Greater Patagonian Trail 9 Volcan Antuco- Guallali

On this stage I climb the volcano Antuco in very difficult conditions and run next day into serious problems with the authorities...
At the end of this stage I enter again another world, Araukaria, the home of the Pehuenche and strange trees...

When I step outside at first light early in the morning, it seems like a beautiful day is going to unfold. This is very good, because my plan is to climb the mighty Volcan Antuco (2969 m), and descent to the other side of the mountain. A nice project for which good weather is almost a necessity...
When the first rays of sun colour the clouds pink, I am on my way, starting at about 1400 meters. At the beginning the hiking is easy, because a track leads up the skiing slope.

              I start the Antuco climb at the base of the volcano

Soon I leave the track and ascent on dark volcanic rocks. First there are some poles marking the route, but soon they disappear...

              Poles which mark the route soon disappear

Although this is a very barren, harsh environment, there are some yellow flowers which have adapted to the conditions on the volcano.

                                                              Living wonder

When I have climbed for a while I get nice views back to Laguna del Laja. First the sky is clear, but soon a layer of dense fog is coming in.

                                               The sky is still clear

                                            A little later fog is coming in

When the fog has reached me, visibility is greatly reduced. Not good, because the climbing is becoming increasingly difficult, especially where there is just a fine layer of stones. I prefer to walk on the bigger rocks. I can't believe my eyes when the surface of the volcano is covered white, indicating that it is freezing...
Jan has drawn just a straight track up the mountain, so it is up to the climber to choose an appropriate route, not so easy in fog, increasingly heavy wind and freezing conditions. When I am just 200 meters below the summit, I am not sure that I will make it, the going is very tough. 

                                                     The fog is freezing...

But after about five hours I have reached the top of the volcano, unfortunately I don't get a view. To snap a picture I step some meters into the crater, where I am at least a little protected from the wind.

                                  On the summit of Antuco (2969 m)

For a short time it seems, like the descent is going to get easier, but soon the terrain steepens. Parts of the slope are covered in ice, without crampons impossible to walk on!

                                                         Ice skating area...

Although I manage to sneak around these very dangerous sections, a number of times I stumble and fall on my back, luckily without hurting me too much...Probably my, by now almost treadless, worn out trailrunning shoes are not the best footwear in these conditions...
I walk on the edge of a glacier, which is bigger than it seems, because large parts of the ice are hidden by layers of volcanic dust. When I realize that, it feels strange sometimes not to know if walking on solid ground or on a glacier, with possibly hidden crevasses...

                                            Hidden part of the glacier

Later the fog curtain is lifted and I get a view back to the summit, although the top remains invisible.

                                                      Antuco with its glacier

The wind is getting stronger, some of the gusts really remind me of the Bora, the heaviest storm I have ever been in, last year on my walk from Slowenija to Albania...
Whirling sand and fog...
Although hiking on the volcanic moraines in these conditions is very tough, I somehow enjoy the excitement of this little adventure, especially now, that I have the feeling, I will make it to the other side of the mountain...

                                   The storm whips the volcanic moraines

Finally the sky really starts to clear and the sun is coming back. Deep below I see the valley in which I want to descent and where I get again on the main route of the GPT. The spires of the jagged Sierra Velluda volcano, with 3585 meters a lot higher than Antuco come into view as well. Hard to believe that I saw these mountains already from the slopes of Nevado Chillan, some days ago!

                                       Sierra Velluda comes into view

Although the descent into the valley is partially steep, now with better visibility it poses no problem.
A strong wind is still blowing, and I would like to find a sheltered spot for my tent. Although my direction is down the valley, I walk upstream because it looks that my chances to find an appropriate place, seem to be better there. There are either rocks or thick brush, so finally I pitch my tent in quite an open location. At least it is very beautiful here, at the foot of Sierra Velluda.

