Saturday, February 4, 2017

El Circuito de Los Condores

Whats up all my peeps on the interwebs! Just finished a work/play trip to central Chile, two weeks of sun and heat to break up a cool and rainy winter. I want to give a shout out to the melon team, a great group of people to work with!

Melon Team Power!

This was my second time to Chile and the second time that plans to visit Patagonia fell through. Last year was a timing issue, this year, due to new regulations in Torres del Paine, Rakesh and I could not book campsites during our free time in Chile. Two other trip options in Patagonia didn't work out for various reasons and that left us with our backup option, the Condor Circuit.

There is not a ton of information in English on this trail so I am hoping this report will be helpful to anybody considering attempting it. There is an "official" circuit that the guide companies advertise that is 74 kilometers long but there are also many ways to extend or shorten the route as well. A map is available that I purchased from, it is good enough to navigate with but is very hard to read elevation and contours. I would not consider hiking the circuit without it, there are many game/cattle trails that could be confusing without a map.

Now on to the trip report. The first order of business is getting to the park. Everything I read had the starting point in the Lircay de Altos park and that is what we did. To get there, you need to catch a bus from Talca (3 hours south of Santiago) to Vilches Alto. Buses leave a few times a day, you will need to find the one kiosk that has Vilches on it to find which bus to take. Pay on the bus, cost is 2000 pesos. Tell the guy Vilches Alto or el fin del camino, either one will work. The bus has seen better days, be prepared for ripped seats, dirt and noise. It can also fill up, especially the last one of the day. Two dusty hours later, you will reach the end of the road. There is a little store/restaurant where you can buy huge bottles of beer or coke, some snacks and get whatever they are cooking that day.

Three kilometers up the dirt road will get you to the ranger station where you check in, pay ect. They will ask to see your stove and fuel canister, no fires allowed. They also want to know route and finish date. Entrance fee is 5000 pesos. They give you a paper which you need to deposit after finishing, if you don't I think they assume you are lost and will send out search and rescue.

Dos Hombres

Rakesh and I arrived in Vilches at 2pm and after eating lunch, walking up to the ranger station and registering, we didn't start hiking until 4. The good news was that there was light until 9:30 so we had a fair amount of time to make some miles. The bad news was that temperatures were in the mid to upper 90's and we were feeling it pretty quick.

on the way to the park entrance

Alstroemeria spp.

Day 1: Vilches to Valle del Venado (~ 17 km)

The first nine kilometers up to Mirador del Venado is through a mix of oak forest and open volcanic rockscape. Some uphill but nothing too strenuous, unless you are hiking in January and it frigging hot, then its a little less fun. The view from the Mirador is pretty awesome.

view from Mirador towards two volcanos

The trail then drops about 700 meters down to the Rio Claro. It is dusty, rocky and steep but goes fairly quick. The funny thing about this park is that distances between landmarks are marked in hiking hours rather than in distances. The hours given are on the slow side for me, but if you are carrying huge heavy packs they might be more accurate. We were told it would take two hours to get down to the river valley and it took a little less than one.

Descending to the valle

Calceoleria spp.

If you go left at the bottom and cross the river there is a really cool waterfall about 1 km away. The trail goes to the right and follows the river up the valley. Cross once right away then keep to the left of the river all the way to the campsites at the Valle del Venado. Depending on time of year, this could be a challenging river cross, in January we didn't even get our feet wet. The trail mostly disappears but there are a few markers, just keep to the left side of the valley and you will be fine. The Valle del Venado campsite has a small hut where a ranger lives and manages the campsites. Its a pretty area with lots of water, just be careful of the horse and cow shit, it is everywhere. This actually became a theme of the trip, apparently most of the park is open to unrestricted grazing and there is literally horse, cow or goat shit all over the place. In the campground there is a fenced off area for tents but still, watch your step.

Day 2: Valle del Venado to random campsite on Rio Blanquillo (~18 km)

We had a leisurely start and were on trail by 8 am, it heated up pretty quick and combined with the uphill, got sweaty fast. The first few kilometers out of the valley are very steep up a combination of sand and volcanic scree. There are no real switchbacks, just up, I am not even sure switchbacks could be maintained as the area looks very prone to erosion and landslides. It is beautiful with nice views back down the valley, but it was not as much fun when temps started hitting the 90s again.

We sweated our way up, and as the sun rose higher in the sky, lost almost all shade possibility by about 10 am. Unknown to us, this was just the beginning of a very long uphill slog through increasingly sandy terrain. We had planned on a lunch break at Laguna el Blanquillo but missed it because there was no laguna, I guess it had dried up. There was the Rio Blanquillo, which was very refreshing and which we needed to cross but there is literally no shade. This was the deepest river crossing and was up to our knees, in the spring it would be much more interesting. As we had missed the lake and thought we hadn't gone far enough, we kept hiking, hoping to find some shade somewhere for an afternoon siesta.

