Chile’s Aysén is considered one of the world’s great emerging adventure destinations. From the dry Patagonian steppe to evergreen forests and the glaciers of the Andes, this is a dream destination for nature lovers and thrill-seekers from around the world.
The area is still pretty hard to access, the 1,240km-long Carretera Austral being the lifeline which runs from north to south. There’s an airport in Puerto Montt at the northern entrance to the carretera, and another one in Balmaceda about half way down. Other than that though, you get in and out by road or boat.
As you might expect in Patagonia, the climate sometimes treats you to four seasons in one day, even during the relatively short summer season between October and April. Here are some of our favourite outdoor activities along Chile’s Carretera Austral:
While walking might be the most obvious activity on our list, these are not your average hikes. One of the great wonders of the Aysén region is the emblematic Ventisquero Colgante or ‘hanging glacier,’ which spills off the top of a cliff, contrasting dramatically with the surrounding forests. You can also choose to walk within the huge valley of the future Parque Patagonia where guanacos roam, pumas stalk and flamingoes fly. In Jeinimeini you hike through desert landscapes reminiscent of moonscapes. Or the pristine Valdivian rainforests of Pumalín park in the north. Over the course of just a week, you can hike in four completely different ecosystems and landscapes – it’s magnificent.
Cycling all the way down the Carretera Austral can be pretty arduous as it involves approximately 700km of unpaved road, ferries, forests and mountain passes. The 500km or so of paved road are smoother under tyre but high winds and rain can still sap the spirit. Saying all that, it’s a remarkably popular adventure to undertake. Our own taste is rather more for day rides in the best places. Inside the future Parque Patagonia is brilliant for a day ride as it is mainly wide open valley or you could try for the Lagunas Altas trail by bike – that should be do-able and fun! A little further south, near Cochrane there are some very appealing trails around the Tamango Reserve either alongside the Cochrane river or up into the plateaus above the lake. The valley of the Cochrane River, towards the Salto Grande waterfall makes for a gorgeous day ride with a picnic spot made in heaven waiting for you at the hanging bridge!
Rafting / Kayak
Coyhaique means ‘places of lagoons’, so you know what to expect in this area located in the eastern slope of the Mountain range of Andes, where the rivers Simpson and Coyhaique converge. This is the area for great kayaking. For white water, a couple of hundred kilometres to the south is the incredible blue-grey Baker River. Here the rapids are usually around grade III+ i.e. bumpy and fun, but not too scary, you go for the views as much as anything else. If you want scary then there is only one place to go: Futaleufú. Fú for short. This village sits in a gorgeous valley up at the northern end of the Carretera Austral close to the Argentine border. Fú is not strictly speaking within Aysen region but very much part of the Carretera Austral so we’re bending the rules. The Espolón and Fú rivers deliver the biggest river waves in the world, apparently. The waters are unbelievably pretty, and simply terrifying. These are not rivers you look at and think “I’d love to get in a small vessel and ping along that”, unless you are a white-water enthusiast, in which case you’ll go weak at the knees. Rafting and kayaking are possible on anything from grade III to grade V+ but mainly it seems to be grade IV-V action around here. Personally I like to watch more than take part in these particular descents but each to their own. For a more genteel option, there are a couple of glacial lakes high in the hills where you can go sea-kayaking.
If you’re looking for some free-climbing over a beautiful lagoon, the area around Coyhaique is the places to go as the city is surrounded by a variety of crags offering good, well bolted sport routes with relatively easy access. A bit further south is the beautiful Cerro Castillo range, suitable for more experienced climbers as it is more challenging. The range can get hit full force with weather systems coming in over the northern ice fields and the Pacific. The local climbing community is very active when it comes to putting up new routes, cleaning routes, and opening new areas.
With the area around Cochrane, Tortel and Villa O’Higgins being known as the Province of the Glaciers, you won’t have any difficulties in finding a glacier to hike or climb. Having said that, a hike out onto the surface of the Exploradores Glacier is a great place to spend a day. Much less known but accessible from Cochrane is the Calluqueo Glacier. Only Jimmy guides this one but you get onto the big ice more quickly than anywhere else so it’s a great one to visit. For a longer expedition you might like to hike out to the Great O’Higgins Glacier. There you camp out by the vast ice field over the course of three days.
Horses are everywhere in Aysén so are arguably the best way to discover the gaucho culture. The great thing about Aysén is that you don’t have to go far up into the hills before the views become extraordinary – glaciers spilling off the top of forested mountains into wildly blue lakes. There are plenty of horse-riding routes throughout the region but outstanding are the areas around Lago General Carrera, Baker River and Coyhaique Alto in particular. This is a place where you can visit remote Patagonian estancias on horseback with complete freedom.
Getting gradually more laid back on the activity scale, fly-fishing is a first rate option down in Aysén. The fishing is world class, whether river, lake or sea. Fishing is generally allowed all year around, however the best season tends to be from October to May. The Aysén, Simpson, Riesco and Los Palos rivers are probably the best known fishing rivers but there are hundreds of smaller ones too. There are many top end fly fishing lodges hidden away in the forests of Aysén but for those with a less immersive interest, or travelling with a partner who doesn’t want to fish, Aysén is perfect for day trips. We have fishing guides who take people out for the day in and around the Baker River and up in Coyhaique, bringing them home happy and all fished-out.
Puerto Chacabuco, near Coyhaique, is the departure point for many a boat to the San Rafael Lagoon. The San Rafael Glacier is one of the most spectacular in the Patagonian Icefields. Leaving from Chacabuco you will tend to travel on a larger boat on a trip lasting all day. For a quicker boat trip, at the end of the Exploradores Valley (accessed from Puerto Rio Tranquilo) you can get a boat to San Rafael which only takes a couple of hours. It’s an amazing trip.
The lovely village of Tortel is perfectly placed for boat trips to glaciers. You can get a boat to the Steffen Glacier in the Northern Patagonian Icefield, or you can go south and visit Jorge Montt Glacier in the Southern icefield.
A little further south, in fact at the very end of the road, is Villa O”Higgins. From here you take the boat along the deepest lagoon in the Americas as far as the Great O’Higgins Glacier. Good Chilean name that one. As well as the ice and icebergs, you are likely to see a wide variety of marine birds such as herons, black-necked swans, wandering albatross, coots, steamer ducks and even penguins.
Walking on a glacier is amazing, but what about taking a helicopter ride to see the Ice-fields from the air? Obviously this particular option is highly weather dependent and it is quite dependent on how many of you want to go but it’s actually decent value, for a helicopter. There’s currently just the one operating in the region and it’s based at Phillippe Reuter’s place on the shore of Lago General Carrera – Terra Luna.
And for the ultimate inactive ‘activity’, what better way to end a day than with a soak in hot springs? The Chilean region of Aysén has a variety of hot springs, some of which are considered to be among the very best in Chile. The most famous springs are in Puyuhuapi where the waters of the Melimeyu volcano emerge into a series of outdoor pools on the edge of the Dorita fjord. There’s nothing quite like luxuriating in 38c water looking out over the fjord to the mountains and forests beyond.
Ready to explore for yourself?
Travel Chile’s Carretera Austral by road, boat and air as part of this one-off small group journey led by Pura Aventura’s Thomas Power. From walking in the forests of Queulat to flying over the Northern Patagonian Icefields by helicopter, he shares some of his favourite places and experiences in this beautiful, hidden corner of Chile.