Floating Through Nothern Chile

Linda Zespy

Copyright 2002 by Linda Zespy

Photo of Linda.
Photo of Linda.

The day I arrived in Pucon, a small town in Chile, it was gray and rainy. The rain soaked my backpack and pooled on my eyelashes.

I turned the doorknob into Hostel Ecole! and stepped into a sitting room with overstuffed sofa cushions, a cozy wood-burning stove, and soft jazz music playing. Travelers browsed through shelves set up for book swapping. I checked in, picked out a book, and sat down for awhile.

I looked up when a young, blonde Chileno crouched beside me. Juan looks like a surfer with dark skin and blonde curls. He has that way of talking that some Latin men seem to learn early in life - he talks quietly, as if he's kissing each word that leaves his mouth.

"Hi, my name is Juan. Would you like to go into Villarica Park on a mountain biking trip?"

Hostel Ecole! also functions as a sort of informal tour agency. A dry-erase board lists different activity options ("Sign up here to go to the hot springs at 6 p.m. tonight" or "Sign up here to hike to the top of the volcano.") Juan was on a break from college and looking to start a business doing what he loves - guiding mountain bike trips.

There were a dozen activities I wanted to do in Pucon, but I knew the bike trip combined several of them. I started firing off questions: Would we have a chance to swim in the natural hot springs all around the area? Would we see the famous araucaria trees? Would our route pass waterfalls? Glaciers? What kind of bikes? How many miles? Most important, did the bikes have gel seats?

We would do all those things, but we would bike some of the roughest terrain I've ever biked and cover nearly 50 kilometers in the two-day trip.

Two Brits and I signed up, and the next morning we climbed in a van and drove together to the trailhead.

When we got there, Juan raced around adjusting the bikes and securing our loads. Then he took out a thick red string and tied it around his forehead. "I ride like Tarzan," he said to me, conspiratorally, and grabbed his handlebars, already full of joy at the thought of a long ride in the sunny park. "Let's roll." We took off.

Fifteen uphill kilometers later, we were soaked with sweat. Pockets of sand, mud, and simple exhaustion had forced all of us except Juan to walk the bikes at some point. During the toughest parts, he sang - songs ranging from Bon Jovi to Louis Armstrong - as he panted and pedaled furiously.

We were rewarded for our efforts by stunning views and the chance to see hundreds of the famous "monkey puzzle" trees.

Araucaria trees can live for thousands of years. Their branches are covered with evergreen-like needles and they jut out from the honeycomb-patterned trunk like a candleabra gone awry. The funny angles would make the tree difficult for a monkey to climb, hence the nickname. The tree nearly died out when Chile over-harvested its wood. Thanks to strict government regulations, the species is now recovering nicely. We found shin-high baby trees and trees that were thousands of years old.

"Just think," Juan said as we peered into the sun, trying to see the top of one of them. "When Jesus was born, some of these trees were already a thousand years old."

Then he launched into a rendition of Elvis Presley's Blue Suede Shoes and took off again down the path.

It's easy to feel virtuous when you work hard for your views of nature but it's also easy to feel jealous when you see an easier way of doing things. We heard the roar behind us just before the motocross bikes appeared. The drivers were dressed in the same neon, multi-colored gear they wear in the U.S.

"Hey, Chile is into motocross?" I asked Juan. "Do you have a motocross bike?"

He looked thoughtful for a moment. "I did when I was a kid, but now, only non-motorized sports for me."

There is a growing environmental movement in Pucon, mostly among the young. They have made impressive strides toward preserving the beautiful natural areas around Pucon. The profits from Hostel Ecole!, for example, go to environmental projects in the area.

That's part of the reason why Hostel Ecole! attracts such an interesting mix of environmentalists, adventure enthusiasts, and longterm travelers.

Many in the budget traveler crowd believe hanging out with other gringos cheapens the travel experience. I don't quite agree. I love being immersed in the daily life of one country while spending meal times at a table of nations. Hostels are the perfect place for it - you are welcomed at almost any table you want to join.

Or sometimes it's your bunkmates that become your buddies. I found Tim, the sandy-blonde South African climber, snoozing in a bunk bed in the girls' dorm room - the hostel had run out of space on the men's side.

We spent hours talking, each conversation like a fine meal, about the politics and culture of the countries we had lived in and visited. We discovered that we were both headed to the capital city of Santiago next and decided to hook up there.

When Santiago turned out to be a polluted, crowded city where people bump you on the street without even so much as a backward glance, it was the conversation that made the area enjoyable anyway.

Tim is also an accomplished paraglider and invited me to go paragliding at a school he found on the edge of Santiago.

"Years ago, when I started paragliding," he told me in the car on the way to the school, "I was doing it every weekend. My girlfriend sat me down for a talk. She told me it was her or the paragliding."

"So what did you do?"

He paused for a second and smiled. "Well, I cut down on the paragliding."