Laguna el Blanquillo, dried up patch to the left

We ended up getting all the way to Vegas El Blanquillo around 2 pm. Six hours of hard climbing had taken its toll and we really were hoping to find shade at the popular camping area at the base of the volcano Descabezado Grande. Unfortunately, we were out of luck, there was a shade structure but there was some cowboy guy there loading his horses and he wouldn't let us rest in the shade. So we huddled under some thorn bushes for a couple hours until the sun shifted and even that little bit of shade disappeared. The whole area was full of cows, there was cow shit everywhere, in all the water, all the grassy areas. I would not recommend getting water from anywhere other than where it comes directly out of the ground, fortunately there are a few places there where it does. I did find some shit covered toilet paper about 2 feet from one of these springs, so be careful. We started double treating after that, first filtering with the sawyer filter then adding aqua mira. Apparently there is a hot spring around here as well, we had no interest so didn't look for it.

From that point it started to get difficult. We couldn't really find the trail but looking at the map it was obvious where we needed to go, so we just made a beeline towards a canyon that skirted the base of the volcano. The landscape turns from volcanic wasteland into sand dunes and the uphill sand slog continues.

The trail picks up again in the sand dunes and follows a very refreshing stream for about 6 kilometers. Every piece of grassy area has a herd of cows on it, it looks great for them but you better believe that all the water is polluted. We did find the source of the stream, it comes right out of the sand, very cool and at that point most likely very pure. We also found the only shady spot since the morning there, a small boulder that we could take a break under. We waited until about 7 when it started to cool off to continue the uphill climb. I have to say we were feeling pretty beat up by this point, total mileage was not that much but the heat, dryness and lack of shade combined with uphill in sand was really tough. By the time we made it to where the trail connects back with the Rio Blanquillo it was almost dark and we were done. I was seriously surprised by how sore and tired I was. It had taken us nine hours of strenuous hiking to get 18 kilometers, that is pretty slow. I am not sure the exact elevation gain, somewhere around 1000 to 1500 meters. We were high enough that it got fairly cold that night.

Day 3: Random spot to El Bolson (~ 16 km)

The next day we got a bit of a late start again, I didnt want to get out of my sleeping bag and Rakesh was dead asleep. But the 3 kilometers between our campsite and Vegas Manantial Pelado was my favorite of the whole trip. Despite the incredibly dry and arid environment, there were streams pouring out of the sand dunes everywhere, with beautiful wildflowers blooming along them. We saw goat and cow herders on horseback herding their animals up the dunes, it was quite a site.

herding dogs saying hello

morning roundup

the weak goats get left behind
its tough being a goat out here

This is also where we started to deviate from the official circuit, tired of struggling through the sand we skipped the section between Vegas Pelado up Estero El Volcan and over to Laguna Las Animas. Instead we headed past Laguna Manantial Pelado and down towards the Rio Radal. We shaved off about 10 kilometers of sand by taking this route instead. From the Vegas to the Laguna is steep climb up sand, then past the lake over a pass and finally, after almost 2 days of climbing through sand we started to descend, in sand. This is when my shoes really started to fill with sand quickly and became packed solid with sand. I gave up trying to empty them out as they would fill back up in about 10 minutes. I have to say I really don't like hiking in sand.

did I mention the sand?

After the lake there is one very sketchy water source, full of cow shit that we didn't even attempt to use. The sand slowly starts to give way to more rocks and our pace of travel increased significantly so that we made it down to the next water source by noon. At some point along the way the trail and a private road become intertwined and without realizing we were not supposed to follow the road, we did. Its not a big deal as the road takes you to basically the same place anyways but we had a confusing time for a while trying to figure out where we were on the map. But the road crosses an unnamed stream that is very cool and refreshing. We met a hardcore old Chilean guy there with a couple of younger dudes. They were headed up the way we just came and were sporting some seriously heavy looking packs. I did not envy them as they started the climb and the temperatures again hit the mid to upper 90s. Rakesh and I jumped in the river then rested in the shade of some thorny bush for a couple of hours. After resting up and finally figuring out where we were, we followed the road for a couple more kilometers until the trail crossed it and we headed right, down towards El Bolson. It was at this point that I realized I had only peed twice in two days, a new milestone for me, especially considering I was drinking between 4-6 liters a day. I guess that wasn't enough...

El Bolson

Day 4: El Bolson to Parque Ingles (Siete Tazas) ~ 11 km

The campsites at El Bolson were pretty nice, and mostly shit free. The open grassy area is used for grazing so walk carefully but there is a boardwalk you can use if it is too wet. Just be careful, it looks like cows also walk over the boardwalk as many of the boards were broken as if stepped on by a large hooved animals, or really heavy clumsy hikers.

The final hike from El Bolson to Parque Ingles is easy, mostly flat and has good tree cover. We hiked out fairly quickly only to find out that both parks had been closed due to wild fires. Nobody seemed particularly worried but it did get fairly smoky at times. From Parque Ingles, we took the bus to Molina (about 1.5 hours) and from there you can get to Santiago within 3 hours.

I am hesitant to recommend this hike. While we did go through some interesting landscapes, it wasn't that interesting. I can definitely say that January is a terrible time of year to do this hike, if the temperatures were cooler it would have been more enjoyable. But, there is no escaping the sand and for me that is what made this hike much more difficult and much less enjoyable. If you don't mind the sand and the sun exposure then it may be worth visiting. If you go with a guide on horses and don't have to deal with uphill sand walking, then it may be worth doing. For me, once was enough and I look forward to exploring other parts of Chile.