nature

Cultural Immersion

We have made our return to the Northern sections of the trail! Completing section 7 marks the middle of our detour against the grain (headed Northbound for now). After completing some sections further South while we waited for the forest fires to retreat and the National Parks to re-open in these regions, we took another series of long bus rides up to the small border town of Liucura. Our hike through the mountains that divide Chile and Argentina began with a stay in the Cajon Pehuenco. Tucked in this valley is a native Mapuche family of ranchers that we will never forget.

The summer homestead of Maximiliano Lagos sits at the Northernmost corner of the Pehuenco valley. We were lucky to find a ride from a kind local most of the way up the valley to the ranch. We arrived with hopes of speaking to Señor Lagos, who is the newly appointed “Lonko” (head representative/president) of the surrounding Mapuche community. However, when we arrived, we were greeted by two young men that informed us that Maximilano had left for town the day prior. Daniel (15 years old) and Maximiliano Jr. (aka Maxi, 18 years old) are, the Lonko’s cousin and son. They invited us to stay and wait for Señor Lagos’ return. Little did we know that these two would have so much to teach and share with us.

We spent our first two days there speaking with the boys, and watching in awe of their maturity, generosity and hard work, as they performed the daily tasks of keeping things running on the ranch. They shared with us copious amounts of sopaipillas (delicious fried dough) as we exchanged stories, until it was time for them to find the horses and herd the sheep in for the night. The responsibility and extreme hospitality that they exemplified was unbelievable, and had us all reflecting on the contrast between most 15-18 year olds we knew back home.

On our third day at the ranch we awoke to finally meet Maximiliano who had arrived late the night before. It was clear right away where the two young men had learned such admirable virtues. Maximilano treated us as honored guests from the beginning, insisting on sharing with us all of the goodies he’d stocked up on in town. The seven of us shared hot sandwiches for breakfast in the small, cozy cabin. Maximilano was a wealth of information on the area. Although, before we could even ask him to do an interview to share some of this knowledge, he was out preparing an asado (traditional barbeque around the fire) to share with us. We’d planned to leave early that afternoon, in attempts to keep the schedule we’d set for the section, but there was no way we could turn down such an experience! The only thing was, that staying for the asado meant we’d have to witness our lunch go from running around the countryside, to roasting on the fire.

Witnessing the slaughter of the sheep was quite an experience, to say the least. Most of us had never watched something like that before. Three of us hardly even eat meat at all, but we were immensely grateful for the display of generosity. It was something we’ll all surely remember. We were all in disbelief at how fast the whole thing was over. Maximilano’s skillful hands had the meat roasting over the fire within minutes. It was yet another moment on the ranch that had us reflecting on how differently things are done where we come from. The process was a natural part of the life here. Nothing was wasted. Every part of the animal was used; The dogs received the innards, the hide was dried to be used as tack for riding, and the fat was saved to be used to fry sopaipillas.

As the meat cooked, other gauchos stopped by to receive supplies that Maximiliano had brought back from town. Since Lonko Maximiliano is one of the few people with a car in this remote area, he supplies other settlers in the surrounding hills with provisions that they’d have to travel for days by horse or foot to retrieve. He generously offered each “neighbor” to join us for the asado, yet most declined, and went about their way. As we finished preparing the exquisite meal, we were joined by a young man who had passed by while out searching for another nearby settler. Of course Maximiliano insisted that the stranger stay to feast with us. We were served all of the best cuts of the delicious meat and were not able to give no as an answer as our host piled more onto our plates with every bite we took.

The smorgasbord was followed by invitations for us to explore and learn about the surroundings with Maxi, Daniel, and Maximiliano. Robyn went by horseback to find the sheep with Maxi Jr. while Anthony climbed up the mountain with Maximiliano and Daniel to round up the goats high up on the cliffs above. Maximiliano shared knowledge of where to find wild edibles and medicinal herbs along the way. Garrett and Aljoscha stayed at the ranch to set up for our interviews and capture footage of the remarkable landscape. We finished the day with a few rounds of Durak (our new favorite card game, that we taught to Daniel and Maxi). We retired to our individual sleeping pads that night all in agreement that it was one of the best days on the trip so far.  

