Ruaridh Pringle 1996

Chile’s spectacular Lake District is home to some of the world’s most unusual forests. Ruaridh Pringle discovers what we came perilously close to losing.

     ‘As you can see, this area’s been devastated. And badly overgrazed. It was logged before the reserve was created.’

     I stared at the hillside meadows, their riots of flowers and crimson-bloomed fuchsia thickets humming with mouse-sized bees, comparing this ‘devastation’ with the heather desert normal back in Scotland. But then, this was Chile. As I was discovering, things are different here. Ultra-violet hammered my shoulders as my little group sweated onwards up the scrubby hillside. At length a fence appeared.

     ‘Here we are: Sentuario Cañi.’

     The speaker, owlish, elongate American Saul Harper, worked for the Fundación Lahuén, a charity which manages Chile’s first private national nature reserve: 500 hectare Sentuario Cañi, in the Lake District of northern Patagonia. He was interpreting for our guide: quietly cheerful 20 year-old Jorge Roa, who lived with his parents and two brothers in the nearby village of Pichares. When not guiding small groups into the reserve, Jorge worked as a builder. He and Saul were grinning like boys sharing a secret.

     Beyond the fence lay the bleached remains of a wooden timber mill. Above loomed moss-bearded trees. I followed as Jorge stole off between the lichen-painted trunks, Saul loping happily along behind. The rich air was resinous, and blissfully cool. It seemed charged. Expectant. As though we had gate-crashed something intimate. Unfamiliar birdsong twanged and clattered nervously.

     As we progressed uphill, the undergrowth grew waist-high. ‘Mind the stinging nettles’, warned Saul, as the trail avoided a fallen tree. ‘One touch burns for hours.’

     It looked like no nettle I was familiar with. Flowers like hellish kumquats crowned fleshily leaved stalks; all bristling with half-centimetre spines. I lamented the trousers I wasn’t wearing.

     ‘Go right through trousers,’ added Saul, helpfully. ‘There are plants here for treating stings, however.’

     ‘Any poisonous snakes?’

     ‘No. But we’ve fatal species of spider. And tarantulas. But they’re cuddly.’

     The path dipped to a mud wallow, then rose again through thinning coigue and lenga: trees of the beech family, hung with shawls of moss. Tiger-patterned flowers splashed the pungent loam of more open areas. Unseen birds cackled dementedly. The ground levelled, and I saw my first monkey-puzzle tree.

     It was a small one, and a bit scraggy, but it made my heart leap. This bizarre, spiky tree - a survivor from an age before pines evolved - was one reason I had flown half way around the world. The araucaria, to use its proper name (‘monkey-puzzle’ being something only colonials could concoct, there being no monkeys here), grows naturally only in localised areas of northern Patagonia; requiring a precise combination of environmental conditions in which to thrive.

     The story of Sentuario Cañi mirrors the battle for the future of the tree itself.

     In the 1980's, Briton Martin Quartermaine and his North American wife, Katherine Bragg, ran a cheese farm below the forested upland plateau of El Cañi (named from an indigenous word meaning ‘vision that transforms’). In 1988 they narrowly prevented an Australian company clear-felling El Cañi by raising enough money to buy the area in just two weeks. They were ill-equipped to care for it however, so in 1991, joined by Rick Klein of Ancient Forests International in California, and Nicole Mintz, another North American living in Chile, they started the Fundación Lahuén to run El Cañi as a reserve, kick-starting Chile’s environmental movement. Before long, Chile’s first post-military government had outlawed the cutting of araucaria trees.

     Araucaria grew steadily in number and size as we walked until they were like riots of gothic candelabra. A bleached wooden hut appeared by a mirror-smooth lake patrolled by dragonflies. Rising above it was a rocky bluff: El Mirador, highest point in El Cañi.

     Built for ranchers, the hut now marks a campsite for visitors. On their second day here were a pleasant couple from Seattle and their guides: two typically cheerful Chilenos. As one offered a knife for my cheese, his charges described the Patagonian south. ‘Disappointed by Torres del Peigne.’ They agreed. ‘Over-hyped. It’s the unsung places that are unforgettable. Like here. This is something else.’

     I trailed Jorge and Saul up the steep hillside above the lake, through eruptions of yellow blooms like tiny art-deco lampshades. We reached a thinly forested ridge. Between the branches were glimpses of four encircling snow-capped volcanoes. The ridge became a narrowing spine of rocks and araucaria roots. In Britain, I had considered araucaria fascinating but ugly. Here, as an inseparable part of the landscape, they were majestic.

