Besides amazing hikes, Bariloche also has a popular bike route called Circuito Chico – a 27km loop through Llao Llao National Park. The park boasts many hills and lakes with spectacular mountain backdrops, so it’s a beautiful place to bike, though also not the easiest. At first, I was going to pass on the bike ride. But I got somewhat peer pressured into it after seeing how many people were doing it, and I also found an excellent partner to go with at the hostel. Well, why not? I was up for the challenge!
The starting point is a roundabout that marks the beginning of the loop. In this prime location is Circuito Chico Mountain Bike, a company that basically has a monopoly on bike rentals for the circuit. They played their cards well, man.
It costs 500 pesos ($27.90) for an ordinary mountain bike with 24 gears and 600 pesos ($33.45) for a fancier one with more functions, including 5 extra gears. Given that I’ve only used bikes with 5 gears total up to this point, I went with the less fancy option. All bikes came with a helmet, a lock and key, and a small air pump in case of a flat.
First, we got a debrief of the path. Going counterclockwise is recommended, since it results in fewer uphill stretches. On average, the circuit takes about 4 hours, with two optional detours, one to Colonia Suiza and one to Villa Tacul, which would each add an hour to the total time.
After that, we signed the forms, paid the fee, and picked out our bikes. In the back of the rental location is a small dirt track that you can ride around to make sure that the bike size and seat height are appropriate:
And we were off! Right away, the views were stunning:
3km in, we passed a bridge that also had paths down to the beach. A sparkling blue beach, more beautiful than most ocean beaches – but also far more cold.
The first long uphill started shortly after that, for which I was woefully unprepared. Having never really shifted gears on my bike before (read: having never really biked before), I was unsure of which way to shift when going uphill but figured that out fairly quickly. What took me a lot longer to figure out was that you have to shift the gears early and allow enough room to pedal a few times for the gear to completely shift, otherwise the bike doesn’t listen to you at all. Thankfully there were viewpoints along the way that served as convenient excuses to stop. But even then, I did a fair bit of pushing the bike uphill.
The view at the top of the hill was worth it though. From the official panoramic point:
About 1km further down, we arrived at the Patagonia Brewery. I had heard people at my hostel talking about this brewery over the past couple of days, so we stopped by to take a look (not for a beer, since it was 11:30am and we still had 21km left). The brewery was closed, but thankfully we could still go inside to take in the view. And what a view!
It was difficult to leave the brewery, but soon we were on the road again. By around 12:30, we arrived at the starting point for one of the side trips, Villa Tacul. There was a dirt road that led down to the beach for beautiful views, and we found a private beach to have lunch on. Score! Well, semi-private, since we soon had company. But still a beautiful and quiet spot.
12km go to to the end, which blew by like a breeze, to my great surprise. Within 45 minutes, we had biked all the way to the roundabout, when I thought we were only half of the way back. Maybe I had just finally gotten used to the bike? In any case, I always like it when things turn out to be much easier than I thought!
Ultimately, I’m glad I did the bike ride because it was a great way to see different sides of Llao Llao National Park. I also got to pass by the panoramic view point and Patagonia Brewery as well, which I might not have done otherwise unless I specifically made a trip there. It was a nice added bonus that it turned out to be less difficult than I thought!
The hike to Refugio Frey is one of the top things to do in Bariloche, so I did it as soon as I arrived because the weather was best for the first couple of days. The night beforehand, some fellow travelers at the hostel who had just completed the hike complained about it being long (22km) and hot, with annoying biting flies along the way…a little off putting, but I still had to see for myself!
The hike starts at the Catedral ski area, one of the most popular ski areas in South America. However, in the summer, it’s completely dead, so don’t expect much. No place to recharge your Sube card (which you use to pay for all public transportation), no open ATMs, and no open shops except for a single kiosk that shut its doors at 6:30. There is, however, a lift that is open if you want to take it up to see the view. Some people I ran into before highly recommended taking the lift, but it’s a separate path from Refugio Frey, so I passed on it this time.
Because it’s such a popular hike, there are always people going and I found a group from my hostel to go together. We took the hourly 55 bus up to Catedral, the last stop.
When we first got there, it wasn’t really clear where to go. We wandered into the village with all the closed shops until one of the locals pointed us in the right direction, towards the other end of the parking lot. There, we found confirmation for Refugio Frey:
The hike starts out fairly flat, circumventing the mountain. We crossed many little wooden bridges along the way, and were treated to beautiful panoramic views:
It’s a dusty dirt road, so prepare for all of your clothes and belongings to be dyed the same light brown at the end. And those horse flies: they’re a constant nuisance! They’re triple the size of ordinary flies and they bite even through clothing, which sends a sharp little stab of pain. We probably expended almost as much energy dancing to chase the flies away as we did actually hiking.
About two hours in, we arrived at a cabin that was literally built under a rock, Refugio Petricek. At this point, we saw signs saying that we were an hour away from the top. It didn’t feel like we had gone that far yet, but I’ll take anything in my favor!
Unfortunately, this is also when the uphill trudge started. It thankfully didn’t last long, though, and occasionally when the trees cleared, we were also treated to a great view:
Pretty soon, we could see the roof of the refugio in the distance. However, there was one last obstacle left: a river crossing. There are just enough stones that you might make the crossing without getting your shoes wet, but not quite enough for you to be confident that you won’t fall face first into the river. Thankfully there is a rope to hang onto, but it’s high up for us short folk and it’s not the sturdiest hand hold in the world. To be safe, I took my shoes off when i first crossed, but on the way back, I took a risk – and actually made it!
Almost directly on the other side of the river is the refugio:
Visitors are asked to check in, and you can also buy some food and snacks here if you need it.
The view from the refugio is amazing, an icy lagoon surrounded by tall, jagged peaks.
After about an hour of eating lunch and relaxing by the lagoon, we made our way back down. The first downhill portion went by extremely quickly, but the flat area was seemingly never-ending. The last hour especially was hard on the feet, so I was extremely relieved to be sitting on the bus.
