Approaching the end of the trip reminds us a lot of the beginnings. More pavement as in Canada and USA, Pacific ocean as on the Oregon coast, more lakes and glaciers as in the Canadian rockies… We wanted to spice it up so we added a dirt element again – Monkey Puzzle Trail in the regions of Bio Bio and Araucania of Chile.
We found this route on bikepacking.com, best resource for this kind of fun. After saiyin goodbye to the Pacific in Concepcion, we headed inland. Actually the story starts before we approached the initial point of the route, little town Ralco.
We crawled out of the tent about 8 kms before Ralco where we wild camped and shared the site with more campers as it was Saturday and summer and Chileans love camping. After the morning coffee, Tom asked me: “Did you put my shoes somewhere?” At that point only we realised his shoes were missing. I don’t wish you the feeling knowing it was most likely somebody of the fellow campers who stole the shoes. Shoes that did show so many signs of wear and tear we couldn’t believe somebody wanted to steal them. Shoes size 45 – not a size many Latin Americans wear. You can try to persuade yourself it’s for somebody’s prospect and they may have needed them but at the same time there’s this sour feeling of injustice and what’s worse, imagining how after trying them on and not fitting, they threw them somewhere in the ditch as per usual manner.
Our day was spoilt thanks to this incident. We packed and Tom put on his sandals. After Ralco there’s still pavement for some time that gives way to a very dusty, quite washboarded road. Being Sunday in high season we were constantly dusted with a fresh layer by the passing cars so we called it a day quite early, hoping next day would be better.
The stretch to Comunidad Chequenco is not overly interesting. The routine was thankfully broken by a fresh tortilla coming straight out of the oven from a local lady. In Chile tortilla means bread that’s baked on fire, rather than typical Mexican or Central American corn staple. In Chequenco we also had a pleasure of discovering local culture of pissing anywhere and everywhere. When I was waiting for Tom in front of the tienda, a bus stopped there. A young guy came out and started urinating right behind my back, behind the bus. He didn’t even bother to go a little bit further to the side of the road. When I asked him (while pissing), if he considered this normal, I was told that Chile is libre (free) and he can piss wherever he wants. So for the next visit, dear readers, you know what to do to fit in.
We spent the night at the unofficial campground at Señora Andrea house, bathed in the river and chatted with a young man from Santiago who was on a trip around the country to get some honey producers to cooperate with his e-shop. In the morning there was an infamous part of the trail waiting to be tackled. Hike-a-bike from the river and then joining a “road” that’s supposedly even worse. While descending to the river, we were cheered by some goats who were joyfully dropping rocks on our heads from the hill they were standing on. After crossing the bridge there it was. Tiny path zig-zagging its way up the steep hill. Covered in loose rocks and sand. Very soon we understood this would be better done in a team. Both of us pushed one bike at a time and after some time we were on a plateau.
This is a Mapuche country. Mapuche are a group of indigenous inhabitants of south-central Chile (and southwestern Argentina) that has been oppressed by the Chilean government. When we got on the plateau, there was a house and a big sign “recuperación”, meaning claiming the land back. We heard from other cyclists that locals had refused their passage but we didn’t have any problems and it seemed like nobody was there.
After roughly 4 kilometres we reached the dirt road from Guallali. It was continuing uphill to the pass around 1300 metres and we ended up pushing most of it, on the steep finish both of us pushed one bike again. In the meantime we had to fix Tom’s broken chain and the sandals didn’t like this hike a bike at all. Part of the sandal fell apart but thanfully we’re ready and carry surgical equipment in the first aid kit! The road was partially washed down, covered with loose rocks and there was a deep canyon in the middle. We were so happy when we reached the top, not knowing that the downhill will also be a challenge. Here the road was mostly covered in a layer of dust and it was very steep so even though I stood on my brakes, the bike was slipping. I ended up pushing downhill part of it.
After some kilometres we got out of the forest and started our late lunch there. Only us and the cows. We only met three cars on this road throughout the whole day! We were so knackered we fell asleep and woke up almost at 6pm. Swiftly we decided this was an amazing area to camp and who cares we only did 10 kilometres that day. We found a place far from the road by a little stream, washed away all the dust and sweat and slept like babies, knowing there hardly would be any people to disturb our night.
Next morning the downhill continued to Lago Ralco and back up to Lolco. We took pictures with Lolco sign and our Lol(c)o and carried on towards the volcano. After Lolco the road was extremely dusty and the cars passing by left us covered in a decent layer of dust. Phoebe and Lolo couldn’t run for long as the sand was extremely hot. We crossed river Lolco over a little bridge and first araucarias came into view. These funny looking trees are called monkey puzzle trees as well and are the national tree for Chile as well as one of the sacred ones for Mapuche people. We headed uphill steadily and it was actually quite a pleasant ride. When more and more araucarias came into view, we took out the drone even. The scenery reminded us a lot of wax palm trees in Colombia where the trees played the primary role in choosing a route.
Spending the night surrounded by this special flora was priceless. Surprisingly, we woke up with a layer of ice on the tent. Soon we were passing by a huge lava field that’s there since 1988 when Christmas brought an eruption of Lonquimay volcano and it lasted 13 months. Therefore one of the craters is called Navidad. When we arrived at the mirador of volcano Lonquimay, our quiet and pleasant times ended. Most people visit this place from the other side as the road is easier and partly paved.
When we got on top of the second high pass that day, we met some Mapuches selling cooked seeds of monkey puzzle trees. We heard how good and nutritious they were from our warmshowers host in Concepción and of course we had to try them. We have to plant some araucarias in our future garden, I’m telling you. Insanely good food, such a nature’s gift.
In Lonquimay the local bomberos gave us a shelter. What we found interesting is that Chile doesn’t have professional firefighters, only volunteers. We slept in their backyard and in the morning headed out on 14kms long cycle path which was a nice surprise looking at the highway nearby. Soon we swapped it for a dirt road with quite some traffic that disappeared after the turn-off to the last pass of this route. We were crossing Mapuche land where we could see their simple dwellings and once had to ask for a permission to pass. But there was no problem at all. The valley was wide and beautiful, covered with monkey puzzle trees. When we got to the presumably last place where we could get water, we realised there’s a series of beautiful waterfalls. It didn’t take us long to decide to camp here. When we were cooking dinner, a group of 5 Chileans came on a pick-up truck to see the waterfalls (this will have a surprising continuation, wait for the end).
The last day we were crossing through China Muerte Reserve that sadly caught on fire in 2015 and it’s very sad to watch the dead nature and black bodies of monkey puzzle trees. For us it wasn’t a long passage as it was a fast downhill but for people heading opposite direction, it’s few hours of thinking about the causes I guess. The Monkey Puzzle Trail ends in Melipeuco but for us it was only a place for lunch and then we continued towards Villarica.
At the end of the day, we appeared in a tiny village Las Hortensias. Looking at ioverlander app, knowing it was Saturday and all the spots would be full of partying locals, we contemplated where to go. Suddenly a voice : “Hello, do you remember me? We met yesterday at the waterfalls.” The group of people from the pick-up truck, was staying with their family member in this village! 80 kms from where we originally met. Suddenly we had a safe place to stay, listening to their cheerful karaoke until late :). These kinds of stories will stay with us forever!