Day 1 - The beginning
This day would be the one, after one month in the city I would finally leave Santiago and start traveling with everything that fit in my backpack. I got up early, in order to catch the bus to Talca, 3 hours south of Santiago. I arrived at the bus station about 15 minutes early and so the bus wasn't there, which had me worried at first, if I was at the right bus station - Santiago has many of them and some are near enough that one could end up at the wrong one. But five minutes later, the bus arrived and I got in, handing my backpack to the staff, who in return, handed me a piece of paper with a number on it. On arrival at Talca I would have to show that to get my backpack. This way they make sure stuff doesn't get stolen.
After a 3 hours bus ride in the second floor and at the very front - I made sure to get a good view of the journey - we arrived at Talca. Here, one of the staff pointed out to me, where the bus to Altas Vilches would leave. Altas Vilches is the entry point to Altas del Lircay National Reserve, where I wanted to go. The bus would take another 2 hours, cost 3 CHF and be without the number for your baggage - that was "self-service" at the back of the (much smaller) bus. Luckily, nobody seemed to be interested in a ~25kg blue backpack and so I arrived at the final stop, only a few meters short of the park entrance. There they would check my campstove, because apparently there had been problems with malfunctioning ones in the past.
From there it was another 2km to the rangers office, where I had to pay the entry fee and tell them where I was headed. My plan was to do the Condor Circuit, which takes anywhere between 6-8 days. The ranger tells me that I won't be alone on the trail, as there were many others doing it at the moment. This relieved me a bit because I hadn't been on such a long backcountry trip where there's zero cellphone coverage and no houses or roads nearby.
After that, I made my way to the first camping. This one I had to pay as it was inside the park and included facilities like showers and toilets. On the way I felt my hips hurt from the heavy backpack and I hoped that that would go away in the coming days. When I arrived I was pretty tired, no wonder after one month of doing nothing in Santiago.
After I set up my tent - which proved to be more difficult than I thought because it was new and I'd never set it up before - I ate some snacks and decided to go to a viewpoint for seeing and photographing sunset. It took me about an hour and a half to get up the 500 meters, and I could still feel hauling the backpack to the first camp in my bones. But when I arrived I was stunned - what a view! I could see the valley which I would hike through the next day and behind it the majestic Vólcan Descabezado (=beheaded), just short of 4000m.
I brought out my camera and started photographing - there wasn't much time left before sunset. But clouds started to move in and soon they blocked most of the light from the scene. I felt a bit sad, because I had hoped for some colors around sunset and had only gotten a few not so strong golden hour images. However, when I had almost given up hope, because the clouds were pretty thick, sun burst through and illuminated the whole landscape in the most fantastic light. Needless to say that I couldn't believe my luck and thanked my earlier me who forced me up the mountain instead of the tired body.
Day 2 - Burning sun
The second day I started rather relaxed. I had thought about getting up for sunrise as well, but then decided not to. I didn't want to start into my adventure with a lack of sleep. When I got out of my tent at around 9 I think there still wasn't a lot going on on the campsite. So I searched for my cereals and added some water. I had pimped the mix of oats from the supermarket with dried bananas and slices of coconut that I had bought on the market in Santiago for a few pesos.
While I was waiting for the oats to soak in, I got some more water and enjoyed the warm morning sun on my face. While I was eating my breakfast I talked to two Chileans that had come to camp and hike in the park for the weekend. They were from Santiago - as so many others that I had met before. No wonder, I was still pretty near to the capital and also it was school break. The two were very kind and offered me a tea. I hadn't brought any tea to minimize gas consumption. I also didn't have a cup - weight savings - but a pot works just fine as well. Then I packed all my stuff into my big blue backpack and left the campsite at around 11 o'clock - off to the next campsite.
First, I had to get down into the valley, about 800 m of height difference. With a heavy backpack, downwards can be quite challenging. But it turned out to be less exhausting than I had expected. I'm sure the shade of the forest helped a lot as well. Down in the valley I decide to take a little detour to a waterfall marked on the map. I ended up having to cross the river, for which I left behind my backpack and just brought the camera. It was well worth it - the waterfall was really pretty!
I got back to my backpack and continued hiking though the valley. The sun had intensified and was burning on my skin, having me fear I'd get burned. The river crossing I did with my shoes on - it wasn't deep and the layer of sand and dust worked like the a world class impregnation - they didn't even appear wet on the other side of the river. At that time, I met some others, who told me that it was another 2 to 2.5 hours to the campsite. I thought okay, that's not too bad. But soon I felt how I was getting tired. And the final 150 m in elevation gain were really hard. I arrived at the campsite totally exhausted and thirsty. After a bit of relaxing I soon pitch my tent under a tree and start talking to two others who arrived a bit after me. They are from Talca and here to climb Descabezado. It turns out that the man also is into photography and so he guides me to a waterfall nearby of which I wouldn't have known if it wasn't for him. Actually there are two waterfalls, both of the same river that has carved its way through hardened lava. After that, we return to the campsite and I cook myself some dinner - risotto with tomatoes.
