have come after me and barked aggressively, for example, one in Rio Gallegos, one of the god forsaken towns on the east coast of Patagonia but until now, none have actually bitten me. Well, I guess it bites my trouser leg but that is far too close for comfort for me! As with many, it barks and follows me from inside a fence. Trouble is, the bloody fence has big holes in so in a split second it is through the fence and hurtling itself at me. I am scared of dogs! In fact, it would not be exaggerating to say I am petrified of dogs. The seeds of dogs are scary creatures were sown by my mum when I was a child because she always said, “Don’t touch, strange dogs!” which was basically all dogs. I’ve never lived with one and whilst we have family and friends who have delightful dogs (and some with not so delightful dogs but I wouldn’t dare mention which these are because it’s like attacking people’s kids, just don’t do it- only behind their backs, of course!!!). If all dog’s were like Leo, my cousin Susan’s dog who is like a teddy bear, I wouldn’t have a problem; but I’m afraid they’re not. I mean Alsatians eat criminals for a living and I just freeze which doesn’t t help. In retrospect, I think it gave it licence to try and eat me! I get away alive but it is at the back of my mind for the next four hours because there is no other way out apart from past the killer dog! I work on strategy to prevent panic attacks. There are some pickup trucks going up the valley so I could google translate:
“Please let me ride back to the main road in the back of your truck because there is a killer dog out to eat me. It’s already taken a chunk out of my leg!”
Option 2 is more scary, ride hell for leather and hope this means it doesn’t bite a chunk out of me, rather than freeze.
Or option 3, stay up there and live off blackberries for the rest of my life!
I eventually get to the waterfall after a long slog uphill. It promises it is 4 kilometres and then after what seems like 4 kilometres there’s a sign that says 3 kilometres! You get the picture! Anyway, after three hours I roll up at the entrance to the waterfall and there are armed guards blocking my way! I don’t even bother google translating “You must be fucking kidding!” and we agree, as I advance towards him, looking as if I am going to murder him, that I can have 5 minutes. So I get 5 minutes all to myself to see the waterfall. Well that ain’t gonna happen because after the slog up the valley and the endless, only another kilometre to go promises, it turns out that it is another half a kilometre to this bloody waterfall! When I eventually get there, it is good to have it all to myself but it’s not exactly Iguazu Falls! More worth the bike and hike is the view in the other direction which has me taking a million photos back down the valley.
As I near the entrance, a woman starts shouting at me aggressively, clearly unaware of the agreement I have with her colleague. Again, I don’t bother to google translate “Don’t waste your breath Love, because I’ve already seen your piddling waterfall. What you going to do about it now?” She carries on shouting! I think she must be the owner of the vicious Alsatian at the bottom of the hill.
It’s taken me about three hours to get up the hill. Okay, that’s with about 45 minutes at various riverside stops to chill out and take in the scenery but I am starting to worry that I will be late back to cook the evening meal, it being my turn. Christine likes dinner on the table by 6.30pm at the very latest and it is already 5pm! There is also the not so small matter of getting past the vicious Alsatian! Anyway, down I head and I’m amazed, I hardly have to pedal, in fact I have to keep using my breaks to slow myself down. All the pick-ups I was going to beg to take me back down have mysteriously evaporated and it is soon clear that I am going to hit Vicious Dog Corner very soon but I’m not sure exactly where it is located. I remain on high alert and when a car over takes me, I tuck in behind it at ‘hell for leather’ speed and realise that I have just rounded Vicious Dog Corner and I can see the road. I peddle furiously and hear it coming for me, saliva drooling from its mouth (okay, that last bit is in my head). I make it to the main road and thank my lucky stars that I haven’t been mauled to death only to be identified via dna test in a few months or even years! Plus it’s only taken me 20 minutes to get down the hill so I will not have to upset Christine!
