Hugging ancient trees & Chasing Chucaos: A hiking adventure in Chile’s Lake and Volcano District

If there’s one thing people know about me, it’s my unabashed pride for all things Chile and the Midwest. So, you can imagine how excited I was when these two great loves combined, and I was given the opportunity to join a special hiking adventure designed by Amity Tours for the students of the Iowa State University. For 8 days, we explored the Lake and Volcano District during their spring break!

 

This is one of the first opportunities we have had at Amity Tours to work in tandem with a faculty-led program, looking to bring the classroom outdoors. We couldn’t be more thrilled to bridge the gap between academics and adventure with this fantastic group of 11 students and 2 professors from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. As for me, it felt heartwarming to remember my first introduction to Chile not so long ago. For many of the students, this was their first time out of the country. This made an even more rewarding experience to join them on such a meaningful trip.

 

amity tour guides
Amity’s Tour Guides: Igor and Rubén

Discovering the Conguillio National Park

 

This hiking adventure started with welcoming the students and professors at the Temuco airport. Upon arrival, we took a scenic drive towards our first destination: the Conguillio National Park. We took a short walk to visit the Truful-Truful waterfall to stretch our legs and break into our hiking boots. A magnificent sight of a rainbow forming over the small falls greeted us. With the Llaima Volcano as our backdrop, we took in the scenery and explored the volcanic area.

 

truful truful canyon conguillio national park chile
Truful Truful Canyon, Conguillio National Park

 

Interestingly, it took less than 5 seconds for most of the students to take off searching for local species, eagerly call one another to check out what they discovered. I must admit, I had never seen someone get so excited over a tiny plant growing amongst the rocks until that moment! This was certainly the best indication that daily discoveries and pockets of joy would be the theme of this next week.

 

llaima volcano conguillio national park chile
Llaima Volcano

 

Finally, we returned to the van to drive towards La Baita, Chile’s first eco-lodge located in the heart of the Conguillio National Park. After a delicious dinner, we could contemplate an impeccable view of the stars to cap off a wonderful first day together.

 

Hiking the trails of the Conguillio

 

Our second day started bright and early, with a warm-up hike around the Rainbow Lake (Lago Arcoiris), through the ancient volcanic rocks surrounding the lagoon. The rock formations were created from previous eruptions. As a result, you could see the difference between the various lava flows by the colors and shapes of the rocks, and also fauna that formed in their midst in the aftermath.

 

arcoiris lagoon conguillio national park
Arcoiris Lagoon

 

Moreover, we could listen to local birds such as the chucao and spot some endemic fauna.

 

The Woodpeckers hiking trail and the oldest araucaria tree

Afterwards, we hopped back in the van for a quick ride to our main attraction of the day: the famous Woodpeckers Trail (Sendero de Carpinteros). This hike offered a treasure trove for our birdwatchers hoping to spot the woodpecker and the chucao birds. And maybe even a condor along the way.

 

 

The trail opened its way through ancient araucaria trees. During the hike, we stopped at various intervals to listen for birds and look for ever elusive araucaria saplings. Also, we took the time to have our first group circle to formally introduce ourselves. In addition, we listened to the first of the presentations that each student prepared about a specific topic pertaining to forestry, agriculture, fauna, or culture in Chile.

 

hike conguillio park chile
Igor and the most ancient araucaria tree

 

The trail’s highlight was the famous araucaria madre, an 1800-year-old giant araucaria tree reaching a height of 50 meters. There, we took the opportunity to pause and have a minute of silence to take in the stunning view and be at one with ourselves and nature. This was an excellent way to recharge before heading to the end of the trail for our eagerly awaited picnic lunch.

For lunch, we were joined by some curious chimango caracara birds hoping for a quick bite. Then, we rested alongside the shore of the Conguillio lake overlooked by the Llaima and Sierra Nevada volcanoes before heading back to the lodge for a restful evening.

 

The Sierra Nevada Hiking Trail

 

Day 3 promised to be our most challenging yet most rewarding day by far with the exhilarating Sierra Nevada trail. Our group’s goal was to make it all together to the third lookout point. The group felt some excitement and a slight sense of apprehension as the majority had not done too much hiking prior to this trip. So this hike seemed to be our longest trail with the most amount of elevation gain on the trip.

 

 

Regardless, our guides knew exactly how to keep us motivated while also respecting everyone’s individual needs and limits. Actually we were surprised by how good we all felt by the time we made it to the second lookout. Some of us who were most nervous about our capabilities even felt empowered enough to bravely carry on to the third and final lookout point.

Halfway to the third lookout, I was in awe of our surroundings. We emerged from the ancient native forest to catch unbeatable views of the various volcanoes in the area, the Villarrica volcano.

 

sierra nevada conguillio chile
Sierra Nevada hike: lookout point

 

At the top, a view of the valley of Sierra Nevada blew us away until something else caught our eye. Not one, but two young male condors flying overhead! We couldn’t believe our luck as we stared in grateful wonder at their magnificent wingspan gracefully gliding above our heads. Right there, we knew that every extra kilometer hiked had been beyond worth it. 

