Hugging Trees & Chasing Chucaos: An Amity Tours & Iowa State University Chilean Adventure

April 29, 2024 12:05 PM

If there’s one thing people know about me, it’s my unabashed pride for all things Chile and the Midwest; so, you can imagine how excited I was when these two great loves combined when I was given the opportunity to join a custom trip that Amity Tours designed for students from Iowa State University to explore the Lakes and Volcano District during their spring break!

This is one of the first opportunities we have had at Amity Tours to work in tandem with a faculty-led program looking to bring the classroom outdoors. We couldn’t be more thrilled to have had the chance to bridge the gap between academics and adventure with this fantastic group of 11 students and 2 professors from Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. For me in particular, it was especially heartwarming to be reminded of my first introduction to Chile not so long ago through my study abroad experience when getting to know the students throughout this particular program; for many of them, this was their first time out of the country, which made it an even more rewarding experience to join them on such a meaningful trip.

The 8-day adventure started with welcoming the students and professors fresh off an international flight to Santiago that morning at the Temuco airport, followed by a scenic drive through a small town in southern Chile until we reached our first destination: the Truful-Truful waterfall in Conguillío National Park. We took a short walk from the van to stretch our legs and break into our hiking boots. Then, we were greeted by the magnificent sight of a rainbow forming over the small falls. With the Llaima Volcano as our backdrop, we took a few minutes to take in the scenery and explore the area surrounding the falls. Given that this group was quite the scientific bunch, it took less than 5 seconds for most of them to take off searching for local flora and fauna and eagerly call to one another to check out the new species they discovered. I must admit, I had never seen someone get so excited over a tiny plant growing amongst the rocks until that moment! This was certainly the best indication that daily discoveries and pockets of joy would be the theme of this next week.

We then returned to the van to drive for dinner at our charming boutique hotel in the national park. After an absolutely delicious meal after a long day of travel, we were also gifted an impeccable view of the stars (aided by our expert guides, Igor and Rubén, and trusted driver Kike) to cap off a wonderful first day together.

Our second day (and first full day together) started bright and early with a warm-up hike through the ancient volcanic rock around a tranquil lagoon just a short drive from the lodge. The rock formations were created from previous eruptions, and you could see the difference in A’ā and Pāhoehoe lava flows by the various colors and shapes of the rocks and the different types of fauna that formed in their midst in the aftermath. The quiet surroundings of the aptly named Rainbow Lake (Lago Arcoiris) also allowed us to listen to local birds, spot endemic fauna, and try to identify the types of fish we saw swimming near the shore.




From there, we hopped back in the van for a quick ride to our main attraction of the day: the famous Woodpecker Trail (Sendero de Carpinteros). This was a relatively easy hike and most importantly, a treasure trove for our birdwatchers in the group hoping to spot woodpeckers, chucaos, and if we were very lucky, maybe even a condor along the way. The trail wound its way through ancient araucaria trees and we stopped at various intervals to listen for birds and look for ever elusive araucaria saplings. We also took the time to have our first group circle to formally introduce ourselves and listen to the first of the presentations that each student prepared about a specific topic pertaining to forestry, agriculture, fauna, or culture in Chile.

The trail’s highlight was the famous araucaria madre, an 1800-year-old giant araucaria tree reaching a height of 50 meters. We took the opportunity to pause and have a minute of silence to take in the stunning view and be at one with ourselves and nature, which was an excellent way to recharge before heading to the end of the trail for our eagerly awaited picnic lunch. We were joined for lunch by some curious chimango caracara birds hoping for a quick bite. Then we rested alongside the shore of another pleasant lake overlooked by the Llaima and Sierra Nevada volcanoes before heading back to the lodge for a restful evening ahead of what would be our longest day of hiking.

