On the Trail of Southern Giants in Chile and Patagonia

2,000+km of lakes, volcanoes, glaciers, lava fields, granite towers, unique wildlife, and awesome mountain biking… Chile very definitely rocks.

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Our travels in Chile had a very specific purpose: to seek out the best mountain biking and adventure opportunities that could be reasonably squeezed into one epic 12-day trip. And this is how it rolled…

Arriving in Temuco, we can immediately see why this region is named the Lakes and Volcanoes District, as we spot one snow-capped volcano after another rising up against the blue of the sky. No witty naming conventions here in Chile!

After a couple of days spent adjusting to local time we meet our local guide Ernesto, who’s itching to get on the road to share all his favourite trails in the Lakes and Volcanoes region – his home – so we load up the van and get going at 9am.

Our first destination, Conguillío National Park, is about a 90-minute drive from Temuco, and could almost be classed as a highlight in itself. We arrive at our forest lodge accommodation even more eager than before to start mountain biking. However, we have the small matter of bike building and pre-trip briefing to deal with first, so we settle down to a light lunch, over which Ernesto talks us through all the details of our Chilean mountain biking adventure. After lunch we swiftly build bikes and saddle up for our very first ride in this region.

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We set off from our woodland retreat onto the vast lava flow of Volcán Llaima, which is like riding on the moon, with black sand and rocks rising up to meet the snow-capped peak of the volcano itself.

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We ride for a few hours exploring the lava flow doubletrack and delving into the singletrack along the banks of the turquoise glacial waters of Lake Conguillío that delivers an untold number of photo opportunities and what has to be an all-time top-5 snack spot . As we arrive back to our woodland accommodation, we deal with any small tweaks needed on our bikes, grab a quick shower, and gather in the dining room for our first evening meal together around the huge fireplace, with jazz music quietly playing in the background. As warm-up days go, this has got to be one of the best I’ve ever experienced!

On our second day in the Lake and Volcanoes district we leave Conguillío behind and head for Pucón. For the first part of the day we load the van for a short shuttle out of town and into Villarrica National Park. Once we’re all ready and raring to go Ernesto casually informs us that we’ll be starting off with a singletrack downhill – which makes for a welcome change from a climbing start!

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After a 1.5km descent we take a sharp left turn uphill alongside an enormous, charred lava flow, covered in soft green mosses, which illustrates the first of many such contrasts that we would encounter in the natural landscapes of Chile. As we continue to climb this singletrack trail, we suddenly become aware that we’re being followed by a wild fox. His curious nature keeps him coming closer and closer to us and then as soon as the cameras come out he puts on a performance that any A-list star would be proud of!

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We continue to climb through further rugged landscapes for another hour until we reach the Villarrica ski resort, before embarking on our descent back to the valley floor, and our small, friendly hotel in Pucón.

After a quick shower and a change we depart, feeling refreshed, on a short drive to a local Mapuche community, where we learn all about the history and culture, including ancient herbal medicines, clothing, music and celebratory customs of these indigenous people. We round off the evening by joining the family for a traditional meal round the fire, an integral part of Mapuche life.

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The following day we leave Pucón behind and start our ride on the incredible “Transvolcanic Trail” which leads us across a high level pass, and gives us our first sighting of the indigenous araucaría, sacred to the Mapuche people. We then take a singletrack trail to the head of Pichi Llancahue glacier. This glacier is covered in volcanic ash from the March 2015 eruption of nearby Volcán Villarrica, so it looks quite different from how you imagine a glacier, making it all the more astonishing.

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After admiring the glacier we commence our descent to the valley where the thermal springs are waiting for us. I can’t think of a better way to relax after a day of hard mountain biking, and these hot springs are some of the best in the world, set sympathetically into the natural surroundings and giving us plenty of privacy to relax in the pools of varying temperatures to suit all tastes.

We arrived late last night at the Huilo-Huilo reserve, so today we get our first glimpse of the area we’ll be calling our home and playground for the next few days. We ride straight from the accommodation along the river to an old logging way, that signals the beginning of our climb. This is a mix of doubletrack, singletrack, and ancient paths that crisscross the forest. When we reach this morning’s high point at the wide-open plains of Pampa de Pilmaiquén, we have stunning views over to the Mocho-Chosheunco volcanic ridge.

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This route takes us all the way to the border with Argentina and our extra special transfer back to the village of Puerto Fuy, on the other side of the mountain range. As we return, the evening light is golden, the sun is just dipping behind the snow-capped volcanoes, giving us an incredibly serene light in which to ride the last 2km back to our cabins.

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Our second day in the Huilo Huilo region again begins by riding straight from the cabins. This is a really tough climbing day, so we have the support vehicles within easy reach to assist with the ascent should we need it. I have to say, though, this climb, big as it is, is worth every bead of sweat and turn of the cranks. When we leave the tree line that sits just below the highest point, our breath is genuinely taken away. There are 360° views over six volcanoes and countless mountains, all the way to Argentina.