Day 3 - Chilean earthquakes
This day I get up early, to photograph sunrise. The day before I had seen a few locations where I could imagine taking a good photo in the morning. But it turns out that none of the mountains around get any good morning light, probably because it is blocked by Descabezado. It was still beautiful seeing some of the morning light and wandering around in the fresh, clear air. Then, on my way back to the campsite I see a fox. He stares at me while I slow down, stop and out down my backpack to slowly and carefully get my camera out. But of course, the moment I reach for my camera, he turns around and disappears into the bushes. Even though I didn't get any images, this really made for an uplifting morning. After a cold but tasty breakfast of oats, coconut shreds and dried banana chips, I take a shower before leaving. It was cold (the shower), but that was actually a good thing at the beginning of a day that, temperature-wise, felt like being inside a toaster. At the beginning, I progress pretty fast, but then come the elevation gains promised by the map and I get slower, having to take breaks every now and then. What gets me through this is listening to some good podcasts about the internet (Reply all), crime culture in distinct American cities (Crimetown), technology (Plusplus) and science (Science vs). I guess it works a bit like talking to people while hiking - it distracts you from the seemingly never-ending uphill stretches. After about 700 m uphill, I lay down exhausted in the shade to eat my sparse lunch: two energy bars (the worst part is that they're so tasty that you want to eat all you have after having just one) and some trail mix (also this is dangerous, because it's so tasty). It sounds like very little, but it worked, it gave me the energy needed and when I had put together my food I had felt like I couldn't carry more than this.
Afterwards, I climb down into a valley where, according to my map, should've been a lake. But there was absolutely nothing. Fortunately, locals had warned me the day before and so this didn't take me by surprise. Apparently, this lake dried out when the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Chile back in 2010.
However, had I relied on this water source, I wouldn't have died. The Rio Blanquillo, that carved this valley, is still there. And it's gorgeous, with views of Cerro Azul and Volcán Descabezado in the background and it's lines of washed along pumice stone. After crossing it, the path proceeds into a strange landscape that almost seems a bit moonlike. Hills of small, light grey stones, complemented by black boulders around me, in the background the massive Vólcan Descabezado and Cerro Azul. Now, the campsite isn't far and arrive a few minutes later, completely exhausted. The sun had been burning on my skin all day long and I was desperate for some shadow to protect my skin, but also to cool down a little bit. The only shade I found was a big boulder in the middle of the campground that threw a tiny bit of shade. I squeezed myself into it and didn't get up for one hour, I just sat there and watched others arrive, all from the same direction as me. Then, I set up my tent, which was harder than expected due to the hard, stony ground. When I finished I had regained enough energy to grab my backpack with the camera inside and head back a few minutes on the trail to photograph sunset. But unfortunately, there wasn't much to be had - the landscape was fascinating but there was no good light that evening. So I get back to my tent and cook some dinner - couscous with some veggies.
Day 4 - Thermal spring
I had set my alarm for sunrise, but when I looked out my tent, I could see nothing but grey clouds. But I got out into the cold nevertheless, you never know what nature prepared for you. But just like the day before, it didn't work out. I didn't capture one single image this morning, there was simply no light that worked with the surrounding landscape. When I got back to my camp I mounted my tele lens and began to photograph the various birds that were present in this green oasis in the midst of volcanic desert. I had observed them the day before and had thought I would spend some time photographing them later. So I got a chance to do that. There are a few small ones that are being fed by their parents, a real eye-catcher.
Two others at the camp ask me if I wanted to join them to go see a few nearby lakes. But I decide I'd rather have a relaxed day, regarding the days to come. Some people had told me that these were the most exhausting ones and I also had to sew my pants before they would rip into two parts. So I continued photographing the birds and eventually a condor flew by pretty near and I even spotted a fox - and this time I had my camera ready. Later, I got back into my very dusty tent - the wind had been blowing strong and the fine stuff got everywhere. I hoped that I would get rid of it again at some point, everything was coated in a fine layer of brown dust and I didn't think it would do a lot of good to my equipment - tent, sleeping pad, camera, filters... I fell asleep shortly thereafter and when I woke back up it was afternoon and everyone had left camp. So I decided that it was time to wash myself - I got my (dusty) towel and walked down to the thermal spring that was literally 5 meters away from my tent. The water was cristal clear and so I sat down in the nice and warm (but not hot) water. It's a dream. You're a three day's hike away from civilization but there you're sitting in this wonderfully clear water, with a great view of a nearly 4000m volcano in front of you. I just thought to myself how great that instagram hasn't found out about this place yet. But then I remembered the three day's hike and the lack of WiFi - they're never gonna find out. With wrinkly hands and toes I got out of the water again and back into my tent. How nice to be clean again - or a bit less dusty at least.
