Huerquehue Lakes and Cañi Sanctuary Walks


A few days after climbing Volcan Villarica, we checked out the other great tourist attraction of the region and went to Termas Quimey-Co, one of several hot springs tucked away in the lush green countryside surrounding Pucon. We are not really into sharing a pool of hot water with strangers, but soaking in 45ºC mineral water next to the clear cold waters of a mountain stream did seem a very pleasant way to pass a few hours.


Laguna Azul

Amador, Cesar and Monica - part of our
Chilean host family

Rio Trancura

Cascades at the Ojos de Caburgua

Hot springs of Termas de Quimey-co

The next day our 3-week run of fine weather ended, as the autumn rains finally arrived in Pucón. After a week of solid rain and even more solid Spanish we were seriously in need of some outdoor activity. We had spent the week with a Chilean family as part of the course. They were very welcoming and gave us many insights into the way Chileans live, eat and spend their time. We ate extremely well but spoke extremely badly - strange how one day you can explain the complexities of Australian politics and the next you can't even ask for a slice of bread.

The sun sets on the last fine day - ending our three week run of superb autumn weather

At last the rain ended and, with the dawn of a fine Sunday, we headed off to the Huerquehue National Park for a breath of fresh mountain air.

This part of Chile is the Araucania region, named for the ancient trees of Gondwana that occur here. The Huerquehue National Park, 35 km from Pucón, preserves some fine araucaria forests packed tightly into a beautiful setting of lakes and mountains and a walk in it was high on our list of things to do.

Copihue - Chile's national floral emblem

Thus we found ourselves on an overloaded old minibus, with a few other foreign trekkers and many local Mapuche heading to a football match in the country, cranking slowly up a steep dirt road high above the still waters of Lago Caburgua. Understanding smatterings of the cheerful chatter of Spanish in our ears we were starting to feel less like foreigners.

Parque Nacional Huerquehue

We disembarked at the park entrance, set on the shores of Lago Tinquilco, paid our entrance fees (more for foreigners than locals) and set off, as the bus driver put the finishing touches to extinguishing the fire in the motor that started just after we stopped, Oh well. we'll worry about how we are to get back at the end of the day.

A few hundred metres on, we dropped down onto Sendero Ñirre, an interpretive walk of about one kilometre, in the deep shade of the dense forest that lined Lago Tinquilco. At the end of this track, we climbed back onto a road, that took us back into private land at the end of the lake. If you want to buy a small bit of Chile next to a National Park, here is your chance - open fields surrounded by forested slopes next to a beautiful lake - like much of the countryside around Pucón, small plots were up for sale.

In the dark shade of the forest around Lago Tiquilco

Epiphyte laden tree trunk

The 80m Cascadas de Trufulco

Leaving this long sunny clearing, we once again entered the national park and the coolness of the dense temperate rain forest, with the mossy epiphyte-covered trunks of tall manio and tepa reaching skyward to a form a thick canopy. We soon warmed up, however, as the track climbed up the lower slopes at the head of the valley. At first the forest floor was quite open, but as we climbed an understorey of glossy, thick-leaved shrubs and ferns gradually encroached. Passing a second National Park building, the path started a series of increasingly shorter zig-zags that would climb 400m up to the basin above us.

Ranger station at Parque Nacional Huerquehue

We stopped to admire the view of Lago Tinquilco in a gap in the forest and way beyond it, the snow-covered slopes of Volcan Villarica. It became clear that a lot of the precipation had fallen as snow on the higher slopes during the previous week. A short detour took us to the 80m drop of the Cascadas de Trufulco, carrying water down from the basin above to the lake below. Passing a second viewpoint, with an even more expansive panorama over the lake and volcano, we continued our zig-zagging track beneath the tall coihue, as the first araucarias appeared and stands of quila (bamboo) became increasing common.

Path through the forest giants

View over Lago Tiquilco towards Volcan Villarica

Climbing up through the zig-zags

The ubiquitous Volcan Villarica with its fresh mantle of snow

Delicate forest fungi

Soon we were over the ridge and dropping gently down to a wooden bridge over the outlet of Lago Chico, the first of the Huerquehue Park lakes. It was a beautiful setting, the sun shone on the lenga and araucania trees lining the shores of its bottle-green waters, while at the back a smooth wall of grey granite rose steeply skyward.

The tranquil setting of Lago Chico

Reflections in quiet forest stream

Lago Toro and 1880m Cerro Araucano

Araucanias in a still inlet of LagoToro

Coral fungus

We wandered along the shore until a second wooden bridge crossed a silently flowing stream, reflecting the thick vegetation on its banks in the mid-day sun; it was a good spot for lunch.