The hike was a bit tougher than I anticipated, maybe because I was influenced by the people complaining about it the night before in my hostel and maybe also because I was coming down with a cold. Yeah…let’s say it was that last one. In any case, I have a lot more hiking coming up as I go further down south into Patagonia, so this was just a warm up for me to get into shape!
When I first got to Chiloé, the kind host at my hostel explained all of the places to see and activities to do in Chiloé, which was super helpful because I hadn’t done much research beforehand. To my delight, one of the top things to do inChiloé is to see penguins out on the north West Coast of the island. Yes please!
There are two options to go see the penguins: one is to book a tour beforehand, which includes transportation to the beach as well as a guided boat ride for a closer look at the penguins. The second is to take the public bus out to the beach and find a guided boat ride amongst the many companies there. The do-it-yourself approach runs to 11,000 pesos, or $17.70 (even less if you haggle for the tour and hitchhike back, like some of my more hardcore roommates at the hostel). Versus a minimum of 15,000 pesos ($24.15) minimum for the tour, and up to 20,000 pesos ($32.20) if you want it in English. I was tempted to book the tour and simply pay a convenience fee of 4,000 pesos, but couldn’t justify more than that… so I ended up taking the bus instead.
For something that is apparently so popular, getting to the penguins isn’t as easy as I expected. Thankfully the host of the hostel gave me the bus schedule and instructions, because I couldn’t find any specific information online. There was only one bus making one trip a day, leaving from Terminal Rurales at noon (1pm on weekends) and returning at around 5:30pm.
I made my way to Terminal Rural, which can only be described as a warehouse filled with buses to all of the smaller ares of the island (makes sense why the station is called Rural, I guess). The bus that I wanted went to Puñihuil and costed 2000 pesos ($3.22).
A little less than an hour later, we arrived at the Puñihuil bus stop. More accurately, the bus drove off of the road and right onto the beach, where we got out and took in the beautiful sight of a sandy black beach dotted with small green islands.
As expected, there were many companies offering tours, but I had gotten a recommendation the previous day from fellow travelers at the hostel who had found a company with guides that spoke English. So along with two of the only fellow English speakers on the bus, we headed for Turismo Huaihuen.
For 7000 pesos, or $11.30, (I tried the haggling thing, and it didn’t work), we bought the half hour boat tour in English. We had just arrived at the same time as a bus-full of middle school aged children, though, so we were all put on a boat together.
Our English-speaking guide doubled as the Spanish guide as well, he just simply repeated what he said in English. Or forgot to, until I asked him about the couple of Spanish words I picked up from his most recent explanation.
To get on and off the boat, the companies use a very unconventional method: they load the passengers on what is basically an elevated cart, and workers push the cart out into the water to where the boat is waiting. I guess in the absence of a dock, this is not a bad option!
We zoomed out to the small islands, where the penguins were hanging out close to the shore. The boat floated about 5 meters away, in perfect range for my telephoto lens.
A couple of penguin facts:
We saw two types of penguins, the Humboldt and the Magellanic. They look very similar because they come from the same family and can even intermix, but you can tell them apart because the Humboldt has one stripe and is more grayish in color, whereas the Magellanic has two stripes and is more black.
The penguins start reproducing at about 4 years old, and can live for more than 20-25 years.
The penguins supposedly have one mate for life, but if that mate happens to not make it’s way back, the egg’s gotta be fertilized, man. So the penguin is not so choosy about its replacement mate at that point, and a lot of hybrid penguins might result.
From one study where they put a GPS on a Magellanic penguin, they found that it dove underwater for 3 minutes to a depth of 100 meters. 1.5 minutes to make its way down, 25 seconds to swim and catch a fish, and another minute to resurface.
Occasionally a penguin would jump in the water, but it would need to contemplate it first:
Along with the penguins, we also saw all kinds of other wildlife!
The Cormorans, who can both dive to a depth of 25 meters and fly.
The flightless steamer duck, which is the largest duck in South America. From a distance, it looked like it was at least 2-3 times the size of a normal duck.
This area is definitely teeming with wildlife. When we went to the souvenir shop afterward, the guide showed us wildlife pictures that he took himself, of whales and various birds and otters. Unfortunately, the otters all died out a couple of years ago because a local salmon factory dumped a lot of waste in the area, which raised the toxins in all of the shellfish and poisoned the otters, who rely on shellfish as their main food source. Hopefully the rest of the wildlife (especially the penguins) are safe and being protected somehow.
The boat tour ended much too quickly, and suddenly my new companions and I found ourselves back on the beach at 2pm, with no transport back until 5:30. I could see why some other people hitchhiked, because it was pretty chilly on the beach! We walked around a bit, and then went inside a restaurant to eat and wait for the bus.
At 5pm we went back out to the beach, since we didn’t want to miss our one and only chance to get back to Ancud. We weren’t so sure that this bus was going to come, but thankfully other people arrived to wait with us. There was also a man with a walky talky assuring us “5 minutes” every 5 minutes, so we were somewhat less worried.
The walky talky man pointed at the other end of the beach and said that the bus would come from that direction. But from where…? We had hiked out to the far end, where it just turned into rocks, and there were no roads going up inland from the beach except for the one we came on, which we were standing at. But lo and behold, a little past 5:30, the bus out of nowhere towards us on the beach. I wonder if it just parked here somewhere and waited? If that was the case, it could have left earlier. Just saying.
It was a long day with surprisingly few tourists, but a worthy one! The couple that I talked to had seen the penguins on Magdalena Island, but they also agreed that it was a worthy trip. Here, you can see the penguins in a completely different and unexpected environment, among a lot of other wild birds. The public transport options aren’t great (read: there are none), but I’m also just glad that there was public transport!
I booked a week in Chiloé, an island off of the lake region of Chile, and was concerned that it might have been too much time to dedicate to the island. But after arriving in Ancud and getting a rundown by the host in the hostel of all the things to do on the island, my itinerary for the week filled up quickly. One of the unexpected treats of Chiloé was curanto, a traditional dish that I got the opportunity to both prepare and taste.
