The Llama and I just returned from Parque Nacional Cerro La Campana. A healthy dose of endorphins from climbing this 1,800 meter mountain was just what we needed to recharge from city noises, city air, and the pressures of looking for more work.
Before leaving we came across this great post from the blog Gringa en Chile written by a study abroad student in 2013. Travel directions remain mostly the same and very cost effective—metro to Limache, bus from Limache to Olmué, and from there you can take a different bus, a colectivo taxi, or walk 5 kilometers to the park entrance. The trip was smooth and straightforward; both Limache and Olmué are pleasant and clean small town communities.
Having had enough transit for the day, the Llama and I decided to walk along the main road to the park entrance. It was here that we saw the first sign of trouble:
Almost halfway there, a woman noticed our packs and asked if we were going to Cerro La Campana. “CONAF has prohibited camping there due to lack of water. You have to go back to the other campground. The park is closed now, but will be open at 9:30a if you want to hike then. Didn’t you see the sign?”
Closed? 9:30a? If you read Escape (to) (from) Bahia Laguna Verde, you know I’ve been working on managing my expectations. I turned to translate the news back to the Llama. We stared at each other with a look of consternation while agreeing via mind-reading: there was no way we were turning around. After a minute or so a bus pulled up and she hopped on, wishing us well on our journey. We smiled, picked up our packs, and kept walking towards the park. Neither one of us was giving up yet.
We avoided oncoming locals, knowing they’d tell us what we already knew—we were walking towards a closed park. At the park gates, two young men approached us who, judging by the sweat and dirt on their faces and limbs, had just come down from the summit. “You won’t be able to camp here,” they told us,” trying to be friendly and helpful. “There is no water.”
“We’re carrying all the water we need.” I responded, so they shrugged and wished us well.
This was and was not true. We were each carrying one 1 liter bottle of water, and the Llama had an additional 3 liter Platypus in his bag. Our bottles were already nearly empty, but I figured we’d be okay. I have a terrible habit of underestimating how difficult an adventure is going to be (see GENESIS), but the Llama was definitely concerned.
The park guard had a round and friendly face, and seemed excited to be closing down for the day. As we approached he greeted us with the sad news we already knew—no camping allowed on site. There was another camp site that was open, and we could return at 9:30a to hike to the top.
In the United States, this is where the Llama chimes in and convinces the park guide that we know what we’re doing and they should let us proceed or provide an alternative option. In Chile, this is where I turn around and walk quickly in the opposite direction, translating to the Llama that we need a plan B. But today I engaged in conversation.
“It’s such a shame. In our country, we can go to a park, pay an entrance fee, and camp anywhere we want. We carry all our own water, take care of our own trash, and leave nothing behind. Not even a piece of paper.”
“Where are you from?”
“He is from California.” The guard’s eyes were round as he smiled.
“And I am from Connecticut.” Eyes squint, head tilted towards me.
“It’s a small state on the East Coast, near New York,“ I explain. His eyes widen, the smile returns, and just like that we’re friends again.
“Like the song California Dreamin’.” He says, and the Llama and I smile in recognition.
Everyone’s got a soft spot for California. We’ve learned that this is the quickest way to ingratiate ourselves to strangers in Chile. The song by the Mamas & the Papas must still get a lot of radio play, because it’s always the next line of dialogue.
“Let me think,” he says, and I can’t believe our luck.
“How about you fill out a self-registration form, and you put the time very early in the morning, like you came before the park attendant?”
“And when you come back down tomorrow, you pay the registration fee.”
“And you don’t leave a trace, and make no fire.”
“Claro que no.”
Just like that, it was as if we were back in Southern Oregon, camping with concern for drought and wild fires. This is a language we knew well. We are pros.
He helped me fill out the form and gave me a map of the park. We practically skipped out of sight, thrilled by our stroke of luck.
“Have a nice night! No fire!” He called after us.
Fifteen minutes down the trail we heard the unmistakable sound of trickling water. A stream was gently flowing down boulders, and pooling pleasantly beneath a small bridge on the trail. Perhaps there wasn’t enough water for families to flush toilets and wash dishes, but there was certainly enough water for two hikers to filter and carry. Finding water at the base of the mountain gave us confidence that there would be more water further up the trail.
