Archive for April, 2008

If you’re a fan of the major American sports (baseball, basketball, American football and hockey), traveling overseas will wake you up to a hard reality – with very few exceptions, our sports are irrelevant in the rest of the world.  No one cares.  Outside the Super Bowl, the World Series and perhaps the NBA playoffs, it is virtually impossible to view an American sporting event once you leave US soil.  Instead, the global sport of choice is soccer (known to the rest of the world as football or futbol).  Find a TV in virtually any corner of the globe and most likely it’s tuned into a soccer match.  This fact is especially true in Argentina.
After consulting a travel guide to Buenos Aires, I learned of the huge importance and virtual legend of the Boca Juniors, a soccer team in the La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires.  Besides having an outstanding record in South American soccer leagues and tournaments, the Boca Juniors are notorious for having quite possibly the most passionate – some would say “maniacal” – fans in the world.  When I asked a few of my soccer aficionado friends back home if they’d heard of Boca Juniors, the response was basically, “Yes, you idiot!”  It was as if I had asked them which baseball team plays at Yankee Stadium.
Shanna, a soccer player and a fan of the game, and I ((I actually played soccer for one year as a kid.  During that season, our team never lost…and never won!  We tied every single game, with all but two of our games ending at 0 – 0.  The other two ended at 1 – 1.  As a fairly competitive kid, these results – combined with a statement by the father of one of my friends that soccer was a sport for sissies – cursed my otherwise promising soccer career.)) decided we had to see a game.  When we asked a few people how to get tickets, their only advice was to go online and buy tickets from a tourist agency.  The agencies would obtain the tickets at an inflated price, pick you up from your hotel/apartment, have a guide with you during the game and whisk you home as soon as the game was over.  We immediately rejected this notion, preferring to seek out the authentic experience.  This proved quite difficult.

Even though the Boca Juniors have a well-organized and in-depth website, there is inexplicably zero information regarding the schedule of the games or how to obtain tickets. We next used our research skills and spent hours (literally, hours) searching for information online and attempting calls to the Boca Juniors office (no one ever answered!).  The only information we received was from tourists who had the same problem and eventually gave up and went with the tourist agency.  Several comments we found online also noted that it could be dangerous to go to the stadium alone since La Boca is a “working-class” neighborhood that is unsafe at night.  If you know me or Shanna at all, you know that these comments sealed it – we were going to get tickets on our own at all costs!
On a Tuesday night, Boca was scheduled to play Maraceibo (a Venezualan team) as part of the qualification round for the Copa Libertadores (Liberators Cup), a tournament that is basically the World Cup for South America.  In order to make it to the next round (the round of 16), Boca – the winner of the 2007 Copa Libertadores – had to win AND score five goals.  It was a huge game since failing to make it to the next round would be a massive disappointment.  Intent on obtaining tickets to the game, we finally resolved to just go to the stadium and see if we could buy them.  After a 20-minute taxi ride, we pulled up to the ticket office and spotted a line that almost brought tears to our eyes.  We were, however, not deterred; two hours later, tickets for the next night’s game were in hand.  After securing the coveted tickets, we were able to explore the neighborhood of La Boca, which is famous for its colorful buildings.
We arrived at La Bombonera (meaning, for reasons we don’t understand, “chocolate box”), the affectionate nickname of Boca’s stadium, at 8 pm, about an hour before the start of the game.  La Bombonera is a huge chunk of carved concrete painted blue and yellow, and other than a few vendors of nuts and Argentine versions of hot dogs and hamburgers, it offers nothing to the fan other than a view of the game below.  There are no pre-game buffets on the club level, no plush skyboxes for entertaining corporate clients and no giant tv screens where the fans can watch highlights or commercials during game breaks (in fact, we didn’t even see a scoreboard in the stadium; it is assumed that you are keeping up with every second of the game).  Boca fans come solely to root for their favorite team.  We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

