Chile Road Trip Part 1: Yin and Yang

The idea for the road trip started long before we reached Chile. Alex read a blog post about an epic adventure through the long, narrow country sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific and it was settled: a three-week camping road trip through Chile.

We secured the car. We spent two plus days in Santiago obtaining all the camping gear (no easy feat it turns out), and we set off on a Friday for our own epic adventure. The first several days we met with more adversity than we had hoped for: getting pulled over for an illegal left turn (or for being gringoes, we’re still not sure about that) in San Fernando, flat tire in the middle of nowhere in the rain, turned back by snow (twice!). But it was also filled with pre-historic Monkey puzzle forests, exquisite local wine, deserted campgrounds, elusive birds, a smoking volcano, rich sunsets, new friends, and thunderous waterfalls. As our positive experiences grew in number, the adversity faded away, each day offering new beauty and discovery.

Cholchagua Valley

We knew our first stop would be the Colchagua Valley, world renowned for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere wines. However, we hadn’t done much research on the area wineries, expecting that it would be similar to the Willamette Valley where there are signs everywhere pointing you to ever greater tastings.

That wasn’t really the case here where there are dozens of vineyards but very few open to the public without a reservation. After some wrong turns and bad directions, we finally made it to Viu Manent, one of the stalwart vineyards of the valley. We drove the long road in, surrounded by grape vines, just breaking into new spring leaves, the fresh green glinting in the setting sun. Within five minutes of our arrival, we sat down to a private tasting of an amazing array of their wines, seven in all, each one better than the last. Our somalier was enjoyable to talk to, her excellent English attributable to having watched all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (!)

Parque Nacional Altos del Lircay

Our first national park stop wasn’t even on the itinerary (such that we had one at all) until we were preparing for a long day driving and I noticed it on the map about halfway to a much further destination. It promised an epic loop hike to a basalt plateau overlooking the Andes. We showed up when the info station was closed for lunch (a common occurrence on the trip as Chilenos close up shop for 2-3 hours each day during lunch time). So we walked around looking at new bird species (fire-eyed diucon and thorn-tail rayodito were highlights) waiting for someone to ask about camping and hiking.

We found out that camping was 2 km up the road and we offered a ride to a couple hitchiking through Chile. We emptied out the backseat and they piled in with huge packs on their laps, a very tight fit. We left the info station and got about 100 meters only to learn that our little car would not make it up the road. So we all piled out and they proceeded to walk in with their gear.

We weren’t totally set up for backpaking so we decided to hike in first to check out the camping options. Once we got there we knew immediately we would stay.

The campground was nearly deserted with gorgeous sites overlooking huge snow covered mountains (and hot water taboot!). So we hiked back to our car to get our gear and hitched a ride back to the campground with the park ranger (in her high clearance truck).

We started out on our hike early the next morning, already aware that the epic loop to the basalt plateau was inacessible due to snow. What we hadn’t counted on was that being early spring in the southern hemisphere, much of the Andes were still covered in the white stuff. But we set our sites on “point 6” on the park map, which the park rangers assured us was accessible.

The hike was beautiful, crossing multiple small and large mountain streams, through huge live oak and beech forests.

Every so often the trees would give way to beautiful miradors of the surrounding snow covered peaks and ridges or into the valleys below.

We spent a lot of time birding as multiple species darted in and out of the trees like the white throated tree runner and Patagonia sierra-finches. But the real highlight was the Magellanic Woodpecker. Both male and females are striking to look at, the male with his large fire engine red head and the female with her Phyllis Dillar-esque floppy black head feathers.

Male Magellanic Woodpecker - Tolhuaca National Park Campground

We only made it to “point 5” on the map before the ankle deep snow (and our wet feet) convinced us it was time to turn around. But all was not lost as that evening we enjoyed an enduring and colorful sunset which lit up the mountain keeping watch over our camp.

And a chestnut throated huet-huet made an appearance. Our abbreviated experience in Parque Nacional Altos del Lircay had us hungry for more Chilean adventure.

Parque Nacional Tolhuaca

Alex set his sites on Parque Nacional Tolhuaca during early research for the road trip. Inaccessible by public transportation, it was the perfect stop for us with a rental car. And the promised old growth Monkey puzzle forest just sweetened the deal.

Monkey puzzle trees (araucaria araucana) are native to Chile and Argentina and are one of the oldest living plants on earth, believed to have originated in the Triassic period, 210 million years ago. Their reptilian like branches give the tree a pre-historic look as well. The seeds are prized for food by local indigenous cultures. The species is considered endangered by the UN and logging was banned in 1990. They grow well in temperate climates and are a popular garden tree in Portland.

We were excited to see the trees in their native habitat, but we weren’t excited about the 45 km gravel road we’d have to navigate in our little sedan. Luckily, after the first 20 km the road turned into a smooth, newly maintained route. Alex took advantage of this fact to get us there as quickly as possible as the dark clouds above us threatened rain. But as the rain drops started to fall, the car started to skid right to left on the road and we knew we had a flat. We changed it quickly and realized we’d have to drive another 40+ km on gravel to get to the closest town the next day to get it fixed. Surprisingly, we took this in stride as we made our way through the increasingly hard rain to the park. (I should note that Alex is very adept at changing tires. When we were first dating, I got a flat in my car and he immediately jumped out and said “time me.” He had it changed in 2.5 minutes!)

We were the only visitors to the park that evening with the campground all to ourselves. The rain even let up and we enjoyed a relatively dry dinner before retiring to the tent. The next morning we got up early to head to the Lago Verde trailhead, 10km down the road.

The day was bleak and cold as we hiked through the thick bamboo understory, beech trees towering overhead.

