Off The Beaten Path in Chile

Episode #3: Exploring the Unexplored

10 Adventures to Have in Chile’s Most Isolated Region

If you’ve got what it takes to visit the unexplored reaches of Patagonia, these 10 adventures will be right up your alley.

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Are you ready to explore isolated icefields, soaring cerros, lush lenga forests, and vast grasslands? Take an adventurous journey into Region 11, home of Parque Patagonia.

Divided into 15 first-order states, Region 11, known as Aysén, is Chile’s least-populated, making it prime territory for solitary treks through untrammeled wilderness. Settled in the early 1900s, Aysén was one of the last regions to be formed in the creation of modern Chile and it remains its most isolated with a landmass of 108,494 kilometers and a population of just under 100,000. The southern tip of South America had seen human activity long before the rugged Patagonian landscape, which is geographically guarded by the Northern and Southern Patagonian Icefields (the third-largest behind Greenland and Antarctica), Lago General Carrera (South America’s second-largest lake), and the arid steppes of Argentinian Patagonia. Truly one of the world’s final frontiers, not many people have set foot in Aysen’s pristine wildlands. While there are enough adventures awaiting ambitious travelers to last a lifetime, these were the top 11 experiences on our recent trip through Region XI.

1. Rent a 4x4 and Drive the Carretera Austral

Road tripping on the Carretera Austral.
Road tripping on the Carretera Austral. Gabe DeWitt

Embark on one of the world’s great road trips: the Carretera Austral, or “southern highway,” runs 1,240 kilometers from Puerto Montt to its southern terminus of Villa O’Higgins at the Southern Patagonian Icefield. Along the way it traverses vast fjords, lush lenga forests, windswept grasslands, braided rivers, glacial lakes, and majestic snowcapped mountains. Few travelers and fewer villages on the route provide a truly wild vehicular adventure not too far removed from what Aysén’s original settlers experienced. Always exciting and rarely paved, a 4WD vehicle is highly recommended—especially when hugging the shoulder to pass long-haul freight trucks loaded with sheep and cattle. Fuel stops are strategically placed, so be sure to fill up every chance you get. Allow yourself plenty of time to make the trek.

2. Visit Cerro Castillo

La Cocina de Sol along the Carretera Austral.
La Cocina de Sol along the Carretera Austral. Gabe DeWitt

Conveniently situated on the Carretera Austral, this dusty, pioneering village is the launchpad for adventures in the Cerro Castillo National Reserve and Valle Ibañez. Take a day hike up to the aptly-named mountain or climb all the way to its summit. Make sure to stop and have a Chilean-style burger at La Cocina de Sole, an unforgettable restaurant crammed inside two conjoined buses. A small café and market on the opposite side of the highway both have plenty of goods for sale. Check out the Festival Costumbrista, an authentic Patagonian-style gaucho rodeo held in February. Don’t worry if you can’t swing a rental car—buses travel daily between Coyhaique to the north and Puerto Tranquilo to the south.

3. Drink a Cerveza D’Olbek in Coyhaique

Sipping on a cerveza D’Olbek—a product of the region’s sole craft brewery
Sipping on a cerveza D’Olbek—a product of the region’s sole craft brewery Gabe DeWitt

The D’Olbek family immigrated to Valle Chacabuco from Belgium in the early 1980s to open a sheep ranching operation, purchasing 173,000 acres of land and 30,000 sheep for a cool $10 million. Conservacion Patagonica, in search of land for a new conservation project, purchased the land from the D’Olbeks in 2003. The family moved to Coyhaique and opened Cerveza Artesanal D’Olbek, marking the start of the region’s sole craft brewery. Grab a fresh draught in La Taberna, the on-site restaurant that serves up batches that reportedly taste even better than the bottled brew.

4. View the Magellanic Clouds from Los West Winds Campground

The Milky Way seen from Valle Chacabuco.
The Milky Way seen from Valle Chacabuco. Gabe DeWitt

The large and small Magellanic Clouds are only visible in the southern hemisphere. They appear as faint wisps of light alongside the Milky Way, commonly mistaken for thin atmospheric clouds. What you’re actually seeing are two dwarf galaxies visible with the naked eye. Situated in the expanse of Valle Chacabuco with no nearby towns or sources of light pollution, Los West Winds Campground at the Parque Patagonia headquarters is the perfect place to stargaze.

5. Hike Sendero Lagunas Altas

Hiking in Parque Patagonia.
Hiking in Parque Patagonia. Gabe DeWitt

The premier day hike of Parque Patagonia, this 24-kilometer loop sets off from Los West Winds Campground and ascends 1,268 meters to the rocky shelf above. After being rewarded with a break for the legs and uninterrupted views of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, the trail meanders down alongside alpine lakes, through magical lenga forest, and under rocky outcrops. Make sure to take a dip (and a drink) in the first and highest lake—its turquoise hue and ice-cold waters refresh the soul and bring life back to tired legs. Allow a full-day for this trek, and be sure to bring sunscreen and plenty of layers. Numerous streams weave between the lakes, offering plenty of spots to rehydrate. It’s possible to cut a few kilometers of monotonous road at the end by setting a shuttle on the road leading out of the park. Maps are available at the park office.

