Patagonia lies tucked away right at the southernmost tip of the Americas – indeed of the world’s landmass, not counting Antarctica. While the very name holds a fascination for many travellers, the reality can be harsh: the place is cursed by a persistent wind, the Escoba de Dios (God’s Broom); trees grow horizontally here, sculpted by the gales; winters are long and summers short. Geographically ill-defined, “Patagonia” usually refers to the narrow triangle of land south of a line between Puerto Montt, in Chile, and Argentina’s Península Valdés, while in Chile the term is usually reserved for Southern Patagonia, where the Andes take a last, dramatic breath before plunging into the ocean.
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While much of Argentine Patagonia is flat rolling pampa, the land rises in the western sliver of land shared by both countries; it is said that people on both sides of the border think of themselves as Patagonians first, and Chileans or Argentinians second, united by a common ranching culture that has long been in decline. These days, large numbers of Chileans and non-Chilean visitors alike come to Patagonia not to farm but to hike – in the country’s most famous and stunning national park, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, a massif crowned with otherworldly granite towers, and accessed from the superbly located gateway town of Puerto Natales. Others come to follow in the footsteps of the region’s famous travellers: navigator Ferdinand Magellan, naturalist Charles Darwin and author Bruce Chatwin; to gaze at the region’s many spectacular glaciers; or to visit the penguin colonies from the lively provincial capital of Punta Arenas – a port city sitting on the shore of the stormy Magellan Strait.
Since the whole of this region is physically cut off from the rest of Chile by two vast ice caps, the only links with territory to the north are by air, water or through Argentina.
Chilean Patagonia, the site of the some of the continent’s oldest human habitation, was originally populated by Tehuelche hunter-gatherers, who stalked roaming guanacos in the interior, and the sea-faring Kawéscar who dove naked for shellfish in the frigid waters around the southern fjords. The first European to discover the area was Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese navigator who sailed through the strait now bearing his name. Spanish colonization attempts failed catastrophically and no European tried to settle the place again for another two hundred and fifty years.
The voyages of the Beagle, from 1826 to 1834, the second one bearing young Charles Darwin, renewed interest in the area, prompting continued Chilean and Argentine attempts to colonize the area. In the 1870s the two narrowly avoided war over the territory, not for the last time. From 1849, Punta Arenas was boosted by sea traffic en-route to the California Gold Rush; while it didn’t last long, the introduction of sheep farming created sprawling estancias (ranches) and brought great wealth to their owners in the late nineteenth century.
Wool has now been replaced by oil, commercial salmon farming and tourism as the region’s main resources. The Chileans call the area the province of Magallanes, in the explorer’s honour; it has its own flag and is one of the least inhabited areas in Chile.
Magellan, pioneer of global exploration
Fernoã Magalhães, known to English-speakers as Ferdinand Magellan, was born in about 1480 in northern Portugal, and had an adventurous early life: in his 20s he saw service with the Portuguese fleets in their wars against the Muslims of the Indian Ocean, and by 1515 he was a veteran of the campaigns in Morocco. In 1516, after being refused a rise in his pension by the king of Portugal, Magellan took his services to the Spanish crown.
Those days were the beginning of European exploration, prompted mainly by the desire to seek out new routes to the East and its valuable Spice Islands (the Moluccas of Indonesia). Magellan believed that the answer lay to the west, under or through the newly discovered American continents, and he asked the king of Spain, Carlos I, to fund his search. Charles agreed, eager to prove that the Spice Islands lay in the half of the New World that the pope had just assigned to Spain.
Through the straits to the Pacific
On September 20, 1519, Magellan sailed west as admiral of a fleet of five ships. They crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and started to search the coast of South America for the elusive passage. It was a long and hard hunt, and not all Magellan’s fleet believed there was a strait: on Easter Day 1520, Magellan had to quash a mutiny by his Spanish captains. But on October 21, 1520, his flagship, the Trinidad, finally rounded Cabo Virgenes and entered the strait that now bears his name. Thirty-six days later the open seas of an ocean were sighted; they named the new ocean “the Pacific” for its calmness after the storms of the strait, and set out across it, not expecting it to be so wide.
Back to Spain
They sailed for four months without seeing land. When Magellan himself was killed in a fight with the natives of Mactán Island, the fleet didn’t turn back; petrified of attempting to go through the straits at the bottom of South America for a second time, they took the longer route round the Cape of Good Hope. Three years after they’d set out, just one of Magellan’s original five ships finally limped back to Spain. It was loaded with spices (cloves and nutmeg) and manned by only eighteen of the original crew, men wasted and half-dead. The voyage’s chronicler said he could not imagine the journey ever being repeated.
