Austral winter in the Andes of Southern Chile
Lakes and Volcanoes
“The Andes are a land of contrasts, with rugged mountains and lush valleys, and the natural beauty of the region is truly breathtaking.”, wrote Charles Darwin. WideOyster’s Frits Meyst didn’t have to think twice when he was invited to join a winter adventure on the lakes and volcanoes route in Chile. Intrigued by the forces of nature and indigenous Mapuche culture, he rode in the tracks of Che Guevara in the search for the perfect pictures and a good story.
Is this Jurrasic Park?
As the sturdy vintage 4×4 Mercedes van approaches the main gate, a guard opens the two heavy metal padlocks and the large metal gates slowly begin to open, revealing the lush green rainforest beyond. “Welcome to Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve” says our guide. The reserve is created by Victor Petermann, a wealthy businessman who owns a vast part of this region. As a second gate slams shut behind us, Kari, the Canadian photographer mutters: “This is the moment we get eaten by a T-rex, eh?”, picturing a scene straight from the Jurassic Park movie.
For 45 minutes long, the suspension of the 4×4 struggles to keep up with the road, through the dense trees. My kidneys wander and my teeth rattle, but then we reach the park rangers hut and the Huemul.
Huemul of Huilo Huilo
Francisca Ruiz, a wildlife ranger and Huemul researcher, awaits us for a tour. “The Huemul, or South Andean deer, is considered an endangered species, with an estimated population of around 4,000 individuals remaining in the wild.” she explains. “The reserve is working in conservation efforts to protect this species, monitoring the population and managing the habitat to ensure the survival of the Huemul.” As we stalk along the fence searching for the illusive deer, we learn that Huemul freeze when they sense danger, which was great for hunters, but didn’t help the Huemul population. For me as a photographer it’s a present, as I now have one of the estimated 25 Huemuls of the park on the picture. Time to move higher up the mountain.
Chile is part of the Pacific Ring of fire. There are 90 active volcanoes
The snowshoe hike in Huilo Huilo starts in the lush rainforest, where we are surrounded by towering trees covered in lichen. As we hike further, we get a glimpse from Lanín, an impressive stratovolcano with a snow-capped peak. It’s a sight to behold. The volcano is located on the border between Chile and Argentina, and it is one of the most iconic and important volcanoes in the Andes. As we climb out of the trees, Villarrica is also visible. This volcano stands out with a perfect cone shape and, invisible to us, its crater is filled with a glowing red lava lake. On the plane coming over, I read that Chile is part of the Pacific Ring of fire. There are 90 active volcanoes, the highest number in the world, with an eruption every seven years. Furthermore, there are over 1000 dormant or inactive volcanoes. Leaving the snow-capped volcanoes again for the green rainforest below, it is time to experience some of that volcanic power.
Pirihueico Lake is a large glacial lake surrounded by beautiful landscapes, offering panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes and the mighty Andes. We hop onto the boat that will bring us to Petermann’s hot springs. The steep volcanoes of the past few days have been hard on the legs, so we’ve earned a treat.
At the hot springs, Cristián, our guide from Amity Tours, calls us together for a toast. “What a wonderful group of people we have here: Andrew and Kari ski journalists from Canada, Camila, PR from the US, and Frits from WideOyster in Europe, Saludos a todos, my friends”
I find myself a bath in a dugout tree trunk between some ferns away from the crowd and soak in the healing powers of the natural Andean spa.
“The grandeur of the Andes was truly astonishing, and I was in awe of the vastness and beauty of the mountains”
Slogging up Lonquimay
It’s been a terrific trip so far. After arriving from Santiago we landed in Temuco in southern Chile, and yesterday we climbed Lonquimay… well Kari and Andrew skied up the volcano from the Corralco ski resort, and Cristián, Camila and me snowshoe-ed up to Sierra del Coloradito, a 600 metre climb over seven kilometres through the forest would lead us in about 3 hours to the view point according to Cristián.
Except… It is the end of winter and it’s exceptionally warm, almost 20C. Climbing up on snowshoes from Corralco to Sierra del Coloradito suddenly became a challenging experience. As we hiked up through the ancient Araucaria forest, the trail became steeper and more challenging, and we found ourselves sinking crotch-deep into the snow with each step, sweat pouring down our faces. Despite the near exhaustion, we pushed on to finally reach the viewpoint. The reward was there: A spectacular view over Lonquimay nearby, and Llaima volcano in the distance.
