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On the GPT: volcanoes, hot springs and bureaucracy

Greater Patagonian Trail: Above Laguna del Laja

450 km behind us now, and we’re in Los Ángeles for provisions and as many french fries as we can eat in two days.

Our return to the trail from our last resupply went very smoothly. We’ve come to find that we can rely on easy hitchhiking to return us to remote trailheads – our record is something like one car in three giving us a lift. As Leo and Andrea promised in Santiago, Chileans are promising to be remarkably friendly and helpful folks.

The environments we’re passing through continue to change by the day, from high desert to old-growth hardwood to mountain pasture, depending on elevation, aspect and water. As we continue south, though, we are seeing a trend toward a greener, less arid average. After the blinding brightness of the first section, we’re really savouring time in forests, and the ones we’ve passed through have been particularly wonderful. In several high valleys, we’ve hiked through glades of huge, gnarled old Patagonian oak and beech, dripping with beardy lichens and full of flowers, dappled sunlight and birdsong. These forests seem to never have been cut, and there are all stages of trees, from tiny saplings to hulking, ghostly snags and fallen trees like tumbled Parthenon columns.

Another feature we’ve enjoyed immensely have been hot springs. As we climbed higher and higher into the volcanic plains below Volcán Chillán, we found ourselves entering the Valle de Aguas Calientes (a promising-looking name we'd been watching on the map). While the hot rivers were a marvel (rushing mountain streams so hot you’d want to hop out pretty smartly were you to slip off a rock), it was a lonely little spring at the far end of a valley that we’ve decided is the world’s best hot spring (so far). A waist-deep pool with one cold stream and two hot ones feeding it, and a tumbling waterfall of hot water to sit under; a glorious afternoon scrubbing out days’ worth of dirt and softening up our hiking muscles was just about perfect.

With Volcán Chillán sitting above us, we decided a morning attempt of the summit was in order. As we climbed, we passed steaming fumaroles and old lava flows, and slowly progressed to well above the level of the surrounding mountains. As our route took us further and further up, though, the winds increased and temperature plummeted. By the time we were nearly to the summit, it began to feel increasingly like clinging to the outside of an airplane - frozen fingers, and wind that made standing difficult (and in the bigger gusts, impossible). With 50 m left to climb, we turned back, having felt like we’d just climbed into the jetstream.

Greater Patagonian Trail: Volcán Chillán

This last stretch has also been an interesting exercise in diplomacy. As our route’s been close to the Argentinian border, we’ve passed through two carabinero checkpoints and a border patrol station. Carabineros are serious folks, and seemingly quite unused to hikers. There’s much officialdom, intense scrutiny of passports, and lots of questions about our route, equipment, training and motives. Above all, we’re not to cross into Argentina willy-nilly, as we’re promised hay muchas problemas if we do. All of this is excellent practice for Oliver’s Spanish. Once the interrogation’s through, though, everyone relaxes. In the case of one remote checkpoint on the Polcura River, this meant that suddenly all six of the (we think, rather lonely) carabineros were tripping over themselves to wait on us – the superintendent ordered the officers to fetch us juice, coffee and tea, and fed us homemade soup and bread while we dried our soggy clothes by the woodstove.

Soggy clothes (and an intense appreciation for warm soup and bread), were a product of a Christmas Day full of rain, that turned to huge, squishy snowflakes as the day progressed. Our first rain day on the trail, and it was considerably more miserable than we’d anticipated. Happily, the carabineros promised that midsummer snows are rare – we hope they’re right.

The next stretch, from Trapa Trapa to Lonquimay, promises greener trails yet – we’re excited to see what’s to come.

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