Finally, a veritable feast awaited us back at the van that Kike had so lovingly prepared for us. While eating, we took advantage of the down time to look for more potential condor sightings.

 

snack amity table

 

After lunch, we drove our way to Pucón, our home for the next few days. This city is Chile’s Capital of Adventure Tourism and also one of the highlights of the Lake and Volcano District.

 

Hiking Pucón’ surroundings: The Villarrica Volcano

 

As Igor cheerfully reminded us on our rather wet fourth morning: “no rain, no rainbow!”. So, we braved the elements to check out one of Pucón’s most iconic sites: the volcanic caves near Chile’s most active volcano. After listening to students presentations, we put on our safety helmets and trooped into the depths of the caves to learn more about the different types of eruptions that have taken place here.

 

 

Along the way, we were lucky enough to spot a couple of endemic blind cave crickets. Our guide Rodrigo gave us the chance to spend a minute in complete darkness and silence at the end of the cave’s trail.

Afterwards, we rather comically traipsed across the drawbridge nearby to see the start of our second trail of the day. Unfortunately, due to the rain, we had to swap for a shorter, less exposed hike option after lunch. Some of the students took advantage of the fire pit to teach our ground team the wonder of s’mores for a very tasty “home away from home” dessert.

 

 

Then, we started an easy trail walking through the native forest of the Villarrica National Park. This trail takes us to a splendid view of the eponymous volcano. But today, the active volcano was covered in a thick layer of mist and drizzle. Nevertheless, we thoroughly enjoyed our stroll through the woods and the chance to learn even more from Rubén. He’s our expert volcanologist, knowing all about the historical volcanic eruptions. The last one happened in March 2015. 

 

 

Lastly, we returned to Pucón before the long-awaited cherry on top of the day: an evening spent in a local Mapuche community.

 

The Mapuche culture and cosmovision

 

Upon arrival at the ruka (the traditional Mapuche house), our hosts Rosario and Florencio greeted us with a moving welcome ceremony. Then, they invited us to try our hand at traditional Mapuche instruments while Rosario kept the beat and sang. 

 

 

Afterwards, Florencio beckoned us to prepare for a rousing game of palin, which is a traditional game most similar to field hockey. Traditionally, the major Mapuche decisions are made during this ancestral game. After a rousing back and forth, the winning team celebrated with a traditional Mapuche warrior call. Then we tried our best during a contest to cut a trunk of wood with a typical saw. Rosario happily sat by and watched as we did the hard work for her before inviting us into the ruka for dinner.

 

ruka mapuche chile

 

She took the time to explain to us the meaning of the setup of the ruka regarding its position in reference to the sun and the layout of where parents and children slept, while toasting us some araucaria pine nuts to snack on. Moreover, she showed us traditional woven garments. In a somber moment, she expressed concern for the long term safety of the environment as non-indigenous forces continue to disrespect the earth for more and more resources in sacred areas. 

After another ceremonial song, dinner officially began. With very full bellies and even fuller hearts, we gratefully thanked our hosts in the mapudungun words we learned for inviting us to share such a meaningful evening.

 

Hiking the Andean Lagoons in the Villarrica National Park

 

Our fifth day together started rainy and overcast once more. We drove towards the Lanín Volcano, located at the border between Chile and Argentina for an easy hike. We were joined by Amity’s CEO, Cristian Levy, who gave us some fantastic local perspectives regarding Amity’s collaboration with local Mapuche collectives to protect the area from the exploratory logging industry. 

Before starting the hike, the clouds cleared just in time for us to take in the sight of Lanin looming overhead at the beginning of the hike. After a few Kodak moments, we walked onward through the native forest and stopped at the sight of woodpeckers doing what they do best in the towering trees.

 

 

We observed their diligent work before heading onward to our picturesque spot for lunch alongside the Laguna Escondida (Hidden Lake).

 

andean lagoons villarrica national park

 

Due to wind warning us that we may not remain dry for long, we picked up the pace through the rest of the trail. Our luck thankfully remained intact the rest of the way. Lastly, Kike welcome us at the trail’s end once again. This time, with cold local craft beer to toast to our time together.

 

amity snack

 

Visiting the reforestation project: Cooperativa Lemu

 

Our last stop of the day ended up being the most unexpectedly incredible highlight of our entire trip. We took a pit stop near Curarrehue where Amity Tours, in partnership with the Cooperativa Lemu, planted native trees in our reforestation commitment to offset our carbon footprint. 

Cristian showed us how for every international tourist, Amity and Lemu plant 14 native trees to offset their individual carbon emission, as well as how we were also coming up with creative ways to “plant water” in the area. We were invited to look at the different types of native trees we had already seen the fully grown versions of on our hikes so far.

 

CEO Cristian Levy showing the planted native trees

 

Miguel, one of the Mapuche guardians of this land, then invited us to see the traditional totems they had just built and inaugurated the previous night. He shared with us that his community’s machi, the spiritual leader, had asked them to build these wooden structures in protest of the exploratory mining industry threatening the area’s watershed. The night before, they were consecrated in a traditional ceremony.