Curanto is an ultimate meat-lover dish of mussels, clams, pork, chicken, sausage, potatoes, and bread. Or, put another way, a gout sufferer’s nightmare. It’s cooked with hot stones in a hole in the ground, without any seasoning.
The hostel introduced me to Luis and the other friendly people at El Meson Chilote, one of the only restaurants that cooks the curanto the pure, traditional way and does it year round. I think. Disclaimer: my entire time spent with El Meson Chilote was in Spanish, and since I had an estimated 40% comprehension rate, a lot of things went straight over my head and some might just be slightly wrong.
To begin with, we went to a secluded beach to pick the nalca leaves that are used to cover the curanto (at first I thought that Luis, our guide, was saying “narco,” but upon plugging that into the translator app in my phone, figured out pretty quickly that it was not the case).
The nalca is a Chilean rhubarb that grows all throughout the area. It is used for the curanto because it can withstand high temperatures, adds flavor to the food, and a third reason that I didn’t quite pick up and could only interpret to be that the nalca doesn’t explode. We went to the beach specifically to get the nalca because beach-side nalca allegedly added some sea-infused flavor.
Luis hacked off around 12 leaves, and we carried them back to the van. They’re pretty big!
Back at the restaurant, he showed us the hoyo (hole) of the curanto al hoyo. While we were out picking the leaves, they had already lit a fire with the stones to heat them up. Luis quickly picked out all of the wood, and then began the preparation process.
First, he poured in 3 buckets of seafood, clams and mussels. Then potatoes, chicken, pork, sausage, and finally pieces of bread. All a very quick process, completed in less than 2 minutes!
As a last step, Luis covered the pile with the leaves that we had picked, and then put pieces of earth – champa? – on top to keep the steam from escaping. Voila, done! And now we waited for it to cook.
During the wait, we were given drinks (I think of pisco mixed with juice from the nalca, but I’m not exactly sure. Probably should have ascertained before I drank it).
Luis gave us an explanation of curanto and its history. All in Spanish. I caught some things but not a lot, which killed me because I’m the weirdo that takes detailed notes on all of the tours. But here’s a shot at some curanto history and background that may or may not be true:
Curanto dates back to almost 7,000 years ago, and is a pre-historic food developed by the Chono people of Chiloe island. We know this because a 10,100-year-old (maybe, I’m not completely confident with numbers) petrified curanto was found with the same nalca leaves and seafood.
Originally, curanto consisted of just seafood. But 5,000 years later, the Chono people mixed with the Mapuche on the mainland, and they started cultivating potatoes, which were added to the mix. All of the other ingredients came even later:
Bread – 200 years ago
Meat (chicken, pork) – 500 years ago
Potatoes – 2,000 years ago
Seafood – almost 7,000 years ago
An hour and a half passed by quickly (or, you know, not, if you were trying desperately to hang on to and interpret every word), and soon the curanto was almost done. I asked Luis how he knew, and he said it was a mixture of three things: checking the temperature of the dirt layer, looking at the water droplets that have formed on the dirt due to condensation, and intuition.
The unraveling process:
And the feast that we were waiting for!
I didn’t need to understand Spanish to enjoy the curanto, though I do wish I could have understood more of the history ofChiloé that Luis explained, since it would have made a great introduction to the area. Regardless, it was altogether a wonderful meal and a great treat. Afterwards, I did have to skip dinner, load up on fruits, and do an extended workout session. But worth it!
Nearby Pucón is Huerquehue National Park (pronounced something like “were-que-weh,” though I haven’t heard anyone say the actual name out loud yet). No companies mention it or offer tours to go there, presumably because they can’t make any money from it. But the park is very easy to get to via bus, and from an online search I saw that there are a couple of good hikes.
There is only one bus that goes out to Huerquehue, with the first trip at 8:30pm. I found bus information on this site, and made my way there in the morning.
The bus took about an hour and dropped us off at the front gate of the park, where we paid the entrance fee (5000 pesos, or $8 for foreigners). There were two rangers there to help explain the trails in the park. The two most popular ones are the Los Lagos Trail and the San Sebastian trail, but unfortunately the top part of Los Lagos and the entire San Sebastián trail were closed because of snow. Thankfully the bottom loop of Los Lagos, which took an estimated 5 hours, was still open.
The first half of the trail ran along a lake and though an area with some campsites, services, and other construction for an hour or so. Then it goes upward into the forest, where you reach a second “Welcome to Huerquehue” gate with an empty ranger station and a bathroom.
This is where the climb starts, about an hour and a half of zig zagging up the mountain.
And there are two waterfalls that are both about 15 minutes out of the way down into a nearby valley, but are definitely worth the side trip. They also splatter you with cold mist if you need cooling down!
Finally, the trail reaches the first lake, Lago Chico. It’s crystal clear and looks extremely inviting…
And apparently it is, as a stray friend tested out.
The trail flattens out from there, and leads to the two other lakes:
Lago Verde, where I sat and had lunch by the water.
And Lago Torro, a beautiful view that I was loathe to leave behind.
I had to start down fairly quickly, though. There are only two return buses in the afternoon until they add a third, later bus in December (and I just happened to go on November 30, go figure): one at 2:10pm and one at 5:10pm. The one at 2:10pm seemed a little tight, but then waiting another 3 hours for. 5:10pm seemed like a long time… I had made great time going up, so I figured I would shoot for the first one.
I left the top at 12:30pm and planned to leisurely make my way down. This worked quite well, until I got to the 2nd ranger station with 20 minutes left to spare and the realization that I had severely underestimated the length of the first half of the hike before the climb started. I half ran down part of it, and then finally resolved that I would rather miss the bus than risk injury.
2:10pm came and went, and what little hope I was holding onto that the bus might have perhaps waited was dashed when I heard a loud engine in the distance at 2:16pm. Surely that was the bus leaving, and I was so close! I arrived at the entrance at 2:25pm, just 15 minutes after the bus departure time.