Pushing on, we climbed over a small rise through mixed coihue-araucaria forest to reach the shores of Lago Toro, a much larger lake, lined with steep araucaria covered slopes and framing the snow-spattered dome of 1880m Cerro Araucario behind it. As we walked around the lake, a flock of Andean parrots chattered noisily in the araucaria trees above. We reached the marshy end of the Lago Toro and commenced a winding climb up to an even higher basin beyond it. For the first time we encountered patches of snow on the path. There were no footprints in them; after the crowds on Volcan Villarica, it felt good to be alone in this beautiful place.

The colour alone is hallucinogenic

Snow on the path!

Stand of tall araucarias amongst the shorter, paler lenga

The fair Nello giving some perspective to the
size of the araucaria

Reaching the higher basin at 1400m, we found ourselves in an almost pure stand of araucaria (or pehuen). They are a superb tree; standing erect with umbrella-like profiles, a crown of thick scaly leaves on top of a straight lichen-covered trunk - the oldest have been here for over 1000 years. Their nuts formed a staple of the Mapuche Indians diet and can still be bought as a treat in the supermarkets here. A few metres off the track, we sat and basked in the sun at Laguna Huerquehue, its shores lined with these impressive trees, while their silhouettes fringed the horizon behind.

Looking up the lichen covered trunk of
a centuries old araucaria

Araucaria fringed Laguna Huerquehue

After a break. we headed off again, climbing the ridge to the west of the lake as a band of high cloud crossed over. The snow was becoming thicker on the track and soon we were walking along a white path in the forest. Lengas replaced araucaria on the southern side of the ridge and, with their canopies thinning as autumn leaves fell, a cold clear light pervaded this snowy landscape.

We stopped and listened - not a sound - the forest was completely still; Huerquehue is a mystical place. As we descended the far side of the ridge, the snow gradually disappeared leaving a path covered with the soft fallen leaves of lenga and coihue.

Snow-carpeted lenga forest

Back amongst the araucarias

In a dense thicket of quila bamboo

The shores of Lago Verde

Bridge over the outflow from Lago Verde

Traversing a mixed denser coihue-araucaria forest, we descended sharply to the shore of bottle-green Lago Verde, the last of the Huerquehue lakes on our walk. From here it was but a short walk to complete the loop and rejoin our outward path at Lago Chico. A wind slowly sprang up and rustled through the tree tops as we climbed back over the rim of the basin - there was change in the air again.

The last bit of sun shines over Lago Verde

The luminous colour of the bark of the tree

Change in the air

The descent of the densely forested slope was quick and left us time to stop in at the Refugio Tinquilco for some hot chocolate and kuchen. Beautiful old trees, tranquil mountain lakes, a touch of snow, a sense of ancient mysteries hidden within the forest - Parque Nacional Huerquehue was a great place for an escape from the pressures of learning Spanish.

Back at the entry, a brand new bus arrived to take us home - at the nearby village the same crowd of people boarded on their way back from the football match. We were all on our way home to Pucón after a day in the country.

Back in Pucón

We were now in the third week of our intensive Spanish course, so the return of several more days of heavy autumn rains didn't seem to matter. Somehow it is easier sitting in a classroom trying to remember the subjuntivo perfecto of the second conjugation of verbs when the sun isn't shining outside. Learning a new language is full of emotional highs and lows - to balance such emotions, the Chileans invented pisco. We had moved into a comfortable cabaña, complete with woodfire and run by a friendly and helpful family - it was very pleasant to return after class and sit in front of the fire, sipping a pisco sour and listening to the rain falling on the roof.

The monasterio by night

Karin and one of her hard-working students

The sun returns to Pucón after a week of rain and snow on high

With excellent timing the rains left to give us fine, if cool, weather for our last weekend in Pucón. The snow-line had descended even further and the mountain ridges and volcanoes of the area now glistened white in the autumn sun. On the Friday we had sadly said goodbye to Karin - it had been a hard but enjoyable three weeks of Spanish and, as I chatted to the family that owned the cabaña that night, I realised that we had learnt more than we thought. We had the base, what was needed now was practice, practice practice! However, before we headed off to do that, we wanted one more chance to wander amongst the ancient araucaria forests - a visit to Santuario El Cañi was in order.

Santuario El Cañi

The El Cañi Sanctuary is a testament to community spirit - it is a privately funded reserve owned by the Fundacion Lahuen and run as a community-based conservation and education project. The sanctuary is secreted away in a old volcanic caldera about 20 km from Pucón. I say secreted because if you don't pay attention you will miss the narrow gravel road that leads up toward it or the short sidetrack from this that leads to the inobtrusive wooden gate - it could be just another farm entrance, but that is part of its charm and helps ensure its primary purpose of preserving this fascinating Andean landscape.


It wouldn't be near Pucon without a view of Volcan Villarica


View across regenerating farmlands over the valley


However, our taxi driver did find it and we were soon underway, heading steeply up an old single lane 4WD road through a mixture of shaded forest and regenerating farmlands. The blackberries, briars, thistles and other familiar weeds bore witness to the brief period of "human improvement" that these steep slopes had been subjected to, and from which the Fundacion Lahuen saved the rest of the park.

