Saturday, January 30, 2016

Monkey Puzzles and Mudslides, January 26th-29th

Lonquimay-Quinquén-Melipeuco-Cunco-Trafanpulli-Caburgua-Pucón

It`s sad to say goodbye to our wonderful little cabaña in Lonquimay and the cute lady who runs the place, but we're always excited to get on the road again. Soon we`re back on a remote dirt track that, unfortunately, has a lot of traffic. I guess that's what happens when you're traveling during summer vacation in a country where poeople can afford personal cars. In many ways, in Chile, I feel like we're back in North America.

Happily, we lose the traffic when we turn onto an even smaller dirt road that takes us through tunnels of monkey puzzle trees, along gentle meadows, and across muddy streams. In the afternoon we reach a section of forest that has been recently burnt, giving the impression that it's autumn.

Riding through monkey puzzle tree forest

The textured bark of the araucaria

As we descend through a striking granite canyon, we are surprised to encounter a group of guys with a large rifle set up on a tripod. It seems to be aimed at a coke bottle on the bridge? We're not sure what to make of them, but they turn out to be a funny and helpful bunch. They recommend a camp spot, and we find an even better one: soft pine needles blanketing the flat banks of a clear-flowing river, and a big log to sit on.

It's tough to start the next day when everything seems to be going wrong. I notice that some creature seems to have chewed a large hole in the side of my plastic bowl overnight, one of our stakes is so stuck in the ground that it takes five minutes to get it out, and my bottle cage is falling off my bike. Luckily, the day turns around for the better as we begin to bike and spot a double rainbow arching over the sky. As we get the camera out to take a photo, it vanishes again into the mist.

The mysterious hole in Tam`s bowl

It's not long before we're in our first small town. When we see a post office, we stop to mail my journal home and Danny's postcard.  The "post office" is a tiny room scattered with papers and envelopes. I imagine that if you looked under some of these stacks, you could find things from hundreds of years ago. I'm honestly a bit apprehensive to mail anything here, especially because the elderly man hunched behind the counter doesn't appear to hear me when I say "buenos dias." My fears subside, however, when he comes over to the counter and looks up at me with twinkling eyes behind tiny round glasses. He helps me mail my stuff and makes me laugh at every step of the process. What a funny character.

It's been spitting rain all day, but it makes up its mind to really pour in the afternoon. We splash through another town and then down to Lago Colico, where we find a delightful covered pavilion.  None of us likes to pay for camping, but a covered dry area to set up the tents is worth it today. Plus, it's a beautiful setting.

The chainlink railing at Colico showing off newly acquired water droplets

The dock at Puerto Puma. Taken by Tam

A blue-and-white swallow in the rain

Picturesque little house near our campsite

We wake up to clearing fog and some nice views of the lake. The main road is a bit trafficked, so we're happy to turn off onto a smaller route, and discover some blackberries along the way! Not many are black and ripe, but we still immensely enjoy the few we find. It seems so weird to me that it's the beginning of blackberry season here, and it's January. The reversed seasons are still throwing me for a loop, but after being in the tropics for almost the whole last year, we`re happy to have any seasons.

Lago Colico in the morning light



Late morning we turn onto a trail. We've heard that this route is transitable by jeep and it's the most direct route south to Pucon. How bad can it be? It seems that, again, our information sources were unreliable. The track is wide enough for a vehicle but certainly untransitable due to its extreme 4x4 nature. We traverse deep mud pits, piles of large logs, wide rivers, and steep rocky hills. We do our best to stay motivated by singing songs, but it's still a long and exhausting climb to the top of the pass. Just before the top, we find a grassy area to stop and collapse for the night.

The morning brings us blue skies and better riding. We have a big descent, and although our trail is still extraordinarily muddy, it's mostly ridable with numerous sections of incredible mountain biking. Woohoo!

Tam choosing the best line

Dan descending through the forest

A picturesque little house we came across

How you know you`ve chosen a good route: lots of mud on the bike

A dirt back road brings us to the outskirts of Pucon where we pick up a bike lane.  Immediately we are overwhelmed by touristy chaos. After the tranquility of where we`ve been, the traffic, the crowds, the hubbub of enormous supermarkets, everything much more expensive than it has been, it`s a lot to take in. We hang out in front of the library using the wi-fi, eating lots of fruit, people-watching, and trying to figure out where to stay the night. All the hotel rates are comparable to what you`d find in North America, aka too expensive, and we have a hard time explaining to people that we can afford to head to a campground but would rather not; why pay an arm and a leg to stay in a noisy place with no amenities?
People continually brush us off until a nice German lady comes to our rescue, directing us to a river a few fence hops away, a peaceful public tract of land amidst a checkerboard of private plots. Unfortunately, while chatting with us, her backpack is stolen out of her car just a few feet away. The first friendly person we`ve met, and this is what she gets. It`s safe to say that Pucon is not our favorite place, but it sure is scenic!

Volcan Villarrica overlooking Pucon

Route Notes:
- Lonquimay to Melipeuco: Perhaps the nicest bit of riding on the Monkey Puzzle Trail through the China Muerte Reserve: beautiful, quiet, smooth dirt roads. Melipeuco is a decent-sized town with all amenities and open wi-fi in the plaza.
- Melipeuco to Trafanpulli: We continued on the pavement to Cunco then headed south to Puerto Puma. The tarmac turns to smooth ripio at Lago Colico. Some traffic, most appeared to be tourists. Probably a very quiet route in winter. Trafanpulli, on the northeast side of Lago Colico, is not really a place, just a few houses here and there, but it marked our turnoff.
- Trafanpulli to Pucon: We took an adventurous shortcut directly to Lago Caburgua rather than staying on the main road through Reigolil and Curarrehue. It`s marked as a trail on Open Maps and is easy to find and follow (with GPS). There is a solid climb from 350 meters to 1140 over 14 kilometers, of which maybe 2/3 is ridable, the rest being too steep, too rocky, too muddy, or all three. The 6 km descent to Lago Caburgua is about 90% ridable, more for a strong rider. Expect mud if it has rained in the past few days.
With no views, this route may be less scenic than the long way on the road, but it certainly was more interesting! We began the ascent around lunchtime and reached the top around camp time, so the whole thing, Colico to Caburgua, is definitely doable in a day.
Once at Caburgua, there is a great dirt alternative to the congested, narrow highway into Pucon. Turn right before the turnoff to Ojos del Caburgua, and ignore the signs directing you back to the main road. Best to have a GPS, as there are lots of little tracks going nowhere.
Contact us for information on a free, quiet camp spot just a few kilometers from Pucon. I`d rather not post it here, as it`s probably illegal.

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