One of the many things I’ve learnt the value of in Chile is a good old bank holiday weekend. The extra day – a whole 24 hours! – that it gives you is full of possibilities, and I’d never really appreciated this before. The Chilean mindset seems to be that anything that turns a normal day into a very slightly abnormal one is a good enough excuse for the whole country to take the day off, and I, for one, am not complaining. The last día feriado was a Monday in May, and four friends and I seized the opportunity to go to Parque Nacional Conguillío.
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I’d never even heard of it before my friend, Carmen, mentioned it (I clearly skipped that part of Lonely Planet); the nearest city is Temuco, which Laura and I visited on our trip in the summer, but it would seem that the park’s very existence flew straight over our heads. Which, given its status as one of the most beautiful parks in the country and our extensive research before the trip, was perhaps quite an achievement. However, I’m very pleased that a second opportunity to visit it arose.
After taking an overnight bus to Temuco on the Saturday night (which always seems like a good idea at the time of booking, but soon turns into a waking nightmare – literally – when I rediscover that I can’t sleep anywhere that’s not a bed), I met my four friends in the bus station of Temuco, where it was cold and rainy. Not the best start…and it didn’t get any better when we realised that we’d missed our bus to Melipeuco, the nearest small town to the park, and nobody seemed to be able to give us any information about when the next one was leaving or if there even was a next one. After much running between different bus stations, we eventually found ourselves on a bus to where we wanted to go, and a couple of hours later we arrived at the campsite/hostel where we’d booked a cabaña (cabin). Disaster averted.
The bus saga meant that it was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived, and even later by the time we were ready to spring into action. However, the campsite owner’s son very kindly offered to drive us to see a nearby waterfall:
we then went back to the campsite to have lunch and to properly install ourselves in the cabaña. Finally, we decided that we should at least attempt to go to the park, no matter how briefly; hitchhiking proved remarkably easy, and we squeezed in a short walk near the entrance of the park before heading back for the evening. ‘Heading back’ meant all five of us being squeezed into the back of a pickup truck, with hats almost being lost to the icy wind on multiple occasions.
The evening we spent in the cabaña was great, despite (or maybe partly because of) the flickering and eventual loss of electricity: we cooked pasta, built a fire (harder than it looks), and drank red wine out of a carton. The bed was one of the most comfortable I can remember sleeping in, and one of the funniest moments of the weekend was when the power came back on in the middle of the night and the sound of the kettle starting to boil woke me up.
The next day was considerably more successful in terms of going to the park. We were out of the cabaña by midday, and soon managed to hitchhike well into the park. To start with, we did a short walk to the Araucaria Madre, a very old, very big specimen of the araucaria tree (monkey puzzle tree in English), which is native to the region.
The jewel in the proverbial crown, however, was our lunch spot: on the banks of a laguna. The views of forest and mountain across the azul water were some of the most breathtaking I’ve seen; in that moment, sat in a circle with my friends and eating cheese and vegetable pitta breads, I felt one of those rare, precious moments of utter, blissful happiness.
The rest of the day comprised hitchhiking back to the campsite, grabbing our belongings and boarding a bus back to Temuco, where we ate a quick dinner of greasy, joy-filled sandwiches the size of our heads. The overnight bus back to Santiago was as devoid of sleep as ever, but it somehow didn’t matter: I was too busy feeling extremely lucky and happy to have had such a glorious couple of days in a beautiful pocket of Chile.