No Van, New Plan // Chile

Vanlife has us spoiled: when we want to go, we go, when we see something nice, we stop and see it, if we meet someone who tells us some new bit of information, we are free to follow it.  We like this gypsy life we lead, so even since the van was in the shop, we saw no need to sit and twiddle our thumbs as the piston got sorted.  In the past 28 months on the road, our family that has grown from three to four has spent plenty of time living in greasy & grimey workshops as the van gets repaired, but not this time. This time would be different, this time we unloaded our backpacking gear from the storage box up top, filled our packs with a careful selection of goods (that didn’t weigh too much) to get our family through what adventures that would lie ahead, and grabbed the local bus to resort town Pucón. Arriving in Pucón, it is as good looking in real life as it appears on the front of the postcards it adorns.  Volcan Villarica, silently smoking, lords over the crystalline Lake Villarica.  Boats bob in the harbor and the promenades are filled with smiling tourists trying precariously to balance gelato in one hand and a camera in the other. Near the edge of the lake, we settled into a campground with a beautiful stream running through it.  Only having just melted, the icy waters left our feet red from cold but refreshed our perspective. Colette views the tent as an exhilarating diversion from normal life in the van.  “This is the first time Sierra has ever been in our orange tent” big sister Colette announced.  (Colette’s first camping trip in a tent was at 18days old) She proudly notes each of her little sister’s accomplishments, “This is the first time she… She has never done that before…”  and so on. Life as four is certainly more time consuming and chaotic.  We used to pride ourselves on being able to go rather quickly, but not now.  Now is an altogether different story… now we have a diaper to check and change, four sets of teeth to brush, hair to untangle, mouths to feed, dishes to wash and outfits to negotiate all before we go anywhere. But we do it, we make it out sooner, well, later if the truth be told, and the chaos in between is sometimes not so pretty.At a busy café on a bustling corner, we indulged in their selection of baked goodies.  The one on the left was particularly noteworthy- a ricotta and fresh raspberry filled croissant.  Men in spandex paraded around town, preparing for the Ironman Triathalon set for a few days out; they ordered espresso and salads, but no baked goods- that was their loss.After a day of eating out and staring at our phones sharing our life with our Instagram community and skyping with family, our van woes were set to a better equilibrium and we were ready to venture out again, so we headed out on a bus to Huerquehue National Park.  It is such a difference having to plan ahead when traveling this way- kudos to all you traveling families that do so by public transport.

Our plan was to backpack into the National Park and spend our first overnight as a family of four in the back-country, but as we disembarked the bus, we met a friendly Canadian who ran Camping Olga with his wife and mother-in-law, Olga.  He convinced us the hike on the long trail would be too much for Coco and she would much prefer the trampoline he had at his lakefront campground.  A bit off guard with our heavy backpacks, we hopped in the truck to the campground, then set up base camp before we hiked into the park for the day. At the entrance, we purchased a year-long family pass for Conaf, the Chilean National Parks system.  As a foreign family, this will balance itself in 3 park visits- an investment that will surely pay for itself many times over. It wasn’t too long until we were hiking in the warm sunlight of Chilean summer in the lakes district. This rainbow hued lizard is simply called lagartija, little lizard or scientifically named Liolaemus tenuis.  Although it is listed as endemic to Chile, we personally encountered many on the Peninsula Valdes in Argentina, so their territory seems to have spread.
Adam carried the pack with camera, food, water, and layers, Emily got to carry this smiling package.  On the trail, we are three hikers and one, sweet little hitchhiker. The importance of spending time in nature cannot be understated.  In a city, straight lines and opaque structures fill your view.  Your brain fills in the gaps “oh, yes, a cement road, I know what that looks like.” A triangular roof requires little investigation.  You cannot see through a building, so the eye stops on the first surface it encounters.  In nature, layers move, the eye searches.  You are required to search deeper to discover the treasures hidden in the green folds.  A walk on a trail requires the hiker to be aware of the earth below the foot.  There may be roots or a caterpillar to avoid.  As the eye looks up and down in synchronicity, taking it all in, there is a kind of meditation that comes from the simple observances of a branch blowing in the distance or the peripheral blur of a bird taking flight.  It both calms the soul and awakens the spirit.A reference factor is required to see how grand things are in the forest.Colette hiked up and up and up.  She whined “It’s too hard, I’m tired, I’m hungry, I want to lay down and take a nap.”