The following morning, we fueled up on more freshly fried sopaipillas before completing our long anticipated interview with the Lonko of Cajon Pehuenco. We were treated to one last striking experience as our three hosts began to wrangle and castrate goats before the four of us had even finished breakfast. It was just another example of the seemingly boundless energy and strong work ethic that the three of them exhibited. Traits that we’d learned were necessary to live out there in the “campo” (countryside).

We said our “hasta luegos” and began our hike out of the valley, full of new wisdom and inspiration of what we’ll be sharing with the world through this project. We pushed ourselves for the following three days and made it to the end of the section just before a storm moved into the area. We passed through more pristine lakes, forests and volcanic geology as we spoke with ranchers and natives along the way. Our timing was perfect and we’re now waiting out the poor weather and resupplying in a small town before heading back to the mountains to complete sections 6 and 5 (where we hope to finally encounter our long awaited hotsprings!).

We appreciate you taking the time to read our journal, follow our adventure and support this project. Stay tuned for another post in just over a week that will recap our journey along the next two sections!

Volcanoes, Mountains, Geysers and More

Greetings from the Lakes region of Chile. It’s hard to believe all that’s happened in the last couple weeks. We’ve passed through international borders, and just about every type of landscape imaginable since we last wrote from the shores of Lago Pirehuieco. The only road out of that small settlement leads to the Argentinian border. So, we took the opportunity to explore the other side of the Andes for a few days. The crossing went smoothly at the small border control offices on both sides, and our walk through the “no man’s land” between them was quite nice as we left Chile and entered Argentina’s Lanin National Park.

Once in Argentina, a very bumpy and dusty bus ride took us from the border to the closest town, San Martin de los Andes. We had a fantastic time in this beautiful getaway destination, and enjoyed exploring the the contrast in Argentinian food and culture (especially the incredible ice-cream they’re known for in that area!). After a couple of days of recovering from section 12 we were on our way back to Chile and the trail. We made a quick stay in the closest city to the trail, Osorno, Chile to resupply before jumping on another bus headed for the start of section 13. With our packs heavy and full of food for the next two sections, we started out from the small community of Riñinahue. We stopped frequently to pick moras (blackberries) as we walked down the long road towards the wilderness. Our hopes of hitching a ride had gotten pretty low by evening (with only a couple of cars having passed), and it was just beginning to rain, when a kind local gave us a lift in the back of his pickup. He showed us an incredible place to camp on the edge of Lake where we had perfect protection from the rain under an umbrella of tree canopy. We counted our blessings that night and fell asleep to the incredibly loud symphony of frogs.

Our spirits were not quite as high the next morning as we packed up in the pouring rain (that continued to fall for the next 48 hours). We hoped to cover some good distance that day, however as we climbed up the steep muddy road, the wind and rain got stronger as we gained elevation. All soaking wet from head to toe, it became clear that we’d need to head for a nearby refuge that the map stated should have food and water. Little did we know our images of a warm cozy cabin with food and water would soon be shattered. We got to the property as quickly as possible to be greeted only by the gangs of chickens, dogs and other animals, with no humans to be found. We searched around all of the dilapidated and collapsed structures on the farm, after knocking on every locked door of the only house that could have possibly been livable.

With really no other option, we took shelter under the roof on the porch of another uncompleted house on the property, to wait for the owner to return. We jumped up when someone appeared through the downpour a couple hours later. The kind man was a caretaker who comes to feed the animals every few days while the owners are gone. He called and received permission from the owners for us to stay as long as we needed, although we couldn’t stay in the refuge. We spent that night and the next on that porch, drying out just about everything we had which had gotten soaked in the monsoon we’d walked through. We had to get a fire going in one of the crumbling shacks to dry Garrett and Aljoscha’s sleeping bags (which they learned the importance of keeping in dry bags above all else).

There was no other option than to wait out the storm, since from that point we’d be ascending over 3,000 feet up to the exposed volcanic environment above. It was still sprinkling the morning we set out to continue on the trail, though the forecast showed that the weather would be greatly improving from that day on. We slid and stuck on the steep muddy path that lead up through the cloud forest to the entrance of Puyehue National Park. It was a pretty moving moment when we reached the park boundary. The forest changed from thick, wet jungle-like bamboo full of life, to a foggy wood of ñire trees, where it seemed you could here a pin drop. We silently celebrated our ascent as we continued through the thick air of the soundless forest. The trail became a narrow footpath, as we proceeded upwards until the woods abruptly ended and we were rewarded with our first alpine views.

