After a few weeks following mostly paved roads in Chile and Argentina, we were definitely ready for some new off-road bikepacking adventures. The monkey puzzle trail from bikepacking.com looked like the perfect route for us to discover the beautiful Auracaniá region in Chile. Araucania is home to Mapuche culture and the remarkable monkey puzzle trees. The monkey puzzle tree is the national tree of Chile and often described as a ‘living fossil’. Add to this an impressive Lonquimay volcano towering at the horizon and crystal clear streams running through the valley, this area is a hidden paradise. It has been one of our favorites rides in South America.
With already one year on the road, a lot of people asked us, ‘Where are you heading to?’ And we could always reply: ‘We are on our way to Patagonia!’ But getting closer and closer, we started to wonder, where does the region Patagonia actually start? It is still not clear to us where the region of Patagonia officially ends and begins. But we came to our definition that once the landscape is green, there is an abundance of rivers and lakes and it is simply really beautiful, we arrived in Patagonia. And so we arrived in Ralco, a small village, and the start of bikepacking route: the monkey puzzle trail. It was green, with crystal clear blue rivers running through the valley, trees everywhere and the views breathtakingly beautiful. We knew, our Patagonia adventure starts here!
Monkey puzzle trail
On Christmas Day we left for the monkey puzzle trail bikepacking route. We cruised along the shores of a reservoir lake and the river to the next small village Chenqueco. That evening, we found a beautiful spot to pitch the tent and watch the sun goes down.
Hike-a-bike on the monkey puzzle trail
The next day we followed a hiking trail to cross the bridge that would bring is to the other side of the river. The hiking trail is definitely not made for a touring bicycle. A local was laughing at us while we were pushing our bikes up the mountain. He told us we should get ourselves a horse instead of a bike. We pushed and pulled our bikes over the trails, and agreed that a horse would indeed have been nice.
After 45 minutes of suffering, we thought we had covered the toughest part of this route, not knowing what was to come. It took us most of the day to cover the next 10 km to push our bikes up over steep rocky roads or sliding down over slippery descents. With our ‘new’ double pushing technique, – pushing one bike with the two of us – we got our bikes to the top. We broke two new records that day: the shortest distance covered in a day on the bike with only 18 km, and the most exhausting day as well!
We found ourselves again in a situation we had before in Ecuador and Peru. Did we underestimate the route? If the coming days would be as difficult as the last 15 kilometers, we were going to have a hard time! Luckily the roads improved from that point, with only a few mean steep climbs and some sandy roads, but nothing crazy. We could cycle everything again from that point.
The landscape slowly opened up and the first monkey puzzle trees appeared on the horizon. It is a distinct and funny looking tree that typifies the landscape here. This evergreen tree can grow up to 40 meters and is the national tree of Chile. And as you probably figured, it is also what the monkey puzzle trail is named after.
Cycling on a volcano and a lava field
We were slowly nearing the Lonquimay volcano, a snow-capped volcano that was already visible from a far distance in the last couple of days. Lonquimay erupted in 1988, leaving a massive lava field of over 10 km long in the valley. A beautiful road over the lava field towards to volcano followed. Up close, the lava field is not particularly beautiful, it looks more like a construction site that ruined the landscape. But once we reached the top and we could look into the valley and over the immense lava field, the beauty revealed itself. Crazy to realize that ~30 years ago this lava field didn’t even exist.
The next day we arrived in Lonquimay village, a little ski resort. A decent affordable place was hard to find and we were happy to leave this place again the next day. It made us appreciated all the beautiful camp spots we had the last days even more! We followed an old railway turned into a new cycling lane out of Lonquimay village. Without any expectations of this day, it turned out to be one of our most beautiful rides in South America so far.
Once off the paved road and a few kilometers on our way on gravel, the road was blocked by the Mapuche people with banners about reclaiming their land. We had to ask the locals permission to cross their land. Luckily, a friendly guy opened the gate for us without any problem.
Access was granted and we arrived in paradise! So many monkey puzzle trees! Combined with the crystal clear streams and Mapuche people truly taking care of their land, the region had something magical. Incredibly beautiful! The day was filled with laughter and smiles on our faces that such beautiful places on earth still exist. With no one else around, the beauty, the tranquility of the place made us utterly happy.
After soaking in all the beauty of the vivid green monkey puzzle trees, the contrast with next section through national park China Muerta could not be bigger. This area consists of the same monkey puzzle trees, but all dead and burned down due to a big wildfire in 2015. The fire affected a large part of the park. Seeing this, you understand why the Chilean laws are so strict when it comes to wild camping and campfires in national parks. After a long descent through this park, we camped again in a beautiful location next to the river filled with trout.
Mapuche and monkey puzzle trail
The monkey puzzle trail covers a short ~250 km through the province of Araucania, it thereby crosses over Mapuche territory. Mapuche people are the indigenous inhabitants of south-central Chile. The land is part of their identity, and the dispute between Mapuche and Chilean government dates back a long time. Mapuche people want to reclaim their territory, to protect it from commercial forestry, more reservoir dams, and any other intrusion. They have fenced their ‘reclaimed’ land and keep a watchful eye on whoever crosses their land.
We were not sure if we would be granted permission to continue over their land. On the Monkey Puzzle trail, we were stopped in total 3 times. A guy first just asked us to register our names, the other 2 times they asked us to not leave any trash or make campfires. Basically be respectful to nature. And rightfully so. It’s actually too bad they even have to ask. It should be normal but is sadly not the case that people are respectful and leave no trace behind. Cycling through this area, you can see how the Mapuche are taking care of their land. It is all so clean, with nowhere trash lingering around. It is a big contrast to many other remote places we have crossed on the South American continent.
Useful info for other cyclists
We cycled this route north to south on a heavy loaded touring bicycle with 2-inch tires. It took us 5 days to cycle this route.
- After reading the route comments on bikepacking.com we were prepared for the ~30 min hike a bike section at Chenqueco. BUT, the 15 km dirt road stretch after Chenqueco is equally challenging! Steep and lots of pebbles and rocks made it impossible for us to cycle. Be prepared for slow going and a lot of pushing if you have bikes like us.
- The Mapuche people were very friendly and just asked us to register our names. They let us pass and were just curious about where we were going. We think it did help, that at any sign or roadblock, we patiently waited for someone to come to us. We made friendly conversation. It all helps.
- Overall we think the Monkey Puzzle Trail is doable on a touring bicycle, but compared to other bikepacking routes we cycled in South America a difficulty level of ‘3’ given by bikepacking.com might be a bit misleading. We cycled roads with a difficulty level of 7, which were less physically demanding for us. The 20 km after Chenqueco is quite challenging and roads further down are sometimes sandy and steep as well.