Sizing up South America's oldest living tree

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The second-oldest living tree on the planet(Credit: Nick Lavars/New Atlas)

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At around the time the Egyptians were busy inventing the sundial, a tenacious cypress seed busted through the floor of a temperate rainforest in the south of Chile. That same organism would see off the pharaohs, along with countless earthquakes, fires and centuries of logging to stand proudly as the oldest living thing on the South American continent roughly 3,500 years later. So what does it feel like to stand before such a venerable survivor? We trekked and tripped our way through the Andean foothills on Chile's southern coast for our own little meeting with "El Gran Abuelo."

South America's oldest living tree is a Fitzroya cupressoides, named so by the traveling geologist Charles Darwin in honor of the captain of his ship, Robert FitzRoy. Known as Alerce in Spanish and Lahuen in the native Mapuche, these tall evergreen trees are native to the southern Andes in Chile and Argentina, and though they grow to more than 60 m (196 ft) tall, they do so very slowly, gaining just a millimeter in diameter every year.

Alerces contain special resins that help them stave off decomposition(Credit: Nick Lavars/New Atlas)

Alerces contain special resins that help them stave off decomposition, even when buried or resting in water, which is a useful trait when it comes to longevity. Unfortunately, this and characteristics like a straight grain, elasticity, lightness and aesthetic appeal have made alerces a very desirable construction material over a considerable period of time.

Evidence exists of alerce wood being used for tools and weapons prior to the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, but the arrival of the Europeans really took the lopping of these trees to another level. Initially, the wood played a big part in Chile's trade with neighboring Peru, but then throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries a series of fires really put the heat on, so to speak.

Some of the fires are thought to have arisen from lightning strikes, and others from indigenous tribes who inhabited the area. But a great deal were lit intentionally by local and foreign settlers who saw little need for forest and a big need for arable land. In the meantime, alerces continued to be logged to the brink of extinction, up until the government stepped in and declared the species a national monument in 1976.

Today, alerces are listed as endangered and can be found in staggered populations across a southern stretch of land starting at the cordillera on Chile's Pacific coast and rolling up and over the Andes into Argentina. This means there a few options to visit the native trees, with the massive Valdivian Coastal Reserve offering the biggest alerce bounty, though it's not exactly easy to access.

For starters, you'd need a four-wheel drive to handle the rugged terrain, which would have to be ferried across on one of the boats connecting the reserve to the city of Valdivia, capital of Chile's river region. And unless you want to call the forest home, you'll also need to hire a local Mapuche guide to help you find your way in and out. The Parque Nacional Alerce Costero, home to the Gran Abuelo (Spanish for "great grandfather"), promised a much easier option. Or so we thought.

Entrance to the Parque Nacional Alerce Costero in southern Chile(Credit: Nick Lavars/New Atlas)

The national park opened in 2012 and is only 137 km (85 mi) from Valdivia, with paved roads two thirds of the way and a leisurely three-hour stroll through native forest to reach the main attraction. And so it was smooth sailing until we hit the end of the pavement, where our little Suzuki became a slow-moving mechanical bull, bucking its way across 40 km (25 mi) of broken, dusty trail.

A three hour cruise had become an uncomfortable five-plus hour trip, but disagreeable journeys can have some unexpected upsides. As it turned out, the Parque Nacional Alerce Costero was far enough off the beaten track to discourage even a single visitor that day. Including the park ranger, apparently. With nothing but a vacant lodge and dubious guard dog to greet us, we were left to our own devices to find a spot to camp, and hopefully, map out a route to the big old tree.

Thankfully, the campsites were clearly defined, as was the trail, which isn't always something you can count on when trekking around these parts. The 5-km (3.1 mi) circuit follows an old logging route, used to funnel huge pieces of timber out of the forest on oxen back in the 1940s. This links up with a creek that sweeps dead alerce downstream toward the mouth of the nearby Bueno River, where native communities used to gather up the materials back in the day.

The beautiful trail criss-crosses the creek as it runs through thick native forest, home to more than 60 wildlife species, including raptors, pumas, the extremely shy pudu, which is the smallest deer in the world, and Darwin's frog, whose tadpoles you can spy swimming through the icy waters. Other species of tree include the coigüe, ulmo and tineo, which sprung up in the aftermath of forest fires, some of which are as old as 300 years.

There are quite few ways you could describe the walk, but "leisurely three-hour stroll" is definitely not one of them. It is a steep descent down to the riverbank, with uneven, slippery terrain made all the more inhospitable by sprawling tree roots and jagged rock. So it was after our fair share of riverside breathers that we crossed one final rope bridge, trudged up a few flights of stairs and flopped onto the platform before the mighty Gran Abuelo.

Standing more than 60 m tall (196 ft) with a diameter of 4 m (13 ft) and perimeter of 11 m (36 ft), the "Alerce Milenario" is quite the sight. It's big, but not outta-this-world big. It's thick, but not impossibly so. Yet something suggests you sit down for a moment to take it all in, possibly because of its intriguingly weathered exterior, and almost certainly because you've just hauled ass for two hours to see it.

In 1993, researchers used growth-ring counting to verify the age of the Gran Abuelo, placing it at 3,622 years young. Because a lot of the larger specimens were logged in the centuries previous, it's quite possible that some alerces grew to be even older than this, the remnants of which can probably be observed as roof shingles on homes in the nearby towns.

While 3,622 years is a decent stint, the Gran Abuelo isn't the oldest living tree on the planet. That title goes to California's ghoulish bristlecone pine, which as of 2016, has 4,848 years under its belt. But still, 3,622 years is long enough to see dynasties form and fade, civilizations rise and fall, and real estate tycoons become leaders of the free world. Not to mention the countless other species to have been wiped from the Earth since it popped its head up around 1,500 BCE. So to see its wrinkled flesh up close is pretty humbling. And pretty awesome.

While 3,622 is a decent stint, the Gran Abuelo isn't the oldest living tree on the planet(Credit: Nick Lavars/New Atlas)

After some time admiring the tree and doing our best to squeeze it into a photo, it was time to bid our barky friend adieu and complete the return leg of the trek: a smoother but still demanding ascent back to the camping area. It was only here that we encountered our first humans on the trail, an oncoming couple with a smiling child who if we had to guess, probably wouldn't be smiling a little further down the track.

Flush with snow-capped volcanos, turquoise streams and enough green to make Snoop Dogg's eyes water, Chile's picturesque river and lake regions are adored by locals. But at around 1,000 km (621 mi) south of the capital, Santiago, they are often leap-frogged by foreign visitors with their eyes on Chile's crown jewel, Torres Del Paine National Park in the deep south. If you do happen to find yourself in the area with some time to spare, we recommend stopping to smell the roses. You might just stumble across an ancient tree with no one else around.

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