This evening I took off again to photograph sunset. And this time it worked out, I had searched out a composition in the morning and it worked pretty well I think. I didn't get the perfect red evening light though. That seemed to be blocked by something and as I looked up and noticed the strong wind, I realized why. From the direction I was heading in the next day, I saw a cloud of dust and sand - it almost looked like a sandstorm approaching. So I packed up my camera and went back to my tent, where I spent the remaining few hours hoping that I wouldn't have to go against that sort of weather tomorrow.
Day 5 - Not getting fried
This morning I again went to photograph sunrise. But it didn't work out because there was so much dust in the air and so I went back to my tent, packed up everything and ate breakfast.
I lifted up my 26-or-so kg backpack and started walking. I felt good, relaxed and with my energy reserves filled up again after a day of relaxing. The landscape changed again, I left the green oasis and walked towards a valley of pumice stone sprinkled with heavy black and grey blocks. I was progressing well and the path was mostly pretty good and well visible. There was only one short stretch where it disappeared, and remembering the stormy weather of the past evening and this morning's lack of light, I knew why. These light pumice stones not only float in water, they are also easily blown away by stronger winds. Something I would get to feel first-hand shortly thereafter. As the wind picked up I felt the tiniest of the stones hitting the naked skin of my legs, arms and face - it felt like needles poking my skin. I turned my face towards the ground to protect it from the impact of the stones, with the result that they landed in my hair - I would wash out the last ones of them about three days later. A bit later, it began to hail. But just for a short bit and not very heavily, so I didn't even bother putting on my jacket. I just looked at the little particles of ice bumping off of the grey boulders amidst the whitish pumice. I reached a valley with a beautiful river and slowly climbed up the valley side, where the trail would at times get more unstable, making progress a bit harder. But I finally arrived to a beautiful plain with a river delta in it, that nourished some wonderfully colorful yellow, orange and red wildflowers along it's streams. This river as well, carried pumice in it, which created some beautiful lines, you can see some images of this in the link to all images of my trip at the very top of this page.
I put down my backpack and wander around barefoot, coming by a few places I pick out to photograph at later in the evening - at the moment it's only about three o'clock. I find a big boulder next to the river and build up my tent between the two. This way I would be sheltered from winds coming from one side at least. After that, I pack all my photography stuff into my backpack and wander back to the places I had picked out before. I spend a few hours photographing the wonderful landscape in which I am completely alone, no others are anywhere near. I get some great images of the river with its lines of pumice and the colorful mountains in the background. But clouds move in and block the last rays of light, so I wander back to the tent. But on the way there, the clouds start glowing in a beautiful pink and so I stop to pull out my camera and tripod once again. I get some final images, then I hear the sound of few but big raindrops on my jacket. I get back to my tent a bit faster than I would've without hearing that sound and start preparing my dinner - cheese risotto. I put on my rain jacket as well, as the rain is increasing.
Then I flinch, the flash of lightning had just lit up the sky. I love the mountains, but I hate thunderstorms, for obvious reasons. Nervously I finish cooking my risotto and crawl into my tent as quickly as I can. I try to enjoy my risotto with little success, the increasing frequency of light flashes and thunder make me nervous. On one hand I'm in a valley surrounded by mountains, on the other hand I'm next to a big boulder and the river, while the top of my tent is made of metal. I lay down on my sleeping pad and try to sleep - what should I do? Either, nature decides to fry me, in which case it doesn't matter if I'm sleeping or worriedly sitting in my tent. Needless to say I wouldn't have been fried in my sleep - you (at least I) can't sleep when there's a thunderstorm rumbling around you. I think the nearest the lightning came was about 600m, measured using the method of measuring the time difference between light and thunder.
Luckily, the thunderstorm stops about two hours later and I fall asleep.
Day 6 - Hotter springs
I wake up to my alarm and realize that I slept like a stone, I feel super relaxed and ready to get out of my warm sleeping bag to photograph sunrise. This night I had slept at 2400m, and coming out of my tent I feel how much colder it is up here as compared to the last few nights I spent at around 1100-1800m. But I'm not sure if that's really just the altitude, probably it's also connected to the thunderstorm of last night. There is not one cloud in the sky and so I walk uphill on the trail, towards a small lake that I had seen on the map the day before.
