Trekking: Reserva Nacional Malalcahuello-Nalcas

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By Tomás Moggia
Editors note: The following is from Edition 11.  
It takes almost three hours of walking until I finally leave the dense, humid forest. Behind are tall and ancient araucarias, also known as monkey puzzle trees, and other species like lenga, coihue and oak. While I continue climbing up through the sunny and exposed hillside that marks the end of the Piedra Santa trail, a cold wind begins to blow, and the increasingly isolated and solitary araucarias begin to adopt strange, stunted forms, reminding one of the craftsman-like role that the wind can play at high altitudes.
From one moment to the next, the Lonquimay volcano shows part of its face and as I climb its southern slope is revealed. Despite the fact we are at the end of summer, there are patches of snow. Looking down the valley, I have a clear view looking out toward the Sierra Nevada and the Llaima volcano.
The path continues through an eroded hillside above the tree line. At a certain point, the track begins to descend toward the Colorado River, where Lonquimay volcano acts almost like a guardian of these territories inside Malalcahuello-Nalcas National Reserve. I walk a few meters down river until I reach a good camping spot near the water, immersed in a forest that comes alive at night. Several colocolo opossums scamper amongst the araucaria and other trees, freezing whenever my head light shines on them.  
The next morning, I find myself climbing uphill under a relentless sun that becomes increasingly suffocating as I cross the arid lava bed. After a couple of hours walking on this volcanic desert the Huamachuco and Pancutra passes are left behind when the Tolhuaca volcano first rises into view a couple kilometers to the north, beyond the vast field of lava that separates it from Lonquimay volcano.
While descending below the tree line, I am thankful of the shade and the cool of the forest . An incessant pecking at the bark of the trees brings me to a halt. There must be at least one black woodpecker above me, anxious to find some grub or insect in the bark. Before long the toc toc sound and his cries give him away at the top of a lenga tree.
Photo: David VidalPhoto: David Vidal
I leave the forest in the knowledge that the most grueling part of the journey is yet to come - an endless and rugged lava field with the sun rays seemingly melting the volcanic rocks beneath my feet. I continue for around two and a half hours through that seemingly never-ending desert inferno on the lower slopes of the Lonquimay massif, until I finally reach a pass which links the two volcanoes. From here you can also see the Callaqui and Copahue volcanoes, both more than 40 kms to the north.
From here, the trail passes along an old vehicle road. Little by little the route descends revealing a much larger volcanic field than the previous one, with extremely long tongues of lava protruding from the north face of Lonquimay. The most recent volcanic flows take on reddish tones in contrast with the black of the older rock.
Even more poignant is the Navidad (Christmas) crater, which protrudes from Lonquimay. It is in fact nothing more than a “parasitic” crater, receiving its name because it erupted on December 25, 1988, when it spewed out volcanic material for over a year and formed a cone nearly 100 meters high.
As I descend, the far-off sound of running water in the ravine below is comforting. I drink until my thirst is quenched. A few minutes later, I’m at Laguna Verde estuary, at the foot of the Tolhuaca volcano and where a solitary, starry night awaits me.
On the third day, the sun continues to accompany me. I know that only 20 kms separate me from my final destination.  I leave behind the hidden Laguna Verde to cross the Nalcas pass toward the point at which the old vehicle track goes down toward the ravine, and I take the path which goes through a mixed forest where eaglets and small parrots abound.  The Lonquimay volcano has now disappeared from view, but I continue beneath the watchful eye of the Tolhuaca.
Photo: 12xChilePhoto: 12xChile
After a few hours descending and crossing streams, I arrive at the Uribe estuary, where a skinny dip becomes irresistible. Back on the path, one can see more clearly in the distance the Lancú mountain range. Early in the the evening I reach the park ranger station -- a small house for the ranger and several camping spots – beneath the araucarias. I drop my heavy backpack and go for a walk along Lake Totora, with its noisy bird life bustling amongst the reeds. A trio of pitíos (a species of woodpecker) begin to sing above my head, tapping fitfully at the white wood of an old, dead tree. With a view of the now distant Tolhuaca volcano, I collapse into the tent, knowing that the following day a long walk awaits.
The first part of the day passes through a private property called the Lolco estate. A little later, already back in the national reserve, the edge of an imposing tongue of lava rises among the trees. At times it seems almost as if it is still “alive” and moving down the valley.
Now the river and also the route seems to be imprisoned between the volcanic lava bed and the steep surrounding slopes, which in some cases has dammed the water to such an extent that small ponds have formed. Even more amazing is the Escorial lagoon, which is much larger, deeper and an intense blue color. It is surrounded by the lava flooding a large area of trees that even today remain standing, forming a true cemetery for the drowned.
I follow the path through a forest of lengas for some hours more, gaining height rapidly among the last araucarias. The vegetation becomes more sparse and the view over the valley is impressive, with the desolate landscape of the endless, rugged lava field in all its splendor together with the Lonquimay volcano, and to the west, the Tolhuaca cone.
With the Lolco pass completed, I approach the edge of the Navidad crater, from where one can take a look into the depths of the earth and to the extensive territories of the Lonquimay volcano. From that height, the enormous and incontrovertible power of transformation by the volcanic eruptions is apparent, in a territory which at first glance seems hostile, but where little by little the araucarias take charge of colonizing and opening up possibilities for other species to grow, in a harmonic and unique partnership between araucarias and volcanoes.

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