Bikepacking with Brendan Part 1: Pucon through the Huilo Huilo Reserve


Pucon, Chile. 

Leaving Pucon was a joy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s in a beautiful place and I met great people there. Just not my vibe. Too much hyper-wealthy tourism. Too many pre-packaged adventures. Not enough silence. So when I finally had what I needed to leave, I bid my friends Diego and Guille adios and headed toward the Huilo-Huilo Reserve a bit further South. So excited to be rolling again! 

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At some point in recent history a huge German immigration to the area of Chile led to many German-owned businesses, all selling local cheeses, breads and a fantastic pastry called kuchen. I’d been partaking all week and this was the final chance to load up for the ride South. The bike was pretty heavy with good food rolling out! 


I found a dirt route behind Volcan Villarica toward the lakeside beach town of Coñaripe. Beautiful road filled with lush forest and tons of araucaria trees.


Even discovered some fun sections of single track in the park!


The araucaria trees had a particular mossy growth that strongly reminded me of the Pacific Northwest and all my local Washington hikes.


Forest full of love. 


 Arriving in Coñaripe in late afternoon I was startled by the density of beach-goers lining the entirety of the lake. I’d planned to camp here but there were no private spots of any kind, so I pushed onward back into the mountains in search of silence and solitude. 



 Yeah, silence would not be here. The gas station outside Conaripe was blanketed with adds for nearby hot springs resorts, offering discounted tour bus rides and entrance fees. Not my cup of mate! 


 As daylight faded to twilight, the steep mountainsides were revealing no viable camping options off the road. Either fenced in private land with too tall fences, inhabited homes, or steep embankments. Finally I screamed down a steep downhill and noticed on my map a lake about 2 miles off-route Laguna Pellaifa. Following the rough rocky road down to the water, I crossed some wet boughs and found my own private beach. The breeze drifting by by tent, the water lapping against the shore. It was exactly what I needed to reset from the human density of Pucon.

The following morning I awoke to the silent breeze and fantastic lakeside mountain views. I rolled through the steep hillsides to the town of Neltume, on the edge of the Huilo Huilo Reserve where I’d hop back on trails for a while. Yay!  



While rolling between Neltume’s general stores to stuck up for 3 days, I stopped outside for an ice cream, only to watch a solo male backpacker pull up next to me! Brendan O’Brien had been exploring dirt routes in Peru for a while and was now diving into the Andes toward Patagonia. As luck would have it he was also heading into the Huilo Huilo Reserve to ride the same route! We decided to band together for a while…


 Just before the park entrance, we noticed an enormous “tree house” hotel nestled in the forest. A complex network of raised walkways led up to it. So interesting and odd. 



Our first obstacle of what would become many… The only way we found to enter the park was via a locked bridge. Rather than go through the complication of permits and such, we heaved the bikes around the tall wooden gate, rushing to repeat the process on the far side before being seen. Much easier for Brendan as his minimal, full-carbon rig was WAY lighter than mine. But teamwork is a good thing and within moments we were back on land, on trail, in Huilo-Huilo. Success!  


Brendan had downloaded some gpx files from a recent MTB stage race in the area. Combined with my file from, we cherry picked the best route we could create. Impressively well-built logging roads throughout the park wove and interested in all directions. VERY easy to get lost in here.


 We noticed a cute little cabin on the edge of our route, perfect timing to stop and camp for the evening… Tons of firewood, flat ground and great views of the mountains nearby.


 Some of the route was just a bit overgrown.


It was lovely to share some trail with a fun, open-minded rider. Much stronger and more skilled than I. Very inspiring.


Foxglove?!? what?


Running through old logging buildings with rusty saw blades and wood piles, but the waist-high grass in every direction clarified there have been no recent visitors. 