With smiles on our faces we climbed down to the water’s edge and started pumping with our Katadyn water filter. The two feral dogs following us were thrilled to cool down from the afternoon heat, and stomped around in the water before catching a snooze. The four of us shared a sense of euphoria to be on the trail.
As we continued ascending, the dogs ran along the trail, taking short cuts and exploring thickets of bamboo and palm trees. After a while, the blond dog disappeared. The small one with the cunning eyes stayed with us, running ahead and waiting until we came into view before rushing along again. I started to call her Sandy—our clever little Sherpa dog. If she could speak her voice would be gravelly with experience and she’d drop one-liners with a wry sense of humor. When we lingered too long taking pictures or enjoying the view, she’d call down to us with a friendly bark as if to say, “Come on! It’s just a bunch of trees!”
As the sun went down, the three of us climbed to stay in the lingering light. Although we were gaining elevation, the air stayed warm and still. We found a flat open area with a stunning panoramic view as the sun had slipped behind the mountain range. Sandy watched us get to work as we cleared out dried cow pies and set up our tent. She engaged in a bit of 101 Dalmatians-style conversation with the pack down below while we cooked a delicious dinner of Tomato Parmesan Soup mixed with Sour Cream Mashed Potatoes in the trusty Jetboil. Downright jolly and without concern for a single neighbor, the Llama and I loudly spoke in English, celebrating our luck and planning for the ascent ahead of us.
Sandy turned her focus to barking at the trail, and soon a long-haired stranger emerged. With an Argentinian accent he made friendly conversation about how beautiful our campsite was. He asked about how we got in to the park, and we told him about our chat with the guard. Somewhat awkwardly, he shared that he had come in by an alternative back route. He continued on, looking for a place to camp and wished us a pleasant night.
The Llama and I noted with curiosity how little the stranger was carrying—there was certainly no tent or sleeping pad stashed into his small canvas backpack. His choice of Toms shoes for the rocky hike made him seem suspicious, though not malicious. He reminded us of a new character on The Walking Dead they call Jesus.
We were tucked into our sleeping bags by 9:30p with my alarm set for 5:00a so we could watch the sun rise from the mountain peak. Soon I was asleep and the Llama’s lids were heavy, reading by lamp light.
Then Sandy started barking again.
I could hear the scuffle of shoes in the dirt, and a voice trying to shush the dog. I was wide awake but the Llama and I played possum, hoping whoever it was would go away. I was worried it was a park guard who would tell us to pack up and leave.
Jesus called out to us, asking if Sandy was our dog and to call her off. I fumbled to find my headlamp and stuck my head out of the tent, attempting to soothe her as best I could. She was glaring and growling at him nervously in the dark, mimicking my feelings. He asked if we had a lighter so I dug in my pack and handed it over. He shuffled away in his Toms in the dark.
We nestled back into our sleeping bags to sleep, but senses were on high alert. Would he come back to our campsite to drop off the lighter? Even with so little gear, how could he not have a lighter? I could hear breaking sticks and rustling in the brush. I listened for the sounds and smells of a campfire, annoyed that he was probably breaking the rule we were asked to respect. I felt guilty that I had given him OUR lighter. I worried that the fire would get out of hand and in the morning we would find ourselves running down the trail with flames licking our heels instead of heading up to the beautiful mountain peak. I remembered that without the lighter, we had no way of making our quinoa-oatmeal breakfast or coffee in the morning.
Sandy occasionally barked out into the silence. At one point I heard the sound of something like a big cat; the Llama supposed it was a fox. I’m sure Sandy scared it away, along with anything else that crept close in the night. We slept, but fitfully, and 5am came way too early.
Do we make it to the top? Part 2 here!
Parque Nacional Cerro La Campana: Bell Mountain National Park. This mountain has an elegant bell-like shape, and was designated a Biosphere Reserve in 1984. There are various trails that cross through the park, and since we had such a great experience we’ll probably be back. There are various trails that interconnect and cross through the park. The most popular trail is the Andinista trail up to the peak. The trail runs 9km, or about 5 and a half miles, with a great rock scramble at the top.
1,800 meters: about 5,900 feet
5 kilometers: about 3.1 miles
CONAF: Corporación Nacional Forestal or the National Forest Corporation of Chile.