Araucanía – The Monkey Puzzle Trail

Leaving Villarrica, Panthea and I rode north into a quietness. In part, we’d lost our lively companion Cass. Moreover, our pace matching changes in landscape and season, we found ourselves sinking – synching – into an autumnal stillness. With our return home to urban chaos imminent, perhaps I was finally savouring the here and now in full – settling into a flow that comes only with surrender to the trail. We’d go only as far as we could, each day. What mattered was that we’d seen moving sights, and stayed in beautiful places.  Or, perhaps it was just the intoxicating effect of crisp fall air, the sweet bouquet of ripe leaves, and a sleepiness that comes from long evenings by campfires.

_1080370

Down in the valley, we rode through farmlands…

_1080373

…and on some short paved stretches.

Undetectable hour by hour, the changes in scenery compounded into a entirely new environment by the time we reached Melipeuco. Sitting in the mountainous heart of the Araucanía region – named for its most iconic tree, the monkey puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana – Melipeuco, gateway to several of Chile’s finest national parks, is surrounded by volcanoes and dry pine forests.

As we moved up from the valley, the Oregan pine plantations gave way to southern beech forests, in full autumnal regalia, until the Araucarias burst above the canopy not far below treeline.

_1080377

A long climb brought us up a narrow track into Reserva Nacional China Muerta.

_1080383

We found a quiet campspot near the pass, at 1300m. Despite the long nights and cool days, the forests were dry, leaving a limitless supply of dry firewood to keep up warm and entertained through ever-lengthening evenings.

We saw one car per day, grinding down the rough track.

We saw one car per day, grinding down the rough track.

_1080431

_1080433 copy

_1080437

_1080456

We finally emerged in a pumice-filled valley, on a smooth sandy track.

_1080461

_1080474

_1080492

_1080508

A lunch spot where we could wash and dry cloths, soak our toes, and nap in the midday sun.

The biggest Araucaria we saw - a real lord in the forest. They can live thousands of years, surviving forests fires with thick bark and high branches.

The biggest Araucaria we saw – a real lord in the forest. They can live thousands of years, surviving forests fires with thick bark and high branches. We found this one on the high-road from Lonquimay into Reserva Nacional Malalcahuello-Nalcas.

At Lonquimay we loaded up with four days of food and scrounged just enough information to believe, or hope, that we could find a route through Reserva Malalchuello-Nalcas and eventually to Ralco, in the upper reaches of the Biobio River.

_1080574

A second, and third, long climb brought us into the alpine below Volcan Lonquimay.

_1080578

With Volcan Llaima, which towers to 3100m above Melipeuco, at our backs…

_1080557

…and Volcan Llonquimay above our heads…

.

…we crested the highest pass of our trip…

.

…and found a valley filled with lava.

.

.

After some 1500m of climbing, the track began carving down the valley side.

...to a quiet campspot beside a lake, flooded when the lava blocked a stream in the eruption of 1988-'90.

…to a quiet campspot beside a lake, flooded when the lava blocked a stream in the eruption of 1988-’90.

In the morning we continued down the valley...

In the morning we continued down the valley…

..past where the lava flow finally stopped, 25 years ago.

…past where the lava flow finally stopped, 25 years ago.

Down near the ranch called Lolco, a stampede got between Panthea and I.

Down near the ranch called Lolco, a stampede got between Panthea and I.

A poplar avenue, in the tiny ranching community of Lolco.

A poplar avenue in the tiny ranching community of Lolco.

We joined what was meant to be a larger road, after crossing the Rio Biobio. But the track through this tunnel was likely the widest, smoothest point.

We joined what was meant to be a larger road, after crossing the Rio Biobio. But the track through this tunnel was likely the widest, smoothest point.

And after some rain overnight, the earthen track became an unrideable, greasy nightmare.

And after some rain overnight the earthen track became an unrideable, greasy nightmare.

It was so slippery, that Panthea and I had to push some 5km, feet sliding everywhichway...

It was so slippery that Panthea and I had to push some 5km, feet sliding everywhichway…

Until we found drier, north-facing ground, on this rough singletrack.

…until we found drier, north-facing ground on this rough singletrack.

Even better than finding a singletrack detour, is finding a singletrack short-cut, that cuts off 15km of 4x4 road. This is the trail that children from up the valley walk each morning, across this recently upgraded bridge, to the rural schoolhouse on the other side.

Even better than finding a singletrack detour is finding a singletrack short-cut that cuts off 15km of 4×4 road. This is the trail that children from up the valley walk each morning, across this recently upgraded bridge, to the rural schoolhouse on the other side, at Chenqueco.

We pushed on through the evening to arrive at a hotsprings campground - our last night in the mountains.

We pushed on through the evening to arrive at a hotsprings campground – our last night in the mountains.

Looking back on the smoking Volcan Callaqui, over one of the many dammed reservoirs on the Biobio. Our farewell to the mountains...

Looking back on the smoking Volcan Callaqui, over one of the many dammed reservoirs on the Biobio. Our farewell to the mountains…

...and roasted chestnuts, our gastronomic farewell.

…and roasted chestnuts, our gastronomic farewell.

From Santa Barbara, near Los Angeles in the Biobio region, only paved highways laid between us and our flight home from Santiago. So, we boarded a bus and sailed 500km up the country. I have no finishing remarks for this trip because even though I’m now home, it’s not over. After a five year hiatus, I’ve rekindled a love affair with mountain biking and cycle touring, by simply merging the two. Touring in the traditional, on road, sense always made me feel trapped on the road network. But bikepacking has opened up a whole world to be explored. Finding tracks and trails that don’t show up on any printed map is a rewarding process of discovery in itself. But riding those trails on a relatively lightly loaded, fat-tired beast is pure joy. Exploration is rarely so immediately rewarded. This kind of fun is addictive.

So, I’ve quit my job and I’ll be spending this summer on the road, and most likely back in the Andes. You won’t have to wait too long for more photos…

We’ve recently made an Off Route Facebook page, where we’ll be posting more frequent updates of where we are and what we’re up to, as well as lots of extra photos. You can “like” our page if you’d like to follow the adventure more closely.

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “Araucanía – The Monkey Puzzle Trail

  1. Great pics!

    The forecast was dire when I travelled through Melipueco and I took a more direct crossing back in to Argentina and dryness.

    Congrats on quitting your job :-)))

    Hopefully see you in the Andes!

    Mike

  2. Awesome route! Incredible colours. Crazy how different the place looked a few weeks later. Wish I could have pushed on further… One to go back for, for sure!

    Btw, at the entrance to the Reserva Malalchuello-Nalcas, I saw a map for a 29km mountain bike route, marked as jeep roads and singletrack…

    • Yeah, we looked at that too. The one that follows the valley just east of the road we took to the pass?

      Looked like some pushing terrain in the picture on the signboard, with fewer views of the volcano. But, with hindsight, I’d bet it would be amazing. More to go back to explore for sure…

      Next year?

  3. Pingback: Amongst The Pines And The Monkey Puzzles | These Places In Between

  4. Pingback: Monkey Puzzle Trail. | Steeling Away

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s