Located in the remote Eastern portion of Chile’s Araucania Region, the town of Lonquimay has the feel of a true frontier outpost. A single road leads into and out of town. Its nearest neighbor resembling anything like what a gringo would consider a real town is Curacautin, a solid an hour and a half away. To the east of Lonquimay are the jagged peaks of the Andean cordillera and the Argentine frontier; immediately to its west are volcanoes. Running north-south between the volcanoes and mountains is a narrow valley, green with vegetation nourished by a meandering stream. Lonquimay and its few thousand residents are nestled on the edge of this valley.
It was a few days before Christmas when I took a bus from Curacautin to Lonquimay. Being the off-season for tourism, I wasn’t surprised that I was the only gringo on the bus. The road to Lonquimay snaked through forests of conifers and hardwoods, passed by fields profuse with lupines, and eventually entered the 4,538 meter Las Raices tunnel, the second longest in all of South America. Las Raices is one of only a handful of tunnels in the Andes. The tunnel was constructed in the 1930s and took nearly a decade to finish. Las Raices was originally used for rail transport, but in the 1950s it was converted for automobile use. The single lane leading through the tunnel permits only one-way traffic. A system of traffic lights controls vehicles entering the tunnel. The bus seemed to barely fit in the tunnel, making for an interesting passage. I kept staring out the bus window, marveling at how close the wall of the tunnel was to my face.
I arrived at Lonquimay’s bus terminal feeling a little motion sick, the consequence of too much staring at things whizzing by. The terminal was modest. At the back of the small dirt parking lot stood an L-shaped, yellow concrete building which housed the ticket office, a snack concession, and a room for temporarily storing luggage. A small group of Chileans and Argentineans milled about the terminal. I took a few moments to survey the area and let my stomach settle while standing on terra firma.
I had arranged lodging beforehand, but I didn’t have a map of the little town. I didn’t know which way to walk from the bus terminal to arrive at the hostel. I felt that familiar solo-gringo-traveler-far-away-from-home feeling coming on, a mix of helplessness, cluelessness and unnerving anxiety. I tried to overcome these feelings and be confident. But in these situations it was always a struggle to not drop to me knees sobbing and pleading, “Jesus Christ, somebody help me, please!”
I spent a couple of minutes thinking about what I needed to say in Spanish to get some help. I then had to decide who to ask for help. I tried to inconspicuously observe the travelers, glancing at people’s faces, trying to intuit who was the helpful type. The middle-aged female attendant at the luggage storage room looked like a safe bet. I approached and told her the name of the hostel I was looking for and the address. She told me that the town was very small and pointed to a road, telling me to go that way.
Walking from the bus station, I passed modest wooden homes and small shops selling food or clothing. A few minutes later I found the hostel (“hostal” in Spanish), a place called the Hostal Nativo. However, I hit a minor snag with my arrangements. The hostel owner told me that he could only house me for one night because he was shutting down for Christmas. I had planned to stay in Lonquimay for a few nights or more. The owner helped me out by recommending another place to stay that was close by. I decided to stay at the Nativo for the one night and change rooms the next day. This is Nativo’s website, which includes pictures: http://hostalnativo.cl/es/. The Nativo was nice. The owner and his family were very hospitable and kind to me during my brief stay there.
The following day I checked into a place called Hosteria y Restaurante Donde Juancho (http://www.dondejuancho.cl/). The owner was so a welcoming Chilean businessman. He had a few rooms that he rented above his restaurant. Other than his cook, a young Chilean named Jaime, I was the only one staying in the hostel. There was wifi in the room and a private bath, which were nice things to have.
After checking into the Juancho, I went in search of a guide. I was in Lonquimay for one reason: to hike. The owner of the Juancho told me that there was an information and cultural center a couple of doors down. This little town was full of surprises.
The information and cultural center was a lovely, wooden building with a spacious interior. The center sold woolen hats and sweaters and wooden bowls and carvings handmade by the local indigenous people, the Mapuches. Sitting behind the small information desk was an attractive, young Chilena. She offered me a gleaming smile as I looked a around. The wood carvings struck my eye, so I went to check them out. Standing by the shelving of wooden handcrafts and blocking my way was a stocky Chileno. He wore a blue bandana, green cargo shorts, and a blue and white striped t-shirt. He stood with a wooden bowl in one hand, boisterously speaking to two other visitors. I listened to him for a minute as he gestured forcefully with his meaty hands, explaining that the wooden products were made from ancient trees called araucarias. He noticed me eyeing the woodenware and let me by. I admired the handmade goods for a few moments before asking the Chilena at the desk where I might find a guide for trekking. The Chilena pointed to the stocky Chileno with the blue bandana. He must have been listening because he said to me, “Soy guia” (I’m a guide).