One day, Heather doesn’t want to go on a bike ride to the lake to the north, a mere 50 kilometre round trip, but Jason volunteers to come instead. I’m nervous about this:
40 years old
Looks like one of those super fit Americans who jog along the beach in California
Runs marathons as a hobby- he’s just had 4 cancelled because of the coronavirus, including Rio!
57 years old
Occasionally strolls to the corner shop to get the paper
Compatibility Rating: Zero
Jason is very polite. He cycles behind me and when I suggest he is welcome to overtake me he says he likes to be the anchor. I dread to think what sort of ship he thinks I am! A super yacht? an elegant liner? No, probably a tanker or a barge! This lasts for about an hour and he can stand it no longer. He suggests he goes in front to help block the breeze that is slowing us down! Yer, right Jason!
Jason is not in to taking a break to admire the view or collapse on the verge in a heap so we cycle on. The last third of the journey is uphill and Jason gets smaller and smaller in the distance. I think he got to the lake about an hour before me! I find him there sitting on a bench admiring what is a wonderful view. At last a lake that doesn’t look like something out of Disney Land! Not a high rise or a gated resort in sight! It’s bliss! Just miles of wooded mountains plunging down in to the lake and there’s even a volcano thrown in at the end of the lake. What’s not to like?
Super Man and I have lunch down by the lake and admire the views. A stray dog joins us and looks longingly at my sandwich. I have adopted a policy of not encouraging stray dogs as I don’t want them to latch on to me. The nurse at my surgery suggested I have a rabies injection when I had my health review for this trip but it was too late to do this so this is constantly at the back of my mind. Heather, on the other hand, has taken the opposite approach and has bought a bag of dog biscuits for them. She’s like the Pied Piper with them following her around!
I suggest to Super Man that we ride round to the other side of the lake. He looks sceptical so I call him a ‘right wuss’. Being American, he doesn’t understand the term but he seems to get that I’m insulting his manhood so he quickly agrees. Once on the other side of the lake, I suggest we go back at our own pace. 80 kilometres per hour for Super Man and 0.8 kilometres per hour for me! Funnily enough, he is quick to agree.
As soon as I’ve given Super Man the slip I retire to a jetty on the lake to be Lazy Idle Woman and ring Susan, my cousin, who has recently moved to Bexhill-On-Sea with Leo, the cutest dog in the world. We compare water fronts. Mine is relaxed and people are walking and cycling. A young family cycles past at one point and their two year old greets us with ‘ola!’ Susan’s waterfront, which she can see from her first floor flat, is patrolled by police to enforce ‘Lock Down Regulations’. They break up gatherings of people and even move elderly couples sitting in their cars or on a bench on and tell them to go home. Those who don’t comply are fined. When did the oldest democracy in the world turn in to the restricted society that many Chileans remember, having lived under the dictatorship of Pinochet until 1990?
Super Man reckons he got back in 45 minutes. Personally, I think that’s a big fat lie! You’d need a Tardis! Okay, there is more downhill and if you take out my very long breaks, I probably did it in two hours.
I’m no longer an Uber Virgin! I know I’m late to the party but I have now downloaded the app and I order my first ever Uber to take Christine and I to Villarrica, the town at the other end of the lake to Pucón. It is more rough and ready than flashy Pucón but it has good views of the lake and volcano which we enjoy in a short stroll along the promenade. This lake has very little access. Most of it is taken up by the monstrous gated resorts. Thank goodness we don’t generally allow this in Europe so you can cycle and walk by the lake.
Our second Uber trip is to Lican Ray on Lake Calafquen, a one hour journey. Heather, Christine and I have a wander along the lake front with the classic views and I find exercise machines for the first time since I started he Dragoman Tour so have a bit of a workout.