                                     Camp at the foot of Sierra Velluda

                                                 A beautiful mountain

When the sun has disappeared a frosty night begins. So far I was quite happy with my thin down sleeping back, weighing just about 500 g. But this is too cold, especially as I have lost my matress...
I knew that this would happen, so at the refuge at the base of Antuco I organised a woolen blanket. Now I really appreciate it...
With the first pale light I am up again. Fantastic how Sierra Velluda with its glacier looks in this light! But the sunrise a little later is not bad as well...

                                              Sierra Velluda in first morning light

                                                              Alpenglow at sunrise

For about two hours I descent the broad valley, mostly walking on fine gravel.

                                                                      Broad valley

Finally I arrive at the dirt road which leads to Argentina. There is hardly any traffic, so the walking is o.k
When I reach the chilean border post, which is actually far away from the border, I decide to say hello, although I have no intention to leave the country. Two large backpacks are leaning towards the outer wall of the building and somebody tells me "Two friends of you are already inside" As I obviously walk alone, he probably wants to indicate that there are other foreigners. It turns out, that Annette and Michael are from Germany too, walking on the Greater Patagonian Trail as well! So far I didn't meet any other hikers, and now, to my surprise two germans! Unfortunately they have quite a problem, and quickly I find out, that this is the case for me as well...
The female border police officer insists on giving us an exit stamp, although we constantly repeat that we don't intend to leave Chile! She just says, this is the border post, and everybody who wants to pass get an exit stamp in his passport. We try to explain that this will turn us into illegal immigrants when we get checked by the police, which of cause she knows. But she really answers that that poses no problem and we should get a new entry stamp at an immigration office in a bigger town! First I try with good arguments too convince her, no luck! Then I make a mistake when I tell her, that I want to talk to her boss...I get the proud answer "Yo soy la jefa- I am the boss". As I realize that our chances to solve the problem are even lesser now, and the german couple tries this since two ours, I give it a last try, swallowing my pride in really begging her...But of cause, again no effect...
I ask the others to discuss our options outside the building. As the police officer didn't speak english, we are surprised that somebody with fluent english approaches us, probably the veterinary. He warns us to continue, for another reason: "You are heading now for Mapuche indian territory, and these people are very dangerous. Last night they attacked some people and beat them up" Neither me nor my new friends ever heard such story about the chilean indians, so we don't believe a single word!
Annette and Michael are quite frustrated and think about giving up the walk here, and continue at another place further south, but I suggest we just pretend to draw back, but in reality circumnavigate the post across the mountains! I didn't look on the GPS, but be sure, that somehow this must be possible. 
Annette and Michael think this is a good idea and so our new formed little hiking group starts! It doesn't take long and we leave the road, as we are sure everybody will think we retreat.
First the walking in a valley is easy, we pass a puesto and turn into another valley, which offers nice views to Sierra Velluda.

                                Sneaking around the border post

We have to negotiate a ridge, which from a distance doesn't look too steep...The views while ascending are incredible!

                                           Antuco and Sierra Velluda

                                View back while ascending

There are some patches of dense Nirre scrub, but we don't know yet in what we will run on the other side of the ridge...

                                                       Patches of dense scrub

The sandy slope gets increasingly steep, so the climbing is quite tough. When I have reached the crest, I go back to get Annette's large backpack. 

                                                                     Steep ascent

Reaching the top we hope, that the hardest part is behind us, but the
descent proves to be difficult as well... In most places it is too steep, other possible routes are covered in thick brush, so finally only one possibility for the descent remains. First we manage to link clearings in the Nirre forest, but soon it is serious bushwacking. Ascending here against the direction of growth would be almost impossible, but to walk down the slope is easier as it looks. As often it is more a mental thing to keep on pushing into the green wall...

Break while bushwacking

It looks like a steep, rocky gully will block our way, so first I scout the upcoming problems, before we all might get trapped, packs on the backs...

And right, getting into the gully here is impossible, but a little further down a route across the gorge seems to be a little easier.

When I scout this possible way to get further down it indeed looks not too bad, although we have to take care, and need to swallow our  pride, when negotiating some meters by sliding on our backsides...