The 50,000-plus capacity stadium was completely filled, other than a small section reserved for fans of the opponent.  Very few opposing fans seem to make it to La Bombonera, with safety a relevant issue.  The opponent’s section is surrounded by high chain-linked fences and guarded by dozens of armed police.  The risk is so severe that the Boca fans are required to remain in the stadium until 15 minutes after the completion of the game, enabling the opposing fans to exit the stadium and quickly flee from the area!
As the Boca players entered the field, hysteria ensued.  The fans threw uncountable reams of paper into the air, filling the sky and eventually covering a good portion of the field.  Seconds later, hundreds of fireworks were fired towards the field from the section of the stadium directly behind one of the goals.  The firework of choice for the Boca supporters reminded me of the Roman Candles I used ((I also used bottle rockets.  We would typically shoot these from a PVC pipe; however, the accuracy of a bottle rocket is quite limited.))in the Annual July 4th Firecracker War in my neighborhood, where we attempted direct hits on the other misguided youth who lived nearby (Wait, did I just admit that?  Sorry, Mom!).  Expecting the volley of fire to last for a brief moment, we watched in amazement as shots were fired for several minutes, filling the stadium and our lungs with smoke.
Knowing they needed to score five goals, the players attacked aggressively and scored two goals fairly quickly.  The fans were ecstatic and confident.  However, as halftime passed with no additional goals, the tone of the cheers went from enthusiastic to nervous.  The team needed three more goals to reach their goal.  About this time, we learned a vital fact about the game.  There was another way for La Boca to advance to the next round – if the game being played simultaneously between a Mexican team and a Chilean team ended in a tie, then La Boca only needed to score three goals, not five.  As the game neared the end, the third goal was scored by Boca as we learned that the other game was in a tie and almost over.  The crowd went nuts.  As time expired in the Boca game with a 3-0 victory, it was confirmed that the other game had ended in a tie and that La Boca would miraculously advance.  I can’t describe in words the excitement of the crowds.

In my life, I’ve been lucky to attend games at some of the greatest venues in all of sports, from Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium to Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium to Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium.  Compared to the La Bombonera, however, these prior experiences seem tame.  The Boca fans sang, cheered and yelled non-stop the entire game; the sound was deafening.  At halftime, no one left their seat since they would have missed a stanza of the La Boca fight song.  At the end of the game and after their mandatory 15-minute waiting period (to allow the opposing fans to flee, as discussed above), the fans continued their singing while slowly exiting the stadium.  Rarely, if ever, have I seen such passion in such mass quantities.  I left that stadium as a Boca fan, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be one forever.

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Just under two weeks ago, we arrived in Buenos Aires and, rather than checking into yet another hotel, we headed home.   We’d heard that apartment rentals are really common among visitors who come to this amazing city for more than a couple of days, and so, a few weeks ago, we started browsing some of this area’s many apartment-rental websites.  In no time at all, I’d found the apartment version of my Mr. Right.  Its name was 2698 Libertador, and it had not only a gourmet kitchen but a washing machine; not only a comfy-looking couch but a DVD player.   I started daydreaming about all of the meals we were going to cook, all of the cable TV we were going to watch and, yes, even all of the laundry we were going to do.
I understand that what I just wrote sounds really, really lame.  I mean, Derek and I are living the dream, right?  We’re supposed to be out experiencing the world, not at home separating our lights from our darks.  But there you have it.  After eight months on the road, everything in our backpacks (not to mention the backpacks themselves) needed to be washed, and we desperately needed to sleep in the same bed for more than a few nights in a row.   It was time to take a break.
After almost two weeks here, we’ve really settled in.  We got a Blockbuster membership.  (Incidentally, at the only Blockbuster I’ve ever known to sell olives alongide the popcorn… It gave me a little insight into the Argentine palate!)  We joined a gym. ((A funny note about the gym–it runs on Buenos Aires time, i.e., about 3 hours later than what we were used to at home.  This means that most restaurants here don’t open until 8:30 p.m., and they fill up far later than that.  We got seated for dinner last night at 12:15 a.m., and the place was still packed when we left.  The doors of some bars stay locked until at least 2:00 a.m.  And, where classes at the Nashville YMCA start around 5:30 a.m., the ones at the Buenos Aires Well Club don’t kick off until 8:00 a.m.  I guess that means no one’s at their desks by 8:30/9:00!))  Hugo, our doorman, recognizes us now.  We acquired a favorite grocery store and, within it, a favorite cashier.  (She’s the one who doesn’t cringe at my very weak attempts at Spanish.)  I went running enough times that I no longer get lost upon walking out of the door.  In truth, we kind of feel like we’ve moved to a Spanish-speaking version of NYC’s Upper East Side.  Our new ‘hood is all nannies and dogwalkers and ladies who lunch.  Stepping out of our apartment, we can walk to boutiques, art galleries and trendy cafes in less than five minutes. 

