Middle Peru: A Hidden Gem of a National Park

After a sad goodbye to Santiago, we headed south. We didn’t find many established campgrounds in this part of the country, instead spending nights at truck stops and gas stations, which is common for overlanders. Nobody slept well during those nights thanks to the loud highway noises, but the price was right.

Truckstop breakfast.


We headed back to the coast, spending three nice days in Pichilemu with weather that wasn’t hot but warm enough for some beach time. During the season, this is a famous surf town, although it was deserted in early December. It was here that we began the process of trying to assemble the paperwork for selling the vehicle – not an easy task for two Americans in Chile selling to Austrians in Europe. 

After restful days in Pichilemu, we continued our journey south, winding our way through Chile’s beautiful wine region. Eventually we hooked up with Highway 5, the main arterial that runs the length of the country. We had a few uneventful nights at truck stops before darting east at Victoria towards the Argentinean border. We found a lot of rain. And uninhabitable campsites. 

But then, by pure happenstance, we stumbled across this gem on the edge of Conguillo National Park.

We are suckers for big flat campsites with nearby rivers and picture perfect volcanic cones rising above the treetops. 

Daily life. The kids have become excellent inventors of games using only their small stash of toys. 

And there, rising above the trees is Mount Llaima, one of Chile’s most active volcanoes (which is saying a lot, given Chile’s location in the Pacific Ring of Fire). 

 

We entered the park through the north entrance, skirting the eastern edge of Llaima and spending the night at Lago Conguillo.

The area is known for the unique Araucaria araucana, commonly called the Monkey Puzzle Tree. Officially the national tree of Chile, they grow up to 150 feet in height and are called living fossils, due to the longevity of the species. 

The main road through the national park is a narrow, twisty track and is most definitely not suitable for big rigs. Meeting a vehicle going the opposite direction required a complicated back-up routine that had us searching for wide areas in the road and holding our breath around blind corners. 

And then we reach Lago Conguillio. It was one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen (and still is, even after extensive subsequent adventures).

We happened across a family of torrent ducks (Merganetta armata). Gorgeous, no? Male. 

Female (slightly fuzzy. These guys were a shy bunch and hard to photograph)

Entire family. 

We spent the night at the lake – as of Dec 2017 rangers will allow overlanders to park for free in the day-use parking lot although there is an adjacent (paid) campground. There is no drinking water at the park and all trash must be packed out. A small restaurant serves food and boats can also be rented for lake excursions. The hiking in the area is also spectacular.l

The next morning we resumed our travels, skirting around the southern edge of Mount Llaima and driving through monkey puzzle forests. 

Astute readers will notice that lava beds feature prominently in this landscape. Since 1852, there have been a recorded 37 eruptions of Llaima, the worst being in 1927 and 1957. The latest episode began on January 1 2008, when lava was observed traveling down the western flank. Visitors to the park and inhabitants of nearby towns were evacuated. Later the next year, two additional flows (one 4.5 km in length) melted part of the glacier which resulted in lahars, destructive debris flows that are typically a mixture of pyroclastic ash, dirt, and water.

 

THe lava flows south of the volcano were particularly extensive and stark.

 

For those of you from the Pacific Northwest, you are no doubt familiar with Washington’s very own eruption of Mt. Saint Helens in 1980; an event which created lahars that traveled 18 miles to the Colombia River, destroying 250 homes, 186 miles of roads, and 47 bridges in the process. To date, it was the US’ most economically destructive eruption event and also the deadliest: 57 people lost their lives in southern Washington that day.

 

It’s safe to say that the lava flows along the volcano’s south flank are both impressive and awe-inspiring. And they leave us Washingtonians feeling slightly nervous. 

Fortunately the volcano has been calm since 2010 and thus we set up camp on the far edge of the largest flow. It was our last night in the vicinity of Llaima and it was a time we won’t soon forget thanks to gorgeous vistas and beautiful countryside. If you are a PanAm traveler heading south on Highway 5, Conguillio National Park is definitely worth a side trip. 

The next morning it was an early wake-up call as we needed to be in Pucon by nightfall: we’d rented a house and had family coming to visit. Cue the wild excitement and anticipation of all four family members. Time to hit the road!

 

 


Recommendations 

Lodging/Camping

Pichilemu – We spent three nights at the Costa Patagonia Cabanas, which had a lovely picnic breakfast delivered fresh to the door every morning and a heated pool (a must in chilly December). The staff was lovely and it was relatively close to town and the main beach.

Wildcamp near Conguillio National Park (Night #1) – a gem! Large, flat campground with adjacent river. Not much traffic on the road.

Parque Nacional Conguillio – parking by lake (Night #2)- the rangers will occasionally let you park overnight in the parking lot for free, provided you don’t set up tables/chairs/camp kitchen. We actually swung by the ranger station to get permission but couldn’t find any rangers – the place was deserted. We asked the staff at the restaurant if it was allowed and they readily gave permission, but we would have felt better with an official go-ahead. There is an adjacent campground but tall rigs will have trouble fitting under the gate.

Lava Flow Campsite (Night #3) – a somewhat exposed but serviceable spot with views of a stream and the extensive southern lava flows of Mount Llaima.

 

Hiking
Parque Nactional Conguillio: We did the hike that skirts Laguna Conguillio to the east and it was gorgeous. Adventurers with more time (5-6 hrs) will ascend the ridge overlooking the lake for a spectacular view back to Mount Llaima.

 

 

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