Patagonia. A word that evokes images of stark granite peaks, ferocious winds, the vast desolate steppe, and the unrelenting rains that pummel the so-called end-of the-earth.
These are the typical elements used to describe the most commonly visited Patagonian destinations, like Torres del Paine or El Chaltén. But Patagonia is a region that covers a huge area (roughly three times the size of California), and these impressions are really just broad strokes that don’t illustrate the whole story.
“We have this one name, ‘Patagonia’, for a region that encompasses so much,” Nadine Lehner guide and founder of Chulengo Expeditions told me as we drove along the unpaved Carretera Austral highway between the cloud-shrouded mountains. “But people tend to paint it all with the same paintbrush.”
Those who veer off the beaten path to visit Aysén, a Chilean province within northern Patagonia, will come to see the region in a fuller, richer palette—complete with vibrant teal lakes, rich emerald forests, hillsides in muted scarlet, and blue-tinted glaciers.
Aysén is the third largest of Chile’s 15 provinces by area, but by population it is the smallest: there are fewer than 2.5 people per square mile, which puts its population density in between that of Alaska and Wyoming. Geographically isolated on all sides by mountains, fjords, and ocean, Aysén was the last place in South America that settlers arrived. The development of the Carretera Austral, the rugged highway that runs north to south through the region that opened to traffic in 1988, made transportation to and within Aysén easier, but it still remains one of the most isolated and remote parts of Chile.
Which is exactly what makes it so special.
Nadine, who was born and raised in New York City, remembers the first time she visited Aysén as a 20 year-old college student in 2008. “I was struck by not just what the place looked like, but what it made me feel. The excitement it brought—the bigness and possibility,” she said. “Just look at these views and you think, ‘God, I could spend a lifetime just exploring here and going around.’ I think that sticks with you… there’s still sort of an endless amount to go check out.”
And these explorations take you to some pretty magnificent places. From the shores of Chile’s largest lake, to the turquoise Baker River, to the enormous northern ice field, or even to the summit of 12,159’ San Lorenzo, which is the second highest peak in Patagonia.
Aysén is, above all else, a place to celebrate the natural world. “It’s a place where man can [settle in], breathe and live quietly,” Francisco Croxatto Diaz wrote in Patagonia Aysén. “The diversity of its settings is an inspiration for peace and harmony, making us feel the greatness of being immersed in nature where we belong, bringing us back to our being.”
Given that about half of the region is protected in public and private parks, there are plenty of opportunities for travelers to find that sense of wild immersion. The lakeside town of Puerto Tranquilo is considered Aysén’s touristic epicenter, where plenty of guide outfits can arrange trips to the famous marble caves or the Northern Ice Field’s Exploradores Glaciers within Laguna San Rafael National Park.
One of the best parks to see in Aysén is also the region’s newest: Parque Patagonia, the brainchild of Kristine Tompkins, former CEO of Patagonia (the clothing brand) and her late husband Doug Tompkins, who founded the companies The North Face and Esprit. Together they protected about 2 million acres of land in the Patagonia region, and the nearly 200,000-acre Parque Patagonia, which they bought in 2004, is one of their proudest projects. The park sits in the Chacabuco Valley. Under the guidance of Nadine and Chulengo Expeditions, this is where we spent the bulk of our time during our visit to Chile.
When we arrived in Parque Patagonia after the long drive from Balmaceda down the Carretera Austral, we beelined it to the West Winds Campground near the park’s headquarters. The green grass provided a soft bed beneath our tents. The wood and stone shelters in each site were comfortable places to cook. The bathrooms had sinks to wash the dishes and showers with hot water. In other words, we were hardly roughing it.
On our first day we walked from the campground to the trailhead for Lagunas Altas, which is a 10 to 14 mile hike depending on whether you shuttle the car or make a complete loop from the campground. After huffing and puffing for a couple of miles up a steep hill, the trail finally reaches a ridge—and then it’s a breezy downhill stroll the rest of the way with views of stunning lakes, tranquil forests, and impressive peaks—including of San Lorenzo. Near the end of the trail Dylan spotted a perfectly rectangular boulder, which, being climbers, we later had to go investigate with our rock shoes in hand. While it left something to be desired in terms of hand or footholds to grab onto, that didn’t stop us from playing around on it.
When we came back to camp after the Lagunas Altas hike, Dylan and Gabe realized another potential of West Wind’s soft grass lawn: ideal turf for a game of Frisbee. As I sat beneath the shelter writing in my journal, I watched them toss the disc back and forth to one another. Then, light water drops began to fall from the sky. I ran out to feel the famous Patagonian rain against my cheeks and join in on the game.
“Rainbow!” someone shouted. There it was, in a perfect arch that practically spanned from river to mountain. “I’ve got the chills!” Dylan exclaimed. “This is incredible.”
“Yeah,” I said, as a smile spread across my face.“It really is.”