On the other side of the gully we get into more open, majestic forest. Although we don't know if all obstacles are behind us, we get the feeling to have made it!

                                            Easy walking in towering, open forest

Then we get out of the dark to a meadow, overlooking the broad valley in which we descent. From there it is easy to get back on the GPT. We are very happy and decide to pitch camp together as soon as we are down there. When I got back to Germany I talked to Jan, and he told me, that he rerouted the GPT to an easier option, therefore hikers who go their next season don't need to worry about the border post!

              Annette and Michael at the final of our "sneaking route"

We have coffee together and spent the evening swapping stories. My new friends are leading a very interesting life, so we could have talked the whole night...
And of cause, I enjoy the company even more, because for most of the time on this trek talking to other people was quite limited. My spanish is o.k to do the routines of daily life, but not sufficient for real conversations.


                                                We camp together  

In the morning my tent is coated in white frost and I get treated to an unknown luxury: When I am packing my things, Michael greets me with a cup of steaming coffee, what a start to the day!
I follow the valley trackless for about an hour and then reach a gravel road.

                                                                   Trackless valley

For some hours I follow the rather boring road. At least there is almost no traffic. 

                                                      Antuco now cloudless...

The road branches and gets rougher, before it diminishes altogether.   Although not visible I get the feeling, that I cross a border. From where I came I met mostly arrieros, working on the large ranches (Fundos in Chile), and a small number of settlers. Although occasionally there were some goats, it was mostly cattle country, and the few people I met on the trails were usually men.
Now I enter the country of the Pehuenche amerindian people. They are the group of the Mapuche tribe who lives in the andean mountains. Their name Pehuenche derives from the Araukaria nuts,  traditionally and to a certain degree even today a staple food for these people. More about that later. I think that the Mapuche are one of the biggest causes, that Patagonia is still quite pristine! Why? Let's get back into history: The Inca, originally from Peru conquered large parts of southern america, but never managed to beat the Mapuche. Then, in the 16th century came the spaniards and seemingly easy conquered large, proud empires like those of the aztecs and Inca. Quite soon they also went into nowadays Chile and incorporated everything north of Rio Bio- Bio in their colonial empire. First they managed to get a foot into Mapuche territory as well. But these proud warriors learned quick to acquire horses and mastered the art of warship with these animals, one of the causes for the spaniards success against the great empires. It is hard to believe, but their resistance held more than 300 years. There was even a treaty signed to acknowledge their independence! It was just towards the end of the 19th century that the now independent nations of Chile and Argentina managed to conquer the indian territory and establish their modern borders in the south. Only after the Mapuche lost their fight, settlers came into Patagonia, which is really not that long ago! Like in North America the Mapuche lost a lot of their land, but compared to other amerindian nations further north and south who were completely destroyed, their fate was a little less tragic. 
Although even nowadays there are tensions between the government and the Mapuche and the fight for their land goes on, the former fierce warriors are peaceful now, and what we were told yesterday at the border post was surely bullshit.
I meet two young women with their 5- year old daughter. They are from Trappa-Trappa, where I want to go tomorrow, and are already since four hours on horseback. They undertake their journey to visit a friend. 

                                                  I meet two Pehuenche women

                                     The road has turned into a rough track

Soon I see my first Araukaria tree. These distinctive, umbrella shaped conifers are characteristic for the area further south. Therefore even today the whole region is called Araukaria!
Sometimes these trees grow in european garden and parks, but generally our climate is too cold for them. 

                                                           The first Araukaria

There are some scattered houses which are unlike to the areas further north, the permanent homes of families, not only cattle guarding men. Although I see the occasional cow, mostly there are goats around. 

                                   Pehuenche home and grazing ground

The road finally ends and a horse trail climbs up towards a pass. Below the summit I pitch my tent and go later for a little walk.

                                                             Camp below a pass

For the first time on this journey I spot a little, grey-brown snake and watch her some time, sliding in the sand.

