On Sally’s most recent visit to the Patagonia, she was fortunate to take a 2 day hike through the Tagua Tagua Park. Relatively new, this park is a Private Protected Area (PPA) not a National Park, dedicated to the preservation of biodiversity.
The Hike In
The entrance into the park is unlike any other I have seen before, reached by boat across the vast emerald waters of the Tagua Tagua Lake. As the El Salto River falls into the Tagua Tagua Lake the boat approached a cluster of rocks, here we clambered off and scrambled up onto the trail.
The trail starts from the information centre at 20 metres where you sign in. There was a pile of bamboo sticks which hikers can borrow to help them on their way as they head up into the valley.
The first hour, although forested, is through an area which has noticeably been inhabited as there is grass and introduced plants such as blackberries and apple tree. The only family to live in this area were the Melipillan Sanchez family between 1953 and 1994 who made a living from farming and also making the alerce shingles for building – a trade locally known as a tejueleria.
There was a lot of humming birds (green hooded fire crowns) activity in and amongst the fushias bushes – flitting from here to there, fighting and being really noisy. As there were no other hikers we were able to stand and admire these beautiful birds.
After the first hour of patchy forest and open grass land we then entered the dense forest where the vegetation becomes almost mythical with hanging lycans, trunks covered in creeping vegetation and the rain dripping through to create the illusion that the forest is moving! There were ferns of all shapes and sizes – giant ferns, monocell transparent ferns and umbrella ferns that looked like they were made of velvet.
Also funguses – some as large as dustbin lids – mostly mushroom type or enormous layers of yellows, oranges, purples, more abundant and bigger than I had ever seen.
After crossing various riverson newly built wooden bridges and climbing up to 535 metres, you reach the Refugio Alerces.
Looking out over the flooded Alerce forest, the Refugio Alerces sits 6.5km up the trail at 535 metres (the park guide says 4.5 hours but we had done it, taking our time in 3 hours). The refugio has sleeping space for 22 in open bunks and an open kitchen – it is really just 1 big room with bunks built into 1 wall – all in wood. As it is just 1 hut the heat from the wooden stove burner benefits all. There is an outdoor porch with a hammock and stunning views of the mountains behind.
This refugio is manned by Sol and Felipe, the park rangers, who live up here all year round maintaining the refugios, trails and park in general.
The next 2 kms heading out from the Refugio Alerces climbs almost 200 metres in a series of ladders. They are not totally vertical and could be described mearly as steep walkways resting on the ground below.
After 9 kms from the start you reach the valley top at 710 metres where the forest opens up to large patches of mallin (fragil, spongy ground cover), the large granite walls show themselves and the expansive forests of Alerce and Cypress trees. As it had rained all day, there were waterfalls appearing from everywhere.
You can easily track your progress along the path with handy signs every 500 metres .
We arrived at the Refugio Quetrus after about 5 hours hiking, absolutely soaking wet. Having worked previously as park ranger, Mauricio my guide was a dab hand at getting the fire going and the kettle on. This higher refugio is un-manned so was absolutely freezing!
This refugio, currently at the end of the trail but there is plans to extend the trail, sits at 710 metres so from the trail head you have gained 690 metres on the 10 km hike. There is sleeping room for 8 with a similar layout as the Alerces but the sleeping space is up a ladder on another floor. There is a porch with benches to sit out on and look out across the truly breath taking view of the Lake Quetrus, islands forested with cyprus trees, granite walls and waterfalls.
At both refugios the toilet is housed in a separate wooden hut, a 2-3 minute walk up another trail, deep in the woods. This hut is just a toilet which flushes with rain water (all toilet paper should be bagged up and carried out of the park). The refugios have a supply of fresh water in containers which the park rangers get from higher up the mountain and the sink has running water which is just rain water (for cleaning teeth etc). There are no other facilities or privacy.
All food that you have in the park has to be brought in and rubbish carried out. If you do the trek as a guided trek, the guide will provide food, stoke the fire and cook up a storm. On the menu during my trek we had a local dish called Cancato, a sort of pizza using Salmon as the base or better described as salmon stuffed with tomato, courgette, onions and cheese. Really delicious after a hard day in the rain.
We chatted by candle light, read back copies of the Patagon Journal and had an early night listening to the howling wind and sound of the rain.
During the middle of the night I was aware that the autumn rains had definitely begun – I thought it had been raining hard the previous day but this was nothing, just a passing shower, in comparison to what we woke up to hear in the middle of the night. Since 3 am there had been thundering rain on the roof and we woke up to a curtain of rain outside; there were waterfalls cascading down the granite walls which surrounded us (in fact, the weather was so bad that I couldn’t see the granite walls just the white water) and the lake in front, Lago Quetrus, had risen significantly. The water had flooded the firewood store but luckily Mauricio had brought in enough the night before so within just a few minutes in the morning, we were nice and toasty with hot tea & toast.
What an adventure the descent turned into – the footpath and river had become indecipherable! Knee deep in water, using trees to keep us up right, we waded out and back down the valley. Luckily the Refugios have their own store of rubber boots so I borrowed these instead of getting my own boots wet.
On reaching the valley decent back at KM 9, we could see that there was bright light on the horizon, this gave us great hope that the rain might stop…and it did! The sky cleared and the sun came out, what a treat. On the descent we took various side paths out to see hidden waterfalls and a stunning viewpoint which gave us views out over the whole valley.
As we neared the end of the hike, the Tagua Tagua Lake suddenly came into view and with the sun shining on it that turquoise colour of the water seemed even more intense. As we sat on the rocks waiting for the boat to collect us, I felt totally exhilarated. The trek had been quite challenging, not because of the distance, more for the rain, slippery terrain, basic facilities and the thick dense jungle forest that literally breath air back into my lungs. On the opposite shore of the lake I could see the Mitico Puelo Lodge and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to the hot shower and pisco sour.