Celebrating a Year on the Road

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Monday, January 31, 2005

In late January 2004 we were struggling through severe winter storms and terrible driving conditions as we headed south through Ontario and the eastern States to begin the trip of a lifetime. Since then we've had adventures galore, visited countless fascinating places, met legions of interesting people and had a taste of many different cultures. For the first seven and a half months we often had to pinch ourselves when we woke up each morning to make sure that our experiences weren't just part of some amazing dream. However, with Mike's death our life was turned upside down into a nightmare of grief and sorrow. Our journey continues to be incredible, but for the moment its special edge has been dulled for us. The joy of new discoveries and the excitement of limitless horizons every day have lost their special appeal, and we find ourselves struggling now with an inner turbulence that often leaves us with little energy for much else. Some days and weeks are better than others, but it seems that this other journey will be long and slow. Meanwhile, life does go on, and we are privileged and very happy to be in beautiful surroundings with the freedom and opportunity to appreciate the small joys of daily life.

To try and revive our lagging spirits somewhat we decided that a special dinner to celebrate twelve months on the road was in order. On Tanja and Adrian's recommendation we headed up the Itata Valley just south of Chillán, seeking out one of the newest and most innovative vineyards in Chile. Viña Tierra y Fuego was established in 1998 by a quartet of young Swiss with some experience in European winemaking and a flair for marketing. By 2002 they had 16 hectares of new vines ready for harvest, had purchased another nearby vineyard with 100 year old vines and built their attractive processing facilities in the traditional style. More than that, they had also built a guest house and a restaurant offering gourmet meals accompanied by samplings of their many different specialty wines. The majority of their 24 wine varieties are exported to Europe, Brazil and Mexico (and soon to Japan), but they keep enough on hand to satisfy the increasing numbers of visitors arriving at their gates.

Our dinner was a five-course affair in a comfortably intimate setting, but the emphasis was on savouring eight different wines! Michele, the restaurant manager, and Rudolf, the vineyard agronomist, were on hand to welcome us and explain their unique enterprise, and we were extremely well looked after by our waiter Maximiliano for the course of the evening. We haven't been that impressed with the cuisine in Chile so far, but this was to turn out to be a very memorable experience. The spicy shrimp and corvina ceviche was accompanied by chilled white wine - Sauvignon Blanc and an unusual Carmenére Blanc. The homemade pasta was the best we'd ever tasted in an exquisite mushroom sauce, and Maximiliano particularly recommended a Merlot Blanc and a Pinot Noir to complement this course. We shared a deliciously tender steak for main course with an avocado-based salad, and this time red wine was in order - Uva Pais, Malbec and Shiraz Reserva. The meal was rounded off with a lusciously fresh fruit salad with a walnut ice- cream along with Dolce Vita dessert wine. Quite the gourmet evening! We hasten to add that our glasses were only ever half-filled, and it was a relaxing two and a half-hour occasion, but nonetheless our walk back through the rows of moonlit vines to our van was possibly not exactly a straight line.

Although we slept in a little the next morning, we were pleasantly surprised at the lack of headaches or hangover! After a leisurely breakfast, an hours drive back on Ruta 5 brought us to the popular tourist attraction of the Río Laja Waterfalls. Salto del Laja is a complex of cascades, with the largest one being a miniature Niagara Falls. The area is full of lodges and campsites, and even though we had thought to stay overnight it only took us five minutes to change our minds. The falls were quite attractive and well worth a half-hour visit, but are definitely not the place for an extended stay unless you enjoy being jammed in like proverbial sardines.

Instead, we decided to push on for Lago Villarrica in the centre of Chile's Lake District, with snow-capped Volcán Villarrica dominating the horizon. This is another favourite tourist spot, and the holiday town of Pucón reminded us of Lake Placid or Stowe in high season. In the winter the focus is on downhill skiing and hot springs, but at this time of year the bustling activity is centred around river-rafting, horseback-riding, skydiving and volcano trekking. The sidewalks are full of young people - Chilenos and gringos - lugging their backpacks around looking for a campsite and the best deal from one of the myriad of adventure agencies, restaurants or pubs in town. A few short months ago we would have been first in line to sign up for the gruelling hike through the snow and ice to the smouldering volcano crater, or the adrenaline rush of the cascading whitewater trip. This time we decided to pass - maybe somewhere else along the way - and instead opted to head out to the quieter forests further up the valley.

Parque Nacional Huerquehue is a little off the beaten track, up 20 km of rough washboard road, and we were happy to find ourselves 'far from the madding crowd'. The 12,500 ha park protects a beautiful area of pristine lakes, rivers and araucaria forest, and has a variety of hiking trails. PN Villarrica is nearby, and is a 60,000 ha sanctuary established in 1940 to maintain the unique landscape of three major active volcanoes - Villarrica, Quetrupillán and Lanín. We spent several days enjoying the tranquil beauty of this unique area, always under the watchful eye of the quietly smoking giant on the horizon. At night the red glow of the lava was eerily reflected by the cloud cover at the tip of the cone, reminding us of the immense latent natural power that was last demonstrated in a major eruption in 1971.
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