After a helpful tip from Arnaud while we were at the Chilean coast, we headed back inland towards Conguillío National Park. We didn’t really know what was in store for us there, but since we have all the time in the world we thought we might as well head in that direction and see what there was to see!
On our way there we picked up a young Chilean couple hitchhiking south for summer vacation. We pulled over after a toll booth, piled their bags high on the roof rack, and headed off to test our beetle Poncho with a full load. He did great! We told them that it was a test run over an extended stretch on the freeway, and while they were a bit apprehensive, they soon settled in and got used to the fact that that 80 km/h was pretty much our top speed. Poncho did great! After a couple hours it started to rain, which was a great first opportunity to test the beetle out in the rain. The results were… mediocre. By and large things were fine, minus the lack of any real defog (powered by heat from the engine that happens to drift up to the windshield through a couple of tubes, one of which it turns out wasn’t connected), water dripping from our dashboard to form a puddle in the tray where our ipod lived, and a centimetre deep puddle under the backseat, where it just so happens the battery lives. Great!
We dropped our hitchhikers off at a rainy crossroads and headed off into the rain to find a camping site. We didn’t have much luck. We drove and drove and it rained and rained, and after several hours we found a tiny roadside turnout that would have to do for the night. Our spirits were low, but the absolute coziness of our tent helped us get to sleep quickly and forget about our predicament for the time being.
The next morning we woke up to more rain, but made our way into the nearby town of Cunco to regroup. As we walked around waiting for the town to wake up (typically no earlier than about 10:00 in Chile) we made friends with a gang of dogs who loyally followed us through the town, even waiting outside of shops for when we came out again. It was so hard not to give them the love they so desperately wanted, even mistaking our accidental bumps or purposeful shoves with our boots as friendly pets. With our dog friends at our sides, we visited a couple of ferreterias to pick up silicone and other things to help us seal the leaks, and then we headed off on the backroads to Conguillío at last!
As we wound our way up steep curves on dirt roads that we never thought a beetle could handle, especially after a fresh rain, we emerged in a landscape that we never expected. Endangered araucana or ‘monkey puzzle’ trees sprung up all around us as mountains emerged in the background. We had read that the area was the closest thing left on Earth to the ecosystems of the Mezosoic Era, and it looked as if we could expect a dinosaur to pop out of the foliage at any moment.
We found a great spot to camp for the night just outside of park limits using iOverlander (recognizing the pros and cons of following in the footsteps of other travelers, or ‘overlanders’ as many car-based travelers like to call themselves), and the next morning we headed off to see what the park had to offer. As the morning mist cleared, we got our first glimpses of the Llaima volcano dominating the horizon, and shortly after drove through one of the desolate debris fields of dried lava from one of its many eruptions.
The Llaima volcano is one of the largest and most active volcanoes in Chile. Lava flows from major eruptions in the 1640s, 1870s, 1990s, and countless minor eruptions before and since then can be observed as dark paths devoid of vegetation on the volcano’s slopes. The best way to observe just what kind of desolation an eruption can create is by getting up close and seeing it for yourself… so off we went to hike up the volcano!
After a chat with a very helpful and friendly CONAF ranger we headed off for what he described as the best hike in the park. We made our way up through araucana forest for about twenty minutes with the tiny umbrella-like tops of the trees towering above us on sturdy trunks stretching above the prickly younger trees below. After what seemed like no time at all the forest abruptly stopped, and the rest of the hike was on bare volcanic rock.
As we trudged up the steep slope of the volcano vistas opened up all around us revealing mountain ranges and blue-green lakes and lagoons while all the while the jagged rock crunched under foot.
While the endless vistas were beautiful, the volcanic rock also held its own beauty. The exact type of rock changed with every slope, and little colonies of hardy plants were managing to create footholds of life in an otherwise desolate landscape.
Once we reached a trail junction, we layered up to fight the cold winds and headed off on a little side trip to what the CONAF ranger described as the best view in the entire park.
Even here, halfway up a freezing volcano with nothing but volcanic rock all around, a surprising number of insects were somehow making a living in the harsh environment.
From there we made our way down, checking out more hardy plant colonies and geological formations along the way as we descended towards the lush forest and lakes below.
The next day we made our way up the Sierra Nevada hike, touted by many to be the best hike in the park. Right away it was apparent that it was a well known and much-traveled hike, but we didn’t mind sharing the trail with others as we trekked up to view the Llaima volcano from an alternate point of view.
The araucauna trees were the real highlight here as much of the hike was through forest with a mix of the prehistoric trees, bamboo, and towering old growth in places. The prickly leaves of the araucauna, which can live up to 24 years each, can give the unsuspecting hiker a nice little jab, while the thick bark, which may be an adaptation against wildfires, often resembled the camouflage of a giraffe.
While there were indeed some views from the top, they weren’t near as spectacular as the day before and were usually filled with other tourists, so we didn’t bother to snap many pictures!
After a two-ish hour hike down and a hectic drive out of the park on a single lane road packed with traffic, Poncho and the two of us made our way through the Valle de la Luna, a stretch of road passing through a debris field.
While there are almost endless volcanoes to check out the further south you go in Chile, we were very glad to have our first up close and experience with Llaima in Conguillío National Park on a couple of easy day hikes. Highly recommended!