But lo and behold, I saw a bus sitting just beyond the gate. Could it be the 2:10pm bus, or just the next bus waiting to leave at 5:10pm? I approached the bus and asked the driver what time he was going to leave, and he replied, “right now.” I couldn’t believe my luck!
“Not many people on the 2 o’clock bus, huh?” I asked, and he said “nadie.” Why, I wondered, did they have this bus then? I guessed because the bus needs to make the return trip. But as we wound down the road, I started to understand. Locals stood by the side of the road waiting for the bus, and they all personally greeted the driver and the other passengers when they came onboard. This first afternoon bus must be a key part of the daily life and schedule of the locals that live near the national park.
20 minutes later, I was passed out. When I opened my eyes again, we were back at the bus station in Pucón – I must have been much more tired than I thought. I made it back early, but it was definitely a rushed hike. There’s a reason no one aims for the 2:10pm bus. I learned my lesson: leave plenty of time, and you’d rather wait at the bus station (or, better yet, up at the amazing view) than rush to try to make an earlier bus.
There are hot springs all around Pucón, and visiting hot springs is one of the biggest activities to do here. All of the big tour groups offer several termas packages, some combined with other tours of the area and some just to the hot springs and back.
The most popular hot spring is Termas Geometricas, which also, unsurprisingly, is the most expensive. It costs 35,000 pesos ($56) to go to because it is a large collection of the most natural pools, and it’s located about a 2 hour drive out of Pucón one way. However, that sounded a little steep to me for a couple of hours in a hot spring, so I decided to pass.
Luckily, there is a public bus that goes to a bunch of the other hot springs. I got a recommendation from my hostel to go to Los Pozones, at the end of the bus line, because it was natural while some of the other hot springs were composed of mostly manmade pools.
I found information about the bus to the hot springs on this super helpful site. The first bus left Pucón at 10:30am and costed only 1500 pesos ($2.40). About an hour later, it dropped us off at Los Pozones, and the bus driver told us that the next bus back would be at 2:30pm.
Very well timed, because there is 3 hour maximum stay in the hot springs themselves. That’s about as long as I can imagine staying in a hot spring anyway, so that’s perfect!
It costs 8,000 pesos ($12.90) to get in before 8pm, and 10,000 pesos ($16.10) after 8pm. This is apparently the place to go for a night soak, and I saw companies offering a night excursion here, leaving at 9pm and returning around 1am. Well, I was sure I wasn’t missing out on too much by going during the day.
After paying for the ticket, you walk down a ways to the hot spring.
Los Pozones has five pools total, all of varying temperatures. The first one you come across is also the biggest one, and the hottest. I couldn’t stand to be in there for more than two or three minutes.
As you move inward, the pools generally get cooler and cooler. The second hottest pool is titled “Sol de enero,” the January sun, and for good reason. It’s also hot, but closer to standard hot tub temperature, so you can stay in it for up to about 5 minutes.
All the way at the end is the coolest pool, Agua de Luna. It’s cooler, but still warm, and it’s also the deepest pool that you can swim around in. Coming here in between hot soaks is a nice refreshing break.
There were very few people total, since it was mostly just the people who arrived by bus and a few other people who drove themselves over. Thus, in most of the pools, I was either the only person or I shared the pool with 3 other people at most. Night time soaks might be most popular here, but I think going in the day is the time to go.
Surprisingly, 3 hours passed by extremely fast. Soaking in the hot springs was a great way to relax after a long day’s hike up the volcano, and good preparation for the next day’s excursion. And as a plus, I had avoided the high prices and crowds at Termas Gerometricas while still getting a great experience. Definitely recommend Los Pozones!
Pucón is a small, touristy mountain town in Chile where you can book a variety of excursions and activities, from rafting to hot springs to national park visits. The most popular activity, however, is climbing to the summit of the Villarrica Volcano, which makes a beautiful backdrop for the town on clear days:
The Villarrica volcano is just one of the 2,000+ volcanos in Chile, and one of the only 500+ active ones. The last eruption was in 2015, when the volcano shot lava 3km high. It’s closely monitored for potential future eruptions, and there is a special volcano alert system in town:
Surprisingly, it’s still possible to climb to the top of the volcano, and you can do it in a day trip. You need special gear and a guide, though, which costs around 80,000 CLP no matter which agency you book with. There are probably around a hundred agencies to choose from, because every second shop seems to be a tour agency that offers the volcano tour. I chose one called Antu becuase it only had 5 star reviews, and more than 100 of them.
For all of the volcano tours, you have to be in Pucón the day before in order to get fitted for equipment. At 7:30 on the day before the climb, I went to the Antu office, met some fellow climbers, and got shuttled to the owner’s house a little outside Pucón, where all the gear was kept.
The hiking boots are the most important piece of gear, and I was worried that they might not have shoes small enough to fit me. But thankfully the owner had a 13 year old daughter who wore US size 4 shoes, so I lucked out. Although they would have found shoes that fit elsewhere regardless, since there was also a Brazilian man in the group with the opposite problem – they had to bring in special European size 48 shoes for him.
While we were there, the staff also showed us the gear that they provided and helped pack it for us:
30ish Liter backpack to fit all the gear and any personal items we wanted to bring
“Diaper,” a piece of thick cloth that wrapped around your butt and thighs, to slide down on
Piece of plastic to slide down on
Thick water resistant pants
Water resistant gloves
In addition to the gear, they gave us a list of recommended items to bring:
Long sleeve shirt
At least 2L of water (I don’t drink much water, so I found this to be way too much and ended up carrying an entire liter of water up and back down again)
10,000 CLP if we wanted to ride the lift
With that, they sent us back, with instructions to be ready for pick up at our accommodations at 6:30 the following morning.
Come 6:30am, we were taken back to the owner’s house to pack the backpacks with our personal items. When everyone was ready, we all piled into a big van that drove about 30 minutes to the base of the volcano. This was as far up as cars could get, so it was the starting point for all of the other tours as well.
