Our very first summer (February 2018) we did a trip down to Parque Nacional Conguillío and returned via Chillan. A gorgeous drive it took us through an Araucaria (monkey puzzle tree) forest. The araucaria is Chile’s national tree which can reach up to 50 metres high. It is a beautiful, nubby tree which is a very old, slow growing tree — some have been dated to 1,500 years. It’s pine nuts are edible. You can buy them locally in the south but I have also seen them in the supermarkets in Santiago. In fact the name Conguillío, comes from the indigenous Mapuche and in their language means “pine nuts in the water” or “between pine nuts.” You can see why, as the araucarias are interspersed between lakes and lagoons in the area, and frame the beautiful Llaima volcano. (Read about our return trip to Parque Nacional Conguillío in 2021 here.)
Lonquimay is known for the surrounding Araucaria forest so that was our destination and the Icalma Lake. We left Santiago at 6 a.m. and arrived at the campsite at 6 p.m. We would have arrived sooner except there is an old train tunnel (Tunel de las Raices) that is now for a single track of cars. The afternoon we arrived there was a festival on the other side of the tunnel so we ended up sitting still for well over an hour while we waited our turn in the tunnel.
We camped at Icalma Lodge on the edge of Icalma Lake. The campsite was well set up with clean bathrooms and showers (bring your own toilet paper). Each campsite had a wooden dining hut with roll-down screen for privacy (or maybe bugs but there weren’t any bugs when we were there!), a sink, shelves, a picnic table and an electric outlet and shelf which was perfect for our plug-in cooler. Each site had a drum-style BBQ / fire pit and grate. That year we brought our two-bedroom UK massive tent and it fit comfortably on the site. We were glad we did as we had at least one day of full-on rain. Remember your rain gear! They also have a cabin to rent as well.
On our first day we noticed there was a Mapuche festival a short drive away so we decided to go check it out. It was high on a hill in the woods and we were the only non-Chileans there. They were having a feast of roasted goat and lamb, boiled potatoes and chopped tomatoes. It was delicious! There were a few small tables with local crafts and some music. We loved it!
We spent a couple of days at the site just relaxing — renting a canoe, swimming, playing on the dock, sitting on the beach and watching the horses come into camp. The local ladies came by every day with their baskets laden with something delicious for us to try — lemon squares, fresh warm sopaipillas, and the local delicacy of roasted pine nuts. The children were always excited to see what was on offer!
I think our favourite experience was going to the Volcán Batea Mahuida — which is a large plateau we had seen on our way in. You can actually drive up it! Or you could walk as well which would be incredible. I have also read that in the winter there is a small ski hill. It’s name means ‘inverted bread pan’ and that is exactly what it looks like. It offers gorgeous views from the top and pretty hair-raising drive back down. You are right on the border with Argentina (look for the wooden post).
We went to Conguillío for a day and did the Truful-Truful walk with the children to see waterfalls and the topography near the Volcán Llaima. The hardened lava was something really spectacular to see. It’s a short, well-marked path at the entrance and very easy with young children.
We also went to Laguna Arcoiris which is a must see. The beautiful green and blue waters reflect the trees around the lake and the fallen logs inside. You can walk around parts of the lake, just park on the side of the road. There is a legend if you throw a coin in all your dreams will come true. There is a gorgeous lake and beach in the park, as well as camping options (small sites from what we could see) and cabins.
We loved Conguillío so much we were planning on going for our last summer in Chile (2020/21) but sadly Covid did not allow us to travel.
For our return we stopped half way near Chillan in Las Trancas at Basecamp Cabanas. The owner, Corinne, is lovely and made our stay perfect. Her cabins are have everything you could need — she even put a crash pad mat on the floor as our one son was still prone to rolling out of the bed! We had a great hike up a local hill to a viewpoint with her and we also booked horses on her recommendation. The town of Las Trancas is really very cute. There are a lot of options — a bakery, good food, ice cream shop, coffee and pizza place, local beer and even a craft fair while we were there! Recently, there is now an e-bike business starting up which would be fun to check out. If you go in winter there is a ski resort as well and you can go skiing down the active volcano. There are local thermal baths and a skate park as well for older kids.
You could combine this trip with Pucon, or via the beach (Pichilemu or Mantanzas) or even Santa Cruz. You could go further south and skip over to Argentina as well to San Martin de los Andes or Bariloche.
Remember, even if you leave Santiago in the summer it’s always cooler down south. So bring layers and rain gear. For the national parks we find a smaller tent is best so we now camp with two small/medium tents as opposed to one big one. Although our huge one did fit comfortably at Icalma Lodge camp sites. For hiking, I find the best is to show up early and tell the CONAF guards your fitness level and what you want to do, they are so good at suggesting good walks for your group and time constraints.