                                             Encounter with a small snake

Back in camp I hear a roaring sound almost like an engine-less plane, and spot two condors in the air, not far above me!
The last rays of sun turn the rocky slopes into warm red.

                                    Alpenglow at sunset

Next morning I soon reach the forested pass and descent on a good horsetrail into a beautiful valley with dense tree cover. Occasionally I see some Araukaria, but there are not many of them here. The colourful mountains in the background look a bit like those of the beginning of my trip, near Santiago...

Beautiful forest valley

From a viewpoint I get a nice view in the broad valley of Rio Queuco, where the village Trappa-Trappa is located. High above the valley, Volcan Copahue comes into sight.
                                                           Rio Queuco       

After a steep descent I reach the valley floor. There are about 100 widespread wooden houses with tin roofs in Trappa-Trappa. I don't see the lodging and minishop which should be here, according to Jan, but a nice looking kindergarden, a health post and Bus stop where a number of Pehuenche are waiting. A young man goes fishing to the River and men are harvesting hay. After crossing Rio Queuco on a wooden bridge I ascent the Cochico valley. At this low altitude it is very hot and I am sweating a lot....

                                              View back to Trappa-Trappa

Most of the forests I crossed so far on this trek seemed to be quite untouched by men, but in this valley it is obvious that the people of Trappa-Trappa get their firewood here. Nevertheless I enjoy walking in the shade. Numerous lizards take a sunbath.

                       Lots of lizards live in this hot area

Higher up the valley broadens and become less steep. The landscape is now more of an open mixture of forest and pastures. Obviously fire is used to enlargen the grazing grounds.

                                           Burned forest

There are some puestos up here. Most of them seem to be abandoned but once I meet two rather shy children. Unlike the puestos of the arrieros where mostly only men live, in the Pehuenche territor the families stay together to care for the animals. There are some cows, but mostly goats and sheep, another difference to the cattle dominated fundos further north.
Although this is a man- and goat made landscape I enjoy the park like mix of forest and meadow.

                                  Cultural landscape

Later I arrive at the first larger stand of Araukaria. These trees are so beautiful! Jan has told me, that the nuts which are dropped from the cones are a valuable source of carbohydrates which can enrich the food a hiker is carrying. And surely, if people are named after tree nuts, this must be something special! But unfortunately in this area the harvesting season seems to be almost finished. I only find some dry, old nuts.

                          Beautiful, open Araukaria forest

As it is already quite late, I pitch my tent on a meadow at a clear creek. Normally I always try to put up my camp hidden from peoples view. For sure, something like this is very rare, but as a lone hiker one is quite exposed and especially in tent an easy target for people with bad intentions...
Although I think the area is very safe, I am not too happy, when I spot a young man above the clearing, watching me...
Soon after having pitched the tent an old woman in a skirt appears and chats with me for a while. I would like to photograph her, but she hesitates...
Later Manuel Perreira, the young man who watched me comes for a visit to my camp. He is 18 and serving at the chilean military which he likes a lot. Right now he has holiday for 2 months spending the time to guard the animals. While he stays by himself in a hut nearby, he tells me, that in the larger area around, there are about ten people in the summer, looking after cows, goats and sheep.
After the sun has set the silhouettes of the Araukaria trees are very distinct against the darkening sky.

                                        Araukaria at dawn

Like so many nights here in Chile I enjoy the starry sky, when the night has come.

                                          Sky full of stars

To get out of the valley next morning becomes not so easy, as there are many animal trails it is hard to say which goes the right direction. But finally I gain altitude and get a nice view back into the valley, I walked yesterday. From above I am able to spot a number of huts with fences nearby where the sheep are kept for the night.

                              View back into the valley Cochico

The scattered Araukaria on the dark, volcanic rocky cliffs are a bizarre sight.

                                             Araukaria on rocky cliffs

                                                             Dirty, skinny but smiling...