We hiked the first 30 minutes or so on rocky gravel, until we arrived at the base of a chair lift. The lift is not always open, depending on weather conditions. But when it is, it costs 10,000 pesos ($16) and bypasses 400 vertical meters, or around 1 to 1.5 hours of hiking. It’s totally optional, but I’ve read accounts of people who decided not to take the lift and then had to increase their pace for the rest of the hike in order to make the summit. It seemed a worthy investment to me, and to the rest the group as well.
From the top of the chairlift onward, we hiked on snow. The guides instructed us to hike in single file, following the pre-made footsteps in the snow. They also told us to use the ice picks as shortened walking sticks, always on the uphill side. Just like this, we slowly zigzagged up in a single line, like a long caterpillar making acute angles.
Along the way, we saw smoke rings rise from the volcano crater above. Our guide explained that only 10 volcanos in the world produce rings like this, as the conditions have to be just right. An auspicious day indeed!
Halfway up, when we took a break on the ridge, I had a bit of a problem…what do you do if you need to pee? There were no facilities, of course, and I hadn’t expected any. But there wasn’t exactly anything to hide behind, either. I raised my issue with the guide, and he found the next best solution: we hiked about 50m away from the rest of the group, where I got a bit of privacy behind a small ridge.
And a side benefit, I also got a good photo op with nobody in the background:
The second half of the hike up was decidedly harder than the first. Maybe because we had used up a lot of energy, and maybe also because it got steeper and steeper. I was really glad at this point that I had taken the chairlift and saved valuable energy to use here instead.
The view made it worth it!
Right before going to the summit, we left our backpacks in a pile, taking only our cameras and the gas mask just in case.
Up at the top, we slowly approached the crater. Unlike the rest of the volcano, the crater has no snow on it, so you can see all of the rocks in a multitude of colors. This, we were warned, was the most dangerous part of the volcano. There are no guardrails, and some areas that might look solid could still be dangerous. So we followed our guide up in single file, taking great care to stand far away from the crater.
You have to get close enough to the crater, though, to see what truly makes this volcano unique: a big red hole at the center of the crater that blows smoke and occasionally lava!
The best mini-eruption we saw:
Apparently it’s not always possible to see lava, and sometimes you can only stay at the crater for just long enough to snap a picture before you have to descend. We were lucky because we were able to stay at the summit for 15 minutes, see lava, and also make do without using our gas masks because the wind mostly blew in the other direction. There were times when we caught a whiff of the gas, though, and I can absolutely believe that the gas masks would be a necessity!
When we had all gotten our fill of the summit, we moved on to the other highly anticipated activity: sliding (formally, glissading) down the volcano. I think more than a few of us, myself included, were not so sure about this part. All along the way up we passed chutes that we guessed we would be using later, and they didn’t look the most comfortable or safe.
But it was time. We put on our gear, and the guides gave us a quick briefing on how to slide down. Bend your knees as you slide. Hold the ice pick on your side, so far back that it’s almost behind you. Stick the end of the pick into the snow behind your butt, and press down on it to slow down. Simple enough, I guess…
My first slide was not super successful. I started off sliding just fine, but soon completely lost control. I mean flailing like a starfish and unable to control my speed out of control… but at least I still managed to hold onto my ice pick. They didn’t tell us what to do in this situation (flip around on your stomach and lean into the end of the ice pick, which I got from my dad later), since I guess they figured we couldn’t realistically be out of control for too long. Thankfully that turned out to be right, andthe hill soon flattened out a bit so I could recover my speed. Not the dignity, though, that was left somewhere up the mountain.
For the next few slides, I gradually figured things out. By the time I got a good grasp on it and started having lots of fun, though, the hill had majorly flattened out. Even using the plastic, which helped us slide better, at some points it was all I could do to keep moving forward by leaning back and rowing myself down on both sides.
Some tips for glissading that I wish I had figured out sooner:
Keep your knees together. For the first few slides, I found that I was accumulating basically all of the chute debris between my legs. There was a small avalanche of snow, piled up to a meter long, that I was pushing down the hill. This slowed me down quite a bit, until I could get some of the snow out of my way. How? By keeping your knees together, as the guides had originally instructed. This allows the snow to move to the sides, out of your way. Ah.
Leaning back makes you go faster. Counterintuitively, you’re more in control when you lean forward, whereas leaning back gives you less control. I learned this from skiing but apparently forgot it when it comes to glissading. Learned it again quite quickly though.
Bend your knees and keep your feet flat on the ground to go faster. Again, this reduces the friction and prevents snow accumulation.
Before we knew it, we were already almost at the bottom! At about halfway down the chairlift, we ran out of hill to glissade, so we had to make the rest of the trip by foot. It was another 1 hour or so before we reached the bottom. Around 5 hours up, and 2 hours back. Not bad at all.
We all piled into the van again and went back to the owner’s house to return and sort all the gear. He invited us up to the roof for a beer and some snacks, a great end to the excursion.
Without a doubt, this trip up the Villarrica volcano has been one of the highlights of my trip thus far. I couldn’t have been luckier with the weather, the smoke ring, and the lava. Seems some of my good travel karma finally paid off!
Because I had a few extra days on Easter Island, I looked into other activities that I could do. The first one being — of course — hiking, since It’s one of the cheapest activities and I seem to have a penchant for finding mountains (or hills) to climb wherever I am.
The company that I booked the sightseeing tours with offered a few hikes around the island, including one that wrapped all the way around the coast from Anakena beach (in the NE) back to Hanga Roa (the main town, in the SW), covering about 1/3 of the circumference of the island. The hike followed the coastline through some archaeological sites that were inaccessible by vehicles, and it took an estimated 5-7 hours. Sold! The only problem was that it costed $180 to do the hike with a private guide...yikes.