My eyes traced the valleys towards Argentina. That’s where the unknown Argentinian Ernesto Che Guevara crossed the border on his motorbike. It was somewhere here, in a remote bar, that he was beaten up in a brawl, while drinking with his buddies. Chile did not only impact on his face, Che was also deeply affected by the poverty and social injustice he encountered in the region. In his diaries he wrote “I have seen with my own eyes the injustice and misery that exists in this country, which is a true shame for the so-called civilization of the West.”
Guevara went on to do the Cuban Revolution, and we went on descending towards the village of Lonquimay, a grid of dusty roads, lined by wooden houses in various stages of photogenic disrepair. It’s not so long ago that villages like this were remote outposts, until a few decades ago the Corralco ski resort was built, and with it came a new economic drive. A few B&B’s and hotels, a great restaurant, and of course the artisanal Lonquimay beer brewery.
“I used to walk 10 kilometres with the students to ski at Lonquimay volcano. We’d sleep in snow caves. The parents thought I was crazy, but 40 years later those kids still come by to visit me”
Learning from Tio Pepe
Just off the main drag, a local man, named José Córdova, steps out of his shed, ski’s in hand. ‘Everybody-calls-me-Tío-Pepe’ looks very fit for his age and has a tanned face. Back in the eighties he was the principal of the local school, teaching native Pewenche kids to ski, right in front of the school. They had never done anything like it. “I used to walk 10 kilometres with the students to ski at Lonquimay volcano. We’d sleep in snow caves. The parents thought I was crazy, but 40 years later those kids still come by to visit me.” Many of them are now park rangers, ski instructors, ski patrol, etc. Later Tío Pepe went on to become a coach for the national Paralympics winter team, coming home from Canada with 30 medals for Chile. Now He’s 78, retired, and has a lifetime ski pass for Corralco, where you can find him skiing on a daily basis with his typical fur hat.
“Frits! Frits! Wake up, we’re leaving soon, time to get back to the Nothafagus hotel for dinner” It’s Cristián standing over my tree trunk hot tub. I’ve dozed off and got sidetracked in dreamland.
Speaking of dreamland, Nothafagus hotel is Victor Petermann’s dream. It consists of 2 buildings that blend into the landscape. One is a multi-story hobbit house, and the other a round wooden tower with a spiralling walkway on the inside. It’s clear, Petermann dreams big. Owning, multiple businesses, most of the land, a bioreserve, a restaurant on the lake, a thermal spa, and a hotel in the forest, then you also need to have a brewery. So dinner that night is a liquid one in the Petermann Brewery.
Nothofagus hotel is designed to blend seamlessly into the natural surroundings. The design is characterized by its use of sustainable materials
Cooking Mapuche Food
The Mapuche are indigenous people central and southern Chile. They are known for their strong cultural identity, having their own language, traditions, and spiritual beliefs. Despite the challenges of repression and exploitation, they have faced throughout history, the they have managed to preserve their culture and identity, and continue to play an important role in Chilean society.
Today we are invited into the ruka of Isabel Naguil and her family near Calafquen Lake. The ruka is a smoky round wooden building with a central firepit. Isabel roasts wheat over the open fire, beautifully lit by a beam of sunlight that falls through the hole in the roof. “We are Pewenche, a subgroup of the Mapuche, which means people of the pehuén, the Mapuche name for the monkey puzzle tree.” She explains. “They are the trees you’ve been hiking between in the past days, and are almost extinct due to logging.” It turns out that the tree is holy to the Pewenche, delivering their staple food: Pine nuts. As lunchtime progresses, we join Isabel in the food preparation. Grinding merken spice out of dried chilis, salt and coriander seeds. Making sopaipillias, a fried bread, and Pebre, a tomato, coriander, onion, salt and olive oil dip. After lunch I sort of roll into the van and fall asleep, only to wake up in the middle of a blizzard.
When she jumped into the volcano, a powerful blizzard extinguished the eruption
We have arrived in Antillanca Ski Resort, located at the slopes of the Casablanca volcano in Puyehue National Park. After an attempt at snowshoeing in the driving snow we admit defeat. There is always tomorrow. Back in the safety of the van, with the horizontal snow blasting the windscreen, I reminiscence the story that Isabel told about Licarayen, the Mapuche who sacrificed her life to save her people during an eruption of Osorno. When she jumped into the volcano, a powerful blizzard extinguished the eruption and the melting waters created the lakes that nowadays surround Osorno. Today Licarayen’s spirit is at work again, doing her job protecting us.