A finale of lava rivers and elusive monkey puzzle trees - A Patagonia Adventure - CycleBlaze

February 1, 2019

A finale of lava rivers and elusive monkey puzzle trees

Our final day’s destination was the Conguillío National Park, Chile’s first Geopark. Laying at the foot of Llaima Volcano, the park is notable for its multitude of Araucaria trees, commonly known as Monkey Puzzle trees. I was really excited to see a forest of these “living fossils”.  My roommate Jane had waxed poetic about these trees while we were in Santiago, and our bike guide had regaled us with tales on the origin of their odd name, the somewhat unique features of their bark, and the importance the trees to the indigenous peoples of this region of Chile. I had seen a few trees earlier in my journeys, and had been transfixed by their long, spiky branches – unlike any evergreen I had previously seen. The similarity of the branches to monkey tails and/or the puzzle-like pattern of their thick, highly heat-resistant bark are thought by some to be the origin of the “monkey puzzle” moniker, at least according to our Argentinian guide. The trees are sacred to the Machupe living in this region of Chile, for whom the pinion nuts comprised large parts of their diet - from roasted seeds, to flour, to fermented beverages. Yes, I was very much looking forward to moving among these ancient trees.

The monkey tail-like branches of a Monkey Puzzle tree that I encountered near the shores of Lago Fria, shortly after crossing into Argentina earlier in the trip
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In continuing the run of outstanding weather during my month-long stay in Patagonia, we had another brilliant blue-sky day. Spirits were high, grateful for such a glorious day of riding on our final day of cycling. Heading west, we made our way through the streets of Cunco and were soon on a paved, sparsely trafficked road, past open fields and toward the distant Llaima Volcano. We stopped for lunch in Melipuco, where the Tourist Information center sports a roof of lava rock, and headed north to Conguillío National Park. 

Blue skies and an open road - a glorious day for a bike ride
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Llaima Volcano through the trees
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All good
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The lava rock roof of the Tourist Information center in Melipuco
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The last eruption of Llaima was on January 1, 2008 and the route to the park wound across, alongside, and through rivers of lava. On entering the park, the pavement ended – and I was faced with one last 4-mile stretch of sand and gravel. Oh yeah! The first mile wound up and through the woods and although I was almost taken out by a large water truck at the first curve I managed to stay on the bike. On exiting the woods, I entered an otherworldly landscape of sand and lava rock – a flat, treeless expanse of cooled lava flanked by tree-covered hillsides. The roadbed through the lava field was typical of the gravels roads I'd previously encountered, with stretches of firm ground interspersed with patches of soft sand and gravel. In addition to the hot sun and lack of shade, there was a fair bit of traffic to/from the park kicking up dust and forcing me to the softer edges of the road. A decided contrast to the morning ride! The turnoff to the eco-lodge was a welcome sight, and after a long shower I celebrated completion of the bike trip with ice-cold lemonade and a hot-stone massage. 

A river of cooled lava has replaced the trees on this hillside - reminding us that Llaima is still an active volcano
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The road winds along and across the lava rivers
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Once in the park, you enter a large expanse of cooled lava, through which they have fashioned a road of sand and gravel
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Toasting the completion of our trip with lemonade (for me) and beer (for Dennis and Arizona Bob)
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The only thing missing was the Monkey Puzzle forest, which was located much further up the road and only visited by a few members of the group who traveled into the park in the Land Rover - necessitated by an unfortunate gravel accident that required a trip back to Melipuco for stitches. All were okay, and I settled for a view of the outcropping of trees on the rocks above the lodge and pictures shared by fellow travelers. My own close encounter with the Monkey Puzzle forest awaits my return to Patagonia. 

Monkey Puzzle trees dot the hillside beyond the ecolodge
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Up close and personal with the trunk of a Monkey Puzzle tree - photo courtesy of Nigel
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Today's ride: 36 miles (58 km)
Total: 331 miles (533 km)

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