But some research yielded that it was entirely possible to do the hike on your own. After all, it’s basically impossible to get lost, since all you have to do is walk along the shore line in one direction. How bad could it be? I was up for the challenge!
The main logistical problem with the hike is transportation. Turns out that hiring a private taxi to go anywhere outside of Hanga Roa, even to go one way, is very expensive. I also wanted to go back to the quarry at Rano Raraku (to see it on a sunny day, since it rained when I went there on the tour) before getting dropped at Anakena, and the taxi company fare for this proposed itinerary was 50,000 CLP (almost $80). That was higher than the price for some full day tours!
I figured that I could probably get a better rate by asking taxi drivers directly, and if not, then there was no harm done either. So I went to town and flagged down random taxis, leading with “No es para ahora, pero tengo una pregunta para mañana” (“Not for now, but I have a question for tomorrow”). It worked - I got a quote of 40,000 CLP ($64) and finally one for 32,000 CLP ($51). I snagged that last one, with fingers crossed that I had managed to communicate all the accurate details in Spanish. I learned lots of Spanish in high school but also never practiced it after, so traveling in Chile has been quite a test of what I remember (answer: not much, but bits and pieces are coming back).
The taxi driver agreed to pick me up the next morning at 9am. I waited outside at 8:55, and at 9:20 was just about to give up and start the taxi courting process again when he appeared. Phew! Despite a later start than I had requested, everything else went according to plan. The driver took me to Rano Raraku, waited outside for me for an hour, and then dropped me off at Anakena. Seems my Spanish isn’t so terrible after all.
Apart from being the starting point for the hike, Anakena is also a gorgeous beach - and one of the island’s only sandy beaches. There are palm trees, white sand, turquoise waters, everything you would expect from and island paradise!
But my main interest was in going hiking, not going to the beach, so I stayed just long enough to soak in the beauty and fuel up with a tuna empanada before setting off at 12:30.
0 hours, 0 minutes
The hike starts right from Anakena, up a road that comes in from the west. The first thing I see on the road is a campground, and then ruins from an old village, including a burial area with flowers.
0 hours, 20 minutes
Still on the road, I pass through a herd of grazing cows. Cows get a little unnerving when they all turn and stare at you until you pass out of sight, and I am all of a sudden very aware of the additional risk of being gored by a bull.
0 hours, 40 minutes
The road ends, and I stumble upon a petroglyphs carved in one of the rocks. Not entirely sure what it is, but pretty sure it’s a petroglyph!
0 hours, 50 minutes
I find the first pile of rocks that I can easily identify as an ahu, with chunks of yellow rock that likely used to be Moai.
1 hour, 40 minutes
Brightly colored, moving dots appear in the distance near what looks like a ranch, the first building I've seen in more than an hour. Could it be...? Yes, people! They also left from Anakena earlier in the morning and are on their way back. Their goal was not to go all the way to Hanga Roa, but to go moai hunting off the beaten path along the coast.
I feel slightly guilty because I’d been too busy admiring the sea to keep an eye out for moai. But I resolve to do a better job of looking out for archaeological artifacts thereafter.
2 hours, 15 minutes
Not much luck on the Moai front, even though I’ve been more conscious about scanning for them. I see two more dots in the distance, higher up on the hill than me. They pause, maybe to take a break, and I figure I might as well hike up to them to say hi.
Only when I get within 10 feet of them do I realize that the rock they’re standing next to is a Moai. Wow, I’m doing a great job at this. Lucky they were there, or I would have passed it completely.
2 hours, 50 minutes
I check maps.me and see lots of sites marked in the area. Some of them are not entirely accurate (which I should have guessed, given that some ahus are marked in the ocean), but I investigate a pinpoint marked as a cave and labeled “w/ Make Make carvings,” and, to my surprise, find exactly what was advertised.
3 hours, 20 minutes
Given the success of the cave, I see another point up on the hill marked “Moai” and decide to investigate. I go almost half an hour out of my but can’t seem to reach it, and eventually give up.
10 minutes later, though, I do stumble across Ahu Vaimata: a Moai abandoned facedown, just 200m or so away from an ahu with lots of other toppled Moai.
3 hours, 45 minutes
Rain. What?? The forecast was supposed to be clear! But there is one narrow strip of rain clouds that formed as the clouds hit the side of the volcano that I’m walking around, and of course, I happen to be right under it.
And, of course, it follows me. For the better part of an hour. Of course.
But I pass another toppled moai along the way.
4 hours 45 minutes
While still drying off from the rain, I find a big Ahu with multiple fallen Moai. Now here’s an archaeological site!
5 hours, 15 minutes
All of a sudden, I encounter a sign that announces that I’ve arrived at Ana Te Pora. I enter the cave and find a gigantic cavern that’s got to be more than 40m long, though I am too nervous to go more than 10m deep inside it.
5 hours, 30 minutes
A little ways down, I come across an entire group of middle aged Chilean ladies. The sudden appearance of people comes as a bit of a shock, and I don’t see any cars or moai in sight. I try my best to ask what they’re doing here and they point me to another cave, which I find out from a sign is Ana Kakenga, a.k.a the “cave of two windows."
This one is narrow, unlike the one I just visited, but it has two openings that lead to the cliffs. A natural dwelling with a seaside view!
6 hours, 0 minutes
Are those — yes, they are! — cars! Meaning (1) I’m close to roads, but also (2) still far enough from town that people prefer to drive to get there. That second point is just a tad disheartening.
6 hours, 45 minutes
At last, Tahai! The popular sunset moai site on the edge of town, just a mere 10 minutes away from my guesthouse. Arriving at 7:15pm, 6 hours and 45 minutes after I set out from Anakena, I make it here much closer to sunset than I’d originally intended.
Overall a rewarding hike, but most definitely not one to be underestimated. Usually when I see estimates for hiking time, I fall on the shorter side of the spectrum and often manage to beat the beat the estimate. This was the first time I clocked in on the longer side, closer to 7 hours than 5, and I wasn’t sure how to feel…but I don’t know if it would have been possible for me to make 5 hours, even if I knew where everything was and headed straight for it.
