The Nursery of Arrieros, Mountains and Rivers-El Vivero del los Arrieros, la Cordillera y los Rios

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South America » Chile » O Higgins
November 15th 2009
Published: August 2nd 2010
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After my trip to Cipreses,The Cypress Forests of Mediterranean Chile, the world was my oyster! Cote and I were instant friends, and quickly we set to work on our next trip to the fabled valley of Pangal. While we were in Cipreses, Cote described the difference between the glacial valleys of Cipreses and Pangal. "Cipreses is long, very wide and the cerros are very tall. Is intimate, Is steep and dramatic. Pangal is closer to Rancagua and shoots up very fast, Is my land!" From Rancagua to the verdant glacial valley of Pangal, the journey is just 50 km long... Pangal is rich in copper and used for hydroelectricity, owned by Codelco, the state mining company. Pangal isn't developed and there's a de facto wilderness in the higher altitudes, restricted to pack animals and climbers...although it wouldn't be uncommon to see or illegal to use dirt bikes, or a 4x4. There's an old village at Las Cayanas, for the most part the end of the road, near the abandoned mina La Juanita. There's no bridges across the Rio Blanco, and in spring Cote talked about how the river can become dangerous to cross without horse...and of course she knew the Huasos and Arrieros! This is Cote's backyard, she's made summits of the most of the technical peaks in the area, from Cerro Manantiales and Alto de la Mama to the 4736 meter high Torre de Flores. She was by far the greatest guide I've had!

We rented a camioneta(truck) from a local car dealership and stocked up on food again at the Jumbo. Tuna, Pasta, Cookies, Rice, Sauce, Oats, Sugar, Jam(pronounced 'yam'), Bread, Sausage... The routine was coming together! Due East from Rancagua, the Carretera el Cobre leads to the UNESCO World Heritage mining town of Sewell, El Teniente Copper Mine, Chapa Verde Ski Resort, Reserva Nacional Rio de los Cipreses, Valle Pangal and soon to be International Road into Argentina over Paso Las Lenas(although a friend of Cote's doesn't believe its going to work over the high passes, the roadwork opposite from the road to Cipreses was extensive including an at least 1 km long tunnel.) The Carretera el Cobre is the closest thing Ive seen in Chile to a United States style mountain road, at least in the beginning. From Rancagua its all pavement uphill to 1000 meters through the Quisco cactus and Espino tree covered hills. Then it drops down into the charming riverside hamlet of Coya. Coya is where the mighty Rio Cachopoal begins from the junction of 6 major rivers: Coya, Blanco, Paredones, Las Lenas, Cortaderal, Cipreses... There was so much to see, multi-colored houses cut into cliffs, a giant hydroelectric project and artificial waterfall, steep canyons. We got breakfast and some bread at a local vendor and set out for the Government checkpoint. From here, the road is dirt and people on horseback outnumber cars 50 to 1.

As a foreigner, you have to surrender your passport at the Carbinero Station where the Rio Pangal begins. Once you are in Pangal it wouldn't be difficult to travel the 25 km / 16 miles into Argentina, so this prevents foreigners from wanting to leave the country. It had a variety of sensory experiences to choose from: fighting dogs out front, Charming Chilean Bureaucracy, A giant portrait of Michelle Bachelet, the Carbinero officers themselves. The Carbineros are the police in Chile, but they're simultaneously the Border Patrol all while being a branch of the Military. Generally nice but always serious, I've never met a Carbinero I didn't like...although in certain news photos I've seen pictures of Carbineros in riot gear that paint them in a bad light. Cote remarked how sometimes they give her sarcastic comments when she arrives for a 2 week excursion into the Cordillera, perhaps because she was a woman. It wouldn't surprise me! "what's a young, pretty girl spending her time in the mountains for, shouldn't she be dressing pretty, getting married and raising children? These are the primitive attitudes about women passed down among men regardless of nationality.

From here the trip really started. Passing along the Pangal River canyon, the water was pure and un-adulterated. No large scale mines, settlements or construction above tainted the water. Random waterfalls appear, as a familiar mountain comes into view. "Alto de la Mama!" she says, pointing to a 3545 m / 11,630 ft peak I knew all to well from her Flickr pictures. A semi-technical hike and climb that can be done as a day or multi-day backpack, Cerro Manantiales seperates the 2 main branches of Rio Cachapoal. The 365 degree view of 2 km deep canyons, glaciers and 5000 meter peaks must be unreal! Cote leads clients there as well, and I was beginning to realize that for a mountaineer or backpacker this area is a fantasy land of no fewer than 4 different technical alpine zones of 4000 meter summits and glacial valleys.

So far this was like anywhere else in the foothills of Chile Central, Rio Pangal was at this point a large braided river full of boulders large and small. The road came to the crossing, and driving across the boulders was impossible the first run! I had to get out and level some of the giant divots and give it a another go. This is truly how roads into the mountains should be, where you actually need the 4 wheel drive. Then the switchbacks began... Cuesta Caracoles has over 17 switchbacks and a really steep grade, ascending 200 m(656 ft) in less than 2 km(1.2 miles)! We passed by an Aqueduct 12 km long and almost 100 years old. It is built of wood, like one giant antique wine barrel snaking along the mountainside and still delivering water to towns below. Cote took me to no less than 4 different sites of Petroglyphs and we passed Bocatoma, a hydroelectric project and source of the aqueduct. From what I could tell later, this hilly yet flat section of the Pangal River was the terminal moraine of the massive glacier that carved the valley. You wouldn't think so at first, until you round the corner 1 km up the road and see the impossibly steep, massive U-shaped valley known as Pangal.

