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 monkey puzzle tree, a ‘living fossil’ and the national tree of Chile. Add to this an impressive Lonquimay volcano towering at the horizon and crystal clear streams running through the valley, we experienced it as a beautiful hidden paradise in Chile.
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 Patagonia actually start? After reading some blogs and inspecting some maps, we made our own definition where Patagonia would start: once it is green, there is an abundance of rivers and lakes and it is simply really beautiful, we are in Patagonia. And so we arrived in Ralco, a small village and the start of 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 adventures start here.
We found a beautiful cabaña, a mountain hut, including a swimming pool, chickens roaming around and 2 cute dogs that kept asking for attention. It ticked all our boxes of the dreamy imagination of living in a tiny house somewhere in the mountains. The decision to stay an extra few days before hitting the road again was an easy one.
Monkey puzzle trail
On Christmas Day we left our comfortable cabaña 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. And 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. 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 20 km, and the most exhausting day as well!
We started the next day with a good inspection of the route. Did we underestimate the route? If the coming days would be as difficult as the last 15 km, 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.
During our lunch break next to a stream we met a local, fishing for trout. He kept on talking about how long and steep the climb ahead would be and offered us a ride… We were tempted to accept his offer, but friendly declined. And we didn’t regret it one second.
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 Lonquimay volcano and its lava field
We were slowly nearing the Lonquimay volcano, a snow-capped volcano we have seen on the horizon the last couple of days. Lonquimay erupted on Christmas Day in 1988, leaving a massive lava field of over 10 km long in the valley. The road snakes around the lava field and volcano.
Up close, the lava field is not particularly beautiful, it looks like some ugly construction side 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 about 30 years ago this lava field didn’t even exist.
We were only one more climb and long downhill away from the Lonquimay village, for a hot shower and to resupply. Lonquimay village is a little ski resort and a decent affordable place was hard to find. We were happy we could 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. 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 pavement 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 exist. With no one else around, the beauty, peace, and quiet of the place made us utterly happy.
Soaking in all the beauty of the vivid green monkey puzzle trees, the contrast with the last kilometers through national park China Muerta could not be bigger. The same monkey puzzle trees, but all dead and burned down. A big wildfire in 2015 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.
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 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 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.
You can see how the Mapuche are taking care of their land. It is all so clean, with no trash anywhere. A big contrast to many other remote places we crossed on the South American continent, where unfortunately trash is a normality.
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’ is misleading. We road difficulty level 7, which was less physically demanding for us. The 20 km after Chenqueco are quite challenging and roads further down are sandy and steep as well.