The day-hikes from the park headquarters, like Lagunas Altas and Lago Chico (which we did the next day) are stunning. But truly submerging oneself into Aysén’s landscapes requires embarking on a multiday excursion. If backpacking through 31 miles of Patagonian landscape appeals to your imagination—and how could it not?—Parque Patagonia’s Aviles Trail, which connects with the Jeinimeni Reserve just north of the Chacabuco Valley, is an escapade that will not disappoint.
Because it is a through-hike that can only be accessed via primitive roads, the logistics can be tricky to coordinate. Luckily, we had Nadine and Ben, also from Chulengo Expeditions, to work out the plan. Gabe, Dylan, Nadine, and I drove our car to the trailhead within Parque Patagonia, while Ben and a crew drove a car to the trailhead on the other side, in the Jeinimeni Reserve. We would cross paths somewhere in the middle, and each have a car waiting for us at our finish.
We began on a hot day, in the full sun. “Is this typical?” Gabe asked.
“The thing is, everything is typical, and nothing is typical,” Nadine said. In Patagonia, you have to be prepared for anything and everything.
We started hiking through Valle Avilés, a landscape with layers of color: rolling green hills contrasted with soft blue sky contrasted with Cerro Pintura—the “painted mountain”—colored an understated red. A few miles in, we reached the hanging footbridge that spans high above the Avilés River that bounces as you walk over it, making for an exciting section even for those of us who like to think of themselves as able to deal with heights.
We continued on to camp and set up right on the river. After taking a brief dunk, careful not to get washed away—“adventure swimming”—we started a fire and ate dinner while drinking in the sight of the Jeinimeni peaks that surrounded us.
We woke up in the morning to a downpour. Listening to the drops hit against the sides of my tent, I wondered whether we would have to hike through it all day—and whether that would suck. Still just psyched to be there, I honestly wasn’t quite sure about either. From all I’d heard, in Patagonia rain was part of the adventure. So, I thought, maybe it was something worth experiencing. Call me optimistic.
We quickly packed up camp, donned our rain gear, and started hiking. Only a few minutes later, however, we encountered an obstacle. It was time to ford our first river.
We took off our boots and rolled up our pants as Dylan, Gabe, and I watched Nadine go first. She faced upstream, with her pack buckle undone, and used a trekking pole for guidance. When it was my turn, I mimicked her technique, stepping into the icy-cold water as the rain beat down on my jacket hood. Oh, I thought, realizing that there could be more of this in our future. This is going to suck. It didn’t take long for my morning’s question to find an answer.
After putting our boots back on, we continued on. And, as the trail wound through the forest and across some small streams, the rain began to fade away until it finally stopped. Thank god.
After some hiking up and down through the forests, we eventually ended hiking right in a river valley—and, quite often, right through the river. After a few crossings of changing footwear before and after the deed, we eventually surrendered to the idea of just having wet hiking boots or shoes. With our river fording skills now sharpened, we soon had no qualms whatsoever about repeatedly plowing right through the water.
We ended the day in Valle Hermoso, in a campground nestled within a lenga forest by an old gaucho hut. After setting up camp, we had a few hours to hang out in the valley. I tried to burn the images before me into my memory: the robin’s egg-blue river, the looming glaciated peaks, the clouds moving through the rifts between them, the mysterious, possibly unexplored crags and valleys.
“This is one of the most epic views I’ve seen,” Dylan said. I couldn’t have agreed more.
While we started the day with considerably better weather, I was sad to leave camp the next morning. It was the last day of our backpacking trip… soon, we would be out of the wilderness, and back into civilization. But those last few miles truly provided a last hurrah.
Rounding a corner in the valley, we caught a glimpse of turquoise water—a color that looked more like it belonged in the Caribbean than in a mountain valley. It was Lago Verde, a lake like nothing I’d ever seen before. We approached its banks and then marched up a hill above it, the view getting better and better as we reached higher ground.
We dropped back down the other side, and continued along. The hours went by quickly and, soon, we neared the end of the trail. But, before we did, another, bigger, sparking lake—Lago Jeinimeni—this one a hint more sapphire. I laid down on its shore and felt the sun against my skin. I felt entirely and completely content.
One by one, Dylan, Gabe, and Nadine all made moves to jump into the lake’s chilly waters. I begrudged the fact that I felt the peer pressure kick in. I felt so good as I was… did I really have to move?
Well, yes. I knew I would regret it if I didn’t. I stripped down and braced myself for the cold as I ran in. Patagonia, once again, took my breath away. This time, it was literally.
One day, Sendero Avilés “will probably become the classic backpacking trip of the park,” Nadine told us as we set out the first day. For the time being, however, the route is still relatively untraveled (over the three days it took us to hike it, we only encountered only a couple other backpacking groups).
The views of the Jeinimeni Mountains are extraordinary. Fording the chilly Río Avilés will awaken your sense of adventure. The first site of Lago Verde’s magical sparkling water. Equally memorable, however, are the gentler, simpler moments—of sipping mate beneath a Lenga tree, of sharing a meal around a campfire, of basking on a rock while listening to the water.
“There are pockets that are really dramatic, and then pockets that are really like homey and rich in some way,” Nadine described.
In other words, it’s full-bodied, brilliant Patagonia.