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Of course, this has to be our lunch spot, and we spend an hour or so taking in the view and making sure we get “that” picture for the photo album. Once we’re all fed, watered, and photographed out, we start the descent which features about 1,000m of singletrack and some doubletrack.

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We leave Huilo Huilo the next day and continue our southwards journey to Puyehue National Park where we shuttle up to the Antillanca Ski resort, to begin our ride/hike-a-bike to a total height of 1,600m on Haique Hill. From the top we have more outstanding views over volcanoes Osorno, Puyehue, and Puntiagudo, which make us forget the climb we’ve just done (what climb?!).

We ride off the back side of the mountain to be met with wide-open volcanic ash slopes, where we choose our own lines leading into thick forest that gets warmer and more humid with every 100m we descend. From the sparse, wind-swept summit, down to the dense, humid forest below, I feel something of a sensory overload by the time we drop out into the sunshine at the bottom of the trail!

Mountain bike trip through Patagonia with H & I Adventures.

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The next day we awaken with Osorno volcano towering over us and watching our progress as we make the short drive to the start of our final ride of our adventure. Today’s trails offer up plenty of variety, from double track climbs to wonderful, technical singletrack descents to the shores of Lake Petrohue and our beautiful lakeside hotel, complete with emerald glacial river and volcano views from the bedrooms. We spend the evening enjoying a traditional asado of local lamb and vegetables, accompanied by some of the world famous Chilean red wine, as we share pictures and laughs around the fire into the wee small hours, to celebrate the end of one chapter of our adventure and the start of the next.

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First thing the next morning we pack bikes back into their boxes, say an emotional farewell and thank you to Ernesto for an unforgettable week of biking, and head to the airport to fly south to Punta Arenas and Patagonia. On arrival at Puerto Montt airport our bikes are sent to the freight department and shipped to Santiago for our return from Patagonia, and we board the plane south.

The next chapter of our adventure begins in earnest as we arrive at Punta Arenas airport where our local Patagonia guides are waiting to transfer us to EcoCamp, our home for the next four nights.

The van journey is about six hours, but completely stunning and accompanied by many sightings of native wildlife, like the majestic guanaco, ñandu, hares, and grey foxes. When we arrive the sun is almost gone, so we only get a short glimpse of the famous granite towers before retiring to our cosy tented domes for a great night’s sleep.

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The next morning when I open my eyes I’m met by the utterly astounding view of the Torres del Paine massif painted pink in the morning light. I didn’t even need to lift my head, they were just there, waiting for me to wake up!

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After breakfast we load into the van for our first hike in the National Park. We are tackling the Lazo Weber trail today, which is a great introduction to Patagonia and a worthwhile acclimatisation hike after being in the volcano region where the temperature can be vastly different, even in summer. The hike delivers 360° views over the entire landscape and Torres del Paine massif, and on a clear day you can even see the ocean! It is a 5-hour hike, so nothing to be sniffed at. When we arrive back at EcoCamp our legs are tired and satisfied and we’re ready for a relaxing evening, which is just as well, as they have a glass of Pisco waiting for us as an aperitif.

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Yesterday was a good day for stretching and using our leg muscles in a different way, and today we get to sit down and work the arms. Our goal today is kayaking at Grey Glacier, which runs off the Southern Ice Field into Grey Lake, a truly breathtaking and emotional place. Photo opportunities start as soon as we arrive at the lake and see the aquamarine icebergs drifting on the surface. We then board an ice-breaker boat that will take us one hour up the lake where we abandon ship at a small hut to start our mesmerising kayak trip to the glacier itself. The scale, power, cold, wind, sun, blues, greens, blacks and sounds are almost too much for us to handle, in this unbelievable natural theatre.

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The following day we have a tough, 9-hour hike, that will stay at the forefront of my memory always. I can’t really put into words what it’s like to be there, actually in the images I’ve dreamed of for so long, so I’m not even going to try. You have to experience it for yourself to really feel what it is to be in Patagonia.

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When we arrive back at camp, we’re greeted by the crew, who show us into the dome where the fire is glowing and the Pisco is flowing! We wash up and get the party started, as the next morning we have to commence the long journey home to our respective countries.

Leaving somewhere as unforgettable as Chile always brings mixed emotions. Sad to be leaving this mesmerising place, but happy to have had these unbelievable experiences with such great people. Chile is a dream destination, no doubt about it, and the photos we have only tell part of the story–the reality is even more mind-blowing that you can imagine!

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Company: H+I Adventures
Website: www.mountainbikeworldwide.com
Tour webpage: http://www.mountainbikeworldwide.com/bike-tours/chile-patagonia
Cost: $4,743 USD per person

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