Ancient Trees and Lone Gauchos: A journey in Pehuenia

I’ve spent the past few days amongst ancient giants. Surrounded by the mystical araucaria araucana trees, also known as Monkey Puzzles in English, it was a trip full of imagination and a journey down timeless trails.

 

Considered the oldest tree species on the planet, these are the sharp-pointed, prickly-trunked, sprindly-branched trees that grow more than 40 meters tall and sometimes 2-meters wide. There’s one in most botanical gardens of the world. But here, in an area known as Pehuenia, there is little but them. They hug the cliffs, dot the ridgelines, pop up on penninsulas and gather in creekside valleys.

There are old trees in many places, but these trees are more than just old. Each and every one of them is unique, full of personality, with each branch heading its own way.

As a species, the araucaria is often thought of as a fossil in and of itself. It’s inhabited the Earth without interruption for more than 200 million years.

The nutritious pine nuts that the araucaria (also known as pehuen in the local indigenous language) produces once fed dinosaurs in Patagonia when it was part of Godwanaland. We’re talking a long, long time ago and a very, very old tree. It was, and continues to be, a source of protein and vitamins to native peoples of this area who are known as “pehuenches” or people of the “pehuen”.

I first fell for these lofty umbrella-like trees in the magical Cañi Reserve forests outside Pucon. But the curiousity is alive and well these days. On Tuesday, with my friend Lu, I headed a long ways north from Bariloche, up the sparkling Alumine River valley, to the sleepy tourist town of Villa Pehuenia. Like the people, the town is named for the tree.

 

On the glistening shores of Lago Alumine, we rented a cabin with a large and lovely sunny terraza. It kept its promise, offering endless sunshine and water views over leisurly morning coffees, sundown glasses of chilled Voignier and even late night star gazing (saw two of the most thrilling shooting stars of my life). Summertime lives on. We climbed to the top of the sunken local volcano for amazing views of the snow-coned peaks that dot the Ruta de los Volcanes along the Chile-Argentina border. We had lunch on a windy slope with bluebird views. Trying our best to hold the map together without it blowing the smithereens, we consulted with Max at home in Bariloche for the names of the gorgeous volcanic peaks, most of which he has summited. We parked our car under the only shade in site – an araucaria. Later, we nosed around the sleepy town looking for non-existent action. Mostly, though, the trip was about marvelling at the monkey puzzles.

 

Yesterday, as we drove south hugging the Chilean border on the edge of Volcan Llaima, we journeyed through deserted valleys, with rain pouring across the peaks and the occasional dramatic glimpse of lava runoff. Tall mountains reached above us on both sides; the road ahead had the dark colour of volcanic sand. Each turn brought more surprises, and as the clouds came and went, we felt like we were the first people to be there in ages.

 

 

The only other we passed was a lone mapuches on horseback who gently waved from beneath his burgundy poncho on his gaucho saddle. I want to be him, I thought.

 

Araucarias thrive on volcanic soil, and so does one’s imagination. We ventured in and out of such dramatic and unique landscapes that it feel like a trip to another dimension.

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