Parque Nacional Conguillío in the Chilean Lakes District

Steam rises above a lake bordered by a forest of trees ranging from gold to green.

Parque Nacional Conguillío. Photo © Pato Novoa, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

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Directly east of Temuco, 3,125-meter Volcán Llaima’s smoldering crater is Conguillío’s most eye-catching feature. Since colonial times, Chile’s second most active volcano has recorded dozens of violent eruptions. On New Year’s Day 2008, in fact, a sudden eruption and lava flow closed the northern access road from Curacautín and forced the evacuation of 150 tourists.

Within its 60,833 hectares, though, this UNESCO biosphere reserve also abounds with dozens of other lava flows, secondary cones, alpine lakes, river canyons, and the araucaria forest that it was created to protect. The name Conguillío derives from the Mapudungun kongüjim, “to enter the pewen forest.”

The pewen’s fame was such that, in late 1911, the aging pioneer U.S. conservationist John Muir traveled here simply to see, sketch, and photograph the tree in its native habitat: “A glorious and novel sight, beyond all I had hoped for.” As he so often did in California’s Sierra Nevada, Muir slept in the open air, beneath the trees he came to visit.

For foreigners and Chileans alike, Conguillío is one of Temuco’s most popular excursions. It justifies a day trip but merits at least an overnight.

Geography and Climate

From Temuco, Conguillío’s western limit is only about 80 kilometers away via Cherquenco, but by either Curacautín or Melipeuco it’s about 120 kilometers. Altitudes range from around 900 meters in the Río Truful Truful valley to 3,125 meters on Llaima’s summit. In its northeastern corner, the ruggedly glaciated Sierra Nevada averages above 2,500 meters.

Since most of Conguillío’s 2,500 millimeters of precipitation falls as snow between May and September, the mild summers, averaging around 15°C, make its lakes and streams popular recreational destinations. Even in summer, though, occasional heavy rains—if not lava flows—can make the Curacautín road impassable even with four-wheel drive.

Flora and Fauna

Conguillío originally was two separate parks, the other named Los Paraguas after the umbrella shape of the mature araucaria that, above 1,400 meters, mixes with the southern beeches coigüe, ñire, and lenga. Coigüe is also common at lower elevations, around 900 meters, but mixed with roble; above 1,200 meters, raulí succeeds roble.

Traditionally, Pewenche people collected the coniferous araucaria’s nuts, much as indigenous groups gathered piñon nuts in western North America. The name Pewenche means “people of the pewen,” the local species of an endemic Southern Hemisphere genus that once enjoyed a greater distribution throughout the Americas.

Because much of Conguillío’s terrain consists of barren volcanic slopes, lava fields, and open woodlands, prime wildlife habitat is scarce and so is wildlife. Birds are most common and resemble those at Tolhuaca or Malalcahuello. The small reptile lagartija flourishes in drier environments.

Volcán Llaima

Towering just west of the park’s geographic center, glacier-covered Volcán Llaima is a Holocene structure of accumulated lava flows within an eight-kilometer-wide caldera that exploded about 7,200 years ago. It has two active craters, one on the summit and another on its southeastern shoulder. Its early 2008 eruption closed the park for a time, but in good weather the northern access road is passable for almost any motor vehicle.

Sector Conguillío

In Sector Conguillío, east of Llaima, the sprawling lava flows of El Escorial dammed the Río Truful Truful to form Laguna Arco Iris and Laguna Verde; to the north, beneath the Sierra Nevada, Laguna Conguillío has a similar origin.

Near Conaf’s Centro de Información Ambiental at the southwest corner of Laguna Conguillío, the Sendero Araucarias is a short woodland nature trail suitable for any hiker. For a longer and more challenging excursion try walking from Playa Linda, at the east end of Laguna Conguillío, to the base of the Sierra Nevada, which rewards the hiker with overwhelming views through nearly pure araucaria woodland. This extension across the mountains to Termas Río Blanco is a hazardous one (hikers have died here).

At Laguna Captrén, at the park’s northern entrance, the Sendero de Chile was the initial section of the non-motorized trail intended to unite the country from the Peruvian border to Tierra del Fuego. At Laguna Arco Iris, to the south, an early settler built the wooden Casa del Colono as a homestead cabin. From Laguna Verde, also known as Laguna Quililo, a short wooded footpath reaches the beach at La Ensenada.