Monumento Natural Isla Magdalena
One of the largest penguin colonies in southern Chile, MONUMENTO NATURAL ISLA MAGDALENA is home to more than 120,000 Magellanic penguins. The small island, just one square kilometre in size and topped by a pretty red lighthouse, lies 35km northeast of Arenas, two hours away by boat. The penguins dig their burrows under the tufts of grass covering the 15m-high cliffs.
In October each year, the birds migrate back here and find their mate – they’re monogamous and remain faithful to one partner all their lives. The female lays two eggs in the nest and when the chicks hatch, in November, both parents nurture the young, one adult remaining with the chick, the other going fishing. In late January, the chicks shed their baby feathers and get ready for their first trips into the ocean. By the end of March the penguins have returned to sea again.
You can get very close to the birds as they half hide in the waving grass, and lounge by the sea. If they start to cock their heads from side to side, it’s a sign that you’re disturbing them. The five-hour round-trip, which includes one hour on the island, is worth it for the scenic ride alone, as you may well spot black-and-white Commerson’s dolphins and other marine mammals.
Parque Nacional Pali Aike
From the small town of Punta Delgada a good gravel road heads 28km north to Chilean Patagonia’s seldom-visited PARQUE NACIONAL PALI AIKE. The park’s entrance looms up out of the barren rolling plains, green roof first; the sight explains its Tehuelche Indian name, meaning “desolate place of bad spirits”. There’s a strange magic to the otherworldly volcanic formations that dot the heath and the small lagoons ringed by white tidemarks; this seemingly barren place is home to a surprising amount of smaller wildlife – from well-camouflaged lizards and owls, which may be mistaken for rocks, to the guanacos feeding on the hardy coirón.
From the guardería, the main gravel road runs north to the remote, picturesque Laguna Ana, where you can occasionally spot flamingos, and the start of the park’s longest hike: a 9km (2hr 45min) walk across flat, windy, exposed terrain to Cueva Pali Aike, a 17m-deep cave in a tall ridge of congealed lava. It was excavated by the famous archaeologist Junius Bird in 1937, and was found to contain evidence of prehistoric inhabitation, including bones of a milodón and the Onohippidium, an extinct American horse, dating from nine thousand years ago.
An 8km gravel road branches off from the main one, heading east to the cave via the starting point for the park’s other two hikes: a 1700m (30min) wander through the largely flat old lava beds to the volcano rim of the Crater Morada del Diablo (“Dwelling of the devil”), followed by a 2000m (45min) ascent through the fields of jagged volcanic rock to the Pozos del Diablo (“The devil’s wells”) – dozens and dozens of somewhat sinister craters; sturdy footwear is a must.
The Balmaceda and Serrano glaciers
To the northwest of the Cueva del Milodón, the Seno Ultima Esperanza continues on for about 100km until it meets the Río Serrano, which, after 36km, arrives at the Balmaceda and Serrano glaciers. A boat trip here is one of the most beautiful in the entire area. It takes seven hours and you pass a colony of cormorants and a slippery mass of sea lions. The glaciers themselves make an impressive sight, especially when a chunk of ice the size of a small house breaks off and crashes into the water. They form the southern tip of Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins, the largest and least visited national park in the whole of Chile. The east of the park is almost entirely made up of the Campo de Hielo Sur (the Southern Ice Field); the west comprises fjords, islands and untouched forest.
Parque Nacional Torres del Paine
Nothing really prepares you for your first sight of PARQUE NACIONAL TORRES DEL PAINE (torresdelpaine.com). The Paine Massif, the unforgettable centrepiece of the park, appears beyond the turquoise lakes long before you get close to it. The finest views of the massif are from the south bank of Lago Nordenskjöld, whose waters act as a great reflecting mirror. If driving through the park, take the southern entrance to constantly have the best views in front of you.
The centrepiece is made up of the twin peaks of Cerro Monte Almirante Nieto (2668m and 2640m). On the northern side are the soaring, unnaturally elegant Torres del Paine (“Paine Towers”), the icon of the park, and further west the sculpted, dark-capped Cuernos del Paine (“Paine Horns”). To the west of the park is the broad ice river of Glaciar Grey, and on the plains at the mountains’ feet, large herds of guanacos and the odd ñandú (rhea) still run wild; you’re more likely to spot these than the park’s more elusive fauna: pumas and the rare huermúl deer.
In January and February the park is crammed with holidaymakers, so the best months to visit are October, November and December or March and April. Although in winter (June–Sept) temperatures can fall to -10°C (14°F) or even lower, freezing lakes and icing over trails, the small numbers of visitors, lack of wind and often clear visibility can also make this another good time to come – just wrap up warmly.
This may not be the place to taste true wilderness, but there are still plenty of places to lose the crowds. The two most popular hikes are the “W”, so-called because the route you follow looks like a “W”, up three valleys, taking you to the “stars” of the park – Las Torres, Valle del Francés and Glaciar Grey, and the “Circuit”, which leads you around the back of the park and encompasses the “W”; allow seven to ten days for the “Circuit” and at least four for the “W”.