As we ascended the steep trail, our first Monkey puzzle trees came into view (they thrive at higher elevations).

We continued up the trail as the Monkey puzzle became the dominant species in the forest and finally arrived at the Laguna Verde outlet, the creek dropping dozens of meters to the valley below.

We hiked through a bit of snow to reach the lake itself, shrouded in mist and surrounded by large Monkey puzzle trees.

The gray skies, large trees and some familiar looking plants made it feel like we could be in the Pacific NW but with an entirely different ecosystem. We would have loved to explore more of the lake, but the cold temperatures, snow and knowledge that we had a long, slow drive ahead to get our tire fixed, forced us to make a quick retreat back down the trail.

Pucon and Parque Nacional Huerquehue

After getting a new tire (the old one was unrepairable), our wallets that much lighter from the experience, we headed to Parque Nacional Conguiillo. Unfortunately, upon arrival we learned that the road was closed due to snow (they could have told us that 20km back when we took a left at the fork for the park).

But all was not lost because on our way to our next destination, we saw our first Andean condors (three of them) soaring over the forest!

Pucon was our next stop, a popular tourist and outdoor destination. Luckily for us, we were way ahead of the peak tourist season and it felt more like a sleepy lakeside town. Our time in Pucon was all business. We took advantage of good internet and the opportunity to buy new shoes! (New shoes are very exciting after four months wearing the same ones every day. Plus mine were literally falling apart).

We headed out of Pucon to Parque Nacional Huerquehue (pronounced Wear-kay-way) for more alpine lakes, waterfalls and Monkey puzzle trees, plus FREE camping on serene Lago Tinquilco (according to the sign it should have been $15/night, but the ranger told us it was free so we didn’t ask questions).

The hike here was tough, heading straight up from Lago Tinquilco into an alpine lakes basin (which we could only partially explore due to…you guessed it…snow!).

But the massive old growth trees, gushing waterfalls and crystal clear lakes along the way made it more awe inspiring than grueling. We hiked through gorgeous ancient forest mouths agape and feeling reminded of some of our favorite hikes at home. We took note of one species that looked a lot like our Pacific yew but grew about three times larger. Others looked like nothing we had seen before, and all were entirely stunning.

We took two detours to the Nido de Aguila and Trufulco waterfalls (the latter reminded me of a Class IV rapid – had it been horizontal rather than vertical – with water shooting straight out from giant rock ledges at several points).

Salto Trufulco - Huerquehue NP

And our ultimate reward was three alpine lakes tucked into a bowl surrounded by towering peaks and granite walls. (Little did we realize there would be another reward when we reached the end of the trail in the form of a dessert shack, selling homemade chocolates and cookies!)

We capped off our time near Pucon with a trip to the Los Pozones hot springs, one of several private thermas in the area.


The riverfront city of Valdivia feels a bit like it has seen better days. It appears to have a thriving food and drink scene, including El Growler, a brewery and restaurant opened by a guy from Roseburg who we enjoyed meeting.

But the core of town is filled with abandoned buildings and tons of graffiti. It’s pretty but gritty at the same time.

We came to Valdivia to meet up with Trevor, a former Bark volunteer, whose mom also happened to be in a book club with Alex’s mom decades ago. The moms ran into each other a few weeks before we came to Chile, and we made contact with Trevor who kindly invited us for dinner and to stay the night.

The dinner invitation offered me an excuse to visit Valdivia’s riverside farmers’ (and fisherman’s) market. I’ve never seen so many types of fish for sale! Big, small, shell or shiny, they were all on offer. Most of them, I had never heard of before.

Being vegetarian, I gravitated to the vegetable section of the small market excited to see that asparagus and artichokes were in season!

That evening we enjoyed a tasty meal with Trevor, his wife Waleska, Waleska’s mom and their two kids, Teo and Juliana. They were so welcoming and warm; we enjoyed playing with the kids, talking to Trevor about his work with World Wildlife Fund and hearing about their property, which sits within a recovering forest (former sheep pasture) above the Cutipai River.

The next morning we enjoyed a stroll along the river through the forest with Trevor and Teo in search of the elusive Chucao tapaculo (a sweet little bird), which we continued to hear constantly but had yet to see. Unfortunately, we saw no Chucaos but we had a great time hunting dinosaurs with Teo, as he collected cones in his hat to take home. At the end of the hike, we got to try a local native plant that many enjoy on salads called Nalca.

Oh and we also visited the Kunstmann Brewery where Alex enjoyed a sampler tray and I had the best Chocolate Beer ever made!

Our time with Trevor’s incredibly sweet and generous family was the perfect end to the first week of our road trip.

Chile Bird Species: giant coot^, andean gull^, andean goose^, rufus collared sparrow^, house sparrow^, puna teal^, long tailed meadowlark, southern lapwing, austral thrush, shiny cowbird, chilean mockingbird, chimango caracara, austral blackbird, american kestral^, california quail, austral parakeet, fire-eyed diucon, patagonia sierra-finch, chilean flicker, white-throated treerunner, thorn-tailed rayodito, plain-mantled tit-spinetail (central), chilean white crested elaenia, peruvian white crested elaenia, common diuca-finch, black chinned siskin, tufted tit-tyran, chilean swallow, southern house wren, magellanic woodpecker, chestnut-throated huet-huet, black faced ibis^, slender billed parakeet, andean condor, black-throated huet-huet, barn owl, variable hawk^, black necked swan, brown hooded gull, peruvian pelican^, turket vulture^, black vulture^, cocoi heron^, great grebe, chiloe wigeon, black-crowned night heron^ (^ denotes species seen in other countries previously on this trip)

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