Earlier we had been discussing the very real prospect that there will be a baby boom because of social isolation but I didn’t expect to see it in action. While Heather and Christine sit and have a picnic lunch I take a walk alone the lake shore. There are quite a few people sitting individually, in pairs or in small groups. As I follow the path back it goes through a small clump of trees and there I am confronted by a couple having sex! Not two meters from the path. They seem oblivious! Have they no shame? It’s a very animalistic scene and I find it hard to rid myself of the image that is imprinted in my brain before I quickly avert my eyes and quicken my pace! In this conservative Catholic country I appreciate that if you live at home and don’t have a car, there can be issues but next time, guys, find somewhere a bit more private! There are acres of wilderness around here! Obviously, when I return to Heather and Christine I start with, “You’ll never guess what I’ve just seen!”
We struggle to get an Uber back. They get us down here and then abandon us! That great new app on my phone doesn’t seem so great when it keeps flashing up “No Drivers Available” to requests made every five minutes. We decide we need to think of other options. We walk up to town and determine that there are no local buses. There is a delivery driver at the green grocers and he says he will take us back to Villarrica at 6pm but someone will have to sit in the back of the truck. This is very kind of him and something to cling on to in desperate times but it is only 3pm so it is quite a long time to wait. Heather chats to a young couple with a small child in a pickup and they ring around to see if anyone will take us and we will pay them. After about 20 minutes we’re sorted! Someone will turn up in a small (very small!) red car. We thank the couple who have done us a huge favour and let the vegetable man know that we won’t need to take him up on his kind offer.
Right on cue, the small red car turns up and in we get. The driver is in his fifties and doesn’t speak any English so we are only able to exchange a few basic pleasantries but I do manage to negotiate that he will take us all the way to Pucón for about £30 which is about £10 more than and the Uber ride there but beggars can’t be choosers and we would probably have paid about £100 by this stage.
Now in my experience, these sorts of unofficial journeys never go to plan and this journey is no exception! It reminded me of when Kathryn, Helen and I got taxis from place to place in Jordan in January 2019. We negotiated a price with the taxi driver that had taken us from Aqaba to Wadi Rum and he turned up as planned but about 10 kilometres from Petra, our destination, he stopped at a view point and gift shop and said he needed to make a phone call. The next thing we knew was we were being swapped with an equally confused and indignant German man in another taxi. Taxi Driver Number One demanded his money (well more than we agreed to include a tip, if I remember correctly) but as I pointed out, he hadn’t delivered us to our destination. He assured me that Taxi Driver Number Two would not charge us. Really Mate? But what do you do? We risked being stuck in the middle of no where so we just had to go with the flow.
Taxi Driver Number Two didn’t charge us and got on the phone, numerous times whilst driving to try and organise a taxi back to the border for us in a few days. At one point he stopped at and got the card for someone who he said would pick us up but it was all very vague and ad hoc. Later, I negotiated with another taxi driver who bought us back up the very steep hill to the hotel but he didn’t turn up as promised for Petra by Night so again vague and ad hoc. Anyway, I continued working on this conundrum and about 10 taxi drivers turned up on the morning of our departure all expecting to take us! I went with the one I’d order at the hotel reception, despairing that no one would turn up on the morning!
So back to the Pican Ray to Pucón journey, after about 20 minutes, our driver pulls over at a bus stop. He gets out and a very young man gets in. I joke that are being driven by a Year 11 driver! It turns out that Nicolas, son of our original driver, is actually 20 years old and is a student in Villarrica. I hope you are impressed by my Spanish because he didn’t speak any English! We assume that it is his car and he will be taking us the rest of the way but no after another 20 minutes he turns off the main road and stops the car. He proffers his cheek for me to kiss and swaps with his dad. As we wind our way through a housing estate, Christine and Heather become more and more convinced that we have been kidnapped! I just think, Jordan all over again! Eventually, we arrive in Pucón, safe, well and free. Richard has been dining out for about a year on the cheap joke that if I get kidnapped (in Columbia probably, not Chile) he won’t pay any ransom because after a few weeks they’ll be paying him to take me back!