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.