Besides, the exploration was all part of the fun. I do, however, recommend going with at least one other person, just in case you twist an ankle on a rock hidden in the grass, get caught in a crumbling cave, or, god forbid, get gored by a bull. But if you have a spare day on Easter Island and haven’t gotten your fill of archaeological sites, this hike is a great way to visit the less accessible sites of Easter Island.
Easter Island is mainly famous for its moai, but it also had a lesser known period of history called the Birdman Cult period. The Birdman Cult emerged in the mid-1700s after the moai-based social order collapsed, and had its own fascinating traditions.
Once a year, all of the clans on the island would gather for a competition to decide who would hold the political, economic, and military power of the island for the next year. They each chose representatives who competed, sometimes to the death, to be the first to bring a particular bird egg back intact to his king. That king then became the Tangata Manu, the one with all of the mana and power for the next year. For more history of the Birdman Cult and Easter Island in general, click here.
Orongo was the ceremonial center of the Birdman Cult period. It sits on the side of Rano Kau, an extinct volcano, and looks down to the small islands where the competitions took place.
During the competition, the kings, queens, and priests gathered and lived here to watch. On average the competition lasted 3-4 days, though on at least one occasion it lasted as long as 3 weeks.
The houses here were small and flat, with only a couple of small crawl holes for entrances. They hardly seem fit for kings, but they also make sense – if the leaders of rivaling clans are all gathered here in one spot, safety’s got to be a big priority. You would only need one person – even someone as small as me – to guard the crawl hole, and no one could go in or out.
During other times of the year, the village emptied but was sometimes occupied by scribes. Scribes of the Birdman Cult developed the only form of Polynesian written language. However, the language died out after about 100 years because the masters were kidnapped during the slave raids of the 1800s.
Orongo has a lot of art, both painted inside the houses and carved into rocks around the area. The Birdman petroglyphs was the main motif, but there were also heads and symbols of Make Make.
Right next to Orongo is the Rano Kau crater, 1.5 km wide with a 1km wide lagoon that is 11 meters deep. The patches of green in the lagoon are water weeds that originated in South America, which is evidence that the Rapa Nui had contact with the continent.
The oldest evidence of humans on the island is also found here in the lagoon, where layers have accumulated over time. A 3000 year old layer contained pollen of banana and taro root, two plants that could not have been present on the island unless they had been brought over by humans. They might have tried to colonize the island and died off or only used the island as a waystation to reprovision. However, no human artifacts or remains were found to substantiate the claim that humans were on the island 3000 years ago.
Ana Kai Tangata
Ana Kai Tangata was a nearby cave that was also part of the Birdman Cult ceremonies. Here, the kings of each clan revealed their Hopu Manu, the warriors that would represent them in the competition.
This cave is also one of the rare places where you can see Birdman paintings. However, in recent years, the cave has started to crumble, so you’re advised to get in, snap a picture, and then quickly get out!
This is a collection of the moai and ahus (ceremonial platforms) that I saw visited around Easter Island. For facts and history of the moai, click here.
Anakena is one of the only landing harbors on Easter Island, and it is the one that King Hotu Matu’a and the original settlers used when they arrived on the island. The clan that subsequently lived here was historically powerful, both because they were direct descendants of the king and because they had a monopoly of the harbor.
The moais at Anakena are about 50m in from the beach.
This single moai was made earlier than the rest, in the 1300s. It is special because it was the first moai to be re-erected in history. Two local men told archaeologists of an old pry-and-wedge method, and they successfully used it to re-erect the moai in 17 days with only 12 workers. Today, most believe that the Rapa Nui originally used this method to erect all of the moai.
The row of moai hail from the 1400s. Their backs are decorated with carved loincloths and spiral designs on the butts, which is not seen on many moai. However, it’s possible that all of the moai originally had designs like this on their backs, and they are simply no longer there because the statues were toppled face-down, so the backs eroded more.
Rano Raraku is the volcano that served as the standardized quarry for the Moai, and it is where more than half of the Moai still remain today. Some of the Moai are still half carved into the mountain, while others dot the hillside. These abandoned Moai, left in various stages of production, supply key information as to how the Moai were made.
The standing Moai were originally just buried at the base for the final touches. But the mountain has eroded around them over time, so now only the faces are showing. Archaeologists have dug up some of the statues and found that under the ground, they are almost perfectly preserved with smooth yellow skin and intricately carved hands. But these have been covered up again to preserve them.
The largest moai that is fully finished and ready to transport is Piro Piro, which stands at 38ft tall. It never left the quarry, however, as funds probably ran out before it could be transported.
The overall largest moai ever attempted is El Gigante, which still lies embedded into the mountain side. If finished, it would measure something around 70ft tall and 280 tons. Experts say that workers likely would never have been able to move this statue with the technology they had, something that the masters and stoneworkers must have known at the time. Thus, this might have been a classic project to keep the workers busy during the decline of the Moai period.
Towards the end of the moai period, there was almost serial production of the moai. This can be seen in areas like these, where there are 5 moai carved in a space of less than 5x5 meters.
Another cool feature of this area is the negative of a moai face that is in the corner (difficult to see in the picutre). Here is where the archaeologist Heryerdahl carved a test moai to determine how hard the stone was and how difficult the Mmoai would have been to carve.
Moai Tuku Turi is one of the rare kneeling Moai. There were many kneeling statues before 1200, but once a single quarry was standardized and the statues had to travel long distances, the standing statues became the standard because they were most efficient to transport.
This statue dates from the 1300s, and legend goes that it is of a master carver that was cursed to be crippled by the same witch that made the statues walk. It was found after a local man told the archaeologists that there was a statue here that was different than the others. Shortly after, the same local man suffered a stroke or a like illness and was paralyzed from the waist down. Some say this was a curse from the statue for exhibiting its shame.