“It’s ok Coco, there is always a hard part in a hike, is this your hard part?” Slowly dispensing raw almonds along the trail, we encouraged her up the steep incline that wound upwards in a series of serpentine twists.The forest understory was filled with marigold colored freesia which ran along the trail, filling the air with sweet notes, that balanced the woody aroma of decomposing trees.  We emerged from the cool cover of the forest at the top of the Sendero Los Lagos taking in the scenery like a long drink of water.  Actually we took a long drink of water and looked at the scenery. The trail followed the shores of Lago Verde, and mixed in among the evergreen beeches arose the silhouettes of the famed araucaria trees.  A living fossil of prehistoric times, these iconic trees are considered endangered due to their declining numbers.In 1911 at the age of 73 John Muir traveled to this part of Chile to see the Araucaria trees. He died 3 years later upon his return to the U.S.

“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”  -John Muir Last year, right before Sierra was born, when we were living in Brazil in a little cabin on the beach, Colette spilled her bubbles onto Adam’s laptop frying the motherboard.  But we still let her play with them, because we love her and she really loves bubbles.  She licks her lips & blows bubbles very carefully with the diligence of a magician creating a great feat, delighting every time one comes out.  Floating in the wind, she chases them, jumping to catch them as they rise higher on thermal drafts, or squalks as they are popped on an errant twig. Lunch on Lago Toro was membrillo and peanut butter sandwiches- simple but satisfying trail food. After lunch, the weirdest thing happened… it started raining kids!  They were giggling and falling from the sky, strange but true. Although we probably didn’t need to, we pumped water through our Katadyn filter- better safe than sorry when we don’t know if a source is safe.We now know that our trail time is about double whatever it is listed as: a 4 hour trail takes us about 7 hours.  There is no powering through a day, there is slow investigations and frequent breaks. This is a fallen branch of the araucaria, also called the monkey puzzle tree- truly a strange and amazing conifer, which is a relative of the Cook Pine, for those of you familiar with this tree occurring in Hawaii.  Preferring volcanic soil above 3,500 feet, the Mapuche people call the tree pehuén, and call themselves Pehuenches (“people of the pehuén“), harvesting the seeds for food and revering the tree as sacred.  The trees take 25-30 years to reach maturity, but can live up to 1,000! Sierra is right at home in the mountains, no surprise there! Descending the mountain, we took a side detour to view the waterfall that Lago Verde created when emptying out! Taking in the scenery- this little champion hiked 8 miles, without being picked up. Back at camp on the shores of Tinquilco Lake, Sierra was more impressed with the feeling of sand in her hand than the sunset. (And much slower to try and taste it than Coco was when she was little.) In the morning light, we packed up & checked out the lower reaches of the Quinchol River waterfall we had seen the source of just the day before.The trail led along the Tinquilco Lake back to the ranger station, we hopped on the bus and headed back to Pucón.  Back at Camping El Pozo, we enjoyed a calm afternoon in the warn sun and Sierra delighted us with her arches and backwards crawling.  She will be on the move soon, watch out! Coco said she wanted to take a bath, so she stripped herself down, filled a pot in the river (brrr!) and dipped her head in, ha!  Love this girl.  Glad to see we have instilled a can-do mentality in this precocious one. When we find places serving local, organic and vegetarian food, we are happy to spend our money for a nice meal out.  The zoomed in version makes life seem so calm, but zoom out & you see the real life happening… Colette eyeing the food like a crazy person, Sierra throwing herself onto the table, Emily trying to wrangle them and Adam taking the shot.  !If you get a chance, head to Ecole and enjoy!  Arriving off the dusty bus ride on a warm afternoon at Los Pozones Hot Springs, we all eagerly changed into our bathing suits & made our way into the water with smiles splitting out faces. After warming up in a hot pool for a bit, we headed over to the rushing Liucura River for the good cold shock.  Hot, cold, repeat. Colette loved the warmer than tepid pool & made amazing progress on her swimming, holding her breath underwater, kicking and paddling for up to 12 or so feet.  When we get a couple consecutive days in a pool, this kid will have it down in no time!  And Sierra- well Sierra came out loving water, so she is just as peaceful as a morning dove in any water. Having two kids is certainly more work than one, but there is nothing better than seeing these two stare adoringly at each other.  Siblings are important in a way no other friend can be, and we are so happy to watch their friendship grow.Early on a Saturday morning, when most others in Pucon were preparing for Ironman, Adam set off at the crack of dawn for a climb on the smoking peak of Volcan Villarica.Being a big day in town, most other visitors were off the mountain, which meant it was a small group Adam went with, that then got much smaller when the Brazilian family opted to take the chairlift partway up the mountain.  Adam, being a purist of sorts, opted to climb the whole thing on his own.  That meant it was a guide & Adam- sweet! Crampons on, ice ax in hand, the climb up to the summit was a 45 degree climb.  After the chair lift met back up with the trail, there were many more climbers huffing their way to the peak. Adam, stoked to make it to the top, still dreams of bigger, wilder climbs.  Since he was a kid, he has dreamed of mountaineering.  He hopes to learn the basics of mountaineering in the next year.  Do you have a dream you have fostered since you were young? A dream that you have secretly had and not taken the steps to build? Well, this life is the only one you are guaranteed, so set your dreams in motion.