We were technically supposed to move out a few days ago, but neither of us could bear the thought of leaving just yet.  And so here we are.  It’s Saturday night and, while we were supposed to head to a tango bar to watch the city’s best dancers as they tango the night away, I’d say there’s fairly good chance we’ll stay in tonight.  Just because we can. 

After a 6 hour bus ride in the snow across the border with Chile, we arrived in El Calafate, Argentina.  Until a few years ago, El Calafate had a population of less than 5,000 but has undergone a massive boom due to tourism, dramatically increasing the town’s population.  The primary, and perhaps sole, reason for this increase is El Calafate’s close proximity to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, a large national park hosting several glaciers including the magnificent Perito Moreno Glacier.
We stayed at a popular hostel located on top of a large hill outside of El Calafate that provides a dramatic view of the sunset over the area’s lakes and mountains.  We spent our first day in El Calafate lazing around the town and visiting some of its numerous shops and restaurants.  (One of the lessons we’ve learned about long-term travel during our time on the road is that building a day of rest into our schedules after a few days in a row of seeing the sights really helps us to appreciate all of the amazing things we’re encountering.  Without a break once in awhile, it all starts to run together.)  The next day we signed up for a mini-trekking glacier tour.
We arrived at the Perito Moreno Glacier after an hour and a half bus ride from El Calafate.  The glacier is renowned for its massive size (around 150 feet high, 2 or 3 miles wide and over 20 miles long!), its beauty, its state of equilibrium ((As world temperatures have risen in recent years, most glaciers are receding.  The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the few glaciers that is in equilibrium.  On an approximately 4 year cycle, the glacier recedes for a couple of years and then advances the next two.))and – most importantly – its easy access.  We’ve seen a few other glaciers in the previous two weeks, but these viewings required long hikes or rather expensive boat rides in remote areas.  To view the Perito Moreno Glacier, you simply need to board a bus.
After our arrival and a short, but choppy, boat ride across a lake, we were quickly strapping crampons to our shoes (after our volcano-climbing experience, we’ve become quite adept at using crampons).  Led by two guides (one of which showed off by climbing up one of the ice walls), we hiked on the glacier, carefully dodging crevasses and unstable ice.

The remainder of our time in the park was spent viewing the glacier, listening to the cracking of the ice and being fortunate enough to see huge chunks of the glacier come crashing down into the adjacent lake on their way to becoming blue icebergs (Science lesson of the day: Glacial ice looks blue due to its extreme density – the ice is packed so hard that it absorbs every other color of the spectrum except blue – so blue is what you see!).  From the viewing platforms on a clear day (which we had), you can literally see miles of the glacier in front of you – surely one of the most dramatic sites on the planet.

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Cuernos (Horns) of Paine - as seen from our hotel room
These days, when we meet new people and tell them how long we’ve been traveling, their first question is usually something along the lines of “What’s your favorite place been so far?” That’s an impossible question for us to answer; we’ve seen so many incredible places that we can’t pick just one.  Even speaking in superlatives–the best, the worst, the prettiest, the most interesting–is generally impossible for us.  Our visit to Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park, however, made superlatives fairly easy for once.  Without question, Torres del Paine plays home to the most beautiful natural landscapes we’ve ever seen in our lives.

