Patagonia is something else... From the beautiful snow-covered mountaintops to the immense valleys, every little corner of this place looks like paradise. Being one of the last pristine places on earth, this territory has remained relatively intact thanks to its extreme weather and geographical features. Part of this immense place, which covers about 1 million square kilometers -in the south of Argentina and Chile-, is crossed by a road in Chile from the north to south. This road is called Carretera Austral and it covers over a thousand kilometers from Puerto Montt in the north to Villa O´Higgins at the very end of the road, passing through this wild countryside.
During my travels through Patagonia, I experienced great things as I hitchhiked most of the road by myself, meeting very amazing people along the way. One of these days, I started hitchhiking in Villa Cerro Castillo at 10 am. I waited a lot... so by 5 pm I was ready to give up and leave it for the next day when miraculously, on my last try, someone stopped the car. YES! I got in and went ahead. It was a family of ¨Coyhaiquinos¨ that were going to Puerto Sánchez (very close to Puerto Tranquilo, where I was going) for the weekend. We talked a while along the way and when we got to the intersection they dropped me off and I was very thankful to them for bringing me here. Just when I started to walk away they called me and told me this: ¨Listen, why don´t you come with us to Puerto Sánchez. We´ll eat dinner and you can stay with us. Tomorrow we´ll go to the marble caves and you don´t have to pay anything.¨ I couldn´t believe it, nor accept it because it was too much. But they insisted and I went with them. We made a very good friendship that night with wine, food, and beer. The next day we went to see the marble caves as promised and they dropped me off in Puerto Tranquilo. What more can you ask?
I mention this story because this is the kind of experiences you have when you give yourself to the world; when you travel.
Back to the list
It is easy to say that I fell in love with this place from the very first moment that I saw it and knew that I would come back in the future. So, from my travel experiences around the Carretera Austral, I have compiled this list of places that you must see. Of course, there is an infinite number of beautiful places in this land but this list mentions the most accessible and/or musts along the road.
Queulat National Park
This is definitely a must. Located a few kilometers from the town of Puyuhuapi, the Queulat National Park is famous for its ¨ventisquero colgante¨ or hanging glacier. This is easily one the most beautiful things I have seen in my life. It is a glacier that melts as a waterfall over a lake, giving you a visual spectacle with the combinations of colors of the forest, lake, and mountains.
You can hike up to a lookout to see the glacier closer -not a difficult hike- or you can take a boat ride along the beautiful lake (Or both!). The entrance to this part of the park is right along the Carretera Austral.
Note: The park has other trails that you can hike apart from the ones that lead to the glacier. They are in other sectors of the park. For example, I would recommend Bosque Encantado trail which is further down the Carretera Austral. It is an easy trail that lasts approx. 40 minutes. Keep in mind this trail is in the middle of nowhere, so if you´re hitchhiking I do not recommend stopping here unless you give yourself enough time after doing the trail to hitchhike or if you have camping equipment.
In the road between Puyuhuapi and Coyhaique, things change dramatically from humid green forests to an arider canyon-like landscape. The beautiful town of Coyhaique is in this drier part. This town -almost city- is the coolest Patagonian town there is. The restaurants, bars, hostels and especially the people make you feel very welcomed. The ¨Coyhaiquinos¨ are the best people, their generosity is unparalleled. I recommend staying a couple of days in this charming town.
Relatively near the city is Puerto Aysen and Puerto Chacabuco. Close to the city there is the Rio Simpson and the Coyhaique National Reserves.
Cerro Castillo National Park
You might suddenly feel like you are in Lord of The Rings, with the mountain chain Cerro Castillo imposing itself over the vast landscape. This is a National Park with impresive mountains, the main being Cerro Castillo. You can hike up to the base of Cerro Castillo to appreciate up close the magnificent mountain and a panoramic view over the valley. There is also a circuit trek through the park that starts near Coyhaique and ends in Villa Cerro Castillo.
General Carrera Lake
The turquoise waters of the General Carrera lake are surreal. It is the second biggest lake in South America after Titicaca and the biggest in Chile. It is so big that it has its own waves and currents. Actually, Douglas Tompkins died of hypothermia in this lake because of waves flipping over his kayak. Dangerous!
This is where you will find the popular Marble Caves and Chapels which are long marble formations caused by the erosion of water, making beautiful forms and colors. There are two destinations you can go to: in Puerto Tranquilo, you can kayak or if you are afraid to follow Tompkin´s footsteps you can take a boat excursion along the formations, and in Puerto Sánchez which are similar formations but in another location, you take a boat tour and have the option of going inside the actual caves (as you can see in the pictures). Amazing!
North and South Ice Fields
Along Patagonia, there are two ice fields which are very important for being the third biggest ice sheets after Antarctica and Greenland and possessing a major source of stored fresh water of South America. There are denominated simply North Ice Field and South Ice Field. You can visit parts of these two ice fields with guided treks over the glaciers or boat tours over lakes that take you close to the glaciers. The main boat tours are to Laguna San Rafael which depart from Puerto Chacabuco (Coyhaique) and Bahía Exploradores (Puerto Tranquilo) and to Lago O´Higgins which depart from Bahía Bahamondes -close to Villa O´Higgins. The main glacier treks take of from Bahía Exploradores and you can find most of the agencies in Puerto Río Tranquilo.
Tips before you go
- Hitchhiking is very hard in the high season (from November to January). The best time to visit is September and October because the weather starts to get warmer and there are very few people along the road.
- Keep in mind hitchhiking gets harder the more south you go along the road. There is always bus options from point to point but they are a bit expensive.
- If you decide to go in the high season, make sure you book hostels or accommodation in advance because it is very common in the high season for these small villages to get completely filled by tourists and you might not have a place to stay.
- I would recommend Hospedaje del Lago Hostel in Puerto Rio Tranquilo. The service is the best I received along my journey!
- ATMs are not so common in these areas, only in the major towns so, always have cash on you just in case. Some hostels and restaurants accept credit cards.
Permaculture farmer and travel writer