The landscape became barren rolling hills of volcanic sand and rock. Knowing that water would be a concern during this portion of the section, we made camp next to the best flowing of the tiny streams that had just enough of a trickle for us to collect water. Too exhausted to make a real dinner, we shared a typical lunch meal of peanut butter sandwiches and all retired early for a good night’s rest. 

The next morning, we were all treated to a breathtaking sunrise for Aljoscha’s birthday. The clouds had descended down the valley, allowing us to see the extraordinary landscapes and volcanoes that surrounded. We had planned to get a lot of distance covered that day, however we couldn’t pull ourselves away from the incredible geysers and boiling mud pots that lied in the colorful hillside near our camp. The late start was well worth the experience though.  

Aljoscha (along with Robyn) got the birthday present of carrying extra water for the group this day since we knew there would not be anywhere to fill up for a long while. We passed through dunes and valleys of pumice until we reached what looked like the walls of Mordor. We scrambled across some low points in the towering black wall of sharp rock. The constant ascending, descending, and side-hilling on the sand and loose pumice stone made for a tiring hike, broken up by steaming hillsides covered in bright neon colored moss. We worked our way to higher elevations with the other side of each hill holding a surprising alien-like addition to the desert landscape. There was some birthday luck with us that afternoon when we came across a fast running stream a few kilometers before the water we were headed for, detailed on the map. We found a somewhat flat area to camp next to the stream on the vast open pumice field. Garrett and Aljoscha spent the remainder of the evening and the next morning climbing the surrounding knolls to capture the incredible scenery. 

We captured some amazing footage as we climbed ever higher towards the Puyehue Volcano. As we reached the highest point on this section of the trail we were relieved to find the “mountain pass” was much more gradual an incline than most of the rolling peaks we’d had to go up and down to get to that point. More of the nearby volcanoes came into view as we rounded the side of the range towards Puyehue. Every few steps seemed to reveal even more incredible views until we reached the base of the summit trail, where we’d camp and begin our climb of the volcano the following morning. Admittedly, we had been expecting to come around one of the corners and see the peak of Volcàn Puyehue, similar to the dramatically sharp, pointed, white volcano peaks that we could see in the distance. Although it was a bit more like the rocky summits we’d been climbing the last couple days, only much higher. Yet, we never could have imagined how mind-blowing the peak would actually be.

The sunset from our basecamp left us speechless. Then came the night... The clear high altitude air made for some of the best star gazing any of us have seen. We couldn’t stay up and stare at the stars too late though since we would be getting up in just a few hours to begin our climb to the summit. We loaded up with a hearty dinner of quinoa, couscous and instant mashed potatoes that Anthony cooked and then we went straight to bed as the milky way stared down from above.  

We were up early, getting ready for our climb in the dark, just as the bright stars were beginning to fade. We started out with headlamps lighting the way. The sky changed to brilliant colors and the sun began to paint the mountains red as we climbed higher. Reaching the summit was perhaps the most powerful moment on the trail yet for some of us. We knew there was a crater at the top, although nothing could have conveyed what it was like to look into that massive bowl atop the volcano.

After sufficient celebration we began our long decent to the valley below, and the end of section 13. The roughly 6,000 ft. decent was tough on our knees, especially Garrett who is basically depending on one (with a history of ACL surgery on the other). The steep slope seemed to go on forever, and we all were slipping into the madness we’ve come to dub “trail madness” by the last hour or two, as we hysterically joked about the plight of the towns’ people whom our hunger would be unleashed upon; Or the Pizza-Hotel that we’d find when we got to the road.

We did indeed eventually make it down to the road, and were all ecstatic to find the small home of a local family that offered great food, lodging and of course the world class Chilean hospitality. We spent two nights with the family who shared with us stories and rich history of the area and their native Mapuche heritage. We learned of the native identity of people in that Mapuche community on the banks of the Golgol River, which transcends modern nations, as they’ve seen the area go from Argentinian territory to Chilean over the generations. They had a deep connection with the land, that we now could understand after walking the trails that they’d helped to form many years ago. It was the ultimate end to what might have been all of our favorite section of the trail yet!...Even if we never did find that Pizza-Hotel.