Surrounded by an eastern portion of the Andes that is known as the Paine mountain range, the 598,000-acre park is most famous for two sets of peaks–the Torres del Paine (“towers of blue”) and the Cuernos del Paine (“horns of blue”), neither of which actually look blue.  Both the towers and the horns were formed when subterranean flows of magma got trapped under the earth’s surface and subsequently hardened into granite underground.  Millions of years’ worth of erosion by snow, water and ice carved away the softer land that surrounded the hard stone and left the peaks standing alone in their majesty.  Surrounding these formations are countless turquoise lakes (it’s apparently their color that inspired the “blue” moniker), golden fields, frigid glacial streams and the icy blue glaciers that feed them, endangered species like the guanaco (like the vicunas we met earlier in Chile, these guys are also cousins of the llama) and the occasional puma.
Amaxing explora hotel
The park is nearly as hard to get to as it is gorgeous.  About 70 miles away from the nearest large town, it’s hard for a lot of short-term visitors to see too much of it.  Those with some time on their hands, however, can make the park their home for a few days, keeping in mind that they’ll need to either bring with them everything they’re going to need during their stay–there are no drug stores or snack shops to be found–or plan on partaking in the meals offered by the park’s small campgrounds and refugios.  Or they can choose to spend their children’s college funds on a stay at the all-inclusive Hotel Salto Chico, which is run by a luxury resort operator known as “explora.”  (The lowercase “e” should give you a clue as to how fancy its resorts are…)  With apologies to our future children, we, err, made this last choice.
Wildlife of Torres del Paine
This was not your father’s stuffy luxury resort, folks. It was apparently started by a wealthy man who loved exploring the outdoors but wanted to return from his time in the wilderness to find a gourmet meal and four-star accommodations waiting for him.  I’m sure it goes without saying that we enjoyed living his dream for four days.  Each night, we met with one of the many professional guides on staff and decided on the next day’s adventure.  And then, in the morning, we ate a fantastic breakfast and set off into the wild.  We never had to consult a map; our guide always knew the way.  We never had to pack a lunch; our guide had already done that for us.  We felt a little spoiled, but after more than seven months of planning our days on our own, it was nice to turn the job over to someone else for a few days!
Hike to the Grey Glacier
While the resort itself was incredible, the jaw-dropping mountain scenery we saw when we walked out the door blew it away.  One day, we hiked to the Grey Glacier.  The glacier is a frozen finger of the Southern Ice Cap, which is the largest body of ice in South America that’s still left over from the last Ice Age.  The glacier looked to us like an immense river that had been frozen in time and like an incredible field of light blue meringue. (What can I say?  I think we were pretty hungry by the time we reached the glacier…)  House-sized chunks of bright blue ice recently separately from the glacier floated in the water nearby, making for an incredibly mystical landscape.
Horseback riding in Torres del Paine National Park
A few days later, we rode horses through crystal clear rivers in the company of gauchos whose families had been tending livestock on those grounds for generations.  In another trip highlight, we hiked through rain, snow, wind and, ultimately, sunshine to the base of the Cuernos del Paine.  The weather in the park changes so quickly that it’s often possible to experience each of the four seasons over the course of an hour.  (“There’s no such thing as bad weather,” said our guide, “only bad clothing.”)
Wildlife of Torres del Paine
Another day, we wandered through the park’s vast plains or, as they’re called here, “pampas,” in search of wildlife.  We were secretly hoping to see a condor, the gigantic bird (up to a ten-foot wingspan!) that is considered a symbol of health and power by many Andean cultures.  We were told that such a sighting was fairly unlikely.  In keeping with the incredible luck that we’ve had for most of this trip, we saw not one, but fourteen condors. Sitting on top of a huge rock in the middle of what could very possibly be the most beautiful land on earth, watching condors soar just above our heads, we felt very lucky, indeed.

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The archipelago of Tierra del Fuego (“Land of Fire” in Spanish), so named by Ferdinand Magellan when he spotted fires on the shore ((These fires were lit by the Yamana Indians who lived in the area.  Unfortunately, these native Indians were quickly wiped out when the first Europeans arrived in the area, carrying with them diseases such as smallpox that the immune systems of the Yamanas were not equipped to fight.)) as he sailed through the area in the early 16th century, is located in the southernmost point of Patagonia. ((Patagonia–it’s not just a brand of clothing–is the name of the region of southern South America controlled by Argentina and Chile and renowned for its wild, harsh and gorgeous geography.)) The area is rich in history.  After Christopher Columbus and other explorers had discovered the Americas and determined that it was not part of Asia, the next task was to find a way to get around the Americas and gain quick access to the riches of the Spice Islands and the rest of Asia ((This was especially important to the Spanish after the Portuguese had gained exclusive rights to the sailing route from Europe to Asia around the tip of Africa.)).

