Friday, July 13, 2018

Finding the Forest For the (Monkey-Puzzle) Trees

New growth on an Araucaria branch, Parque Nacional Conguillío
In November of 1911, when John Muir climbed a ridge to camp among the “monkey-puzzle” forests of southern Chile, he marveled at “A glorious and novel sight, beyond all I had hoped for.” At the age 73, the legendary conservationist had sailed to South America, first exploring the Amazon and, after reaching Buenos Aires, he crossed the Andes in search of Araucaria araucana, the “monkey puzzle tree.”
Bark of a mature Araucaria tree
The present-day gateway to Fundo Ontario, where John Muir stayed in his search for the Araucaria
In Santiago—where even Juan Söhrens, director of the national botanical garden, had never seen the tree in the wild—Muir took a hint from a friend of the US ambassador and the train to the city of Victoria, just north of Temuco. Here, he made contact with the Smiths, a Canadian immigrant family, whose Fundo Ontario ranch was Muir’s gateway to the Andean foothills near what is today Parque Nacional Tolhuaca. It was here that sketched the forests and slept beneath the trees he’d come to observe—just as he did beneath the giant sequoias of California’s Sierra Nevada.
Parque Nacional Tolhuaca, with Araucaria trees in the right foreground and atop the ridge in the distance
Several times I’ve had the good fortune to see the area Muir visited, and several comparable areas on both sides of the Andes. The pewén, as it’s known in the indigenous Mapudungun language, has a narrow distribution between 37º20' and 40º20'S. In total, Araucaria forests cover less than 400 square kilometers, mostly in the Andean cordillera but with scattered stands in Chile’s coastal range.
A young ornamental Araucaria on the grounds of Oakland Technical High School
Where are the best places to see this distinctive tree, also known as the paraguas (umbrella tree)? It’s not uncommon as an ornamental—there’s one on the grounds of Oakland Technical High School, about five minutes from my California home—but Argentina and Chile are the Holy Grail. Following Muir’s trail toward Tolhuaca is one option, but access by public transportation is limited at best. Larger numbers see Parque Nacional Conguillío, to the southeast, which is more accessible from Temuco and the town of Melipeuco (though only by taxi).
A mature Araucaria forest at Parque Nacional Conguillío 
In terms of public transportation access, though, the best place to see the Araucariais the more southerly resort of Pucón. Two nearby national parks, Parque Nacional Villarrica and Parque Nacional Huerquehue, have frequent bus service. Personally, I prefer Huerquehue for easy access to hiking trails, dense pewén forests, and great panoramas that include the smoking, snow-topped Volcán Villarrica, which Spanish conquistador poet Alonso de Ercilla called the “great neighbor volcano.”
Araucarias on the Sendero Quinchol, Parque Nacional Huerquehue
On my most recent visit, though, I chose the Santuario Cañi, a private nature reserve that’s only 20 minutes out of town, and also easily accessible by public transport. I first hiked here in the 1990s as a guest of the non-profit Fundación Lahuén, on a sore ankle that caused me some difficulty. This time my joints were healthy, but the trail seemed even steeper than I remembered, and younger hikers were consistently passing me. At the end, though, I reached the plateau of Laguna Las Totoras, a marshy lake surrounded by monkey puzzle trees, but declined to climb to the El Mirador ridge. 
Hikers among the Araucarias in the Santuario Cañi
An Araucaria seedling has found growing space at Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta.
For my money, though, the best place to see the trees is Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta, in the coastal range near the city of Angol, where the trees even find growing spaces in cracks among its igneous outcrops. One of the best nights I ever spent was the campground here on Christmas Eve of 1998, when I had the entire park to myself. Nahuelbuta is scenic, with great hiking trails, but it doesn’t get many Chileans because it lacks water—there are no rivers or lakes suitable for swimming except outside park limits.
A panorama of the Araucaria forests at Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta
Along the trail at Argentina's Parque Nacional Lanín
I’ve barely mentioned Argentina, where the best site is Parque Nacional Lanín, across the Andes from Pucón, and easily reached from the cities of San Martín de los Andes and Junín de los Andes. It bears mention that the indigenous Pewenche—who take their name from the trees—gathered fallen forest nuts for their subsistence. I myself have eaten the toasted nuts and also consumed them in a pesto in a San Martín restaurant that is now, sadly, closed.
Pewén nuts on display at the Feria Masticar, an annual food fair in Buenos Aires

Custom Search