Alto Lircay Walk

Getting There

Buses in South America work really well, but today we learnt a valuable lesson; never travel on a long weekend without booking ahead. It was such a holiday when we set out from Rengo to head on to Talca and all of Chile seemed to be on the move. After spending an hour at the stop on the side of the expressway at Rengo watching bus after bus, full of people, pass us by, we were forced to retreat 25km up the road by collectivo to Rancagua where we could at least go to a bus station and buy a ticket; managing to get the last two tickets on a late afternoon bus to Talca. Thus we arrived at our next destination just after sunset instead of in the morning as planned.

We were staying at Casa Chueca (aka Little Austria), in the countryside outside of Talca. It is run by Franz and Kati, an expat Austrian-German couple, who settled here after years of trekking and is the cyber home of trekking in Chile, as Franz developed the website; a good place for a break and to get some good advice on walks.

On our first day there, we decided to take in some local culture, heading off to watch a Chilean rodeo at a nearby village.

These are quite different to the gringo idea of a rodeo and the first event involved a pair of huasos (Chilean cowboys), in brightly coloured ponchos and wide-brimmed flat sombreros, herding a cow around the arena over a fixed course, showing incredible skills in horsemanship to box the beast in and turn it at the appropriate point. The only problem was that the second event was the same, as was the third, followed by a small break with men tripping horses with lassos and then more of the cowherding.

My views on rodeos were confirmed and even the fair Nello had admired enough Chilean cowboys by mid-afternoon. We left.

Casa Chueca

A line-up of Chilean cowboys

Central Chilean countryside at Casa Chueca

The main event of a Chilean rodeo

Mirador Venado Trek (18km - 600m ascent - 600m descent)

Our original plan was to do a 2-day trek up to a plateau called the Enladrillado in the Parque Nacional Alto Lircay, which promised views across a deep canyon to the main range of the Andes. However, the winter snows had been heavy and there was still a lot of snow about, making camping up high a dubious proposition. On the advice of our host, Franz, we settled for a day walk to the Mirador de Venado, lower down in the same area but leading to the same canyon. We teamed up with Diego, from Italy, and hired a local taxi for the day to take us on the 1½ hour trip through the rich green landscape of the central valley and into the beech forests of Vilches in pre-cordillera hills to reach the National Park.

The three of us set off on the track, part of the planned 6000km long Sendero de Chile, a broad dirt road leading slowly up through the forest. The deciduous lenga were later here than below and were just starting to bud bright new green leaves. The sun shone down warmly from the clear blue sky and soon, through gaps in the more open canopy, we could see the snow-covered southern face of 2328m Cerro Sal Si Puedes. The birds were singing and it was a beautiful spring day in the southern beech forests of the Andes.


Nello and Diego head off on the Alto Lircay Walk

Track through the new growth of
deciduous lenga .....

.... and beneath the deep shade of the
massive evergreen coihue

Glimpse of Cerro Sal Si Puedes
through the beech forest

The track wound on through the forest high above the Lircay River and we climbed slowly beneath the canopy, at times very open and sunny as we walked under the bright green of newly leafing lenga, at times dark and sombre as we passed beneath the dense shade of groves of tall evergreen coihue.

Heading toward the snowy peaks

The views to the north expanded and we could see the long escarpment of the Cordon del Guamparo stretching away to the east from Cerro Sal Si Puedes. Below us the Lircay River babbled its way through a valley lined with elegant 30m tall straight-trunked robles.

Panorama of the ridge heading east from Cerro Sal Si Puedes

Tall robles beech in the river valley

As we undulated along the track, crossing several small streams that carried the ice cold melt-waters down from the plateau above us, we passed several groups of Chilean trekkers that had camped up higher for the long weekend. Soon we reached their campsite in a pleasant setting at the edge of the forest, the ground thick with a brownish carpet of fallen beech leaves. We had reached Loma de Sillahur, the broader upper part of the Lircay Valley, spreading out into a large basin that gently climbed eastward.

Roca de Conejo (rabbit rock) on the

Looking up through the forest toward the Enladrillado Plateau

Lenga in spring - the beauty of new growth

Snowdrifts appearing in the Upper Lircay Valley

Above us to the south a track climbed steeply up to the ragged profile of the Enladrillado Plateau, passing a thin waterfall glittering in the sunlight. Ahead, beyond the edge of the forest, a bridge led across one of several streams that merged to form the Lircay and into a more open landscape where the winter snows still lay thickly.

Alto Rio Lircay

The babbling stream of the Upper Lircay

We crossed the bridge and trudged into the snow, following the footprints of others like faithful sheep, as we meandered our way across streams, through thickets of trees and stony outcrops across this magical white landscape.

Nello and Diego on the snowy flats

Loma de Sillahur - the brilliant white world of snow

Finally, after a couple of kilometres of trudging through the snow and the odd grove of still leafless lenga, we reached a low rocky rise; climbing it, the earth fell away beneath us to reveal the immense Venado Canyon, with the Rio Claro wending its way through, some 700m below us. To our north the canyon narrowed and curved eastwards, its steep walls framed by a back drop of the snow-covered Cordon del Guamparo. To the south the gorge opened up and the river braided along a wider stony bed beneath the walls of the Enladrillado Plateau.

Northwards up the Venado Canyon

View across the flats to the Cordon del Guamparo

An island of deciduous lenga in the snow flats

Panorama across the Venado Canyon to Volcan Descabazedo Grande and Cerro Azul

Red-leafed herbs of the canyon

The Rio Claro winds it way through Venado Canyon

Volcan Descabazedo Grande (3953m)


Ahead, across the void, we looked at the impressive profile of the main Cordillera of the Andes, dominated by Volcans Descabazedo Grande (3953m) and Cerro Azul (3758m). From volcano rim to canyon floor the vertical fall was over 2900m - it was a magnificent view and well worth a long lunchbreak on the edge of canyon.

Cerro Azul (3758m)

As appeared usual, the clouds had started forming over the mountains by early afternoon, so we packed up and headed back along the same track. Crossing the snowy flats of the upper valley, we stopped for a snack break at the campsite and were lucky enough to spot an Andean fox checking out what the campers may have left for its lunch and watch (and listen to) a red-headed woodpecker hammering away on a nearby tree.

Magellanic woodpecker (carpintero)

View across the Loma de Sillahur

Returning across the snow flats

The way home through the forest seemed different under a cloudy brooding sky and the path was dotted with small green-striped white lilies that had opened since we passed in the morning, plus one solitary beautiful yellow orchid.

Almost back home

It had been a magnificent early spring day-walk in the Andes, one well worth reflecting on over a beer or two on the deck of Casa Chueca as the sun set over the green Chilean countryside.