Then as the trail dropped down to the Pillenleufu River, we seemed to lose it. We were right on top of the gpx track but there was no clear sign of trail… just river and forest.  First attempt: ride South along the riverbed…

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Yeah, not so much. Endless loose river rocks in mud, sand and swamp made that option pretty unrideable. (photo by Brendan James)

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… Maybe if we ride a bit further inland along the shore? Nope. 1-2’ deep swamp riding isn’t really our bag…  (Photo by Brendan James)


What about climbing up the river bank and seeing if we find a trail up there? Sure. We passed the bikes between us over the steep embankment and shoved them through the thick riverside brush into open forest. But… no trail. Back down to the river. Despite being wet and unrideable it was at least more easily walkable!


Perhaps across the river. THAT’S where we’ll find a trail, no? Unfortunately where the water didn’t flow at scary speeds in certain wider spots, it was scary deep there. How to get across?

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Well, for Brendan, it was as easy as picking his light rig up and walking across. For me, slightly more complicated. First the bags, then go back for the bike. (Photo by Brendan James)


Across the river, we bushwhacked again for a while, crossing a large swampy field before finally noting a barbed wire fence, and across that was finally a two-track road!!! Sooooooooo good to be back on dry land and a clear pathway! It curved through open pastures and fields, for a while…


Then we hit a bit of bamboo… well, a LOT of bamboo. The “road” we had been following seemed to have been stopped by the enormous grove, with only a narrow footpath seeming to continue into the brush. 

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We would drag the bikes under the low-hanging stalks, then leave them while we scouted ahead to make sure the route continued. At one point Brendan fell backward down a steep slope of bamboo… onto a soft bed of even more bamboo. We couldn’t even imagine getting the bikes even this far, so turned back and dragged them back to the road’s end, eventually finding another faded track by the riverside. Route finding wasn’t easy for us around here! 

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After a short and fun section of wooded trail riding (photo by Brendan James), we ended up camping on a small piece of flat land in between two branches of the river. We’d figure out our route onward tomorrow. We cooked our food and climbed into our tents, exhausted from the bough-sloshing, river crossing and bike dragging. Then as the final rays of light faded to night, we saw a light in the distance. I first though it was the moon reflecting off of a calm spot in the water, but.. it was moving…  toward us. Then the sound of a motor. Moments later a motorcycle pulled up next to our tents! What??? How the HELL was a motorcyclist passing through here???

The driver was a man harvesting berries to sell. He offered us a few before continuing on down a small sandy trail we had somehow missed. Well, at least we know how to head downriver in the morning! 

We awoke to the same man honking at us as he passed by again heading upriver once more for berries, a rude awakening for such a quiet natural setting! Moments later we were again surprised to encounter humans. Now it was an entire family out for a hike and fishing outing. They’d hiked in from the Southern park entrance (which we then realized must be somewhat nearby… yay!) and offered us some boiled potatoes to go with our breakfast! So nice! 


After riding the single track river trail for a while, we landed back on two track and eventually paved road leading to the lakeside town of Llifen, the 15 miles were done in 45 minutes as opposed to the 6 hours it took us to go the same distance the previous day!


Rolling into town, we stopped at the first little bakery we could to stock up on bread, eat countless empanadas and drink a few beers. What a treat. Everything tasted amazing. 


Given I was almost out of fuel for my camping stove, I asked someone on the street where the nearest gas station was. He said two blocks down, on the left. After 4 blocks and no gas station I was confused. I rode back to town and asked another person who gave the exact same directions… was I missing something?? Evidently the “gas station” was a pile of 50 gallon tanks behind someone’s house, a small spigot attached to one of them helped locals fill their motorcycle tanks. Perfect! I filled my little 350ml bottle and was on my way.


We were stocked up and ready to roll, pragmatically, but energetically just needed some more rest. We both wholeheartedly agreed that a siesta by Lago Ranco would be the perfect thing.


Never was a warm, clear lake more enjoyed by two humans. Ever.

While we sat and ate and relaxed, Brendan showed me his plans from here, to follow a trail he’d seen on his map that traversed a large national park encompassing the massive Volcan Puyehue. After the challenges of the Huilo-Huilo I was a bit hesitant to embark on another unknown hiking trail… but eventually accepted that it sounded pretty amazing.

More on that next time… 

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