Ferdinand Magellan signed up for the mission and set off in search of the elusive route, eventually finding a narrow waterway that became known as the Strait of Magellan.  The exploration did not end there.  Due to the difficulty of navigating the narrow Strait and the expensive tolls levied by the various owners of the passageway, sailors started looking for an alternative route around South America.  This was eventually achieved as sailors continued south and found the last piece of land at Cape Horn in 1616, enabling them to circle Cape Horn and avoid the Strait of Magellan.  This similarly dangerous route was used for years until the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, providing a much more direct route from Europe to Asia.
Intent on exploring this area, Shanna and I signed up for a 4 day cruise on the Mare Australis, a ship that departed from Ushuaia, Argentina, sailed south to Cape Horn and then back north through the Fjords of Fuegia until it reached the Strait of Magellan and the historic city of Punta Arenas, Chile.  Never having been on a cruise ship before, I must admit that I feared the ship would consist solely of senior citizens intent on spending their days playing shuffleboard or perhaps bridge, dining at 5 pm and having a toddy at 7 pm before calling it a night.  Our fears were quickly allayed when we received the cruise orientation in which the speaker referred to the cruise as an “expedition.”
The first port of call was the historic Cape Horn.  After boarding a “zodiac” boat and speeding ashore while wearing some very sexy lifejackets, we stepped on the small island and hiked to the only two points of interest.  First, there is a huge statue of an albatross (a very large bird native to the area) built to commemorate the thousands of sailors who’ve died while trying to round the Cape.  Second, there is a small lighthouse and home where a member of the Chilean Navy and his family resides ((We were told that each family spends one year at this remote location, before the next family moves in.  The family that is currently there greeted the visitors and explained that they would be leaving before their year was up because the wife was pregnant.  Suspicion arose that their family planning was accelerated as a brilliant way of getting early reprieve from this harsh land.)).  While the landscape was treeless and fairly barren, there was a mystical quality about walking on the southernmost point in our world.

Later that day, we alighted on a remote island and hiked to the top of a large hill to view a spectacular sunset.  Our kinship with nature was in full force the next two days as we sailed in the zodiacs to view a fjord with its gushing waterfalls and blue-iced glaciers, followed by a visit to Magdalena Island in the Strait of Magellan the next morning.
Magdalena Island is famous for its part-time inhabitants–penguins.  Each spring, thousands of penguins return to the island to mate, raise new baby penguins and molt before returning to the ocean for a six-month swim beginning in the Fall.  During the peak penguin season, the penguins cover virtually the entire island.  As our visit coincided with the end of the season, only a few thousand penguins remained, most of whom were still slumbering in their nests as we hiked around the island.

Overall, the cruise was a pleasant surprise.  The ship was fairly new with spacious cabins, comfortable common areas and very good food.  Each day, there were a couple of informative lectures about the area, its history and its wildlife.  And, yes, they had bingo one night…which of course we had to play.  Sometimes you just have to adapt to your environment.

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Before we arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina, I knew only that it was the southernmost city on earth–literally, the end of the world–and that Argentine prisoners had once been sent there to maintain Argentina’s hold on the land (presumably because no one else was willing to go).  The place didn’t sound particularly promising…
But the town has come a long way since the prison was established in 1896.  More than 100 years later, it’s transformed into both a place where Argentinians move to raise their families ((Two decades ago, it had the highest population growth rate in the world!)) and a destination that is fairly popular among tourists. Travelers who come to Ushuaia (most of whom are either backpackers or soon-to-be passengers on one of the cruise ships that docks in the local marina) will find plenty to keep them busy and well fed for a few days.  A quick culinary note: Ushuaia is famous for its king crab, or “centolla.”  Those who know me well are aware of my desperate love for crab.  It’s hard to adequately describe the happiness I felt upon being presented with a heaping plate of the stuff, steamed and already shelled.
Just five minutes outside the city waits Glaciar Martial, which is essentially a moderately sized, glacier-topped mountain with a sometimes-functional chairlift.  (It’s used for skiing during the winter.)  On the day that we chose to climb it, the chairlift was out of commission.  (Unlike when we climbed Volcano Villaricca, however, the malfunction didn’t launch us into despair… It simply meant a brief extension of a pleasantly steep hike.)  The climb itself was spectacular, in part because it allowed for stunning views of the mountain-flanked Beagle Channel that improved with every upward step.  The thing that really amazed us about the hike, though, was that it was just one of many options located within a few minutes of Ushuaia.  The proprietor of our hotel described it to us as “ok.”  Ok?? If this hike were located anywhere in the U.S., we’re certain that–with its fantastic views of mountains, water and a glacier alike–it’d be one of the best around.
Given Ushuaia’s former status as a penal colony, we felt it necessary to pay a visit to the place where some 600 unfortunate souls found themselves incarcerated.  Now titled the “maritime museum,” the prison houses everything from balsa wood models of ships to department store dummies dressed as prisoners to two art galleries, one with a nautical theme, the other best described us “the paintings that likely hung in your hair salon at some point in the early 90s.”  (Think lots of teal and turquoise…)  Some of the cells are open to tourists; they provide a glimpse of just how cold and lonely it must have been to be imprisoned at the end of the world.

