Before leaving Villarrica we wanted to have a look at the Mapuche museum. The Mapuche are the indigenous people of this region – a people who remained unconquered for very long, fighting off both the Incas and the Spanish for 350 years until falling to the Chilean army post-independence. The Mapuche are still sticking it to the man today – the museum was closed for a strike!
More Villarrica fun – when we got back to eat after hiking in the national park I had what was probably the worst pizza of the trip since India – pre-baked bread and with a fist-full of green mint-flavoured cocktail-cherries on top of the half-kilo of molten cheese! Don’t ever try this at home…
We had better culinary luck in our next destination – Puerto Varas at the south end of the lake district which we used as a base for the next five days. The town sported some fantastic sea-food restaurants and I’m only glad I left before having too big an impact on the local centolla-crab population. Puerto Varas like Villarrica lies by the lake shore with nice views towards a big volcano.
We went to the Vicente Perez Rosales national park for one day-trip – walking along the shores of Lago Todos los Santos with some nice volcanic black-sand beaches. The trail could have used a machete in parts though. Some of the landscape in the area was covered in ash and re-generating vegetation since the last major eruption of the volcano in the park. On the way back we hopped off the bus to go and see a nice waterfall, which was gushing its way through oddly shaped black lava rocks.
The next day we went to the Alerce Andino national park, for some stunning Valdivian temperate rainforests. The park was set up to protect some of the last pockets of the gigantic Alerce trees that used to cover much of this coast – the tree can live 3000-4000 years (some of the oldest organisms on earth!), and is now an endangered species. There was no bus the whole way to the park, but we got one to Puerto Montt and then another to the turnoff 8km from the park. The driver of the second bus forgot to drop us off though, adding another bit – we had walked a full 12 km before we even got to the park and 30 km by the end of the days trekking. The forest in the park is really beautiful, everything covered in thick layers of dripping moss, fern and lichens with the gigantic Alerce trees towering above strands of bamboo below. We walked to a waterfall deep in the forest, then to mirror-blank lake Chaiquenes crossing a river where the bridge had collapsed on the way. Didn’t see a soul most of the day, but we met some people just on the way out of the park – lucky as it meant some chances for a lift. Two germans got us as far as the bigger road where we could find a bus back to Puerto Montt then to Puerto Varas.
We looked in to visiting a third national park of Valdivian forest – the Pumalin – but it turned out access was still difficult after a volcano eruption last year drowned the town of Chaiten in ash. Pumalin was set up as a private park by US environmentalist and businessman Douglas Tompkins who bought up large tracts of land to protect it, getting some people angry as the park spans from the Argentina border all the way to the coast “cutting Chile in two” at its narrowest point. There’s apparently some cap on how much land he’s allowed to buy each year now. Fantastic achievement anyway, and it has inspired more parks locally – Sebastian Piñera who’s running for president here at the moment created the Tantauco park on the island of Chiloe where we are heading next. Mr. Tompkins himself actually happened to walk in to the Pumalin office just as we walked out after asking about park access.