Now we're headed back north to complete some of the sections we previously missed because of the fire situation in Chile that has luckily calmed down. Our goal is to finish Sections 7 through 5 northbound and then head back down south to finally make our way into the boundaries of Patagonia. Stay tuned for more updates and continue to follow our social media sites to see exactly where we are and what’s happening while we're on the trail. We're only halfway through the trip and after this first half, who knows what else will be in store for us – only time will tell!

A True Adventure

To say that our February has been an eventful one would be an understatement to say the least. There have been many trials and tribulations to overcome but we’re happy to say we’ve made it through – we have so much to tell you!

We’ll start with section 11 which was where we tried our hands at pack-rafting for the first time. It’s no easy feat for 4 pack-rafting newbies to set out onto some of the most rural lakes and rivers with nothing but a GPS and a lot of enthusiasm. We were all nervous about what was in store for us because, after all, such open water can be unforgiving and with nobody around for miles, things had the potential to get serious very quickly with one wrong move or a simple weather change. Our first day on the Rio Cuacua got to a slow start. Garrett and Aljoscha’s raft was losing air before we’d even put it in the water and so after a lot of rigorous testing and some very worried faces, it turned out that something as small as having a few grains of sand stuck in the zipper could mean the difference between a buoyant boat or some very soggy camera equipment and consequently the inevitable halt to our trip. Aljoscha stepped up to the mark and sacrificed his toothbrush (which we should note he still uses; we’re getting more savage by the day) to brush away any sand in the boat’s zipper, and we were good to go!

We were all pleasantly surprised by how well our first few pack-rafting days went. Despite some very cramped conditions with very little leg room, especially for Garrett, and some dead legs for Aljoscha and Robyn who were kneeling, we made it through and, my goodness, was any discomfort well worth it for the views. Even those achy arms are nothing when you’re on a lake with sapphire water as far as the eye can see and not a cloud in the sky. It’s bliss. So, after crossing the incredible Lago Neltume, we pulled our boats onto the shore of a campground and settled in for the night, content that we’d come to the end of our first pack-rafting section, relatively unscathed.

Section 12, however, was on another level altogether. It’s safe to say that this section has been the most physically and mentally challenging of our journey so far! We got off to a rocky start at the beginning of the section in Puerto Fuy. Anthony ended up getting sick in the town on the one night we had the luxury of staying under a roof. Since he’d been up vomiting all night, he’d had no time to recover from the last section, had no sleep and was not in great shape to get to hiking again. So, we delayed our start and caught a ferry later on in the afternoon allowing for a little more time to rest since we’d all need a lot of energy for the next stretch... Although none of us could have imagined what would be lying in store for us!

We set off in search of the trail again from a settlement of around 5 houses called Pirehueico, where they use a generator for their electricity and there is no telephone signal. They do however have a café, which we’ll get to later! We’d estimated that section 12 would take us 4-5 days and since the first day’s walk was mainly on a dirt road, it looked like this might be one of the less challenging parts of the trail. The next day we set out all bright eyed and bushy tailed, full of optimism and we clearly had some kind of spring in our step seeing as we managed to smash out our first 9km in little over a couple hours. The spring doesn’t last that long though when you’re faced with one of the longest mountain passes (surely?!) known to man. We spent the next 9km on a steady, winding incline, working our way over the longest mountain pass we’d done so far, in the scorching heat with those 50lbs on our backs feeling heavier by the second. We were pretty beat after that, but having thought the worst was over, we set out on the trail again the next day aiming to continue our streak of getting those kilometers under our belt.

There had been some issues with the GPS and our trail map on the laptop. There were two possible routes and usually we take the ‘main’ route where possible but the GPS and laptop had different ideas about which route that might be. We ended up taking the route we thought had been most travelled and set out on our way. We knew we would reach an ‘iffy’ stretch of about 3-4km where we’d hike through a forest, but that’d be short work, and soon we’d be out the other side and on our way to the nearby hot springs! Little did we know, we’d never get to soak ourselves in those lovely hot springs!

