National Park Huerquehue is a little explored by western tourists 'jewel of Araucania' (according to LP). It spreads over 100 sqkm of cliffs, ridges and valleys completely covered in forest. It has several sub-alpine lakes and lagoons, and a system of streams and waterfalls that connects them all to a much lower and larger lake Caburgua, lying outside the western border of the park. One of the highlights of the park is a high population of Araucaria (monkey puzzle trees), many specimen over 2-3 thousand years old.
We set off on a Friday morning, 8:15am, to catch the first bus to Huerquehue. The bus ride took about an hour, last 15 min driving on a tight serpentine, and in the end we got off at the parks main gate where a friendly Conaf guard took our money, for the entrance and camping, and wished us good luck.
After a quick 30 min hike the car track narrowed to a trail and began ascending towards our first destination, lake Chico lying at 1300m - about 550m above us. We thought that after the volcano this will be relatively easy... The path was steep, rugged and tough, covered in roots of trees and washed out by recent rains. Carrying camping gear, 3 days of provisions and water was not easy. We got tired fast, Jenn's knee was tender and we were swearing the Lonely Planet trekking book that rated this trek as easy to moderate. However, forest and mountain views were breath-taking and worth the effort.
As we continued climbing we had a chance to look at two waterfalls, met a gang of Conaf fire-fighter trainees - who were clearing the trails from roots and other obstacles, and walk along Ranger Jack - a local forest ranger that patrols the more popular part of the trail leading to three main lakes. By the time we climbed to lake Chico we were tired and our spirits have sustained a few blows, but we pushed on around the lake following the trail and were finally granted a view of the famous Araucaria trees, Chile's national symbol.
By the time we got to the camp site it was just over 5pm, we hiked for 7 hours and were absolutely exhausted. The camp site was great. Located on a small flat "island" between two arms of Renahue stream, surrounded by trees and mountains, it was perfect, and to Jenn's dismay we were the only ones there. We leisurely set up our camp, cooked dinner and after some contemplation decided to hit the sack early. Because of the high cliffs surrounding the campsite the sun disappeared quickly and we were in the tent at 9pm. Sleep came fast, but it wasn't a quiet sleep. We kept waking up throughout the night, listening to the whispers of the trees and rushing of the water. Around 4:30am, the birds started their morning conversations, and by 5am it was hard to sleep with all the chatter around us. We finally got out of the tent around 8:30am, had a quick breakfast, packed the camp and headed out.
The second day began similarly to the first one, with a climb up the hill. But the climb wasn’t as steep and as long, the only trouble was that the trail was washed out by rains and frequently turned into mud. It took us just over an hour to finish the climb and we were in the clear. From that point on it was a slow downhill all the way to our final destination - Rio Blanco hot springs. The walk was easy and the forest around us was beautiful. We were walking through a valley made by a strong stream. The trail stuck to one side of the valley and every now an then we had to cross little inlets of the main stream. The forest kept changing as we got lower and lower, different types of trees and undergrowth, different flowers, different moss. We were enjoying the walk and getting close to our destination. That was more like the trek we epxected it to be.
The main camping was setup in a small thicket on the west bank of Rio Blanco. The hot water was brought from the spring by pipes into series of pools setup on the other side of the river and you had to cross a little wooden bridge to get to them. The pools were of different temperature, by mixing the water from the spring and the ice-cold river water. There was nothing special about the place, but it felt very calm and relaxed. There were quite few tents around, all of them were locals that came in their cars. We were the only ones to trek there.
That day we met Max. His tent was setup not far from ours and after a hi and quick introduction we got to talking. Max is a fascinating men. 78 years old, but looks in mid-60s. Originally from Denmark, but lived most of his life in the US and Canada, now living on one of the islands in Vancouver area. Every winter he takes time off and goes on vacation to some warm place, but instead of staying in all inclusive hotels he camps out in quiet spots and drivers a car around to really discover the place. He had some good stories and was happy to listen to ours. He even invited us to have a dinner with him that night, in the “restaurant” attached to the camping - where the matron of the camping served us homemade chicken with beans and nice Chilean wine.
We spent most of that and the next day relaxing, soaking in the hot springs and chatting with Max. When it comes to talking the conversation never runs dry with Max.
Our original plan for returning to Pucon was to walk the two day trek in one day and get the bus from park entrance. However, after walking the trek we knew that there is probably no chance we are making it in time without hurting ourselves... So plan B was to walk 18km on a road to the nearest town and catch a bus from there. We were not sure it’s a very good plan and asked the owners of the camping if they could give us a lift to that town, and were told it will cost us 40USD. We didn’t have much money, but figured it beats walking and probably we can get cash in town.
But, the luck turned our way - again! After Max heard our trekking story he told us he needs to get back to civilization to restock on supplies and offered to take us to Pucon - obviously we agreed. So after spending the best part of two days at the camping we got into Max’s rental and got going.
The road to the nearest town turned out to be a rugged dirt road, going up and down mostly in the sun, and we thanked Max for saving us from that miserable walk. Furthermore when we got to the town we discovered that it has only one street and about six houses on each side of that street, so obviously no ATM where we could get cash for the bus.
After the grocery we drove into the town and parked by our hostel. We invited Max inside to look around and he appreciated the great wood work all around the building. We walked a bit in town and showed Max a nice bakery that makes healthy bread and a book store where he wasn’t able to find a decent book.
We walked back to the hostel. It was time to part with Max and we felt a bit sad. We gave him In Patagonia book, that was the least we could do for all his help, we shook hands and tapped shoulders. And off Max drove, to find a camping spot somewhere on a river bank, before it gets too dark.
I hope we see Max again, he definitely left a mark.