An explosion of colors at Conguillio

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By Clara Ribera

“Please forgive the artists. They ran out of paint and couldn’t finish the masterpiece." This is how I was welcomed to Conguillio National Park, a popular destination during summer and winter but during the fall this park hides a real treasure -- a festival of colors.

Located in the Araucania region of southern Chile, for four weeks, between the latter part of April through mid-May, the park experiences an explosion of varied tones and shades. One can find the darkest blacks at Llaima volcano to the striking reds, yellows and oranges that announce the arrival of the coldest months to the impenetrable green of the araucaria trees. 
 
The contrast leaves you speechless. You might find yourself standing for hours trying to recognize every single color the park offer up this time of year. The paths, still without snow, are undoubtedly unmatched scenery for those who love hiking, cycling and photography.
 
“The best place to go and take pictures in the park is, without doubt, the Sierra Nevada path," recommends Chilean photographer Augusto Dominguez, who often leads photosafari tours in Conguillio. “The viewpoints from Sierra Nevada are incredibly scenic because you can see the lake with all its magnificence. And it is all surrounded by the mountains on one side, and the Llaima volcano on the other." 
 
If autumn is when the park offers the best time to see its amazing colors, the lakes are at their low point. Conguillio National Park has four lakes: Conguillio, Verde, Arco Iris and Captrén. All of them crystal-clear waters, if you manage to see them on a sunny day you might find a thousand colors on their surface.
 
PHOTO GALLERY
 
©Augusto Dominguez
 
Climate change
Underground drains fill up these lakes, which at this time of year have low water levels as they wait for the first snowfall. Nevertheless, Eleodoro Gutiérrez, the park administrator, says that in the last five years they have witnessed a stark annual decline in snow. “The situation at Laguna Verde is especially dramatic," said Isabel Correa, owner of ecotourism lodge La Baita, situated just outside of the park. 
 
During winter, the park normally accumulates between one and two meters of snow that remains on the ground for four months. At the moment, the trend over the past five years shows the park accumulating just under 40 centimeters of snow and it doesn’t hang around more than a month.
 
The lower precipitation has come together with higher temperatures in this region during this period, also prompting changes of the altitude range for some plant species. As one example, the roble pellín (Nothofangus Obliqua), a native oak tree, used to grow only up to 900 meters above sea level, and now they can be found at 1500 meter above sea level. 
 
After the fire
It is precisely that species, together with the araucaria trees, that were lost in tragic fire in March of last year in Conguillio National Park and the nearby China Muerta Natural Reserve.
 
The area in Conguillio affected by the fire – around 9% of the park's 60,832 hectares  – is located in a poorly accessible area and it has not affected tourism in the park nor the rest of its ecosystems. On the other hand, China Muerta Natural Reserve is still trying to recover, a process that will take at least five years. The government has a forester onsite that regularly monitors the area. 
 
Unforgettable autumn  
Millennial trees, clear waters and paths to explore. Conguillio National Park, a true, peaceful getaway, has it all. Don't miss the autumn light shining down on the infiinite colors and natural magic of this special part of Chile's Araucanía. 
 
How to go
The lodges and camping areas inside the park are closed till September, but the park remains open and visitors are welcome between 8.30am and 6pm. Entrance fees are $4.000 pesos for Chileans and $6.000 pesos for international visitors. 
 
In January and February, there is public transportation available out of Temuco, the capital of the Araucania region, but at the moment the park can only be accessed by bus from Curacautín to Captrén, or from Temuco to Melipeuco or Cherquenco –and then from these towns one must switch to a bus that goes to the park.