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The Villarrica Volcano, the most active volcano in Chile, was known to the Mapuche Indians who inhabited the surrounding area as Rucapillán, or the Devil’s Lair.  As you’ll see below, this description was right on point.
A couple of days before we arrived in Pucón (a small town in the lake district of Chile), I read our guidebook and discovered that many of the visitors to the area attempt to climb the Villarrica Volcano, a smouldering peak located just a few miles from the town’s center.  The guidebook described the full-day climb as very steep and difficult, but not overly technical; it stated that a short, but important mountaineering course with a local guide would be required the day before the climb.  As we were arriving late Saturday afternoon and our only full day in Pucón would be Easter Sunday (we were signed up for half-day Spanish lessons on each of the remaining days), I had assumed that a summit of the volcano would be impossible during our visit.  While I was a little distraught by the fact the climb would not be available to us, I was relieved that we would have a valid excuse if asked why we didn’t attempt the summit.
On our way to dinner, we stopped at an adventure travel company, Aguaventura, and asked what activities were available the remainder of the week.  In addition to rafting and horseback riding, we were told by Vincente, the French owner, that we could climb the volcano the next day.  His description of the climb, as we later found out, was full of lies – we would ride a chair lift half-way up the volcano, have a rather simple three-hour climb to the top and casually walk down the mountain.  When I asked if there was any technical training we needed or if we needed to sign a liability waiver, he simply said no.  Shanna and I took his bait–hook, line and sinker.  We told Vincente that we would think about it and let him know within an hour.  Five minutes later, we were back in the office trying on our gear for the next day’s climb.
Shortly after 7am the next morning, we were in a van with 20 other poor souls headed to the volcano’s base. Once we arrived, one of the guides told us without emotion or regret that the chair lift was broken, so we would have to climb the entire length of the volcano (a total vertical ascent of around 5,000 feet) – adding a few hours (yep, a few HOURS) to the day’s climb.  I looked down at the ice axe that had been provided to me and then looked directly at the guide, impure thoughts filling my head.  A few seconds later, I calmed down and we were on our way.

The first 2.5 hours of the climb went directly up the peak, with the trail mostly composed of sand, dirt and rocks.  After a short break, the guides instructed us to retrieve our ice axes and put crampons on our hiking boots as we were about to start climbing up the glacier.  Expecting a lengthy tutorial on the proper way to use the ax and crampons and the safest way to climb the glacier, I was dumbfounded when we started the ice climb after a cursory safety overview in broken English.  The only tidbit I really understood was – “don’t use the ices ax and crampons the wrong way, since you’ll probably fall down the volcano and die.”  Thanks for that.
After about 45 minutes of climbing the glacier, we approached a large rocky area where groups from another travel company had rested.  I had spotted this little oasis several minutes before and was giving myself a pep-talk, knowing that if I just made it to that area I would be able to rest for awhile and catch my breath.  I cannot fully describe my heartbreak when our guide walked straight past the area, turned around to us and said – only 45 more minutes until the next break.  Once again, I became obsessed with the various macabre uses of the ice ax.

During the next 45 minutes, my attempts to divert my mind from the nightmare at hand by focusing on positive thoughts (the day my friend Scott and I went on a barbecue crawl, tasting beef brisket at four different restaurants in Lockhart, Texas; riding zip-lines in the jungles of Nicaragua with my friend Mike) were futile; my mind could not escape the hell that was Villarrica Volcano.  As we finally reached the end of the glacier area and our final resting place before we attempted the summit, I realized that we had somehow been placed in the fast group; the remainder of our group was about 30 minutes behind us.  What a cruel trick!  Why on earth would I be chosen for the fast group?  I looked at the slim and short members of this elite group, with their well-worn hiking boots, fancy waterproof jackets and cocky, this-is-easy smiles, wishing years of pain on them and their future children.