6. Drink Straight out of a Mountain Stream

Refilling directly from a mountain stream.
Refilling directly from a mountain stream. Gabe DeWitt

Hydrate like our ancestors did with a drink of pure water. With a population of just under 100,000 and year-round snowfields, the lack of human activity and abundance of water mean that virtually every running stream and alpine lake is a source of drinking water. There’s something special about getting on your hands and knees and dipping your head directly into crystal-clear, ice-cold water. Trekking becomes a visceral experience as you fill your water bottle when thirst arises—no clumsy pumps or need to carry several liters of water. You can even gulp while you swim in an alpine lake. Just use your discretion—the higher the water source, the better. Low-lying, standing pools of water with organic material probably won’t look very refreshing anyway.

7. Hang with Guanacos in the Valle Chacabuco

Frolicking alongside guanacos in Valle Chacabuco.
Frolicking alongside guanacos in Valle Chacabuco. Gabe DeWitt

Valle Chacabuco is an ecologically diverse transition zone between the icefields, lenga forests, verdant grasslands, and arid Argentinian steppe. It is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, including the iconic guanaco. Closely related to the llama, guanacos are docile grazers that roam in large herds. They are often grazing right alongside humans in the grassy flats of the Parque Patagonia headquarters. Guanacos aren’t the only wildlife to keep an eye out for—the endangered huemel deer is under close conservation watch by park rangers and is kept in check by pumas that skulk among the brushy cover. Valle Chacabuco is an avian paradise as well. Look up to see the massive Andean condor or catch glimpses of pink flamingos and upland geese floating in the valley’s numerous lakes.

8. Picnic at a Mirador

Gathering for a meal at a Patagonia mirador.
Gathering for a meal at a Patagonia mirador. Gabe DeWitt

Miradors are lookouts designed to capture the best views of the land. The beautiful wooden shelter along Sendero Lago Chico offers spectacular vistas of Lago Cochrane and Cerro Oportus. On a clear day, catch a glimpse of 3,706-meter Cerro San Lorenzo beyond Lago Cochrane—the second-highest peak in the Patagonian Andes. A moderate trail takes you through stands of lenga into an arid valley before reaching the reward of Lago Chico. Keep an eye (or an ear) out for lone guanacos high up on rocky knolls that serve as lookouts for the grazing herd. Take a dip in Lago Chico’s deep blue (and ice-cold) waters as you gaze toward Argentina. Maps are available at the park office.

9. Sip Mate in a Lenga Forest

Sipping mate with friends in Patagonia.
Sipping mate with friends in Patagonia. Gabe DeWitt

The lenga is the dominant tree in Chilean Patagonia. It is a southern beech that thrives in the arid steppes all the way to timberline at around 2,000 meters. Lenga forests offer solace from the harsh winds that sweep the grasslands and funnel down mountain valleys, providing the perfect opportunity to engage in the social mate ritual. Providing a jolt of caffeine and other essential elements like magnesium and potassium, the tea made from the leaves and stems from the yerba mate plant is the traditional beverage of choice in southern Chile. Make sure you follow the rules of the mate circle when fueling up with your compadres.

10. Backpack Sendero Jeinimene / Avilés

The team roasting choripan over an open fire.
The team roasting choripan over an open fire. Gabe DeWitt

This multi-day, 50-kilometer backcountry trek links Valle Chacabuco to the Jeinimeni National Reserve via Valle Aviles and Valle Hermoso. Drive from the Parque Patagonia headquarters to Casa Piedra Campground, site of early settlements in Valle Chacabuco. Climb above the chalky blue Avilés River and enjoy epic views of Cerro Pintura, named from its red iron deposits. Cross over a swinging footbridge 33 meters above the Avilés and continue on as the valley widens. Cross the pass into Valle Hermoso (meaning "beautiful valley"), before climbing high above the emerald waters of Lago Verde and head toward tropical-looking Lago Jeinimeni. Don’t forget to relax and roast some traditional local fare over a campfire at the Refugio Valle Hermoso, a pleasant campsite nestled among lenga trees in spectacular Valle Hermoso.

Maps are available at the park office. Nadine Lehner of Chulengo Expeditions said that one day, “Sendero Avilés will probably become the classic backpacking trip of the park.” Because the trail is relatively new, it can be tough to follow in spots and involves a number of stream crossings in cold, swift, water that can be dangerous at higher levels. Make sure you know proper backcountry first aid and navigation if attempting this strenuous trek. You can turn back after the foot bridge to make a day hike out of the 16-kilometer Avilés Loop that starts and finishes at Casa Piedra.


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Episode #3: Exploring the Unexplored

Adventure Guide to the Aysén Region of Northern Patagonia