Dust Guzzlin’, Monkey Puzzlin’ Perfection

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.

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The unmistakable form of the Monkey Puzzle tree or Araucania as it is known locally

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.

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It’s not all about the trees… Volcan Callaqui dominates northern views from the trail

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.

‘Monkey Puzzle Trail’ Ralco to Melipeuco Route elevation profile

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…

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After a morning burst into Ralco and a leisurely schlump around town collecting supplies, I don’t get on the route until lunch time. Pretty quickly there are promising signs of some exciting times ahead

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I have entered the Lake District and spend the afternoon…

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… winding my way up the Rio Bio Bio…

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… towards the inviting snowy heights of Volcan Callaqui

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After a hot afternoon the dropping sun signifies camp o’clock. With no flat land around…

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… I’m forced to make inquiries that lead to a comfortable night in a community building of the dispersed community of Quepuca Ralco

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From Quepuca it’s a sunny morning spin down to Chenqueco and the start of business

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Chenqueco has a well stocked village store that I’m expecting to pick up supplies from. Unfortunately to my disappointment and the amazement of the locals, it’s shut up so I stick a couple of these fellas in my food pannier for protein and get back on my way

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That way is a steep dusty descent down to…

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… a pedestrian bridge over the river…

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… followed by an equally steep and dusty haul back out the other side

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With the sun starting to blaze it’s a sweat busting climb up from the river…

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… that’s rewarded with an exhilarating stretch of single track…

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… back onto the ‘road’ network. I’m surprised to find the road to be little wider than the single track…

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… and even more surprised when this merry band of travelling Basques and Chileans come trundling through the dust towards me

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Inspired by the adventurous spirit of my new friends I get back to the serious business of climbing

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The hill is steep and slippery with dust, I’m able to ride only about 10% of it…

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… but what goes up must come down and my reward is a really fun white knuckle ride back down the other side

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The day gets much easier after conquering the ‘steep hill of dusty doom’. I enjoy a stretch of flatter riverside riding before crossing and climbing over another small rise to camp

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The river here is dammed making is more of a lake than river, as the water level fluctuates it has left these poetic scars on the shore

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As I climb up to find myself a camp spot I can’t help but be amazed by the life that surrounds me… classic wilderness style beauty

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Day 3 is focused around Volcan Lonquimay. From the outset it dominates the horizon…

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… drawing me down sandy tracks

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My second surprise encounter on the trail is with three Swiss cyclists. Comprising a couple on a long trip north from Ushuaia and their friend who has joined for only a short stretch, they’re a fun interlude. Leo (here with his thumb up, wearing Vans and a studded belt) is on a $300 mountain bike he bought in Bariloche… I love the spirit of his adventure and the proof that you don’t need tons of expensive gear to do this (although it often helps)

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As we hang around talking rush hour hits, a couple of passing cars kicking up dense clouds of dust

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Inspired once again by the attitudes of others I get back onto the climb…

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… riding the winding road…

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… though varying states of vegetation…

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… past vibrantly coloured ponds…

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… up to the start of a vast lava field

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After a shady lunch and some more vibrant waterways…

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… I reach the final part of the 1,000 m climb up onto the shoulder of Volcan Lonquimay

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Bursting through the tree line…

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… I’m feeling good and having a lot of fun

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It’s a volcanic world I’m in now, the yellows of the dusty road giving way to greys…

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… and the lava field below revealing its true enormity

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As I reach the 1,862 m high-point a glance back shows the rich variety in the terrain…

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… while a look forward draws me into a pre-historic world…

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… of Punaesque colours…

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… lines and curves

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Thankfully there’s some signage to keep me safe…

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… as I descend off the volcano onto a short stretch of pavement…

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… and into the forest to camp

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Climbing Cuesta Las Raices over to Lonquimay village the next morning I’m struck by this scene. I take a photo and ask myself the question ‘What is wrong with this scene?’. The answer quickly follows: ‘Absolutely nothing’.

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The village of Lonquimay surprises me, it’s quiet yet strangely bustling at the same time. I stock up with supplies, top up my sugar levels and move on…

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… to a short stretch of paved highway riding

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I’m soon back on ripio and after a semi relaxing lunch battling Horseflies, climb up over to…

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… the quaint little community of Quinquen. This marks the spot where I turn off onto a delightful dirt track…

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… away from all civilization into the China Muerta National Reserve…

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… thick Monkey Puzzle forest…

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… and a perfect camp spot

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As I sip on tea and watch the sun set I can’t help but feel the finite nature of these moments. In a few months my South American adventure will end, there is a lot yet to come but how much of it will be as perfect as the Monkey Puzzle Trail?

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Before getting back to business I takes some time to examine these exotic indigenous trees, reflecting on the Monkey Puzzle I walked past for years on my way to school

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The final quick downhill burst to Melipeuco is exhilarating. I speed up and down slopes, around tight bends, through frigid streams and dangerously close to the encroaching forest. A truly fitting end to a magical few days on the bike…

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… nothing can kill this kind of buzz… not even fences!

Route Tips

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!

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5 responses to “Dust Guzzlin’, Monkey Puzzlin’ Perfection

  1. Thanks for the update my Friend! The family anxiously awaits and I hope to have the billiards room dome by August;-)

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