Heading out of Puerto Montt, the Carretera Austral hugs the shore of the Reloncaví fjord, skirting wide mud flats and empty beaches. Some 40km down the road – just beyond the Puente de Lenca – a signed track branches left and leads 7km to the southern entrance of PARQUE NACIONAL ALERCE ANDINO, also known as “Chile’s Yosemite”, where you’ll find a small Conaf hut, a ranger station and a camping area. The park was created in 1982 to protect the region’s ancient and rapidly depleting alerce forests, threatened with extinction by intense logging activity. Almost 200 square kilometres – half the park’s land area – are covered by the massive, millenia-old alerces, mixed in with other native species like coigüe and lenga. This dense covering is spread over a landscape of steep hills and narrow glacial valleys dotted with dozens of lakes.
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The famed alerce trees – accorded national monument status by the government in 1976 – are endemic to southern Chile and Argentina and grow in high, soggy soil, usually on mountainsides between 600m and 800m above sea level. Among the largest and oldest trees in the world, they can rise to a height of 45m, with a trunk diameter of up to 4m, and live for over three thousand years. After shooting up rapidly during their first hundred years, they slow down dramatically, their diameter increasing just 1mm every three years. As they grow, they lose their lower branches, keeping only their top crown of dark-green, broccoli-like leaves. The lighter, lower leaves belong to parasite trees, which often prove useful to the ancient alerces, supporting them when they topple and keeping them alive. The trees’ grey, papery bark conceals a beautiful, reddish-brown and extremely valuable wood; a large tree is worth tens of thousands of dollars. In the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the trees were chopped down at random by early colonizers – sometimes to be used for telegraph poles or shingles, but often just to clear land which was later found to be useless for agriculture. Today, it’s illegal to chop down an alerce owing to their protected status, but it’s not forbidden to sell the wood of dead trees.