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Escape to Alcatraz

More lessons on how to be Chilean -

Step 6: LOVE RECEIPTS. The Chileans live for receipts, handing them out on every possible occasion. Multiple handwritten receipts are handed out for absolutely everything down here - when you buy a drink in a bar, when you buy a pack of gum, even when you use a public toilet. However, seeing as the public toilets rarely have toilet paper, it makes you wonder what the receipts are REALLY for.

After finishing my trip through Torres Del Paine, I hung around in the southern city of Punta Arenas for a few days, where it stopped blizzarding just long enough to get global coverage for having an ozone hole over it so large that people were not supposed to go outside at all. For 2 days. The town is very pretty though, located right on the Magellan Straight and surrounded in all directions by penguin colonies. I spent a fun 3 days there before heading to the city of Pucon.

Step 7 on How to be Chilean, and this one is key: DO NOT LET ME IN TO/ OUT OF/ DO ANYTHING IN PUCON. My flight from Punta Arenas back to Santiago landed halfway along the route, in Puerto Montt, much closer to Pucon than Santiago. I asked at the airport if it would be possible just to get out in Puerto Montt instead. They told me it wasn't. I tried to explain the logic of letting me out as I would effectively be paying too much for the flight and they could also re-sell my seat but they weren't having any of it. Then they gave me a receipt.

I ended up flying back north to Santiago and heading immediately to the bus depot to catch a bus 12 hours back south to Pucon. The bus left at 9:45 pm from gate 38, so I hung around the depot for a couple of hours and waited. 9:45, no bus. 9:50, still nothing. 9:55, nope. 10:00, a bus! But not my one. I went to the ticket office and asked where my bus was.

"My ticket says 9:45, gate 38," I said.

"Yes, gate 38," said the man behind the counter, "between gate 38 and 49."

It turns out that gate numbers here are only random approximations of where the bus would arrive and it seemed that my bus had already arrived and left. At least it did so on time, so I couldn't fault the company for that. They refunded my money, I bought a different ticket, spent two more hours in the depot and finally made it down here to Pucon.

Pucon is a mecca of outdoor activities and I was here specifically to climb the narby volcano and raft on the wild, upper part of the Trancura river. I got in on a Tuesday, went into a local tour agency and asked about doing both before I left on Friday.

"Can I climb the volcano tomorrow?" I asked.

"No, the volcano is closed," I was told.

"Oh. Can I raft the upper river then?" I ventured hopefully.

"No, just the lower, more boring part," the agent replied disappointedly.

"Hmm. Can I ski the mountain near here then?" I was losing hope.

"Yes," she answered with a big smile, "It is open on Saturday!"

I sighed heavily and left the agency. I figured on heading out of town but now I couldn't get out - a massive transport strike had just started all through Chile and noone could go anywhere by bus. Some people tried to rent a car but couldn't get any gas because the trucks couldn't bring it into town via the highway. I was trapped in a isolated town filled with grumpy people desperately trying to get out and make flights or boat connections and failing badly.

I spent the next two days trying to figure out what to do in here. Luckily, Pucon has tonnes of things to do in the nearby area so I spent one night at some hot springs and spent the next day doing a 50-km absolutely ass-breaking bike ride to some nearby waterfalls. In retrospect, I think I should have done those two activities the other way around.

Then, yesterday, I heard of one trip hiking up to the top of the volcano and jumped at the opportunity to go. I went in and asked about it at the agency, as I had heard we weren't allowed up the volcano. "This trip isn't *REALLY* illegal," the guide told me and I was instantly sold. It turns out that the volcano is closed because it is active and there has been so much volcanic activity recently the town is seriously concerned about an eruption in the next couple of days.

They say the difference between Bravery and Stupidity is timing*, so I figured "What the hell" and signed up as a little molten rock never hurt anyone.

(*=this, from the a guy who hasn't worn a watch in 5 months)

I spent the day climbing the mountain with a guide and 6 equally fearless/stupid travelers, hiking trough ice and deep snow, past volcanic rocks that had been belched out of the top earlier that day, and made it to the smoking summit, looking down into a massive crater of magma. Incredible. We were there for approximately 2 minutes when our guide smiled nervously and told us that we really, really had to go. We trusted him and didn't trust the volcano so we left.

The way down was amazing - the volcano is covered with deep, hard packed snow so we just ran down the mountain a few steps, jumped, and slid on our backs 1500 metrtes down the volcano in 100-200 metres bursts. There were bodies flying everywhere, especially into each other, as we soaked our bodies in snow and wiped out in all directions. Hilarious and fantastic and much easier than climbing up.

Got some drinks last night with my group and am going rafting today, on the lower, boring part. I figure my hangover will compensate in the danger/excitement factor of the ride.

And the strike has been lifted so now I can get out of this fun and beautiful place. Hurrah!