What would your dream park look like? Maybe it would have a forest of massive, towering trees a thousand years old. Maybe you’d want it to have pristine streams of rushing water that you could sip right from your hand or catch giant, healthy trout from. Perhaps you’d want there to be a kick-ass, snow covered volcano to scale. How about various lakes surrounded by granite peaks ascending above tree line? Certainly you’d want some interesting wildlife. Would pumas, condors, and a miniature species of deer do? If these ingredients for a perfect natural wonderland interest you, then head to Chile’s Parque Nacional Conguillio.
Parque Conguillio’s landscape conjures in the mind a primordial earth. Volcan Llaima´s steep cinder cone dominates the middle of the park, reaching an altitude of 10,548 feet. Surrounding Llaima are extensive lava fields from past eruptions, the most recent in 2008. Llaima is one of the most active volcanoes in South America. When Llaima starts making some noise, folks pack up and get the hell out. During the winter, local mountaineers love to ascend Llaima, using randonee skis to make their way over various meters of snow to reach the summit and then swooshing back down.
The araucaria tree is one of the dominant trees species in the park’s woodlands. Botanists concur that the araucaria has been around longer than any other tree on earth, and is indeed a living fossil from the dinosaur era. When you see a stand of these trees, you believe it. With massive trunks that reach high into the sky and a fascinating whorl of branches located only at the very pinnacle, this tree smacks of an ancient lineage. The araucaria shares much of its terrain with any one of five different beech trees. Many of the beech trees in the park are astonishingly large. The araucarias and beeches in the park are so enormous, that you can´t help but to want to touch the trees, press your whole body against them, and giggle and let out a “wow” and a “holy shit” and an “incredible.”
The park’s forests aren’t only a collection of ancient, enormous trees. In the lower elevations, the forest understory is frequently dominated by a native species of bamboo. Growing close together and with a profusion of eliptical green leaves, stands of this bamboo plant add to the mysterious, jurassic look of the park.
While I didn’t see any pumas when trekking through the park, they are there. The Chilean species of puma is very similar to the cougar or mountain lion found in North America. For sustenance, the puma eats rodents and a miniature deer endemic to Chile called the pudu. To be quite honest, can’t say I was bummed about not having had an encounter with a mountain lion. Although, I would have liked to have seen its prey, the pudu. But understandably pudus are quite skittish.
Various birds inhabit the park. Magellanic woodpeckers, a large bird with a red head and a 7 inch tongue, probe dead trees for larvae. Different species of ducks nest around the park’s lakes. Condors soar high over the mountainous region called the Sierra Nevada. Gregarious parakeets roam the parks lowlands in harshly chattering groups. If you’re a birder, you’d definitely be delighted with Conguillio.
The only downside to Conguillio is access to the park. Without a vehicle, access to trails is a daunting task. Local buses will only get you several miles from the nearest trailhead. Even if you rent a bicycle, you’re going to have to bike many kilometers on dirt roads to access trailheads, which isn’t fun while wearing a loaded backpack. You can try hitch hiking, but you may find yourself walking all day with no ride. As for me, I retained the services of a guide who had a 4×4.