Day 3 was to be our most challenging yet most rewarding day by far with the exhilarating Sierra Nevada trail. Our group’s goal was to make it all together to the third lookout point, followed by the more experienced hikers moving on to the final lookout point at the end of the trail while the rest of us went at a more leisurely to the halfway point between the second and third lookouts. There was excitement and a slight sense of apprehension amongst the group that morning, as the majority had not done too much hiking prior to this trip and this was going to be our longest trail with most amount of elevation gain on the trip. Regardless, Rubén and Igor knew exactly how to keep us motivated while also respecting everyone’s individual needs and limits, and we were surprised how good we all felt by the time we made it to the second lookout. Some of us who were most nervous about our capabilities even felt empowered enough to carry on to the third lookout despite their initial plan to wait behind!

I joined Igor and the group headed to the halfway point to the third lookout and was in awe of our surroundings; we emerged from the native forest to be bathed in sunlight and could catch unbeatable views of the various volcanoes in the area, including the one home to our next stop on the trip, Villarrica. When we made it to our trail’s end, we were blown away by the view of the valley and slope of Sierra Nevada until something else caught our eye: not one, but two young male condors flying overhead! We couldn’t believe our luck and stared in grateful wonder at their magnificent wingspan as they gracefully glided above our heads, and we knew right then and there that every extra kilometer hiked had been beyond worth it. A veritable feast awaited us back at the van, and we took advantage of the down time to look for more potential condor sightings as we wolfed down the spread our incredible driver (affectionately known as “el capitán”) Kike had so lovingly prepared for us. After lunch, we picked up our bags back at the lodge and enjoyed a much-needed siesta on the van ride to Pucón, which would be our home for the next few days of the journey.

As Igor cheerfully reminded us on our rather wet fourth morning, “no rain, no rainbow!” We donned our ponchos and braved the elements to check out one of Pucón’s most iconic sites: the volcanic caves near the towering Villarica Volcano, Chile’s most active volcano. After listening to more student presentations around the guest center’s very welcoming fire pit, we put on our safety helmets and trooped into the depths of the caves to learn more about the different types of eruptions that have taken place here. We were lucky enough to spot a couple of endemic blind cave crickets along the way, and our guide, Rodrigo, gave us the chance to spend a minute in complete darkness and silence at the end of the cave’s trail.

Afterwards, we rather comically traipsed across the drawbridge nearby to see the start of what would have been our second trail for the day, but due to the elements would be swapped for a shorter, less exposed option after lunch. Some of the students took advantage of the fire pit to teach Rubén, Kike, and Igor the wonder of s’mores for a very tasty “home away from home” dessert, which was met by slightly confused yet overall approving reviews! Sometimes you don’t realize how “unique” one’s own traditions are until you introduce them to people from other parts of the world, right? Our Plan B trail was an easy walk through the native forest in the Villarica National Park to what would normally be a splendid view of the eponymous volcano, but today was covered in a thick layer of mist and drizzle. Nevertheless, we thoroughly enjoyed our stroll through the woods and the chance to learn even more from Rubén, an expert vulcanologist, about the history of the eruptions here, the last of which was just 9 years ago when I first visited Pucón myself. To our relief (and for some of us, disappointment!), there was no eruption scheduled for today, so we piled back into the van after our walk to have a few hours’ down time in Pucón before the long-awaited cherry on top of the day: an evening spent in a local Mapuche community.

After freshening up, we met up for our short shuttle to dinner. Upon arrival at the ruka, or teepee style residence, we were greeted by our hosts, Rosario and Florencio, with a moving welcome ceremony in which we were invited to try our hand at traditional Mapuche instruments while Rosario kept the beat and sang. After, Florencio beckoned us to prepare for a rousing game of palin, which is a traditional game most similar to field hockey, during which major Mapuche decisions are made. After a rousing back and forth, the winning team celebrated with a traditional Mapuche warrior call, and we then tried our best during a contest to cut a trunk of wood with a typical saw. Rosario happily sat by and watched as we did the hard work for her, and after we managed to whittle away as much as we could, she invited us into the ruka for dinner. Rosario took the time to explain to us the meaning of the setup of the ruka regarding its position in reference to the sun and the layout of where parents and children slept, and toasted us some araucaria pine nuts to snack on as we listened. She showed us traditional woven garments and in a somber moment, expressed concern for the long term safety of the environment as non-indigenous forces continue to disrespect the earth for more and more resources in sacred areas. With another ceremonial song, dinner officially began. Thank goodness we’d been doing so much physical activity these past few days, because the amount of food presented to us could have easily fed three small armies! With very full bellies and even fuller hearts, we gratefully thanked our hosts in the mapudungun words we learned for inviting us to share such a meaningful evening, and off we waddled back to the van for a very good night’s sleep back at base.