Conaf’s Sendero Cañadon Truful-Truful, a 900-meter nature trail, follows the river’s course where erosion has uncovered the rainbow chronology of Llaima’s eruptions and ash falls. Along the 800-meter Sendero Los Vertientes, subterranean springs emerge from the volcanic terrain.

Sector Los Paraguas

From Sector Los Paraguas, on the park’s west side, well-equipped climbers can scale Llaima. Camping is possible in summer, and there’s also a refugio (shelter). There is an alternative route from Captrén, which has better public transport, on the north side. Before climbing, get permission from Conaf in Temuco.

Skiing takes place at Los Paraguas’s upgraded Centro de Ski Las Araucarias (tel. 045/562313, lift tickets US$35–50 per day); it also has offices in Temuco (Bulnes 351, Oficina 47, tel. 045/239999).

Accommodations

Along Laguna Conguillío’s south shore, Conaf has five campgrounds (tel. 045/298114, US$36 per site for up to six people Jan.–Feb. and during Semana Santa, US$25 per site Mar.–Dec.) under private concession: The campground administration is at Los Ñirres (44 sites), while there are smaller clusters at Los Carpinteros (12 sites), La Caseta (12 sites), El Estero (10 sites), and El Hoyón (10 sites). Conaf also sets aside a handful of El Estero sites for bicyclists and backpackers (US$10 pp).

Ten kilometers northwest of Laguna Conguillío, there are several more sites at Laguna Captrén, reopened after repair of damage from the 2008 eruption.

The former cabañas (contact Cristián Pérez, Victoria tel. 045/841710, cell tel. 09/9050-2654, cristianevans@hotmail.com, US$100 for up to three guests, US$150 for up to seven) built around massive araucaria trees have been dismantled, but newer and better ones are now available just one kilometer west of park headquarters for. Offseason rates are about 20 percent lower.

At Laguna Verde, 18 kilometers northeast of Melipeuco, the private La Baita Conguillío (Casilla 492, Villarrica, tel. 045/416410, cell tel. 09/9733-2442, US$86 s, US$100 d) has cabañas sleeping 4–8 people and an “eco-lodge” that’s more like a traditional Andean hotel.

The modern Centro de Ski las Araucarias (tel. 045/562313, US$20 pp dorms, US$48 d with shared bath, US$120 six-bed apartment) has a variety of accommodations. Its Refugio Paraguas has dorm beds (bring your own sleeping bag) and one six-bed apartment, while the Refugio Pehuén also has dorms and doubles with shared baths. Facilities at the Edificio Llaima (US$140) can sleep up to four.

Information

At Laguna Conguillío, Conaf’s Centro de Información Ambiental (tel. 02/1960850, parque.conguillio@conaf.cl, 9 a.m.–7:30 p.m. daily Jan.–Feb., 9 a.m.–1 p.m. and 2–6 p.m. daily Mar.–Dec.) has good natural-history exhibits and a cozy fireplace. It organizes children’s programs and hiking excursions and provides evening naturalist talks.

Conaf also has ranger stations (US$8 pp park admission) at the Laguna Captrén and Truful Truful park entrances. At the Paraguas ski area, park admission costs US$2.

Getting There and Around

Because public transportation is inconvenient to almost every sector of the park, it’s worth considering a car rental, but it’s not absolutely essential. Even with a car, the steep, narrow, and sometimes muddy road between Laguna Captrén and the park administration can be difficult in either direction.

Reaching Curacautín and Melipeuco, the northern and southern gateways to the main park loop, is easy enough by public bus. From Curacautín, there’s now a twice-daily bus service, at 6:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., to the northern park entrance at Laguna Captrén; from Melipeuco, it’s possible to hire a taxi or pickup truck to Conguillío.

Sector Los Paraguas is most difficult to reach by public transportation. At Temuco’s Terminal de Buses Rurales, Nar-Bus (Pinto 032, tel. 045/407740) goes to the village of Cherquenco (US$2.50) at 11:30 a.m. and 12:30, 4:30, and 5:30 p.m. But from there it’s 17 kilometers farther to the Los Paraguas ski lodge. An alternative route goes from Captrén to Los Paraguas, but with no public transport.


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Chile.

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