Local wonders in Chile’s Araucania offer natural and traditional adventures

Often visitors come to the south with the single aim of seeing its most spectacular sights – its lakes and volcanoes, its mountains and unusual flora. But sometimes they forget that this is also a country of tiny towns and farms and the extraordinarily warm people who populate them.  Melipeuco and Conguillío National Park offer the rare opportunity of experiencing both together.

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An overnight bus journey south of Santiago, and the easiest access point to Conguillío National Park, the tiny village of Melipeuco sits at the base of the 3,000m (10,000 ft) high Llaima Volcano. The dominant sight in the southern portion of Conguillío, Llaima is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile, with frequent eruptions recorded as far back as the 17th century and as recently as 2009. With its austere volcanic landscapes, bright blue lagoons and large stands of the native araucaria tree, unique to this part of Chile, Conguillío National Park offer some of the region’s most impressive landscapes, an easy day trip from the end-of-the-world tranquility of Melipeuco.

Old pickups and four by fours ply Melipeuco’s main road, where clapboard buildings are home to the handful of commercial establishments. On the couple of short side streets, homeowners tend their small gardens of fruits and vegetables, more than happy to tell you what they’re growing should you take the time to ask. The people of Melipeuco—all 2,000 of them—are largely born and raised here, under the omnipresent volcano.

Locals linger outside shops and restaurants as the occasional car drives by. With its volcano, its old-west ruggedness and the ubiquitous scent of pine, Melipeuco feels like the last town in Chile, and yet it is easily reached for under US$2 by public bus through a verdant pastoral landscape from the regional transit hub at Temuco (about nine hours by bus, or under two hours by plane away from Santiago).

Even in high season, few people stop in Melipeuco despite its being only 12 km from the entrance to Conguillío National Park. One of the 32 national parks, 36 National Reserves, and 25 National Monuments that make up Chile’s 14 million hectares of nationally protected land, Conguillío was founded in 1940 to protect the national tree: the araucaria. The spindly succulent that gives its name to administrative Region IX (La Araucanía) grows only on the lower slopes of the Andes in a limited area in southern Chile. It’s branches, armored in green, scale-like leaves, spread from the high tops of the trees like umbrellas. The oldest of these trees in Conguillío is 1800 years old.

Though long and largely uphill, the pleasant walk between town and the park runs between small farms and communities of Chile’s primary indigenous group, the Mapuches, who are heavily concentrated in this region. Taxis and colectivos (shared taxis) run the short drive between town and the center of the park at Laguna Conguillío. A private taxi will charge about US$40 one way, while in a shared taxi that price will be split between four to five passengers. Frequently passing cars make hitchhiking into the park safe and easy.

Once inside, Conguillío National Park offers incredible landscapes. A bleak field of ashen dunes spreads about the base of Llaima’s snowy cone down to the shores of turquoise Laguna Verde. Farther along, lush ferns and lenga trees shade the road, while at higher altitudes stands of spindly araucarias run down steeps hills to the park’s namesake lagoon at the base of snowcapped mountains, actually a series of inactive volcanoes.

All of the park’s major sites are connected by an easily navigated and well-maintained road, and clearly-marked trails of various difficulty levels lead from the lagoon to panoramic views in all directions.

The admission cost for foreign adults is US$8 (US$4 for children) and government-run campsites near the lagoon run a range of prices, from about US$8 for backpackers to US$140 for a large cabin (for more information, contact Conaf, the national park service). The privately owned Eco-lodge, La Baita, near the entrance to the park offers accommodations in rooms and cabins with access to a restaurant and activities run by the hotel staff.

Staying in the park maximizes opportunities for hiking, but adding a night in Melipeuco opens up opportunities for experiencing traditional Mapuche cooking at El Ruko, a tiny guesthouse owned by Susana Higuera Baeza. Located just south of the town’s main road at Galvarino 063, Ms. Higuera’s pension is simple, small and very clean. Wood-panelled guest rooms up a set of creaky stairs are spare, with little more than a warm bed, a bright light and an open window. Ample hot water in the shared bathroom and comfy beds make up for whatever is lacking in polish.

For only a little extra, Ms. Higuera will fix up a hearty, traditional Mapuche meal using regionally specific ingredients like digueñes (a mild orange mushroom that grows on tree branches), and piñones (the fruit of the araucaria). On quiet nights, she will sit in the warm dining room at the front of the house and chat about the town, the volcano, the traditions of Mapuche cooking and Mapuche culture in the Araucanía. The following morning, you will be greeted with a hot plate of fried eggs, bread, coffee and a small block of house-made head cheese. In high season all of this costs no more than $10,000 pesos.

Helpful maps for Conguillío Park are offered at the Conaf offices at the Park’s entrances. For more information on the park, trails and accommodations, visit www.conaf.cl.

El Ruko does not have a website, but for more information you can reach Ms. Higuera directly on her cell phone at +56 9 8386 3525 or by email at tutana_f@hotmail.com.

This post is also available in Spanish