Monday, September 23, 2013

Nevados de Chillán Day 5: Aguas Calientes

The shiny feather in the cap of my unforgettable stay with BackChillan in Shangri-La (see the posts from Days 1-4) was our trip to Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes is exactly what it sounds like (if you don’t know what that sounds like, the literal translation is “hot waters”), only radder. It was a nice mellow climb up from the top of the Nevados de Chillán resort, followed by a nice long descent to what looked from a distance like a creek--and was actually a creek, except a very special creek full of steaming hot water because it sits on the side of a volcano riddled with fumaroles.

Fun with BackChillan at Aguas Calientes

 Aguas Calientes was like my personal heaven: glittering snow and stunning mountain landscape on all sides, nice hot water to soak myself in (scalding hot baths are my favorite, and the temperatures suited me splendidly), and extremophilic phototrophs everywhere!! Lots of different types of cyanobacteria and algae and who-knows-what-else forming mats, ropes, streamers, muck, biofilms…glorious. Absolutely glorious.

It was a busy day at Aguas Calientes; according to Manu (BackChillan guide and group photographer/webmaster, responsible for their awesome promotional videos) the busiest he’d ever seen. “Busy” meant that there were all of 20 people in an area plenty big enough for each person to have their own personal bathing pool. Also noteworthy was the high concentration of pro skiers. If you count ski patrol and guides (i.e. people who ski as their profession), I suspect everyone there except me was a pro skier.

We all claimed ourselves comfy spots with our butts deep in extremophile muck and sat and drank beer, ate our sandwiches and chocolate, and chilled (or rather, steamed). Geobio people reading this will know that I am not at all squeamish in getting all up in microbial mats’ business. But the idea of sitting my bikini-clad body in a foot-deep fluffy layer of brown algae took a good few minutes to overcome. It took, shall we say, some easing into. But ease in I eventually did, and now god help any mats I come across in the future: I now have nothing stopping me from diving straight in and rolling around in them, labrador-style (you are welcome for that mental image).

Me, getting down with the thermophiles at Aguas Calientes

I set off on my own to explore the pools and enjoyed some solitary soaking, watching the steam make patterns against the sun and the algal streamers wave in the current before it was time to head back out. Or rather, time to get dressed and hang out while the biggest blunt I’d ever seen (granted, I have lived a sheltered life and am not wise in the ways of the weed, but it was approximately the size of my forearm) was passed around.

The climb back out from Aguas Calientes was spectacular. Shining snowfields on all sides, a giant bowl of white guarded by rocky rims. Tom and Ellen having kicked my ass into shape the week prior in Las Leñas, I noticed that the limiting factor in my climbing wasn’t my fitness but my equipment, something that would become even more problematic on future trips. My handmade splitboard (handmade in the sense that it is an old board that an ex-boyfriend sawed in half and converted into a split using a kit back in the days before splitboards were commercially available) technically has inside edges, but because I haven’t sharpened the edges of the board in some 5 years, it really has no edges, which made any sort of traversing impossible and some of the icy patches downright scary.  Some heart-stopping slippage while trying to traverse caused me to experience, for the first time, “I wish I had skis instead of this splitboard”. Sorry splitboard, you will always hold a special place in my heart, but I am afraid you will be replaced as soon as I can afford a good randonnée setup.

The climb out of Aguas Calientes

We descended next to a smoking fumarole (socool…also, geobio people, LETS GO HERE!!), went home, I made “American food” (handmade burgers, fries, and a California-style salad), and we drank beer and wine and more beer until we all passed out. Or rather until I passed out. Chileanos are crazy—out partying until 4am and still ready to rock another snow day bright and early in the morning. They must have special coffee I was missing out on.

Having decided that it was time for this nomad to move on, the following morning I hitched a ride with Pipe, Manu, and Panchi to Conceptión via Chillán, where they were headed to take part in the official ceremony for the receipt of the small business grant they had won. Saying goodbye to them was like saying goodbye to family, the brothers I never had, and two weeks later as I finally write this I miss them. I couldn’t have asked for a better group or a better place for my first snow-stop in Chile, and I left them sad to say goodbye but having re-found my happy, and excited about the adventures ahead.

For future travelers looking for a great time at Nevados de Chillán, regardless of season, give BackChillan a call! I promise they will show you a good time!

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