On top of Volcan Villarica another climber peers into the caldera of the active volcano, which spews unbearable poisonous fumes.  The smoke was noxious, burning both your eyes and throat.A group of Israeli’s came prepared with their flag. We checked our inbox & the motor was done!  We packed up our bags, thanked Pucon for all the beauty & fun, then headed back to Temuco.  After shelling out more money than would like to discuss (but no more than they quoted) our piston was repaired and we were once again, back to life on the road according to our own schedule.  Temuco is a bustling city, the kind of place where you check things off your to-do list.  After confirming our motor was indeed back in working order, we headed to the bulk-bins and stocked up on so many sundries Adam asked if we needed a trailer to pull it all in.  Organic quinoa, brown rice, nori, and more dried fruits, veggies and nuts than a squirrel’s wettest dreams were hauled out to the van.

Finding propane on the road that we can fill into our fixed U.S. tank is a major challenge.  Many other overlanders we have met simply remove the adapter and screw on a local adapter to the pipe.  Ours, however, is stripped and will NOT come off.  Adam has heated it, lubed it and talked sweet nothings to it, but the darn thing won’t budge.  So, we were thrilled to find this propane filling station with the adapter all set up.  We have since learned that on iOverlander there is a filter where you can search for propane.  Next time! By the time we checked off our list of chores and departed, it was late in the day and the sun was falling into the warm glow of summers night. We wild camped along a river near the entrance to Conguillio National Park, and awoke to a glorious bright blue day. So thankful to have our van back, we celebrated with whole-wheat banana walnut pancakes and a slow morning at camp before we set off into the park . The sedimentary layers at the entrance set the stage- we knew we would encounter some dramatic layers into the past.  Considering it is a UNESCO world biosphere, we figured the good folks there knew what they were preserving. Volcan Llaima is one of Chile’s largest and most active volcano’s- and in the land of volcanic peaks that is saying a lot.  With documented activity since the 17th century, the most recent (large) eruption was on New Years Day 2008 when a plume of smoke nearly 10,000 feet high was observed.  Yeah, that is nearly 2 miles into the sky, can you imagine?!  Glad we did not have to be evacuated for such a happening.A few islands of greenery remain on the bed of lava, so we drove closer to investigate the effects of this dynamic natural occurrence.  We have property on the Big Island of Hawaii, so we have an affinity for these live monsters. Lago Arcoiris was created many moons ago when Llaima Volcano erupted and dammed up a creek drowning this part of the forest.  The name means Rainbow Lake and seeing the incredible colors that radiated from every angle was easy to see how it earned its name. The colors were so enchanting, we all decided to wetsuit up & go in the cold water for a dip!  Adam and Coco would head in first, while Emily would watch Sierra then get in when Adam got out. Well, the water was FRIGID.  Colette was swimming around giggling “Ooooh, it’s SO cold! It’s freezing! Whooooah!” But she was having so much fun, she stayed in for 5 minutes doggy paddling around!  When she got out, shivering with purple lips, she asked “Mama, why did you let me go in there? It was SO cold!”Adam slowly explored all corners of the drowned forest.  It was on otherworldly experience to swim in this rare place.  When he emerged from the water, he said “Ok, babe, your turn!”
And Emily’s answer was “The hell it is.”