     El Mirador’s rocky summit proved a remarkable viewpoint. Ink blots rimmed with gold - some of El Cañi’s 17 lakes - spattered forested basins below. I could imagine the huge saurians the araucaria had once shared the planet with crashing through the trees, but we and the American group were the only creatures larger than a puma here today.

     Above ranks of forested ridges, three volcanoes traced a westwards-moving hot-spot in the earth’s crust. The oldest, Volcán Lanín, in Argentina, was an inert cone. Next was sprawling Volcán Quetrupillán, and finally active 2440m Volcán Villarica, puffing gently. Some ridges had treeless patches. ‘Fire,’ assured Saul. ‘Clear felling here’s unlikely now, because of the way the land is owned. Biggest problem is Hydro Power. Government wants to dam all Pacific-flowing rivers because Chile resents depending on Argentina for fossil-fuels. Biobío’s the first nearby to go.’

     A world-renowned whitewater rafting river, the Biobío was a rallying cry of Chilean conservation. The government’s plans to submerge the river and vast areas of pristine forest caused an international outcry.

     ‘That’s going ahead?’

     ‘Already has. This is the last year it can be rafted.’

     I recalled yesterday’s rafting on the Alto Trancura: a river near Chile’s brash young outdoor adventure capital, Pucón. Despite Volcán Villarica looming over it, Pucón does a good impression of Wyoming’s Jackson Hole, or Banff in Alberta. The farm where my South American rafting experience began was linked to the main road by three hours of adrenaline. Rapids ahead were visible only when the raft in front would vanish - soundlessly, despite the screaming there must have been. The Biobío was an expedition of two days minimum.

     Through Jorge’s binoculars, we watched processions of creeping specks on Volcán Villarica’s perfect conical flank. They were engulfed by clouds of fumes, much to Jorge and Saul’s amusement. ‘Villarica is Chile’s most climbed mountain’, said Saul. ‘Holiday refugees from Santiago climb it as their lifetime mountain experience. Local guides now have a cosy arrangement with the tourist office: you can’t climb the volcano without paying sixty dollars each for a guide.’

     This wasn’t quite true. I climbed it for the price of an illicit midnight taxi to the roadhead. Standing on the smoking starlit summit crater rim listening to the rumble of ruby lava in its throat, I had watched the rising sun glide past Volcan Lanín, casting Volcán Villarica’s shadow towards the Pacific: a gigantic plume-tipped triangle receding across fields and forests surrounding Lago Villarica.

     ‘What are property insurance premiums like in Pucón?’

     Saul translated for Jorge, who laughed. ‘The volcano’s nearly obliterated it twice since 1971. No-one considers tomorrow in Pucón.’

     Eventually, Jorge suggested we leave, defusing the order with typically oblique Chilean humour. At the hut the Americans were stowing their tent as their guides sat shaded by the eaves. The descent was steep, and there was 1000m of it. I was glad of my walking pole. Deepening light found us ambling through ramshackle farmland towards the eccentric HQ of the Fundación Lahuén.

     Promoting ecotourism has become a major aim of the foundation. Six guides currently work in El Cañi during the summer. Like most Chilenos, however, they speak only Chilean Spanish, and attempts are being made to expand language skills. The foundation is increasingly involved in environmental education; aiming to foster community environmental awareness and re-establish it as tradition through school projects and festivals. A Native Plant Nursery provides skills and employment for local people, and the Lahuén Refugio helps local women improve their lives and develop forest products to sell.

     As I ate plums from the hedgerows, listening to Jorge and Saul, I found the disarming Chilean optimism rubbing off. As everywhere, Bad Things are happening here. Blunders have left scars on landscapes and people that will never heal. But with prodigious natural resources and a relatively sparse population, Chile remains a country to confound jaded preconceptions. It has a vigorous economy, a population of extraordinarily good-humoured, friendly people, and a scenic variety most countries can only dribble over.

     I floated in my hot spring in a quiet Lake District valley. Today, another vegetarian feast at the Hostería ¡École! Restaurant, and an afternoon of sailing over Lago Villarica; diving from its deserted rocky northern shore. As I wondered what tomorrow would bring, I found myself recalling a poem by Mapuche Indian poet Elicura Chihuailaf:

     This is the land where stars live

     In this sky you can hear water singing its dreams.

     From beyond the clouds that surge

     out of these waters and this soil

     our ancestors are dreaming on us.

     Their spirit, it is said, is the full moon

     and the silence, their beating heart.

     I watched the moon arc slowly between the waving tree tops, and thought: maybe it’s true.