Our fifth day together started rainy and overcast once more. Still, the news of a brief window of sunshine encouraged us to get while the getting was good to our last stop in the area: the trail surrounding the Lanin volcano on the border between Chile and Argentina. We were joined by Amity’s CEO, Cristian Levy, who gave us some fantastic local perspectives regarding Amity’s collaboration with local Mapuche collectives to protect the area from the exploratory drilling Rosario had talked about the night before at dinner. We were indeed in luck, and the clouds cleared just in time for us to take in the sight of Lanin looming overhead at the beginning of the hike. After a few Kodak moments, we walked onward through the native forest and stopped at the sight of woodpeckers doing what they do best in the towering trees.

We watched and photographed their diligent work as long as we could until the threat of rain urged us onward to our picturesque spot for lunch alongside the aptly named “hidden lake.” With the wind warning us that we may not remain dry for long, we picked up the pace through the rest of the trail toward a rushing rapid and scenic lookouts along the way. Our luck thankfully remained intact the rest of the way and we were welcomed at the trail’s end once again by a classic Kike picnic table..


Our last stop of the day before heading back to the hotel ended up being the most unexpectedly incredible highlight of our entire trip. We took a pit stop at where Amity Tours, in partnership with the Lemu Collective, plant native trees in our reforestation commitment to offset our carbon footprint. Cristian showed us how for every international tourist, Amity and Lemu plant 14 native trees to offset their individual carbon emission, as well as how we were also coming up with creative ways to “plant water” in the area and invited us to look at the different types of trees we had already seen the fully grown versions of on our hikes so far. Miguel, one of the Mapuche guardians of this land, then invited us to see the traditional totems they had just built and inaugurated the previous night. He shared with us that his community’s machi, or spiritual leader, had asked them to build these wooden structures in protest of the exploratory drilling threatening the area’s watershed, and the night before, they were consecrated in a traditional ceremony.

What happened next made even the most experienced members of the Amity team widen their eyes in surprise, as Miguel and his fellow guardian, Pablo, invited us to take part in an additional ceremony to continue blessing the land around the structures, as the first 24 hours are the most sacred. Stunned, we gathered in a circle and were invited to drink muday and chicha, two types of fermented indigenous drinks most similar to a fermented wheat drink and apple cider, respectively. Before each sip, we individually poured out a small offering to Ñuke Mapu, or Mother Earth, on the ground. For those of us from the States, we knew just how lucky and privileged we were to be here in such a sacred moment, and many of us (including me) grew a bit emotional as we stood in silence and took in the sight of the structures towering overhead. As we solemnly boarded the van back to town, I quietly asked Cristian if this had been planned, to which he answered with a knowing smile, “nope, but that’s Amity magic for you.” Truly, he couldn’t have said it any better.

Now officially beyond the halfway point, our sixth day together was a much-needed rest and relaxation, with a little celebration thrown in for good measure. We said goodbye to Rubén in Pucón ahead of his journey to Spain for intensive cycling training for Amity’s next season and settled in for a longer shuttle to our highlight of the day: the famous geometric thermal pools. We changed into our swimsuits and gingerly tested each pool before finding the one with just the right temperature to enjoy a good soak. To cool off in between, some of us braver souls jumped into the ice-cold waterfalls nestled between the pools before retreating back to the thermal pools for warmth. Once we were sufficiently relaxed, we enjoyed a casual lunch and wished one of the students a very happy 20th birthday, complete with a traditional Chilean cake. Rested, rejuvenated, and more than nourished, we dozed off in the van for our journey to the final destination of our tour: the city of Valdivia.

