Chile: In search of... the monkey puzzle tree

Its natural home is on the slopes of Andean volcanoes. No wonder <i>Auracaria araucana</i> looks a bit aloof in your average suburban garden,

The what?

Most of us in Britain know Araucaria araucana – the monkey-puzzle tree – as a solitary garden ornament of debatable attraction. In the Andes, where it lives for 1,200 years, and where the harsh snows give its lower branches an annual trim, it becomes a towering, exotic parasol.

Where exactly does it grow?

They call it the lake district, but it's a long way from Beatrix Potter and Kendal mint cake. This lakeland is in the heart of Chile, and its great expanses of water are partnered by the mountains and volcanoes of the Andes. Here you can swim in the warm blue water of Lake Villarrica or climb the slopes of active volcanoes. The araucarias have been here for 200 million years, creating a vista of primaeval beauty. It's no wonder that backdrops for the BBC's extravaganza, Living With Dinosaurs, were filmed here.

Who lives in monkey-puzzle land?

It's the home of the Mapuche Indians, who successfully fought off the conquistadors, managed to stay independent for hundreds of years and only relatively recently became a properly amalgamated part of Chile. At the daily market in Temuco, they sell their wares: handicrafts, musical instruments and the most amazing fruit and veg. It's as if someone has run amok with a particularly virulent fertiliser. The vegetables are huge, and they're piled high and sold cheap.

On the street you can sample mote, a sort of corn mush lubricated with peach juice, a favourite Mapuche snack. It looks sickening, tastes great and fills you up completely. Enjoy it – but don't think too much about how many times the spoon you've just been loaned has been used before you, with only the most cursory of rinses.

The Mapuches are being blamed – by the timber industry – for a series of forest fires. The Mapuches deny the allegations. But there is undeniable animosity between the two sides. Land used for timber cultivation was previously regarded as the territory of the Mapuches, and they are unhappy about not sharing in the profits it produces.

You mentioned volcanoes ...

From Temuco I took the bus to Pucon, the resort town by the shores of Lake Villarrica, on the edge of araucaria country. It is also situated at the foot of Mt Villarrica, a 2,840m high active volcano, which erupts every 15 years or so. The last major eruption was in 1971 when lava and ash spilled down in the region around Pucon, cutting off its road link with the neighbouring town of Villarrica. A minor one took place in 1985, and now everyone is holding their breath.

You really think this is a good idea?

The threat of destruction doesn't seem to deter visitors who come in their thousands (for the beach and watersports in the summer, and the skiing on the volcano in the winter). People's fears seem partially eased by the fact that the volcano's unseen activities are now closely measured by computer surveillance: everyone will get enough warning next time that it's about to blow. You can get inside the ancient lava flows by entering a system of caves beneath the volcano. They are dark and claustrophobic, with weird, black dripping formations that look liquid despite their solidity.

Pucon is a world away from the frontier earthiness of Temuco. Beautiful young Chileans show off their tans on the streets or in trendy cafes. For real drop-dead beauty, however, you have to go out of town, as I did with my guide from Pucon town hall, Clemente Carrasco. I had been told that Carrasco had a passion for the araucaria forests, so he seemed the perfect companion.

Let's see some trees

Together we drove east of Pucon to the slopes of another volcano, the 3,747m Mt Lanin. The roads were fringed with tall, feathery, bamboo-like quila; and beyond them was a mixed forest of light-green lengas and dark-green coihue trees. But this was just the warm-up act. Carrasco parked his car and nodded for me to follow, as if he were about to take me into a place of wonders, which, of course, he was. For here we began to walk through the skyscraping araucarias, each one of them with its own shape and character but each an awe-inspiring giant.

Carrasco said something about the araucaria forest having a quiet beauty that defied description. His exact words, I don't recall. I didn't make notes – I just stood and stared. We continued in silence, deeper into the forest and then we headed upwards. "Come and look from here," said Carrasco, niftily skirting up a hillside, while I scrambled along behind. "Sit here," he said, beckoning me through a wall of branches to a secret spot. And then I was sitting almost above the world, looking down a valley between snow-topped Andean mountains and volcanoes, their lower slopes decorated with araucarias. Ahead of me, all through the valleys that stretched for miles and miles, paraded the countless gigantic green parasols. Time emptied away and we both sat immersed in a natural beauty that was – Carrasco was right – utterly indescribable.

How can I get to see them?

Contact Chile Tours, Suite 3, Blandel Bridge House, 56 Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AX (020-7730 5959; fax: 020-7823 6969; chiletours@btinternet. com), which offers a 15-day tour, taking in the lake district and the araucaria forest, from £995 per person. Flights cost extra. Return flights from London to Santiago plus one internal flight cand be arranged and cost £686 per person. LanChile (01293 596607) flies daily from London to Santiago, via Madrid, from £611 return.