The best way to tackle the “Circuit” is anticlockwise, as it also means you’ll have excellent views of Glacier Grey in front of you rather than behind you when you come to tackle the most challenging part of the hike – the Paso John Gardner.
It’s also best to do the “W” anti-clockwise, leaving the steepest hike to Las Torres until last, by which time you will have consumed most of your supplies. The first leg of the “W” is the hike there and back from Paine Grande Lodge to Glaciar Grey, described above. You can leave your gear at the lodge.
Fire in the park
On December 27, 2011, a fire that was started by human negligence in the southern section of Torres del Paine quickly spread, exacerbated by the bone-dry conditions and strong winds. The Chilean government has been criticized for its slow and inadequate response; by the time the blaze was finally brought under control, over 130 square kilometres of forest had been destroyed. An Israeli tourist was detained on suspicion of accidentally causing the fire; he denied responsibility and there is some evidence that pressure may have been put on him to make a confession.
Sadly, the incident has exacerbated the anti-Israeli sentiment among some Patagonians, and the suspect was subjected to racial abuse as he was led to court. However, the majority of Puerto Natales citizens have responded in a constructive manner; in a bid to protect the park from future damage, there will now be compulsory talks on park safety at the Laguna Amarga entrance to Torres del Paine, as well as volunteer patrols in the park. It remains to be seen whether the Chilean government will fund a permanent ranger patrol.
On January 4, 2012, the Chilean government reopened eighty percent of the park to visitors; at the time of writing, Refugio Grey, Paine Grande Lodge, and the Guardas, Paso, Carretas, Italiano and Británico campsites were closed but to reopen in expected course.
Beyond the W: Torres del Paine alternatives
There is more to Torres del Paine than just the “Circuit” and the “W”; numerous shorter hikes can be just as spectacular.
Mirador Lago Grey and Mirador Ferrier
From the Lago Grey ranger station near Hotel Lago Grey, a short trail leads through the forest to the lake’s vast windswept beach, where you can watch house-sized chunks of bluish ice bobbling on the pale waters. To the left of the beach, by the jetty, a fairly steep unmarked trail skirts around the cliff before giving you an unobstructed view of Glaciar Gray. The most spectacular viewpoint of them all, Mirador Ferrier, lies a stiff two-hour hike up from behind the ranger station. From up there, you get a jaw-dropping vista over the park’s many lakes, their colours ranging from aquamarine to greyish white. At the top, you make your way through forest before emerging among exposed rocks; bring warm clothes as the icy wind can be ferocious.
There’s a three-and-a-half-hour signposted walk from the guardería at Laguna Amarga to Laguna Azul, a secluded and little-visited lake in the northeast. From there, a mostly gentle four-hour trail leads past Laguna Cebolla to Lago Paine. It used to be possible to hike to Lago Dickson and cross the narrowest part of the lake to Refugio Dickson, but the boat is no longer functioning, though if you are on horseback, you can wade across Río Paine and continue along this trail to a viewpoint overlooking Glaciar Dickson.
Another seldom-trod path takes you up to Mirador Zapata, a steep six-to seven-hour climb from Guardería Lago Grey at the southern tip of Lago Grey, itself a four-and-a-half-hour walk from the park administration building, rewarding you with views of the ice cap and the magnificent Glaciar Pingo. Campamento Pingo is half an hour into the trek, and Campamento Zapata an hour and a half from the mirador, making it an ideal overnight stop.
From Puerto Montt, the Carretera Austral, or “Southern Highway”, stretches over 1000km south through the wettest, greenest, wildest and narrowest part of Chile, ending its mammoth journey at the tiny settlement of Villa O’Higgins. Carving its path through tracts of untouched wilderness, the route takes in soaring, snowcapped mountains, Ice Age glaciers, blue-green fjords, turquoise lakes and rivers, and one of the world’s largest swaths of temperate rainforest. Most of it falls into Aysén, Chile’s “last frontier”, the final region to be opened up in the early twentieth century. A hundred years on, Aysén remains very sparsely populated, and still has the cut-off, marginal feel of a pioneer zone.
With the 2008 eruption of the Chaitén volcano now in the past, you can once again begin your exploration of the region from the north. Leaving Puerto Montt, you can travel through both Parque Nacional Alerce Andino and Parque Nacional Hornopirén, before taking the boat over to Caleta Gonzalo, where the Carretera cuts a passage through virgin temperate rainforest in the private nature reserve of Parque Pumalín, and finally emerging in the volcano-ravaged town of Chaitén.