I find some Araukaria seeds, (piñones), which are still good. When the red layer is peeled off, the white nuts are visible, which taste very good. Although with a knife it is not too hard to get the skin off, by cooking the seeds this is far easier!

                             Araukaria seeds- Mmmmh

When I get on a high plain, there should be a trail to a lake, the Laguna Liay, but I don't see the start and the vegetation is quite dense, so I rather move on.

                                  Volcanic high plain

The next hiking hours are another of the many highlights on the Greater Patagonian Trail! The volcanic landscape with the park like Araukaria stands, open plains and great views is fantastic, and very different from all I have seen so far in Chile! I climb to a pass at 1850 metres and then slowly descent down a wide, open plain. The volcano Copahue seems now to be nearby...
According to Jan's files, parts of the walking here should be trackless, but always a path is easily visible. I should have taken a detour to the volcano, but I am not sure how long that will take and how difficult it will be to get back to Santiago. Therefore I play safe and head for the Laguna El Barco. Just when I am about to leave the plain and enter the forest I realize, that this could be the last full hiking day of the voyage! That makes me really sad, because it is so beautiful here and the weather just perfect. But anyway, it won't be long and I will be back to continue...

                                    Another highlight of the GPT

It looks like steam is coming from the volcano! It must be quite active and later I read that just 2013 an eruption was feared, therefore 3000 people in a 25 kilometre radius were evacuated...

                                                      Volcan Copahue

In the Araukaria forest hardly any seeds are left, harvesting season finished...I like these special trees very much! Soon I get on sandy dirt tracks.

                                              Open Araukaria forest   

                                                       Forest and Volcano

Only when I start the descent to Laguna El Barco on a path, I realize that down there is a commercial campground!

                                         Laguna El Barco

The campground is beautifully located on the shore of the lake. It is run by the Pehuenche community, and I am quite surprised, how many chileans are here, at the end of a gravel road. 
While I look out for a good spot to pitch my tent I get invited by some chilean men, who are just having a barbecue! I can't say no to their kind invitation and soon enjoy grilled lamb, bread and tomatoes. They try in vain to have a conversation with me, but that proves to be difficult because of my limited spanish...

                                         I get invited by nice Chilenos

                       The campground at Laguna El Barco

The next day I spent with relaxing, swimming and strolling in the vicinity of the lake. And I do my statistics: On 49 full walking days I covered 1027 kilometers, according to my GPS, that is an average of 21 kilometers/ day. Surprisingly little, although I walked long hours each day. Probably this reflects the difficulty of the trail, most of the time it is just not possible to do big miles. Combined with the sometimes challenging navigation and the often huge altitude differences my low mileage makes sense. But honestly I don't care at all! I know I will be back soon and can simply continue where I stopped, a big advantage compared with the pressures of doing a "thruhike" as priority number one...

                                                         Beautiful Laguna El Barco

The evening brings another highpoint when I have dinner at a Pehuenche house nearby. I am treated like a king and get huge amounts of french fries, sopapillas and tomato salad.

                                                                 Dinner time

I learn that there is a bus from Guallali to Los Angeles, which unfortunately starts at five in the morning! Too early, but everybody thinks that hitchhiking will be no problem.
For the 11 kilometers to Guallali I see no vehicle, although it is not that early in the morning... 
But then my luck is back, the first car with a young couple inside stops! After an hour break at friends near by, they take me all the way to Los Angeles, for a good time following the valley of Rio Bio-Bio, which is often regarded as the northern frontier of Patagonia!
Next day I take a Bus to Santiago which needs more than six hours for the distance. 
Back at the capital I take the metro to the Barrio Bellavista, where I  stay in an atmospheric, but little run down hostel.

                                        Hostel in Santiago

If somebody wants to find action and fun in Santiago, this quarter is the place to head for. There are countless bars and restaurants.
I meet some interesting people and have the next day to explore the city.
                            The central Plaza of Santiago

Yeah, and when I have a look at my shoes, it is probably really time to go home, but surely I won't stay there for long...

                                 They served me well...

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