WHERE DO I FLY TO? There are no direct flights to Patagonia from the UK, but flights leave London Heathrow daily for Chile’s capital Santiago. Demand for seats is often high. Cheapest return flights are around £540 (including taxes), and can involve one change and three stops. High-season tickets (dates vary between airlines) can cost £750. Approach bucket-shops and tour operators (e.g. Trailfinders 0171 938 3939, Journey Latin America 0181 747 3108, South American Experience 0171 976 5511, STA Travel 0171 602 9889) for cheaper hauliers like Iberia and Aerolineas Argentinas. If you’ve the budget, £50-£100 extra for a more direct flight (e.g. British Airways, 0345 222111) is well spent.

WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO APPROACH THE LAKE DISTRICT? Chile has an impressive network of cheap, fast, comfortable coaches. It’s rarely necessary to book more than a few hours ahead. The journey from Santiago to Temuco, capital of northern Patagonia, takes 11 hours, and costs around £10 (£18 for overnight sleepers with beds). From Temuco, regular buses service Pucón (1½ hours, £1.25 to £3 single). An alternative is the overnight train service from Santiago to Temuco, although its future is uncertain. The charming colonial-era ‘Cama’ sleeper compartments (£17 to £25 one-way) are recommended. You can watch the passing countryside from the lower bunks. Upper bunks are cheaper and more comfortable, but with no view. A network of domestic flights is offered by airlines LanChile, Ladeco and National Airlines. Fares from Santiago to Temuco are approximately £80 (single). 21-day air passes cost between £155 and £300, depending mainly on the number of flights, and must be purchased outside Chile. They are available in Britain from, among others, Journey Latin America (0181 747 3108) and South American Experience (0171 976 5511), who also sell passes covering more than one country. Cars can be hired in Santiago and Temuco from around £45 per day.

WILL TOUR OPERATORS TAKE ME? Some tours visit Pucón, but concentrate on the most popular attractions, ignoring gems like El Cañi. Likewise, tailor-made tours are restricted to what’s offered by affiliated operators in Chile. Examples are offered by Journey Latin America (0181 747 3515) and South American Experience (0171 976 5511).

CAN I TRAVEL INDEPENDENTLY? Independent travel in Chile is recommended. You won’t find more helpful, welcoming people, and are less likely to be a crime victim than in Britain. Pucón offers enough outdoor activities to occupy anyone for months. Not speaking Spanish can be a drawback elsewhere in Chile, but rarely here.

WHO SHOULD I CONTACT ABOUT VISITING THE AREA? Excursions to El Cañi are organised from the Hostería ¡École! in Pucón, and run December-March (plus occasional winter snowshoe excursions). Including transport and guides, day-trips cost £15; overnight trips £38 including meals (sleeping equipment can be rented). ¡École! arrange numerous other activities including ascents of Volcán Villarrica, visits to hot springs, horse riding, kayaking, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and expeditions further afield, plus courses including massage therapy, acupressure and Spanish. The approach is informal (you’ll have to organise getting to Pucón), but itineraries can be tailor-made. The Hostería offers a variety of clean, friendly, charmingly eclectic accommodation (£4.50 to £10 per person per night), and an exceptional vegetarian restaurant. Contact: Hostería, Restaurant y Expeditions & iexcl;¡École!, General Urrutia 592, Pucón, IX Región, Chile. Telephone/Fax (0056) (45) 441675. Email: . Website: . Alternative accommodation ranges from hostels to five-star hotels. Contact Pucón Tourist Office, Tel. (0056) (45) 441916.

CAN I ADD ON OTHER PARTS OF SOUTH AMERICA? Easily. Ruaridh Pringle came here from Argentina. Temuco is on the main north-south route between southern Patagonia and Northern Chile. Travellers typically visit the Lake District on their way south.

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO GO? The Springtime (September through November) and Autumn (February to April) are best. Summers are sunny, but hot. Winter sports are booming in Chile, with world-class downhill and cross-country skiing.

HEALTH PRECAUTIONS: always protect skin and eyes from the sun: courtesy of the southern ozone hole, UV levels are sky-high in Patagonia. Chile requires no vaccinations for entry, but typhoid, polio, tetanus and diphtheria immunisation are recommended. Generally, Chilean food is stomach-friendly, and hygiene good.

BACKGROUND READING: Chile & Easter Island Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet, £11.99).

FURTHER INFORMATION: Chilean Embassy:12 Devonshire St. London W1N 2DS, Tel. 0171 580 1023. Useful websites: Chile-Travel at , and Go Chile at .