South along the Carretera from Chaitén is the nondescript settlement of Villa Santa Lucía. From here, one branch of the road heads east, to the border village of Futaleufú, the pre-eminent centre for whitewater rafting. Continuing south, the Carretera emerges at the Parque Nacional Queulat, whose extraordinary hanging glacier and excellent trails make for one of the most rewarding places to get off the road. Don’t miss the chance to luxuriate in the secluded hot pools of the luxurious Termas de Puyuhuapi.
The main town of Coyhaique marks the centre of the Carretera; to the west, Puerto Chacabuco is the principal starting point for boat excursions to the sensational Laguna San Rafael glacier. To the south, the road loops around South America’s second largest lake, Lago General Carrera, while the final stretch of the Carretera connects the little town of Cochrane to the isolated hamlet of Villa O’Higgins, with a road branching off to the unusual settlement of Caleta Tortel.
The original inhabitants of this rain-swept land were the nomadic, hunter-gatherer Tehuelche of the interior, and the canoe-faring Alcalufe, who fished the fjords and channels of the coast, though now only a handful of the latter remain. In 1903, the government initiated a colonization programme that ultimately handed over thousands of hectares of land to three large livestock companies. At the same time, a wave of individual pioneers – known as colonos – came down from the north to try their luck at logging and farming, resulting in massive deforestation and destruction of the natural environment.
Faced with Argentina’s encroaching influence, the government set out to actively “Chileanize” this new zone. Over the years, the perceived need for state control of the region did not diminish, explaining the rationale behind the construction of the Carretera Austral, initiated by earlier governments but with the greatest progress achieved under General Pinochet. Building the road was a colossal and incredibly expensive undertaking: the first section was finished in 1983 and engineers completed the final 100km in 2000, from tiny Puerto Yungay to the frontier outpost of Villa O’Higgins, by the Argentine border.
Northern Patagonia today
In spite of the Carretera Austral, the settlements in Northern Patagonia still have a frontier feel to them and the people who live here reflect the area’s intrepid settler spirit. Their resourcefulness allows them to overcome major natural disasters, such as volcanic eruptions, and every spring, they celebrate their huaso (cowboy) heritage in a series of rodeos, pitting their equestrian skills against one another.
Fly-fishing in Aysén
Aysén is the most exciting fly-fishing region in Chile and is internationally renowned, drawing serious anglers, including a number of Hollywood stars. The season varies slightly according to the area, but in general lasts from October or November to May. You need a licence to fish (CH$10,000), widely available in sport-fishing shops. For more info, contact the Servicio Nacional de Pesca at Victoria 2832, Valparaíso (32 281 9100,sernapesca.cl). A number of first-class fishing lodges have sprung up around the region; most lodges are of an extremely high standard.
“Doing” the Carretera Austral
“Doing” the Carretera Austral requires a certain amount of forward planning, and time should always be allowed for unexpected delays. In peak season, the villages are covered by a combination of minibuses, ferries and even local flights, but outside the summer months the services drop right off, barring the regular long-distance flights connecting Coyhaique to the rest of Chile. Cyclists will need to carry all necessary spare parts and supplies, because of the challenging road conditions and absence of bike shops (barring Coyhaique).
The words “Carretera Austral” or ‘Southern Highway’ conjure up images of a smooth, paved, multi-lane road, right? Wrong. The Carretera Austral is still very much a “triumph” of man over nature, and Chile’s ultimate road trip to boot; though parts of the road have been “tamed”, it is still a challenging – not to mention spectacularly scenic – drive. Those with their own vehicle may need to consider the entering it via Argentina and Futaleufú (make sure you have the correct paperwork) as the ferry services connecting the top end to Hornopirén are less frequent outside the summer months.
What type of car do I need?
Most car rental agencies will insist that you rent a 4WD for the journey, but while certain sections may be easier to drive in a 4WD, it’s not mandatory. However, a vehicle with high clearance is.
What are the road conditions like?
The question you should be asking yourself is not “Will there be potholes?” It is: “Which of the following potholes should I hit to minimize the damage to my vehicle?” Some sections are more challenging than others; see below for a brief guide to the different stretches of road.
Will there be anywhere to buy petrol?
The vast majority of settlements along the Carretera Austral have petrol stations, so you needn’t worry about running dry.
What essentials should I bring?
Make sure you have a spare tyre (neumático), and all equipment necessary to change said tyre, as you’ll only be able to rely on yourself and passing motorists (all of whom should stop and help you should you need assistance). It’s also a good idea to carry food, water and a sleeping bag.
What about crossing the border into Argentina?
You’ll need to have the required paperwork from your car rental company as well as relevant insurance.
Any other precautions I should take?
Try to avoid driving at night, as not all curves in the road are marked with reflectors. Driving too close to other cars is a bad idea as the loose gravel flying out from under the wheels of the vehicle in front of you will crack your windscreen. Do not attempt to take corners at high speeds on the ripio (dirt and gravel) sections of the road, as you’ll skid right off the side of the road. If travelling via Hornopirén and Caleta Gonzalo, book ferry tickets in advance.