Looking towards Lago Tinquilco

In a little over an hour and a little over 2km we had ascended 600m along this road. As we climbed, views appeared through the clearings of Volcan Villarica, Lago Caburgua and Lago Tinquilco, surrounded by the densely forested slopes and green valleys of the Chilean countryside.At the end of the 4WD track, we passed through a wooden gate to enter the reserve proper, stopping briefly to check out its quaint octagonal wooden refugio. The climb did not stop here, however, and we continued upwards on a well-formed foot track through the dense natural bush of the reserve. Eventually the terrain flattened out somewhat as we reached the open northern side of the caldera.

The octagonal wooden refugio in El Cañi

The El Cañi beech forest

Puma, pudu and other wild animals live here -
this was the wildest one we saw

The track wound through mature coihue and lenga forest, the understorey dominated by dense stands of colihue bamboo. The contrast between the two beech species, tall evergreen coihue and shorter deciduous lenga, halfway through losing their leaves, was striking. We followed a babbling stream, set deep in the stratified volcanic soils, passed a very surprised cow that had evidently wandered in from neighbouring farmland and emerged at the edge of a shallow, reed filled not so dry Lago Seco that formed the bottom of the caldera.

A pleasant spot for a picnic

The northern shore of Lago Seco

Reflections of evergreen and deciduous beech in Lago Seco

A small inlet in Lago not-so-Seco

The shores of the lake were lined with dark green coihue and sparsely yellow-leafed lenga, while behind it the old rim of the crater rose steeply to an horizon lined with the characteristic profiles of araucaria. It was a peaceful place to stop and reflect a while.

Silhouettes of araucaria trees on the rim of the caldera

Track up to the second plateau within the caldera

The track skirted around the northern shore of the lake before once again climbing up to a higher plateau (the remnant of a second crater) within the caldera. We soon found ourselves walking in the snow through the lichen covered trunks of ancient araucaria and next to the christmas tree profiles of the younger trees. The only tracks in the snow were a single set of bootprints and a very large canine print. Either someone was walking their very large dog, or a local wolf was tracking its dinner.

Paw and boot prints in the snow - that's a big dog!

A dash of autumn colour - taique in bloom

Tranquil scenes in the sanctuary amongst ...

.... the christmas tree-like young araucaria

Passing a much smaller shallow lake hidden amongst the tall araucaria, we reached Lago Negro, the last and most beautiful of the Cañi lakes, its still waters lit by the soft light of a sun half-covered by high thin cloud.

Snow, lake, lenga, araucaria = El Cañi

On the lakes edge

The snow-covered and treelined shores curved around beneath the base of a steep rockface, while its surface reflected the tall trunks of the araucarias lining it. A small snow-topped wooden shelter on its shore completed this magical scene. The silence was broken by the noisy chattering of a flock of Andean parrots flashing between the araucaria tops.

Reflections in Lago Negro

The remains of an old refugio

Snow amongst the lengas

From the lake shore, we started to climb yet once again, zig-zagging up the snow-covered track through open lenga forest, led on by the footprints that we had seen earlier. A little later we met our "wolf", whose name was Matteo and he was only 4 months old, built like a St Bernard, already thigh high and with the exuberance of a puppy. He was out for a walk with a friendly Englishman working as a volunteer tracking puma and pudu (miniature deer) - now there's an interesting good job!

Lago Negro from below .....

.... and from above

Continuing on our snowy climb, we reached the south-eastern rim of the caldera, with its magnificent views across to 3776m Volcan Lanin, framed by the silhouettes of araucarias, and back to the omnipresent Volcan Villarica. We had climbed over 1000m from the base in just over 5km, but the splendid views and tranquility of the lakes and forest made it worth it - El Cañi is a sanctuary in more than one way.

Panorama from Volcan Lanin to Volcan Quetrupillan

Close up of the 3776m cone of Volcan Lanin

Matteo of the big pawprints fame

The path is an in-out track rather than a circuit, so we backtracked to the large Lago Seco. At one point the sound of a flute drifted through the forest. I would not have been surprised to see a faun appear out of the undergrowth it was that kind of landscape. However, it turned out to be a Chilean hiker, giving expression to his appreciation of this place. The five of us were the only people in the caldera today.

We stopped at the lake for lunch, catching up again with our English friend and Matteo, before heading on back down the track and meeting our taxi to return to Pucón.

Huerquehue and El Cañi have similar landscapes, but in a complementary rather than repetitive way. We had greatly enjoyed our time in the lush green forests of the Chilean Andes, but it was time to leave and check out some much more arid parts of this immense chain of mountains.

Farewell to Pucón - un dia nos vemos