The view was jaw dropping. The valley was perfectly carved into a true U-shape, and in the distance were jagged summits and glaciers. "How high up are we?" I asked, and after conversion I realize this was the same altitude as Yosemite or Kings Canyon. One peak particularly caught my eye. "My Land!" Cote shouts, as if her grin that appeared in Coya grew slowly and steadily culminated in this statement and emotion. "What's the name of that steep peak with the glacier in the center?" I said. "That's Torre Pangal, 4520 meters tall(14,829 ft)". Huh? That's taller than Mt. Whitney or Mt. Elbert... yet here I am on the opposite side of the Equator surrounded by cactus and wild parrots. "Weee Weee Weee!" the birds screamed at us. I turned me head and saw a small flock of Tricahue's, Chilean Burrowing Parrots! I ran off to take their pictures while Cote stopped at the only permanent residence in Pangal to see her friends. I knew Tricahue's (Tree-ka-ways) are endangered and a sighting like this has to be equally as rare. Their call is unmistakable, it sounds like an adult leprechaun, a male, screaming at the top of his lungs. Beautiful plumage of yellow and green glistened in the sun as one broke off from the pack and circled above me. "Weee Weee Weee" he screamed... I don't speak tricahue but I'm pretty sure it was something to the effect of "Welcome to Pangal!"

There was another welcome surprise as well- a gigantic waterfall! Epic in size, the final plunge is over 100 meters and a perfect bridal veil shape. I asked Cote, "Why didn't you tell me about this waterfall, it's incredible!" She goes, "ohh well, you know, there are many waterfalls in Chile." ha! It was like the icing on the cake having this gem rumble in the background of this place. At least I THOUGHT it was the icing until I met the Arrieros of La Juanita...

Chileans are such inviting people, and the Arrieros were no exception. Cote asked them for help in crossing a river, and it wasn't long before they were giving us wine to drink from tin cans, fresh stew to eat and jokes to make us laugh. We needed their horses to cross over the raging river which was too swift to ford on foot. From my Adventure handbook of Central Chile I learned the difference between the Huasos and the Arrieros. Huasos are really caricatures of a real cowboy, city folk who perform athletic feats on horses in the medialuna of the Chilean Rodeo. Arrieros are more genuinely related to what Americans know as a cowboy, living in isolation in the Cordillera while they drive animals into the high country to graze. In this sense Arrieros are closer to an Argentinian Gaucho than a Huaso.

It wasn't long before I was becoming so drunk I needed to stop drinking and get to camp! But before we saddled up for the crossing I fetched some photographs of Chile that I had printed out from my previous trips to Chile, and passed them out to the guys. One man was particularly moved, for his parents had passed away and he had not returned since that time to his native region of Araucaria. My photo of the Monkey Puzzle in P.N. Conguillio made him misty eyed! We took a group picture, while one Arriero, Pitio, hugged me goodbye. Pitio was his knickname, and everytime someone called him Pitio there were eruptions of laughter- Pitio is a type of woodpecker found in Chile, and I realized a rough translation into English is probably "pecker" or "pecker wood" which would explain the laughs! What nice, gracious and genuine people.

On our hiking day Cote took me far up the valley, up into the beginnings of Cajon de Flores. The clouds started to roll in, but not before we could see the 5000 meter peaks of the upper Rio Flores, complete with turquoise glaciers clinging to their cliffs. Wildflowers were everywhere. This is Chile's last holdout of 5000 meter mountains and rugged terrain of canyons so deep it takes days on horseback over seldom used trails to cover any real distance. I was constantly looking for rocks to take home, and finally I found a winner. A opalescent white stone with blue streaks signaling the presence of copper. When I turned it over I was delighted to see pea size chunks of pure copper! It was then I realized that this was a place teetering on a balance of protection or exploitation. What seems to be wilderness today could easily turn into a mine tomorrow....

..´¯'·.´¯'·.¸¸.·´¯'· Steve ·.¸¸.·´¯'·.´¯'·.¸¸.·´¯'·..

Thanks so much to Constanza Diaz of Andes Indominitos for another great trip!

Andes Indómitos

Additional photos below
Photos: 47, Displayed: 31


"My Land!" "My Land!"
"My Land!"

Cote enjoying the view of 4560 meter Cerro Catedral del Barroso

3rd August 2010

Chilean Adventures
What a fantastic account of a perfect adventure. I love the pictures and the descriptions of the rivers and the people. Great blog! Thanks!
3rd August 2010

nice story!
hi steve, i enjoyed reading this story, very local and personal and, as usual, with some lovely photos. makes me hanker for chile again. happy trails. claire
4th August 2010

So fun to catch up on your last Chile trip. :) I LOVE the spurs photo...and the black and white mountains (top) and the silver river running through the valley (below).... very neat!
27th February 2011

Blog of the year, 2010
Congratulations! :) This blog was nominated one of the best of 2010, in the South America/writing category.
27th February 2011

Comment made abou this blog, during the Blog of the Year 2010 nominations.
''Steve's blog are always very rich in details, this last one about Chile is definitely worth a click''

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