Road conditions by section
Chaitén to Villa Santa Lucia Partially paved, otherwise heavily potholed and prone to landslides in rainy conditions.
Villa Santa Lucía to Futaleufú Valley Somewhat potholed, mostly good gravel road.
Villa Santa Lucía to Puyuhuapi Somewhat potholed, at times narrow road.
Puyuhuapi to Puerto Cisnes crossroads The most challenging section is the Paso Queulat – narrow, steep, deeply rutted and with tight curves.
Parque Naciuonal Queulat to Puerto Cisnes Partially paved; the rest is a somewhat potholed dirt-and-gravel road.
Parque Naciuonal Queulat to the turn-off for Puerto Aysén Newly paved.
Coyhaique to Puerto Aisén Completely paved but with some blind turns.
Coyhaique to Cochrane Partially paved; otherwise mostly good gravel road with few potholes.
Cruce El Maitén to Chile Chico Mostly good gravel road, but narrow and with precipitous drop on one side.
Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins Mostly good gravel road, steep in parts; ferry crossing required at Puerto Yungay; some sections are very narrow with hairpin bends and sheer drop to one side.
Parque Nacional Alerce Andino
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.
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.
Hornopirén and around
The sheltered, sandy cove of La Arena lies 13km south of the turn-off to Parque Nacional Alerce Andino; it’s the departure point of a ferry. After the thirty-minute crossing, the ferry lands at tiny Caleta Puelche, from where the road winds through 58km of thickly forested hills, before arriving at the village of HORNOPIRÉN. Here you catch a Naviera Austral ferry to Caleta Gonzalo, where the Carretera continues.
Perched on the northern shore of a wide fjord, at the foot of Volcán Hornopirén, the village enjoys a spectacular location and makes a good stop en route to the rest of the Carretera Austral.
Parque Nacional Volcán Hornopirén
To the east of Hornopirén unfold the 500 square kilometres of protected wilderness that make up PARQUE NACIONAL VOLCÁN HORNOPIRÉN. The park’s namesake and centrepiece, 16km along a muddy track from the village, is the perfectly conical Volcán Hornopirén. Five kilometres further along the track lies the seldom-visited Lago General Pinto Concha, with excellent fishing and stunning views onto the 2111m Volcán Yate (1hr hike one-way). From Lago General Pinto Concha, another track leads to the base of Volcán Yate (2hr hike one-way).
Back towards the village, a turn-off from the track leads south around the end of the fjord to a modern bridge over the Río Blanco, with a short trail to your left leading up to the impressive Salto del Río Blanco waterfall. A well-defined 8km path follows the river upstream, passing through alternating patches of pastureland and grand stands of alerce, coigüe, tepa and lenga; above the tree line, you’ll enter a landscape of ice-covered peaks and glaciers, making this a great day-hike.
South of Hornopirén, connected to it by two ferries, lies PARQUE PUMALÍN (www.parquepumalin.cl), the world’s largest privately owned conservation area, covering 3200 square kilometres (790,400 acres) of land. The Pumalín Project, founded by North American millionaire Douglas Tompkins to protect one of the world’s last strongholds of temperate rainforest, originally generated a considerable amount of controversy, yet few would deny that the park represents a magnificent environmental achievement. It’s a place of overwhelming natural beauty, with hauntingly calm lakes reflecting stands of endangered alerce trees, ferocious waterfalls gushing through chasms of dark rock, and high, snowy-peaked mountains. Parque Pumalín falls into two sections, cut in half by a large chunk of land owned by ENDESA, the Spanish-owned energy corporation.
On May 2, 2008, Volcán Chaitén, at the foot of which nestles its namesake town, erupted for the first time in over nine thousand years, taking the local residents completely by surprise, as the volcano was thought to be dormant. The town, and much of the surrounding area, had to be evacuated as the 19-mile (30km) plume of ash and steam from the volcano affected the local water sources. Worse was to come when the a mudslide caused floods which devastated the town. While the Bachelet government ordered the the town to be abandoned, the Piñera administration subsequently reversed the decision and, with vital services now reinstated, Chaitén is once again connected to Puerto Montt and other destinations along the Carretera Austral by frequent boat and bus.