All of a sudden, while I'm walking up the sandy trail, the surroundings are lit up by a flash. It's so unexpected I actually flinch and immediately I think "oh no, more lightning! How can that be???"
But as I turn around and search for a sign of a thunderstorm on the sky I realize that I'm the opposite of unfortunate. What had lit up the sky was a very intense shooting star! In fact I could still see it, and after it disappeared there was even a streak of smoke viaible in the sky - emitted by the shooting star. Never before had I seen something like this. I had once seen this in a timelapse movie by a photographer from Switzerland and he'd said that apparently these are really rare to come by. I grinned, what a great start into the day!
About ten minutes later I arrived at the small lake and a little later, the first rays of sun touch the mountains around me - one of them having otherworldly bands of different colors. After the most beautiful colors of sunrise had happened, I hiked back to my tent and started breaking it down. As I was doing that I saw a weather front slowly moving towards me. I wasn't sure if it would actually bring bad weather, it didn't look very dangerous. Still, after the lightning storm last night I was a bit skeptical and I considered shortcutting my hike by taking another route from here, getting closer to civilization earlier. But after I checked the weather forecast via my InReach I was positive that this was harmless and started walking further on the trail. That turned out to be just the right decision. Even though I wasted some energy by walking up the hill side where there was no real path, realizing that I had to go all the way back down once I had reached the top, I still really enjoyed the walk through the rolling hills and valleys of sand and pumice, especially as I got another great view on the colorful mountains standing tall over the valley I had camped at.
After I had climbed about 300m up to the pass, I walked down about 700m to the next camp. When I came closer to the campsite marked on the map, I smelled it first: rotten eggs. When I arrived I saw where that was coming from: fumes blowing out of the side of the mountain, yellow and brown crusts, blubbering grey mud. Hot springs! Another chance to take a bath, which I did after dinner, just as sun was setting. And this time, the water was hot, in fact the water coming out of the mountain was so hot you actually had to cut off the water inlet and wait for quite some time for the water to cool down to a temperature that wouldn't burn your skin. Who needs Iceland when you've got Chile!?
On this campsite I wasn't the only one. There were a few Chileans that seemed to have come with horses, but then there was also a group of about 10 or 15 that were from the army. At home, I don't think twice about people from the army riding the same train or driving around in cars and buses. But in other countries it's always a bit different. In addition, the Chilean army doesn't have the most uplifting past and a friend in Santiago didn't seem to be too thrilled about them either, even nowadays.
I knew why they were there, they were searching for someone that had gone missing on the trail a few weeks ago. So when one of them came over and talked to me I already knew some things, but I got some more details. They had been searching for over two weeks now, and the person had disappeared almost three weeks ago now I think. So the chances of finding him alive were close to zero I guessed. Nevertheless, they kept searching.
Apparently they were a group of three, hiking the same trail as I was, in the same direction. When they left this camp they had some disagreement about where the trail went, nearer to the river flowing in the valley, or more uphill. One of them took the lower trail, and was never seen again.
Day 7 - Is that a cloud?
This morning, I didn't get up to photograph sunrise, simply because there wouldn't be a lot to see from this deep valley. Nevertheless I got going early, because I knew this would be a hot day, where I wanted to arrive at my destination as early as possible. The trail would take me along the side of the mountain that sun would burn down on all day long, with literally no chance for walking in the shade as there was no tall vegetation in this volcanic landscape. So I started even before the rescue team of the army had begun another day of searching for what by now most probably would only be a body.
The trail starts out going down hill for a bit, which makes it an easy beginning. After a few minutes I wonder how long this trail would continue going down hill and looked on the map on my phone, only to realize that I had taken the wrong path. So I turned around and found the right trail, now going uphill towards my goal for the day. The trail is well visible and pretty easy, there isn't a strong incline and so I progress quite rapidly. While walking on the slightly exposed hillside I look around and suddenly see a big cloud in the north and instantly hope that it'll nice over to me, so I'd get some shade today. But as I climb higher, I realize that this is a weird cloud and one that I probably actually don't want to move in my direction. It is coming right out the top of a pyramidal mountain - this is a cloud of volcanic ash! The volcano is far away and I'm not worried at all. Rather, I'm fascinated by what I'm seeing - this hike is proving to be more than worth it.
