I feel as if I owe the Puna de Atacama an apology. Although still very much in love with that gorgeous arid high plateau I know my heart has now followed my body somewhere else. It’s not you, it’s me. My adoration has been stolen by a fresher face, a personality so much more alive and utterly bursting with verdant vitality. I have reached the Chilean Lake District and opened the gates to Patagonia. The Lake District is scenic romance in carnet, a pure picture of perfection and loaded to the gills with everything I ever hoped bicycle touring could be. After dry dusty desert months and a mildly mind numbing turn to paved ‘progress’ the lake district feels like a return to life. This is a living breathing ecosystem with all the trappings of adventure. It is beyond me as to why the Londonesque calls of this area get stifled beneath the clamor for salt flats, glaciers and lagunas. Those places are for the Facebook generation to ’like’, this place is for those who have a literary attention span to love.
With my first kilometres of 2015 purely utilitarian hotel hopping days south, heading out onto the dirt tracks of southeast Biobio marked the figurative start to my year on the bike. Attracted by the Monkey Puzzle (aka Araucania) forests, commanding snow-capped volcanoes and long summer days, I’ve been lusting after this area since Anna’s ‘forest foray‘ last year. I arrived in the region with high hopes, expectations that I would find comprehensively exceeded. The Chilean Lake District is like a picture postcard wilderness, it is perfect and care free. There are no bears to worry about, the area is of a manageable size and riddled with a mouth-watering collection of trails and dirt roads. Comparisons to ALCAN wilderness are unmistakable, so much so that I reckon anyone seeking that North American wilderness experience should probably come here to find the family friendly Disney version first.
I know I’m gushing and I know that’s not generally a good look, I think I’m still high, buzzing off the fun I’ve just had riding The Monkey Puzzle Trail. This is a beautiful route into the northern Lake District aimed at the bikepacking (lightweight off-road touring) crowd but also known to be easy enough for lighter tourists. That’s still me, a medium weight bicycle tourist. However, although I continue to persist with a touring load I know I’m now into the final months of hauling so much crap/such a handicap around. All my tastes point towards me being a bike packer on a cycle tourists bike and my future trips will almost certainly be shorter, hopefully involve a 29+ dream machine and probably pannierless. Some such as Paul and Cass (where the distinction between tour and life is most blurred) have successfully made the transition to a lightweight set-up on their way down/up/around the Americas. I on the other hand have remained loyal to my faded old Ortlieb panniers. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But when I ride terrific routes as I just have on the Monkey Puzzle Trail, I become impatient for the full transformation. Such varied and attention grabbing riding is indescribably exhilarating, knowing how much more fun it would be in bikepacking mode just blows my mind.
At about 240 km, the Monkey Puzzle Trail isn’t a long ride, but it is one hell of a good one! Here is the story of my soul feeding spin through a Chilean cycling gold mine of exotic forests, sharp peaked volcanoes and clear mountain streams…
4.5 days, 240 km (150 miles), 5,410 m (17,750 ft.) of climbing
The idea and desire to explore this region came from Anna’s ride through the area in January 2014, so check out her blog post for inspiring pictures. The practical route information for this Monkey Puzzle trail emerged a few months ago on Logan’s www.pedalingnowhere.com site. He is in the process of building an impressive and incredibly useful database of bike packing orientated cycle routes throughout the world. The ‘Monkey Puzzle Trail’ is one of those, contributed by Skyler, details of the route can be found here.
One of the beauties of the route is that despite often feeling quite remote you never have to carry much food nor water. Supplies can be bought on route in Chequenco (although this store was closed when I rode through), Lonquimay and Melipeuco. Water is available from streams all over the place so never has to be carried.
In the hot summer months the trail is dusty and often sandy (I presume this translates to mud in wetter times). Getting filthy is quite good fun though when you know there will always be a stream at the end of the day to wash yourself off in. You can also be assured that you’ll find a great wild camp spot as they are just about everywhere. The only places you might struggle to find a spot are close to the edge of lakes and rivers where the slope may be too severe, but with patience a spot will appear.
As with any such route, a lighter load makes for a more enjoyable ride. My load is probably on the limit of what you should be carrying as between the pedestrian bridge across the river by Chequenco and the Contraco there is some steep and dusty track that will require off-bike pushing. I was only pushing for a morning so if you’re adverse to that kind of thing it shouldn’t be a deal breaker, but it can be tough in the heat.
The variety of landscapes and riding in this route are one of the things that make it special. However it is worth noting that if you’re going to take any single part of the route to ride in a day I’d recommend the track through China Muerta National reserve from Quinquen to Melipeuco. Riding north this gifts a lovely shady climb which heading south becomes an adrenalin pumping descent.
In general this isn’t a tough route to ride (3/5 is a fair summation) but very rewarding in terms of scenery and fun riding. Even if you think the pushing parts will challenge you beyond what you’re used to, factor in an extra day or two and give it a go. At the very least you’ll get some great photos!