Adventures in Northern Patagonia: exploring Chile’s verdant peaks and valleys
There are few places left in the world as wild and unruffled by the hands of man as Patagonia. The little-visited northern half of Chilean Patagonia is a markedly different world where fairytale rainforests, puffing volcanoes, raging rivers and sharply hewn fjords all compete for attention. Ripe for exploration, here are seven of the most epic outdoor adventures you won’t want to miss.
The salty seaport of Puerto Montt is the most logical place to begin any trip into Northern Patagonia. But before you set off down the famed Carretera Austral (Southern Highway), detour around the temperamental Volcán Calbuco (a snow-capped stratovolcano) over to the serene fishing village of Cochamó. It’s here that you’ll find a verdant U-shaped valley that bears a striking resemblance to the Yosemite Valley of California. Another icon of the American West, Butch Cassidy, is said to have marched his cattle beneath the towering alerce trees of the Cochamó Valley. You can retrace the outlaw’s steps to reach the modern-day rock-climbing base of La Junta, where bald granite domes rise 1000m above the dense forest floor, begging to be scaled.
Features – Chile, Patagonia, Parque Pumalin, man hiking in forest
A man hiking through the green rainforests of Parque Pumalin © Kathrin Ziegler / Getty
Hike the rainforests of Parque Pumalin
Chilean Patagonia is home to teeming temperate rainforests, capturing most of the clouds barreling around the Southern Ocean. One of the best places to experience this globally unique landscape is Parque Pumalin, a reserve created by Doug Tompkins (the late co-founder of The North Face) and recently gifted to the Chilean people as a new national park. Popular hiking trails include the Sendero Cascada, a 5.6km romp through lush rain forest to a pounding waterfall, and Sendero Volcán Chaitén, a 4.4km round-trip ascent to the crater of the Chaitén Volcano, which erupted in 2008 after lying dormant for 9000 years.
Features – Whitewater Rafting on the Futaleufu River
A rafting trip on white waters of Futaleufú © Karl Weatherly / Getty
Raft the white waters of Futaleufú
Further down the Carretera Austral is the town of Chaitén, which was buried by pyroclastic mudflow in the 2008 eruption. A slight detour south of here, toward the Argentinean border, leads to the Andean resort town of Futaleufú, whose namesake river is a frothy artery of toothpaste-blue waters that ranks alongside the Colorado and the Zambezi as one of the world’s best for white water rafting. The chance to navigate challenging Class III to Class V rapids on single or multi-day trips is the top draw here, though kayaking, fly-fishing and other water-based activities are equally sublime. Back on solid ground, the town itself charms with colourful cafes, woodsy mountain lodges and a unique spirit that comes from etching out an existence on the edge of civilization.
Soak in the hot springs of Puyuhuapi
Outdoor adventure doesn’t always have to mean strenuous activities. Sometimes, it can be something as simple as, say, soothing weary bones in a natural hot spring on the edge of a fjord while dolphins frolic nearby. This is the simple joy of visiting Puyuhuapi’s Termas del Ventisquero. If that sounds entirely too peaceful, you can always rent a kayak and set off on an adventure into the fjord in search of sea lions, petrels or Magellanic penguins. Better still, take a short 3km hike through the nearby Parque Nacional Queulat to its hanging glacier, where calving ice tumbles down a stark cliff face into a milky blue bowl below.
Features – Bizarre rock formations of the marble caves, Cuevas de Marmol, Lago General Carrera, Puerto Rio Tranquilo, Region de Aysen, Chile
The marble caves of Lago General Carrera © Peter Giovannini / Getty
Kayak to the marble caves of Lago General Carrera
Just south of Northern Patagonia’s only real city, Coyhaique (population 57,800), the Carretera Austral twists and turns its way around Cerro Castillo (Castle Hill) over to the shores of Lago General Carrera, a freezing glacial lake with deceptive Caribbean-coloured waters. The star attraction here, which lies just off the coast of Puerto Rio Tranquilo, is the highly Instagrammable Capilla de Mármol, better known as the Marble Caves. You could hire a boat to take you out on the lake to view them, but a kayak will give you the flexibility to truly explore the twisted contours of this natural marvel, which was formed over thousands of year by waves crashing against calcium carbonate. The sight is particularly evocative in the morning hours when the low sun lights up the striated cavern walls and the placid lake offers a mirror reflection.
Features – San Rafael Glacier – Patagonia – Chile
People boating past the San Rafael Glacier © SteveAllenPhoto / Getty
Boat to the San Rafael Glacier
Puerto Rio Tranquilo is also the base for journeys out to one of Northern Patagonia’s most remote wonders: the San Rafael Glacier. Daylong trips to view this big blue giant begin with a ride through the rugged Valle Exploradores, where you’ll get your first glimpse of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, a remnant of the vast blanket of frozen water that covered much of southern Chile and Argentina some 18,000 years ago. The onward journey is by boat from Bahía Exploradores, navigating a stark and unforgiving landscape to reach the glacial lagoon. You’ll dart past truck-sized icebergs in an attempt to come face to face with the 4km-wide, 70m-tall goliath, where it’s customary to drink a glass of whisky chilled with thousand-year-old ice. Salud!
Live the gaucho experience in Villa O’Higgins
Villa O’Higgins is, quite literally, the end of the road where the Carretera Austral peters out into Andean oblivion. This is where Northern Patagonia ends, and to call it a frontier town is to merely scratch the surface of just how isolated this hamlet really is. Named after the hero of Chilean independence, it’s the perfect spot to live out your gaucho fantasy with Patagonian cowboys. Single or multi-day horseback-riding trips from here will have you trotting next to glaciers, emerald green lagoons and untouched native forests.