My guide’s name was Don Tomas. I arranged for him to pick me up on Christmas Eve day to go hiking. He arrived at my hostel early afternoon in his 1985 black Toyota Hilux pick-up truck. He was still wearing his blue bandana. I noticed there were several large rocks in the truck bed. Don Tomas told me that Lonquimay received four meters of snow the past winter, and that he puts the rocks in the truck bed so the rear wheels find purchase in the snow.
Don Tomas told me that we were going to a place called Mirado de Los Volcanes (Viewpoint of the Volcanoes). He explained that his girlfriend and her sister would be joining us, and that they were going to meet us at a pub restaurant he owned in town.
It took us all of about a minute to drive to Don Tomas’ restobar, a place he’d named the Piuke Mapu. It’s a Mapuche name, and for the life of me I can’t remember what it means. The Piuke Mapu was a small wooden A-frame with a sizeable araucaria tree in front. Don Tomas took me inside while we waited for the ladies to arrive. The restobar’s interior was of beautiful wood, the walls, the tables, the bar, everything. Above the bar area was a small mock roof with some thatch, like a tiki bar. Framed photos hung here and there on the walls, images of the natural beauty of the area. After a few minutes, the ladies arrived, and we all set off in Don Tomas’ Hilux.
We motored out of town along a dirt road, a thick cloud of dust trailing behind the truck. The road climbed slowly as we passed stands of araucaria and beech trees. The weather was perfect for hiking, clear skies and 27 C. The dirt road ran out, and we parked at the base of a brown, barren, hulking hill that rose in two sections. There was an abandoned chair lift that ran part-way up the slope, the remnants of a local ski operation. Tomas pointed to the very top of the barren hill, our destination. He explained that from the top we would see four different volcanoes. Sounded good to me.
Before we set off, Don Tomas said that we’d need one special piece of equipment. He went over to a beech tree and broke off four small branches. He gave each of us our own leafy branch. He told us that the branches were for swatting the tabanos, the biting flies that were already starting to swarm us. These large, blood-sucking flies with fuzzy orange bodies and large black eyes are the bane of Southern Chile. Their bite is painful, as they use their long, jagged proboscis to saw through your skin. They are very rugged insects; you really have to lay into them with enthusiasm to kill them.
With tree branches in hand, we set off. We walked at a slow but steady pace, chit-chatting. Given the limits of my Spanish, I mostly listened. Don Tomas told me that the entire hill was created from a past eruption of the nearby Lonquimay volcano. The volcanic soil was sandy, loose, and quite thick. Hiking up the hill was like walking on a tremendous grayish brown beach dune. While it was already a few days into the Austral summer, a few patches of snow persisted here and there on the hillside.
I periodically swatted and slashed at the tabanos with my tree branch, sometimes doing more damage to myself than the flies. Don Tomas was quite adept at killing flies, often using his hands to squish them, leaving a trail of broken bug bodies lying on the volcanic soil. As we climbed higher and the temperature dropped, the flies abated.
It took about an hour and half to get to the barren, nub of a summit. From the top we had a 360 degree view of the landscape. Don Tomas pointed out each of the four volcanoes: Lonquimay, Tolhuaca, Llaima and Callaqui. Chile is a land of volcanoes — there are hundreds of them up and down the country. But only a fraction of the volcanoes are considered active. Two of the four volcanoes we were looking at were active: Lonquimay and Llaima. Lonquimay last erupted in 1988, and Llaima in 2008. From the summit, we also had great views of the mountainous border with Argentina and the town of Lonquimay down in the valley.
We stayed at the summit for a number of minutes, taking in the view and snapping photos. Don Tomas eventually prodded us to start heading back. We made our way back down the slope, at times slipping and sliding through the loose, shifting soil. Heading back to town in the Hilux, Don Tomas asked if I’d like to eat dinner at the Piuke Mapu. Of course I did.
Once back in town, the girls departed, and Don Tomas and I were left alone in his restaurant. I was treated to a dinner of roasted goat, potatoes and a salad, all prepared by Don Tomas. I’d eaten goat various times back in the States. But I have to say that the Chilean goat was in a class of its own. Outstanding. Don Tomas took pride in telling me that he bought live goats from the Mapuches and slaughtered them himself right outside the restobar. This was one of the rare times were I actually knew where my food was coming from. While eating goat, drinking a few coronas, and chatting, I found out Don Tomas’ passions in life: eating chivo (goat), drinking beer, going hiking, spending time with his woman, and cruising in his Hilux. All good things, I thought.