On the north end of the park there are some campgrounds with services, but we much preferred the open expanses and solitary views afforded by this nice site at the edge of (yet another) Lago Verde.  This is perhaps the 700th lago verde we have encountered, and there will no doubt be more, but the great thing is that no two look the same. Adam pulled out his Tenkara Rod & Co setup & tossed it out as the long day came to a slow finish.Adam gave thanks for the rainbow trout at the end of his line. It was many hours later that the last bits of sunlight disappeared from the horizon and the full darkness of night set in.  The stars danced in the cold night air and we pulled out our Petzl headlamp for a little fun.First light warmed the top of the araucaria trees and we prepared for a full day on the trail.See that little bar on the right?  Well, that is the amazing device from GoWesty that allows us to pop the top with all the weight we have stacked up there: 3 surfboards, sand-ladders, and a storage full of stuff.  It is a pop-top lift assist strut kit and it is something we give thanks for every day.  The colors were singing & the clouds drifted in so gracefully; sometimes we rub our own eyes in disbelief at the sights we see!  The moments of serene beauty unfolding, remind us to give thanks for our liberty, that our fragile planet is all we have to call home.  We are but stardust in the universe.There is something irreplaceable about the feeling of morning stillness.  I see why people are “morning people”, there is an energy that is calm and new and full of potential.  We are more of “occasional and with a good reason” kind of morning people, but that counts for something, right?As if we haven’t shared enough names for this one tree, they are also called paraguas (umbrella)– a hyphenation of para (for) and agua (water (but I’m sure you already knew that one)). Like hugging the leg of a dinosaur!We have discovered a few tricks to hiking with Coco- and this is one of our favorites.  It is called “baby elephant stick.”  When we are on a skinny trail or she is walking a bit slower than we’d like- one of us grabs a stick and- as a baby elephant holds onto mommy elephants tail- leads the way.   We don’t have to squish on a single track or walk the speed of a stoner in molasses and best of all- she is thrilled! Before we saw them, we heard these male (the redhead) and female (you guessed it, the less flashy all black one) Magellanic Woodpeckers.  Ranging from 14-18 inches in length, they are the largest woodpeckers in South America and probably the world (since the Imperial woodpecker from the Sonoran desert that was like 20 something inches and the Ivory-billed woodpecker from the US SouthEast are both probably extinct, double boo).  They were quite entertaining to watch as they squalked and chased each other around the tree, called obnoxiously to their friends between turns pecking frantically at the trees.  As we are driving through so many different habitats, we encounter a huge variety of animals and learning about them along the way is as rewarding as the sighting!  Right now, our planet Earth is experiencing a mass extinction crisis of both flora and fauna, as the result of three main human factors- habitat loss, introduction of exotic species and global warming.  In order to preserve what remains, we must learn to tread lighter on our one and only planet.  Extinct is forever.Did you ever have those stickers popular in the late ’80’s filled with a kind of oily jelly?  The ones that you could press and the gel would move and it would change color from blue to green then yellow?   Yeah, those were awesome.  This photo is way more awesome, but evokes that swirly magical feeling I felt as a child.  How rare is it these days that a river can come and go naturally- without being siphoned off, polluted, or blocked?  The male cones of the araucaria aka monkey puzzle, aka monkey tail tree, aka  paragua, aka pehuén, aka Chilean pine.  Whatever you call it, their branches are covered in triangular, tough, scaly leaves that live 10-15 years.Perhaps there never has been, or never will be another lizard quite like this female lagartija.  You see, on the trail, there were SO many huge and annoying biting flies.  Whenever we would walk, it was like: slap- another one, slap- another one, crap- missed that one.  Well as we sat on a bench, we noticed a brave lizard darting to eat our offal.  So, for once, we started to wish the flies would land on us, because we wanted to feed her!  (We know she is a she because her coloring is muted, compared to the bright yellow-green-blue fade the males have.)  Colette, after swatting a fly, cautiously held her hand out & called to her “Come here lizard, I have a fat fly for you!” And to our bewilderment, she came right up and ate the fly out of her hand, about 5 times!    I know, I know- we’re not supposed to pick flowers.  I am sorry, but we picked them for you! (And we don’t pick flower’s that are not in abundance.) The “baby elephant stick” at work as we hiked on the top ridge on the Sierra Nevada Trail.  These tiny succulents were clinging to an exposed crest that is surely covered in deep snow come winter, but in the full swing of summer, they burst with violet flowers.  We have never seen a succulent, that looked like a jade relative, with so many blooms!    The day prior, Colette had seen the snow on the mountain and excitedly exclaimed “I want to hike to the snow so I can make a snowball!”  After a couple hours on the trail she had lost her steam, but seeing the snow so close she was recharged “Ooh, it is so close! I CAN NOT wait!”  Hiking on the snow is slippery business, so Papa Adam showed Coco how to kick in some snow steps.  A snowball fight ensued, with high octave giggles ringing across the valley.  “Ooh, this is the first time I have made a snowball!  The snow is so sparkly and shiny like my glittery nail polish!”In one remaining patches of snow, a small ice cave formed at the entrance a tributary flowed.   “This makes my cheeks cold & refreshing!”Sierra had a little exploration on the snow too!Indeed, it was the Sierra viewpoint!Emily is wild for wild flowers!Beyond us, the mountains continued in the distance, linking up to the Sendero de Chile– the longest trail in the world!  The natural, cultural, ethnic, and scenic variety of Chile are linked through over 5,000 miles of trail.   
We had reached the end of the trail but peeked around the corner of a hill and we saw this beautiful ice bridge.  You never know what lies around the next corner, sometimes it pays off to search just a little higher.      Thankful for the splendor of the day, the week, the month, the year, our lives, this world- we raised our youngest to the sky and watched her giggle at the sight of it all.