So, we got to the forest and it was a little overgrown but we thought nothing of it at first, seeing as it was definitely a trail, and we didn’t expect to be following it for long. As we made our way though, it got progressively worse and we were soon army crawling under fallen trees blocking the path and pushing through overgrown bamboo shoots. We stopped for lunch and saw not one but two tarantulas. Aljoscha took what seemed like a few hundred shots of one of the spiders, much to the displeasure of Garrett who is hugely arachnophobic and has to go through all of these pictures after the trip. Anyway, we made the best of it and bullied Garrett into having his photo taken with the tarantula – we hope you find this picture as hilarious as we did watching it being taken!

As we went further the forest became denser and the trail more overgrown. The ‘main’ trail eventually disappeared, although the alternate path still seemed to have been traveled at one point, with machete marks visible. A few hundred meters in, Anthony had completely repurposed the handle of his pack-rafting oar – it was now the world’s bluntest machete and through hell or high water, we were going to get out of there and into those hot springs! As we continued, it became clear that this was going to take longer than we thought and it would be hugely challenging terrain-wise. There’s no explaining how frustrating it is when your backpack (which at this point was nearly as big as each of us!) catches on every other branch and vine while trying to navigate through the brush. You’re constantly ducking, swerving, breaking branches and at one point trying to do all of the above whilst simultaneously sinking in mud. It’s doubtful that bit will make the film purely for the amount of swearing that was going on, it was a pretty colorful moment.

Next came what we very unaffectionately call ‘the bridge into hell’. This bridge was, in fact, a rotting log that we had to shuffle across on our bums to get to the other side of a 60ft ravine. Anthony had the bad luck of going first and during said bum shuffle, came across a decomposing tarantula which was being feasted upon by a colony of ravenous ants. They must have been ravenous, seeing as how they were pretty set on nibbling on us too... The bridge into hell, received its name because the terrain got much worse from that point on. The trail became unidentifiable and we could barely see the sky for all the trees, so, bushwhacking was moved up a notch. Whilst balancing ourselves on a precarious slope and trying to hack our way further down the trail, Robyn stood on a wasps’ nest which resulted in about 10 stings, closely followed by Aljoscha who managed to get about 5 and Garrett who was at the back managed to land himself a couple too. A few tears of panic ensued since getting away from the nest in such dense woodland was neither a fast nor easy feat but we soon got on with it again.

What we’d expected might take an hour had now taken 6 and we weren’t even halfway through by the time darkness began to coat the forest. We had the difficult task of finding a clearing but we eventually found enough room for 2 of the tents, bunked up and turned in for the night. The next day we were sure we were getting out of there. We set out and after a further few hours of bushwhacking we came to a cliff edge where the trail could be taken no further. We were surrounded by drop-offs with unstable earth crumbling below our feet. Sketchy terrain turned into something quite scary. Despite being so close, we had to make the tough decision to turn back. We stood on the side of that cliff face struggling with the concept of not completing the section but in the end, our safety had to come first and we’re all glad we didn’t let pride taint that decision.

Turning back meant adding extra days to the section. Extra days meant extra food which we didn’t have. Our rations were low by this point but we worked out that if everything ran smoothly, we had just enough dehydrated food and trail mix to get us through. As is true of all good adventures though, things that run smoothly don’t make for good stories nor do they push your limits. So after another night at the ‘emergency camp’ we made it out of that hellish forest, and started anew on the trail. We managed to smash out one of our longest days yet and felt pretty elated once we reached the first camp we’d originally stayed at. The elation didn’t last long though because Robyn began vomiting – initially just thinking it was exhaustion after a strenuous day - but it didn’t let up, and after being up the whole night and not being able to keep hydrated in such extreme heat, it became obvious we couldn’t walk the 18km we needed to get to civilization the next day. While Robyn recovered, the boys had to tide themselves over with what was left of the peanut butter and powdered milk. Although still very unwell, we had no choice but to soldier on and get back to Pirehueico, so Garrett, Aljoscha and Anthony carried Robyn’s pack weight between them for the final stretch in the sweltering sun. Red raw hips, aching limbs and an invalid toe, we made it back to civilization and that café I mentioned earlier? Let’s just say that we probably bought more food there than they’d sold to anyone all year.

Every section seems to bring a new challenge and a unique twist to the trip but we're loving every minute of it (well, at least afterwards!) Now we are off to Section 13 where we search for hot springs, hopefully stay on trail and finally, climb our first volcano! Until next time!