Douglas Tompkins and the Pumalín project
In 1995 it was publicly announced that a North American millionaire, Douglas Tompkins, had used intermediaries to buy a 3000-square-kilometre chunk of southern Chile – marking the beginning of a five-year national soap opera that transformed Tompkins into one of the most controversial public figures in the country. In 1991, the 49-year-old Californian, increasingly committed to environmental issues, sold his fifty percent share in the Esprit clothing empire, bought an abandoned ranch on the edge of the Reñihué fjord, 130km south of Puerto Montt, and moved there with his wife and kids. Inspired by the “deep ecology” movement pioneered by the Norwegian environmentalist Arne Naess, Tompkins set out to acquire more of the surrounding wilderness, with the aim of protecting it from the threat of commercial exploitation. As he did so, he was seized with the idea of creating a massive, privately funded national park, which would ensure permanent protection of the ancient forest while providing low-impact facilities for visitors.
The media backlash
Over the next four years Tompkins spent more than US$14 million buying up adjoining tracts of land, in most cases hiding his identity to prevent prices from shooting up. His initial secrecy was to have damaging repercussions, however, for once his land acquisitions became public knowledge, he was engulfed by a wave of suspicion and hostility, fuelled by several right-wing politicians and the press, with his motives questioned by everyone. The biggest cause for alarm, it seemed, was the fact that Tompkins’ land stretched from the Argentine border to the Pacific Ocean, effectively “cutting Chile in two”. Tompkins appeared on national television, explaining his intentions to create Parque Pumalín, a nature sanctuary with free access, slowly winning over some of the public.
Success with strings
Eventually, the government agreed to support Tompkins’ aims to establish the park – on the condition that for one year he would not buy more than 7000 contiguous hectares (17,250 acres) of land in the south of Chile. Tompkins was also prevented from purchasing Huinay, a 740,000-acre property owned by the Catholic University of Valparaíso, separating the two separate chunks of his land, which was instead sold to ENDESA, Chile’s largest energy corporation.
Tompkins, determined to save a little more unspoiled terrain from development, purchased another chunk of land in 2001 near the Termas del Amarillo, south of Chaitén, while in 2005, Parque Pumalín, by this point managed by Chilean Fundación Pumalín (whose board includes Tompkins and his wife), was finally declared a santuario de la naturaleza (nature sanctuary), which gave it additional protection. Tompkins’ wife Kristine is currently working on the conservation project of Estancia Valle Chacabuco near Cochrane.
The Futaleufú Valley
The 80km trip up the FUTALEUFÚ VALLEY is one of the most enjoyable diversions off the Carretera Austral. Heading east from the drab crossroads settlement of Villa Santa Lucía, south of Chaitén, you first skirt the southern shore of Lago Yelcho for 30km, before arriving at a fork in the road. The right turn goes to the quiet border village of Palena, while the left branch follows the turquoise Río Futaleufú for 17km through towering gorges, lush forests and snow-streaked mountain peaks to its namesake town.
Sitting on the Río Futaleufú, near its confluence with the Rio Espolón, and surrounded by forested, snowy peaks, Futaleufú more than earns the grandiose slogan – “A landscape painted by God” – coined by its early inhabitants. With its big “explosion waves” and massive “rodeo holes”, the Río Futaleufú is regarded by many professional rafters and kayakers as one of the most challenging whitewater rivers in the world, with sections of the river known as “Hell” and “The Terminator”. A number of Chilean and US operators offer rafting trips down the river, a body of water which runs through a basalt gorge known as the Gates of Hell, and boasts over forty class IV–V rapids.
An attractive little town, Futaleufú serves as a popular summer base primarily for rafting, though there is still a shadow hanging over it in the form of the Spanish energy corporation ENDESA, which has plans to construct a dam and to build a hydroelectric plant on the river; the plan currently faces concerted opposition by locals, tour operators and environmentalists.
Most people come to Futaleufú for the whitewater rafting and kayaking, though you needn’t stop there: the area around Futa lends itself to a range of outdoor activities, including hiking, horse-trekking, mountain biking, fly-fishing, floating (drifting down a river on an inner tube) down the tamer Río Espolón, canyoning (abseiling down canyons) and canoeing. A number of experienced local outfits offer these activities.
Parque Nacional Queulat and around
With stunning, rugged scenery and its namesake hanging glacier, PARQUE NACIONAL QUEULAT is one of the region’s biggest attractions. Located south of La Junta, it features a vast expanse of virgin forest, towering granite peaks and rumbling glaciers, and is divided into three sectors. The Carretera Austral enters the park’s northern boundary 15km north of the village of Puyuhuapi and crosses its southern limit 55km further south, just beyond the Portezuelo de Queulat pass. The park’s main entrance lies 2.5km along a signposted turn-off from the Carretera Austral, 22km south of Puyuhuapi.
Sector Ventisquero Colgante
By far the most popular sight in the park and accessible from the park’s main entrance, is the incredible Ventisquero Colgante, or “hanging glacier”. Wedged between two peaks, forming a V-shaped mass of blue-white ice, the glacier indeed seems to hang suspended over a sheer rock face. Long fingers of ice feed two thundering waterfalls that plummet 150m down to a glacial lake. From the parking area by the Centro de Información Ambiental, follow the signposted 250m Sendero Miradór Panorámico to a spectacular viewpoint. If you cross the suspension bridge over the river and turn right, you will find the 600m Sendero Laguna Témpanos, which leads to its namesake lake through dense native forest, from where you get excellent views of the glacier.