After we freshened up at the hotel, we readjusted to civilization with a walking tour through the bustling city to its famous riverside boardwalk. There, we were met by the sights (and smells) of a local fish market and several corpulent sea lions lazing nearby in the hopes of catching a free lunch. We then toasted to our first night in the city and enjoyed each other’s company over good music and pub eats. We capped off the night with a spontaneous accordion rendition of “Happy Birthday” for our birthday girl, and headed back to the hotel to prepare for our final hiking adventure the next morning.

Our last full day was spent exploring a part of the Valdivian Coastal Rainforest that was created with the help of The Nature Conservancy. Before we could do that, we took an early ferry across the river along with local commuters, who were undoubtedly amused by the sight of a gaggle of English-speaking college students playing captain at the helm of the ferry. After a short drive along the Pacific coast, we met our local guide, Juan, at the welcome center of the reserve to learn more about what we would see during the hike, as well as explain the significance of the rainforest to he and other fellow members of the Mapuche community. We ventured in by van through winding, shrouded roads into the belly of the rainforest where the trail began, and after stocking up on our favorite cereal bars, we followed Juan into the lush green forest that awaited. We were greeted by stunning examples of local flora and fauna as we wound our way through the slightly slippery trail, and stopped every so often to listen to Juan’s expertise about each new-to-us species of plant. As cracks of sunlight came through, he then invited us to hug one of the most ancient coihue trees in the forest, which is the sacred tree of the Mapuche people, and make it a personal promise. Now I may not be what most folks would consider a hippie by any stretch of the imagination, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a very peculiar surge of energy as I wrapped my arms around the massive trunk of the coihue looming overhead and silently promised myself to never forget the lessons I’ve learned along the way on this trip.


We journeyed onward to our main objective, a 2000 year old alerce tree tucked away in the depths of this forest. Igor invited one of the students to read a selection by Aldo Leopold, a famous naturalist who just so happened to also be from Iowa, and we closed our eyes and listened as his wise words came to life in the forest. When Leopold quoted Thoreau’s dictum, “in wildness is the salvation of the world,” many of us nodded our heads in agreement, some of us with a tear or two in our eyes at just how fitting those words continue to be not just after our tour, but also in our time on Earth. We took a few more minutes to appreciate the majesty of the giant alerce, and then carried on toward another small waterfall before reaching a cluster of ancient alerce trees where we would end our hike. We listened to our final student presentation before Juan invited us to spend a full minute’s silence amidst the ancient forest.

We begrudgingly said goodbye to this unmatched corner of Chilean wilderness and joined Juan for a typical local lunch of seafood stew before catching the ferry back to Valdivia. We happily rode back to the hotel (complete with a bilingual group sing-along) for a much-needed last sleep ahead of our final day together.

Time really did fly while we were having so much fun together, and it was now time to say “Chao for now” after a week of exploring and achieving new heights through this hidden gem amidst Chile’s ample natural offering. After one last leisurely walk through the city and obligatory souvenir haul, we packed up the van and headed to the airport for one last big hug. I joined the Iowa State cohort on their flight back to Santiago to wish them well on their journey back home. As we flew past the impressive Andes mountain range, for the first time in a long time, I remembered what it was that made me fall in love with the country I now call home: it’s that inexplicable feeling of community you find in some of the most hidden corners of the world with folks you never would have dreamed of being lucky enough to break bread or clink a glass with that reminds you of why travel, why people, why life itself really is such a never-ending adventure. How lucky am I that this now gets to be my job 9 years after that first journey to Chile, and how fortunate are we at Amity Tours to make those firsts so memorable for so many people like these students and professors year after year. As Igor assured us as we said our farewells, “All moments lead us to here,” and whether you’re a scientist a student or a free spirit at heart, there’s no better philosophy than that.

Photo Credit: Rubén Paillalef & Caitlin McNamara

Original article posted: