Sunday, March 27, 2011
Watching Waterfalls: Solitude of the Upper Maule
Nearly 30 years ago, when I first trekked Chilean Patagonia’s now famous Paine Circuit, I saw three other hikers in ten days. In many sections, the trail was barely wide enough for both my boots to fit within it side-by-side, and it was often difficult to follow.
Today, of course, Torres del Paine is Chile’s most famous national park, and it’s hard to find the solitude there that I and my fellow hikers enjoyed that February - the mid-summer high season for Chilean vacationers. Today, it’s one of the country’s most visited parks: last month alone, it received some 29,000 visitors, 16,000 of them foreigners, many of them day hikers and long distance trekkers. It’s still stunning, but is not the Torres del Paine whose incomparable solitude I experienced in the early 1980s.
So where can someone go to seek wild high country in Chile without encountering hordes of hikers? Ironically enough, it’s the Andean backcountry of Talca, a city only three hours south of Santiago by bus - about the same distance as San Francisco is from California’s Sierra Nevada, a comparable hikers’ paradise. Talca itself enjoys a Mediterranean climate, not so hot or humid as Sacramento (the gateway to the Sierra Nevada), and it’s even closer to the cordillera than Sacramento is to the Sierras.
Last Wednesday, for instance, three other hikers and I joined German guide Frank Holl, of Costa y Cumbre Tours, on a walk to the scenic but previously unnamed waterfall he calls Salto Arcoiris (pictured at top). On the upper Río Maule, it’s reached from a suspension bridge trailhead at Baños Campanario, a rustic hot springs only 126 km (about 78 miles) east of Talca via a smooth paved highway that, most years, crosses the Andes to Argentina. This season, as the final segments are being paved, the 2,553-meter Paso Pehuenche is closed, but it will reopen for the next austral summer.
On a trail that climbs gradually from 1,500 meters, with only a few steep segments, we passed an odd sandstone outcrop known as Los Monjes (The Monks), but much of the landscape consists of columnar basalt that resembles California’s Devil’s Postpile. About two hours and five km in, at 1,800 meters elevation, after sighting several ribbon waterfalls across the Maule, we came in view of Arcoiris, plunging vertically into the river canyon.
This is not a signed trail, and not even part of a protected area. In fact, it’s a stock trail used by local herders who take their cattle into the highland summer pastures. Frank, who walks it frequently, tells me he’s never seen another recreational hiker here even though, most of the time, the guardrails of the international highway are within our sight. We didn’t even see any of Chilean huasos, the local counterpart of the Argentine gauchos, with their flat-brimmed and flat-topped sombreros; we did see a few of their cattle.
Returning to the vehicle, Frank drove us a few miles farther where, after a short hike, we saw the same falls - one of which had a small but swimmable pool, from directly above. At one point, as we stood on a precipice overlooking the valley, an Andean condor glided past us only 20 or 30 meters away, close enough that its white head and its wingtips, separated like the fingers of a human hand, were clearly visible.
The final treat, though, was the 60-meter Salto del Maule (pictured above), not visible from either the highway or the trail across the canyon that we had so recently walked. Even given that the falls can vary in their flow because of upstream releases to fill the Lago Colbún reservoir below, it’s remarkable that such sights are so close to a major metropolitan but still almost undiscovered.
That’s only a sample of what the Talca backcountry, which also features protected areas such as Parque Nacional Rada Siete Tazas and Reserva Nacional Altos del Lircay, has to offer. The five-day Circuito Cóndor, for instance, offers a scenic solitude that approaches what Torres del Paine offered three decades ago.