More pictures of Rano Raraku:
Right next to Rano Raraku is Tongariki, the most impressive lineup of moai on the island with 15 moai standing in a row. This is a popular place to watch the sunrise, which I was fortunate enough to do with new friends from the hostel.
The biggest currently standing moai is here, weighing in at 72 tons and 30ft tall. It is among the statues made during the richest period, numbers 11 and up from left to right. Statues 4-10 were the oldest statues, while statues 1-3 were the last to be made. The decline of the economy is clearly reflected in statues 3, 2, and 1, as each statue was smaller than the last.
This entire area was completely wiped out in 1960, when a 9.6 earthquake in Chile caused tsunamis which even reached Hawaii and Japan. Here on Easter Island, there were 10m tall waves. Thankfully, no one was hurt because the tsunami hit the East side of the island, where nobody lived, but Tongariki was right in the path of the tsunami.
The ahu (platform beneath the moai) was totally destroyed. All 15 moai originally had topknots, which were also damaged beyond repair. But the moai themselves were fortunately saved because the people had toppled them facedown and they had accumulated dirt around them. During the tsunami, they were not knocked over, moved, or otherwise beaten around. In 1992-1996, Tongariki was restored, with the ahu rebuilt as a replica of the original one.
Also at Tongariki is a separate statue that stands on its own. This is the traveling moai, a moai ambassador of sorts that was exhibited in different places in the world to teach people about and generate interest in Easter Island.
When the tsunami destroyed the ahu, it unearthed some pieces of older statues that had been built into the surrounding area. One of these pieces is an unusual moai that had a small torso with stubby hands. Because the moai represent idealized beauty, this was very strange and likely intentional. One of the theories is that this could have been a dwarf that was born into nobility and ended up as a leader, a la Tyrion Lannister in popular fiction.
More pictures of Ahu Tongariki:
Down the coast lies Aka Hanga, once one of the richest and largest villages. It has an impressive row of statues that span more than 300 years, but they are all still toppled and have not been restored yet.
One of the statues on a separate platform was abandoned while it was being raised, giving archaeologists insights into the methods that the Rapa Nui used. When found, it was face down on a pile of rubble, in the middle of being erected using the pry and wedge method. It was abandoned weeks or perhaps even days before it was raised - so close, but yet so far.
Even further along the coast is Vinapu, unique because it has the “Incan wall of Easter Island”: an ahu with perfectly fitted blocks, similar to Incan techniques.
The presence of this wall has led some to wonder whether the Rapa Nui might have originated from South America. Some coincidences exist in the oral histories of the two groups, as the Incans also had Legend of a diety with red hair who sailed off and was never seen or herd from agin. Could this be Hotu Matu’a? Well, we do know that the Rapa Nui had contact with people from South America, and it’s more likely that some people went to South America, saw the Incan rocks, and decided to replicate them back home.
This village in particular was 9 miles away from the quarry as the crow flies, but a moai had to be transported 30 miles around obstacles to reach it. It was a rich village, but smaller, less wealthy villages could easily afford much bigger moai simply because they were closer to the quarry. Thus, they had to find another means to show off, so they compensated with large stones, which didn’t have to be transported as far, and unique stonework to stand out.
Vinapu is also home to a rare female statue (it looks pretty darn phallic to me now, but I take the guide’s word for it). The head is gone and it was destroyed by a catholic missionary with an axe, but you can still tell that it’s female because there are breasts and a symbol for vulva. It was probably made during the birdman cult period and not the moai period and used as an amulet for fertility. Only around 10 female moai have been found, as they were usually made in wood, kept indoors, and depicted pregnant and/or deformed female forms.
On the other side of the island from Rano Raraku is Puna Pao, the quarry for the red pukao, or topknots. Around 20 pukao lay abandoned here, with the biggest one weighing in at 28 tons - twice as heavy as the biggest transported pukao.
Ahu Akivi is home to the only row of moai that looked outwards to the sea instead of inward towards the villages. The story behind this is that the 7 moai represent the 7 explorers that King Hotu Matu’a sent ahead of the expedition to find and prepare the island. Hiva lay to the west of Easter Island, so the 7 moai looked to the west as they waited for the rest of the party to arrive.
However, scientists believe that Ahu Akivi is actually an observatory. It is part of a set of 3 ahus that function as a sun calendar with 12 months. Standing with all 3 ahus line up in a row, the 7 statues of Ahu Akivi tell which month it is depending on where the sun sets. On the winter solstice, June 21, the sun sets on the head of the 1st moai. One month later, on July 21st, the sun sets on the head of the 2nd moai. The sun continues moving over until December 21st, the summer solstice, when it sets on the head of the 7th moai. Then, it moves in the opposite direction for the next 6 months.
The statues were all built around the same time, so it was likely a joint effort between multiple villages to create a calendar. The nobles probably kept it as a secret to manipulate information, which could be why the true purpose of Ahu Akivi was lost over time and the legend of the 7 explorers endured.
Huri a Urenga
Another atypical Ahu that might have been built as an observatory instead of for traditional purposes is Huri a Urenga. It faces east, and is positioned so that its shadow falls directly in front of it or behind it on the solstices.
The statue is also unique because it has 4 hands. All statue deformities likely had meanings, but the significance has unfortunately been lost over time.
Behind the statue is a crematorium, the only one that has been reconstructed because it was never actually used. Even so, it was still built because crematoriums seemed to be an important piece of the ahu configuration.
Last but not least is Tahai, a moai site right outside of Hanga Roa. This is a popular place to watch the sunset, and it’s also home to the only modern day statue with eyes.
This statue honors William Mulloy, an America archaeologist that conducted research and restorations on Easter Island in the 50s and 70s. He played a pivotal role in spreading the word of Easter Island and the importance of its artifacts. Mulloy wished to retire on Easter Island, but he died of cancer before he could. His family sent some of his ashes over to the island, and the locals conducted a re-enactment of the traditional ceremony of burying his ashes and giving a statue its eyes in order to bring it to life with his spirit. Now it stands here to see the future that Mulloy helped shape for the island.