 

wood towers

 

What happened next made even the most experienced members of the Amity team widen their eyes in surprise. Indeed, the guardians Miguel and Pablo, invited us to take part in an additional ceremony to continue blessing the land around the structures. In fact, the first 24 hours are the most sacred. Stunned, we gathered in a circle and were invited to drink muday and chicha, two traditional fermented drinks. Before each sip, we individually poured out a small offering to Ñuke Mapu, or Mother Earth, on the ground. 

For those of us from the States, we knew just how lucky and privileged we were to be here in such a sacred moment. As a matter of fact, many of us grew a bit emotional as we stood in silence and took in the sight of the structures towering overhead. 

 

A thermal experience: the Geométricas hot springs

 

Now officially beyond the halfway point, our sixth day together was a much-needed rest and relaxation, with a little celebration thrown in for good measure.

As a result, we headed to the highlight of the day: the famous geometric thermal pools. We changed into our swimsuits and gingerly tested each pool before finding the one with just the right temperature to enjoy a good soak. To cool off in between, some of us braver souls jumped into the ice-cold waterfalls nestled between the pools before retreating back to the thermal pools for warmth. 

 

waterfall geometricas hot springs chile
Waterfall at the Geométricas hot springs

 

After a relax bath, we enjoyed a casual lunch and wished one of the students a very happy 20th birthday, complete with a traditional Chilean cake. Rested, rejuvenated, and more than nourished, we dozed off in the van for our journey to the final destination of our tour: the city of Valdivia.

 

Exploring Valdivia

 

Upon arrival, we readjusted to civilization with a walking tour through the Valdivian bustling city to its famous riverside boardwalk. There, we were met by the sights (and smells) of a local fish market and several corpulent sea lions lazing nearby in the hopes of catching a free lunch.

 

valdivia sea lion chile
Photo Credit: Caitlin McNamara

 

Then, we toasted to our first night in the city at a local brewery and enjoyed each other’s company over good music and pub eats. Finally, we headed back to the hotel to prepare for our final hiking adventure the next morning.

 

The Valdivian Coastal Reserve

 

Our last full day was spent exploring a part of the Valdivian Coastal Reserve. created with the help of The Nature Conservancy. First, we took an early ferry across the river along with local commuters. After a short drive along the Pacific coast, we met our local guide, Juan. We learned more about what we would see during the hike. In addition, he explained the Mapuche significance of the rainforest. 

 

valdivian rainforest
Ancient tree in the Valdivian rainforest

 

So, we ventured in through winding and shrouded roads into the belly of the rainforest where the trail began. After stocking up on our favorite cereal bars, we followed Juan into the lush green forest. We were greeted by stunning examples of local flora and fauna as we wound our way through the slightly slippery trail. We would stop every so often to listen to Juan’s expertise about each local plant species. 

 

 

Afterwards, as cracks of sunlight came through, Juan invited us to hug one of the most ancient coihue trees. Interestingly, the coihue is the sacred tree of the Mapuche people. So, as I wrapped my arms around the massive trunk of the coihue looming overhead. I felt a very peculiar surge of energy and promised myself to never forget the lessons I’ve learned along the way during this trip.

 

valdivia rainforest chile
Photo Credit: Caitlin McNamara

 

We journeyed onward to our main objective, a 2000 year old alerce tree tucked away in the depths of this forest. Igor invited one of the students to read a selection by Aldo Leopold. He was a famous naturalist from Iowa. So, we closed our eyes and listened as his wise words came to life in the forest.

When Leopold quoted Thoreau’s dictum, “in wildness is the salvation of the world”, many of us nodded in agreement. Some of us with a tear or two in our eyes at just how fitting those words continue to be not just after our tour, but also in our time on Earth. We took a few more minutes to appreciate the majesty of the giant alerce. Finally, we carried on toward a cluster of ancient alerce trees where we would end our hike. 

 

Juan, our local guide

 

Traditional beer culture for a farewell dinner

 

The Kunstmann is a Chilean-German brewery just outside the city. Certainly, this is one of Chile’s most well-known domestic breweries. Thus, we wasted no time getting settled to raise a glass to the past week spent together.

 

kuntsmann brewery chile
Iowa State University and Amity’s team at farewell dinner

 

During dinner, we sample various types of local beer and Chilean-German cuisine. Afterwards we happily rode back to the hotel for a much-needed last sleep ahead of our final day together.

Finally it was time to say “Chao for now”. After a week of exploring and achieving new heights through this hidden gem amidst Chile’s ample natural offering. As a result, we headed to Valdivia airport to catch the flight back to Santiago. 

 

Photo Credit: Caitlin McNamara

 

As we flew past the impressive Andes mountain range, I remembered what made me fall in love with Chile. It’s that inexplicable feeling of community you find in some of the most hidden corners of the world. What’s more, with folks you never would have dreamed of being lucky enough to break bread or clink a glass.

That is what reminds you of why life itself really is such a never-ending adventure. As Igor assured us as we said our farewells, “All moments lead us here,” and whether you’re a scientist, a student or a free spirit at heart, there’s no better philosophy than that.

 

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