Paragliding, as the name implies, is a combination of hang-gliding (where you run off the edge of a cliff holding onto a triangular glider, put your legs in a harness behind you, Superman style, and float down to the earth like a paper airplane) and parasailing (where you sit in a small seat attached to an oval-shaped glider and let a motorboat pull you into the air.)

When we arrived at the school, students crowded in the landing field, testing their gliders to get a feel for that day's wind conditions. I watched Tim lay out a neon green glider, shaped like a large upside-down canoe, attach himself to it with a harness, then lay out the myriad of strings that control it. He arranged the strings in specific positions in his palms. Then, he yanked the fabric partially into the air.

The wind caught it, and he maneuvered it upward until it sailed above our heads. Then, with one deft move, he yanked it back out of the skies again.

"Do you want to try it?" he said. "It's just like flying a kite."

I stood in front of him, taking all the strings except the ones called the brakes - Tim kept hold on those.

Hmm. Like flying a kite. Maybe if I were Paul Bunyan. Up close, I can see that the fabric could cover a small house. I realized why Tim was holding the brakes - this thing could easily lift me in the air.

The wind caught the glider, and with a whoosh, the whole thing yanked upward. I tried vainly to control it, yanking on the various strings, but together, we danced around the field, following where the wind pulled us. Finally, just before I crashed us into a fence, Tim pulled the brakes.

Just then, the instructor called out. It was time for me to board the truck that would drive us up a hill to the take-off point on the edge of the cliff. I would ride tandem with the instructor. Tim was given his own glider and would take his ride a little later.

We arrived at the top, heaved our backpacks out of the truck, and started to set up. The instructor had been silent most of the day, and now he grunted through the series of checks to make sure the equipment was rigged safely. We were ready to go.

"Now," he said to me in bored, accented English. "When I move, you move with me."

Seems obvious, I thought. I don't really have a choice since I'm strapped to your back.

"Don't try to fight it if you get scared. You must step where I step until the wind lifts us."

"Also," he continued, "about 30% of people get sick when they paraglide."

This was new information. I looked over the edge and felt the wind gust into my face.

"Don't feel bad if it happens to you. Just tell me ahead of time so I can be the other way and...and...what is the English word...I want to be..."

"Upwind?" I offered, dryly.

"Yes, yes, that is it," he replied. "Now let's go."

He fastened the final clasp and we waited for the wind.

It came in a long gust and pulled the billowing fabric up without quite pulling us off the ground. We danced on our toes awkwardly, getting closer and closer to the edge. A few feet from the cliff, the wind inflated the glider into a fat arc and we were airborne.

We careened low, skimming the trees for a few minutes, looking for what I'd heard Tim refer to, with a dreamy sound in his voice, "the thermals."

These are the pockets of wind that lift you higher into the air. The more thermals you catch, the higher you fly and the longer you can stay airborne. It's a curious sensation - although you're gaining altitude, it feels in your stomach like the drop of a rollercoaster.

Behind us, other paragliders took off. Soon the blue sky was filled with airborne marionettes manipulating their gliders' strings in time with the music of the wind. The bright fabric billowed over the tops of their small, dark bodies. As they passed each other, they'd silently wave their feet back and forth in the paraglider's version of hello.

I was beginning to question whether Tim had made the right choice between the gliding and the girlfriend. With equipment so light and compact it can fit into a backpack, we were now creatures of flight. We would be able to glide silently beside the soaring birds for as long as the wind, and the instructor's skills, could carry us.

Ahead of us lay the mountains and the skyline of Santiago. The mountains were beautiful but, from this height, the enjoyable parts of the city--the colonial architecture, stylish city dwellers, and the incredible Chilean wine and ice cream shops on every corner - weren't visible. All I could see was the haze of pollution bearing down on the city. Santiago has one of the worst air pollution problems in South America.

About a half hour into the ride, the instructor's mood was picking up. He stopped looking at me strangely every time I yelled and waved at the birds flying next to us.

"OK," he said, excited. "Now, we go into the spiral. It is a pleasant sensation. Do you want to try it?"

"Well, not so much," I said. I was happy just waving at the birds. Plus, we had just hit a number of thermals in a row, lifting us to a dizzying height. I could see the landing field below us and it looked like a postage stamp. I was just a little nauseous. A spiral didn't sound like a good idea.

Maybe he didn't hear me.

"Here we go," he said, and yanked hard at one side of the glider. We started to skydive, spinning in tight circles. The wind roared in my ears. I closed my eyes to try to fight the vertigo.

"Stand!" he said frantically, "Stand!" All of the sudden, the ground was beneath my feet.

Tim walked toward us smiling. "How was it?" he asked.

I would have answered him but I was still spinning. Or maybe he was. At any rate, I aimed for a chair and dragged my shaky legs toward it.

From now on, I'll stick to the bike. And I'll pay extra to go only downhill.

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Another story by Linda--The Winds Of Patagonia

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