The last part of the climb was brutal, with the practically vertical “path” consisting of sharp, loose rocks.  As I slipped every few minutes and watched as I started mini-avalanches down the side of the volcano, our fast-group guide kept saying “only 10 more minutes.”  While I understood the motivational reasoning behind our guide’s lies, I wasn’t falling for his Jedi-mind tricks; I knew it was more like 30 more minutes.  I searched my brain for legal theories on which I could sue the guide and ensure that he never attempted to dupe another climber again.

By the grace of God, we made it to the top and practically collapsed on a rock near the smoking crater of the volcano.  Realizing that we had conquered the volcano after six hours of climbing, there was a period of great rejoicing and pride. Unfortunately, this feeling was short-lived as I realized we still had a three-hour climb down the volcano!  This prospect hadn’t even crossed my mind; I think I had assumed that a helicopter would magically appear and whisk us down the mountain to a cozy room with a fireplace, apple cider and a jacuzzi.  While I prepared myself mentally for the upcoming death march, I took a few minutes to take in the landscape.  It was spectacular – clear blue skies providing us an uninterrupted view of the surrounding valley and distant mountains.

I remember very little of our descent, other than the thirty minutes we spent sliding down the mountain using our rear-ends as a bobsled – a reckless, yet exhilarating way to descend the icy section of the volcano.  Nine hours after our departure, we arrived at the bottom exhausted and sore.  We later found out that several of the climbers didn’t make it to the top and at least a couple had to go to the hospital to treat injuries from the climb, a fact that should have produced sympathy for those involved but regrettably and maniacally provided me with deep satisfaction.  Derek and Shanna 1, Villarrica Volcano 0. [embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”450″ editlink=”” standard=”″ vars=”ytid=FF_MuVAAOFA&width=450&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep3538″ /]

In the middle of Chile’s lake district, at the foot of the ever-smoldering Villarrica Volcano, lies Pucón, a little town whose primary purpose seems to be to cater to the every whim of the backpackers and other adventurous types who flock there.  They arrive in droves every summer and fall ((Chile is in the Southern Hemisphere, which means, of course, that its seasons are the opposite of ours.  So right now, summer is over and we’re well into fall.  I cannot get over the fact that, for Chileans, Christmas comes at the warmest time of year.  How does Santa operate his sleigh?)) to sample some of the many offerings of this extreme sports mecca.   Once they’ve fully exhausted themselves in Pucón’s outdoor playgrounds, they head to its many excellent bars and restaurants to rest up and refuel for the next day’s adventure.
We arrived in Pucón with two goals: to improve our Spanish and to spend as much time as possible in Pucón’s Great Outdoors.  Check and check.  We each signed up for two hours a day with a private Spanish tutor at Language Pucón, a wonderful little backpacker-oriented school.  I’m happy to report that, by our last day of class, Derek’s already-decent Spanish had greatly improved and my non-existent skills had sharpened to the point where basic communication was at least within reach.   (I can now spit out such marvels as “My backpack is black” and “I need to buy a bus ticket.”) 
When we weren’t in class or doing our homework (Shanna)/making fun of those who do their homework (Derek), we were busy rafting the class IV rapids of the Trancura River and riding horses through the nearby Cañi forest in the company of Rodolfo, a true Argentine cowboy who was brimming with excitement about the weekend’s upcoming rodeo.   Both rafting and riding felt like the best-possible versions of themselves.  The river was cold and clear, and its rapids were dangerous enough to be exciting but not so dangerous as to make us fear for our safety.  The forested hills were astounding, the horses beautiful and patient, and Rodolfo everything I could have pictured an Argentine cowboy to be (complete with a hat, chaps, spurs and a horse-loving dog named Stella). 

In the language of the Mapuche-Pehuenche Indians who dominated the region before the first European settlers arrived in 1883, Pucón means “entrance to the mountains.” Indeed, mountains seem to surround the little hamlet. Look out of pretty much any window in town and you’ll see an amazing landscape behind which the Andes tower.

Pucón has been described as “an Andean version of Aspen,” and, other than the fact that Pucón is more geared to backpackers than it is to the jet set, that’s pretty much what it feels like. Pucón’s streets, like Aspen’s, are lined with upscale restaurants and the occasional boutique. (The ones in Pucón, however, are interspersed with empañaderias and are considerably more affordable than their Colorado counterparts.) In the winter, its slopes are filled with skiers and its cafes packed with those in search of hot chocolate. While the flight to Pucón may be a little longer than the one to Aspen, we’d say that it’s definitely worth the trip!