I leave behind the fascinating sight and continue on my trail along the side of the mountain, steadily progressing while listening to more podcasts. When I get near the pass that marks the highest point I'll go today I sit down in the shade of a big boulder in the landscape, pull off my shoes and eat my lunch. Then, I get up again to climb the last 150m, arriving at the pass shortly thereafter. I walk down the valley towards the lake I'll be camping at tonight. On my way I encounter a few cows grazing in another green oasis created by a river flowing out of the side of the mountain. Unfortunately, I also encounter a bunch of trash on the ground near the trail. A sign that I'm getting closer to civilization again.
Then I see it: the wonderfully dark blue lake that is called Laguna La Ánima - which would translate into lake of the soul or something like that - surrounded by a beautiful sandy beach.
I pitch my tent near the small creek, so I wouldn't have to walk far for water, and also because I was told by two that were just leaving that there was less wind on that side of the lake. All of a sudden I see a hawk flying by not too far a way. I get my camera and take some photographs, but he's still quite far away. So I walk up the creek towards a little waterfall to fill up my water bottle. It turns out to be absolutely wonderful. There are vivid red, orange and yellow flowers growing on its sides.
As I'm walking down towards my tent again, I realize that the hawk has returned. And it's extremely near this time. I walk more slowly, so as not to disturb him and make him fly away. I get in and out of my tent, grabbing my camera in the process, without him leaving. I am super excited - he's very near. I walk around him to get the sun in my back, so that he's evenly lit for taking photographs. I spend quite a while photographing the beautiful bird, getting nearer and nearer, until I am only about five meters away. He doesn't seem to mind me too much, as he just keeps sitting there staring at the surroundings and me. After a while I decide that I have more than enough pictures and so I leave him and go back to my tent. I pack my camera gear and head for the waterfall again, to photograph it in the warm light of the late afternoon. Then, I observe and photograph a beautiful sunset at the lagoon, before I head back to my tent and eat dinner.
As I crawled into my sleeping bag I felt and heard the wind picking up.
Day 8 - Blanquillos
I didn't really sleep that night, the strong wind kept me awake. So my alarm for sunrise didn't really wake me up, it just told me that the other day I had thought that maybe the wind would die off during the night. It didn't, so there was a lot of dust in the air and I didn't bother to get out of my tent that early. But a bit later I got up to go to the lake to photograph the Blanquillos (ducks) I had seen the evening before. They were really quite fascinating, with their red eyes, diving for food about every 10 to 15 seconds, and sometimes approaching quite near. Together with the soft early morning light it made for some really nice images.
Then, I went back to my tent and treated myself to a warm breakfast, which I had avoided during the trip in order to save gas. But at this point it was clear that I had more than enough gas.
That day I also had a rather short hike, 600m down to a campsite called El Bolsón, run by the park rangers. After only about 2 hours of hiking I arrived and immediately searched for a bit of shade to relax in, as it was really hot that day. In the afternoon I managed to get up and walk to a nearby waterfall that has created a pool where you could bath in. That's obviously what I did, allowing my body to cool down a bit - and to get a bit cleaner as well of course. I went there again for sunset, to take pictures of the beautiful waterfall and the mountain in the background. Then, I went back to my tent and ate dinner on a rather crowded campground - at least compared to the ones I had been on the last few days.
Day 9 - Back to civilization
This morning, my tent was pretty wet - for the first time on this hike. That was a bit unfortunate because I wasn't planning on pitching it again that evening, as this was my last day hiking. I had planned to go to the next village and find a comfy bed in a hostel or hotel. But I couldn't wait for it to dry either, because I still had a few hours to hike and get to where the bus departed. This day was descent only and it was actually more exhausting than I had expected. When I arrived at Parque Inglés, which marked the end point of the hike, I found a restaurant and treated myself to a nice meal of salad, fries, tomato, avocado and carrots (this might not sound like a great lunch, but believe me, after 8 days of purely eating trail mix and energy bars for lunch, this is great).
I caught a bus to a nearby park called 7 Tazas for it's formation of waterfalls and pools that lign up like pearls on a string. However, when I got there, there were so many people trying to snap a selfie with the formation in the background that I just shook my head and turned around - I did not feel like waiting in line just to take a photo of that thing. So I just talked to one of the park rangers and waited for the next bus to come. It arrived a few hours later. I got in, sat down and watched the landscape pass by through the window. As we drove away from the mountains, clouds started to appear and when we arrived in the town of Molina, it was a grey evening.
I went searching for a hostel with single rooms or a hotel and ended up renting a room in a rather fancy boutique hotel, but it was worth it - after 8 nights in my tent, I enjoyed a big, comfy bed, a private shower and a window to the world through the internet a lot.
In total, the version of the circuit I did (you could short cut it or even extend it a bit), was 91km. Including the side trips for photography I probably hiked something like 100km though. Not bad!