Left of the bridge, the steep Sendero Ventisquero Colgante climbs 3.2km to a higher viewpoint. Another trail, the 6km Sendero Valle Río Ventisqueros, starts at the same car park and follows the southern bank of the Río Ventisquero Valley, passing through evergreen forest and numerous viewpoints overlooking the Ventisquero Colgante before ending up at a beautiful beach. Allow five hours for a return trip and consult the rangers regarding trail conditions.
Termas de Puyuhuapi
The luxurious thermal baths, lodge and spa at TERMAS DE PUYUHUAPI enjoy a fantastic location, marooned on the edge of a peninsula on the opposite side of the fjord from the Carretera Austral. You don’t need to be an overnight guest to visit, but you should phone ahead to book.
The thermal baths used to be a handful of ramshackle cabins that were transformed into a series of low-lying, beautifully designed buildings made of reddish-brown alerce timber and lots of glass by the East German shipbuilding magnate Eberhard Kossman in the late 1980s. Apart from its spectacular location, the main reason to come here is to soak in the steaming hot springs, channelled into three outdoor pools reached by a short walk through the forest. Two of the pools are large enough to swim in, and sit right on the edge of the fjord, while the third one, containing the hottest water, is a small pond enclosed by overhanging ferns and native trees. There’s a state-of-the-art spa, specializing in a range of treatments and massage, whirlpools, a gym with an excellent view, a large indoor pool, a cold water pool, a children’s pool and two Jacuzzis.
After the smattering of small villages scattered along the Carretera Austral, Aysén’s lively regional capital, COYHAIQUE, can be a welcome change. The city’s fifty thousand inhabitants make up half the region’s population, and it’s the only place along the Carretera that offers a wide range of services, from pharmacies and banks to laundries and car-rental outlets. It’s also a good launch pad for some great day-trips.
Laguna San Rafael
From Coyhaique, a paved section of the Carretera Austral runs west towards the coast, to the former port of Puerto Aysén, 65km away – a small town you have to pass through on the way to the even more nondescript Puerto Chacabuco, the gateway to Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael. From Puerto Chacabuco, a 200km boat ride through the labyrinthine fjords of Aysén brings you to the dazzling San Rafael glacier, spilling into the broad Laguna San Rafael. The journey is a spectacle in itself, as boats edge their way through channels hemmed in by precipitous cliffs dripping with vegetation, passing the odd sea lion colony along the way. After sailing down the long, thin Golfo de Elefantes, the boat enters the seemingly unnavigable Río Témpanos, or “Iceberg River”, before emerging into the Laguna San Rafael. Floating in the lagoon are dozens of icebergs, fashioned by wind and rain into monumental sculptures, with such a vibrant electric-blue colour that they appear to be lit from within.
San Rafael glacier
Sailing around icebergs akin to icy phantoms, you approach the giant San Rafael glacier at the far end of the lagoon. Over 4km wide, and rearing out of the water to a height of 70m, it really is a dizzying sight. While the cruise boat keeps at a safe distance, you’ll be given the chance to get a closer look from an inflatable motor dinghy – but not too close, as the huge blocks of ice that calve off into the water with a deafening roar create dangerous waves. What you can see from the boat is in fact just the tip of the glacier’s “tongue”, which extends some 15km from its source.
The glacier is retreating fast, however, frequently by as much as 100m a year. Early explorers reported that in 1800 the glacier filled three-quarters of the lagoon, and archive photographs from the beginning of the twentieth century show it as being far longer than it is today. It is estimated that by the year 2030, the glacier will be gone.
Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael
Almost half of the 4.2 million-acre Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael is covered by the immense ice field known as the Campo de Hielo Norte; it feeds eighteen other glaciers on top of the San Rafael Glacier and contains over 250 lakes and lagoons. The 4058-metre Monte San Valentín, the highest peak in the southern Andes, towers over the frozen plateau. A handful of visitors who opt to fly over the glacier touch down here with barely enough time to take the 7km trail from the Conaf guardería to a breathtaking viewpoint platform over the sprawling, icy tongue (allow around 2hr up and slightly less coming down).
Around Lago General Carrera
Just beyond the southern boundary of Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo, a 31km side road shoots southeast from the Carretera Austral to the tiny village of Puerto Ibáñez, on the northern shore of Lago General Carrera. This lake, encircled by rocky, sharp-peaked mountains, is the second largest in South America, and stretches east into Argentina.
