The Cypress Forests of Mediterranean Chile

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November 1st 2009
Published: May 3rd 2010
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I waited 3 years to see the magical conifer forests of Central Chile. My guide Cote arranged 4 Days on Horseback with Don Angel and his niece Lucilla. A true Huaso, he even makes his own ropes and saddles. One saddle was made of alternating layers of burlap, wool and Guanaco skin! We rode deep into the heart of the Mediterranean High Andes where giant Quisco cactus give way to groves of Austrocedrus chilensis- Southern Cedars found only in Chile. After the archaic Araucaria and coastal giant Alerce, the Ciprés de la Cordillera (Austrocedrus chilensis) is Chile's 3rd most famous conifer. Some trees can be more than a 1000 years old!

The Horse

The horse is so many things- a mythical giant, a beast of burden, a friend. To be honest I thought I had experience with horses, I mean when I was 9 years old I had a horse named Patches. But Patches didn't like us to ride her, and the one day I tried she took off in a sprint and bucked me off! Turns out I had never ridden a horse at all, something I realized very quickly when I jumped up on the beast. It was a helpless feeling that settled in, much like my ass in the saddle. Im thinking to myself, this animal can do what it wants, when it wants. It is many times my size. It looks like its made of archetypal things: gorgeous eye, thick muscles, massive bones. It's skin is thin, it's hair is coarse. Perhaps it will take off running right now and then what will I do? Don Angel told me how to hold the reins and use them to show the horse who's in charge. You kick it when you want it to go faster, force its neck back to make it stop and make a funny noise with your mouth to encourage it to stop eating on the trail. It felt like the horse was my slave, I mean what if he didn't want to haul my fat ass 25 km into the mountains? I felt bad for my horse, but was also thankful of what he was doing for me. I was a bit unstable in that saddle, like being in a kayak for the first time. I wasn't strapped on its back like the 200 lbs of gear loaded on the 2 mules, safe from tipping by the clever use of tires and skins. How am I going to take pictures while riding this horse? I set my film speed up to 300 and set the aperture wide open to make the shutter as fast as possble. Genghis Khan conquered most of Asia thousands of years ago because of horses and I was starting to intimately understand why. The horse was going up and down hills with ease that would have me totally winded. All they need is nature- water and grass. Could people ever make a machine that runs on grass and water, transports us 40 km a day and gives us affection? My horse constantly stopped to eat any fresh grass along the trail he could find. At first I let him eat freely, but realized without some sort of intervention he wouldn't respect me, so I showed him who was boss. I made the funny noises with my lips, yanked his neck back hard and kicked his loins. I didn't like the domination though, and probably let him eat way more than he should. He was truly a horse after my own heart- slow to leave the corral but quick to return.

The Botany

A contorted Ciprés de la CordilleraA contorted Ciprés de la CordilleraA contorted Ciprés de la Cordillera

Agua de la Muerte in the background
the genus Austrocedrus is related to the Libocedrus trees of New Zealand/New Caledonia, Papuacedrus of Papua New Guinea and the Calocedrus of California. All of these genera are part of the Cupressa family, which unlike the Pina Family(which includes our beloved pines and firs) lives in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Southern Hemisphere distribution of similar trees within Cupressa can also be seen in Araucaria and Podocarpa families of conifers as well, one piece of evidence for the existence of the southern supercontinent of Gondwana some 190 million years ago. The effervescent needles of Chile's Ciprés resemble the Incense Cedar (Calocedrus) of California, in structure and smell. Throughout the Rio Cipréses valley the trees form pure stands of short, dense trees. They thrive on the red, iron rich rock deposits exposed in bands that run right up the from canyon walls down to the river where the talus crumbles into soil. Urriola is a Huaso cabin 15 km from the trailhead, surrounded by the largest Ciprés grove. There's nothing like a odoriferous Conifer forest, where the waxy green needles hang like strands of popcorn, delightfully buttering up our spirits! I loved this dry forest of Chile more than the
Cupressaceae or Cypress familyCupressaceae or Cypress familyCupressaceae or Cypress family

Famous trees in this family include the Sequoia, Redwood, Alerce, Junipers and Cypress. There are three species in Chile.
other more moist forests that begin further south at Reserva Nacional Siete Tazas. Wide open spaces with lots of sunshine. Cactus and chagual plants. Colorful Rocks. A Roaring River. It was one of the special places only found in nature which seem to lead your mind on a cascade of observations, the conclusion of which is that you are looking at something vocalized as paradise(as long as you bring your sleeping bag and sack lunch)... A seemingly perfect pyramidal peak rises 5000 feet from the valley floor- A turqoise, spring fed pond complete with grass and ducks- Ancient Austrocedrus conifer forests- Flybys by flocks of noisy Ibis. The tip of a Volcano higher than any peak California, freshly dusted with snow...

The Geology

Volcan Palomo is a 15,000 ft tall giant, flanked on all sides by valley glaciers. At our furthest point we were standing in view of the northwest terminus of the largest ice field in Central Chile- one glacier is over 7 miles long on Palomo's South side! Nearby this massive glacier on the other side of the Massif from us is the tongue twisting Volcan Tinguiririca(Ting-gui-ri-rica), site of the Miracle in the Andes plane crash. In my mind, there's nothing more pleasant than a glacial valley in spring. Steep and Snowy mountains, green grass, roaring rivers and a myriad of colorful wildflowers. Down here at riverside the U shape tells the tale of the massive glaciers that once flowed like the river itself, down the valley devoid of vegetation. 20,000 years ago this valley was devoid of anything but ice and rock- like the high country of Palomo thousands of meters overhead! In the middle of the valley Cipréses has incredible banding of rocks from the sedimentary layers, some metamorphized by the heat and pressure of continental uplift. You begin to realize there must have been thousands of massive earthquakes to crunch the land into mountains, thrust it into the sky only to have ice and rain to carve it away. You can find fossils at the tops of peaks of Cajon de Maipo a little to the north, but in Cipréses the high country its mostly granite. Granite is a sign of tremendous amount of uplift occurring over many millions of years. The massive deposits of granite once where large chambers of magma that fed huge volcanos. The volcanos lived and died, then solidified and were forced to the surface of the earth. Most of this rock on top of the granite is worn away by the glaciers, the rain, the snow. At the furthest reaches of Valley at mirador de los Guanacos We could see blue ice still cutting the rocks. I also passed by large boulders with softball sized crystals, but being on the horse you cant just jump off! Most of the valley was colorful Volcanic and sedimentary rocks, pleasing to the eye. Cipréses has a completely flat valley floor composed of rocks and boulders, an immense flood plain with a horse tail river.

The Journey

The trails in Cipréses are tough- what would be a relatively flat trail along a river in California is an up and down slog through loose rocks and dirt in Chile. Side canyons carved by creeks are really casacades of water that jump down the cliffs, ending at a massive alluvial mounds on the valley floor. The trail goes up and down these office building size mounds of loose rock, then over ridges to avoid chasms carved by the Cipréses River itself. We start in the foothills at 1000 meters, and quickly ascend the hills. Huge views and cactus are everywhere, and an overcast sky made me happy. The valley and river bed hads many paths. I was thankful for my guides! Cote could take me to the highest peaks, and Don Angel had the horses. This was the first excursion of my vacation to Chile last November- and definitely my favorite. At the furthest reaches of Valley at mirador de los Guanacos we got lucky and saw a herd of Guanacos. They were bashful and watched us from a distance. We sat on our horses watching these wild beasts, 25 km deep into the Andean Wilderness- all of us certainly promising ourselves to return again.

Guide: Cote Diaz of Andes Indominitos

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4th May 2010

Wow, Great photos!!! I just can't wait to see Chile this summer - may be not the same area. I really enjoyed your blog! Thank you for shearing! Marie
6th May 2010

Starting to develop a real interest in this amazing country,to be honest I didn't know that much before I started following your writings! Thanks for sharing your experiences, you've got some spectacular and breathtaking photos there.
6th May 2010

Many Many
thanks Marie! All of Chile is gorgeous- well maybe some parts more than others. :) TinNiE, I love your blogs! As always thanks to MercuryCatcher... you should definitely make a joint trip to Distrito Lagos/Pucon... youll love it!
5th November 2010

An excellent article supported by dramatic photography. My congratulations.

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