Regular ferries connect Puerto Ibáñez with the sunny, cherry-growing town of Chile Chico, on the opposite shore, making this an attractive alternative to following the Carretera Austral around the lake. From Chile Chico, a 128km road skirts the lake’s southern shore, joining the Carretera just beyond the village of Puerto Guadal.
South of Lago General Carrera
South of the great lake, a gravel road winds its way along the river towards Cochrane, the last settlement of any size and the gateway to the Reserva Nacional Tamango. Beyond Cochrane, the road snakes its way through a dense carpet of evergreens and giant nalca. After just over 100km south, you come to the embarcadero de Río Vagabundo, the launching spot for boats to the tiny, remote hamlet of Caleta Tortel, also reachable by the gravel road that forks west from the Carretera. Further south, at Puerto Yungay, a car ferry crosses Fiordo Mitchell and a precarious road leads to the Carretera’s final stop – tiny Villa O’Higgins.
The last major stop on the Carretera Austral, the ranching settlement of COCHRANE lies 50km south of Puerto Bertrand. The town’s paved, orderly grid of streets spreading out from the neat Plaza de Armas, and array of limited services, make this a prime spot to rest up after the wildness of the Carretera Austral.
Visitors fall in love with Tortel as soon as they see this scattering of houses on forested slopes surrounding a pale emerald bay. Located at the mouth of the Río Baker between the northern and southern ice fields and a logging spot for a lumber company, Tortel soon grew into a scattered settlement of quaint wooden houses, each with its own jetty and linked by a network of walkways and bridges made of fragrant cypress (slippery when wet). There are no streets here, and even the fire engine is a boat. Tortel is in some ways more isolated than the rest of the settlements along the Carretera Austral; there is only one direct phone line to the municipality, with extensions to everywhere else, though landlines are coming soon.
Within easy reach of Tortel by boat are two glaciers: Ventisquero Steffens, which originates in the northern ice field (3hr north by boat), and Ventisquero Jorge Montt, an enormous bluish ice-wall that comes from the southern ice field (5hr by lancha; 2hr by motorboat), best done in a group, as the trip is charged per vessel.
Tiny VILLA O’HIGGINS was built on a simple grid, with the Carretera Austral running along the western side all the way down to the Bahía Bahamondez on the enormous glacial Lago O’Higgins, 7km away.
Most of the earliest settlers – who came at the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was most easily accessible from Argentina – were British. The first Chilean settlers did not arrive until the 1920s, and the town wasn’t officially founded and given its present name until 1966. Until 1999, this cluster of wooden houses huddled against a sheer mountain face was reachable only by a small prop plane from Coyhaique or by boat from Argentina but is now on the verge of being connected to Argentina’s Ruta 40, which will make travel between the two countries considerably easier if you have your own vehicle. Cosmopolitan Villa O’Higgins is not, but it is a triumphant finishing point for cyclists “doing” the Carretera Austral, as well as a springboard for reaching some of the area’s more remote glaciers.
Argentina the hard way: the El Chaltén crossing
The crossing between Villa O’Higgins and Argentina’s El Chaltén is still remote and challenging, yet more and more hardy travellers are prepared to take the boat, followed by a strenuous hike over the border and then another lake crossing. The sixty-passenger Quetru, connected to Villa O’Higgins by a private minibus run by the owner of El Mosco, leaves Bahía Bahamóndez at 8.30am and arrives at the hamlet of Candelario Mancilla at around 11am. Just beyond the dock a signposted dirt track leads uphill from the main dirt road to the only accommodation option – a campsite with no facilities apart from drinking water obtained from a stream and two or three basic rooms available in the owner’s house. Get your passport stamped by Chilean border control further up the main road before you set off for Argentina.
To the border
Beyond, a gravel road winds uphill through patches of woodland to the international border; on the way, you will have to ford the shallow, glacial Río Obstáculo. Beyond the border, marked by signs welcoming you into Chile and Argentina, the 7.5km stretch of trail to the Argentine Gendarmería on the banks of the Lago del Desierto becomes a narrow, muddy footpath snaking its way through hilly forest and scrubland; cyclists have to push and sometimes carry their bikes. After getting stamped into Argentina, you can either pitch a tent at Camping Lago del Desierto, stay in the basic cabaña run by the gendarmes, catch the motor launch Viedma across the lake or hike the remaining 15km along a steep, thickly forested path on the left side of the lake, emerging at the guardería by the pier on the south side.
Minibuses to El Chaltén meet the arriving motor launches. While it is possible to complete the border crossing in a day, particularly if coming the other way from El Chaltén to Villa O’Higgins (since the last part of the hike is all downhill), boat schedules are weather-dependent, so you must pack enough food for several days. To book a guide and packhorses, visit villaohiggins.com. Rumours abound that there are plans to build a road on the Argentinian side to connect it to the border, perhaps as early as 2013, so the time to do the crossing is now.