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The Carretera Austral is a journey for explorers and adventurers, those who want to experience Patagonia at its most remote, untouched and beautiful. From the rainforests of Queulat to the deserts of Jeinimeini and glaciers of the Patagonian icefields, few places in the world can offer such diversity.
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Upon arrival in Chile you will be met at the airport for the transfer to your comfortable downtown hotel. This afternoon head out into the thriving city with our guide to get to know Santiago - the tour is flexible and can be tailored to your interests. Note that international flights are quoted separately for this trip.
Fly south to Balmaceda, gateway to the Aysén region of Patagonia. On arrival pick up your comfortable 4x4 vehicle and set off, getting your first glimpse of the beautiful forests, fjords and glaciers of Queulat National Park. The scenic drive should take you just over four hours in total. Continue to your friendly, rustic yet warm and comfortable lodge near the fjord's edge. Later your guide will lead you into the precious temperate rainforest, an ecosystem found in only five places on earth. There is a huge variety of tree species and a very rich understory, full of mosses, ferns and lichens.
This morning you will kayak along the fjord or take a boat to an island to observe marine mammals and the rich birdlife, whilst enjoying the peace and quiet. Stop for a delicious picnic and soak in the views. Return to your lodge to relax or explore the area a little more if you are feeling energetic.
The most emblematic feature of the park is the Ventisquero Colgante or 'hanging glacier.' Spilling off the top of a cliff, the glacier contrasts dramatically with the rocky cliff face and surrounding forests. If the weather allows, you can hike the 3km path up to the viewpoint. The forest trail to get there is lovely, but the view from the top is the real star, with more or less eye level views of the glacier on the far side of the valley. For those who don't feel energetic, there is a boat along the lagoon from where you can see the glacier.
Set off south, stopping at the beautiful Bosque Encantado (Enchanted Forest) along the way. The walk is one of the loveliest along the entire Carretera. A well-maintained path leads you through a magical forest with water flowing everywhere. Take a picnic lunch to enjoy up here as there are likely to be very few people around so the views are yours to enjoy in peace. Stay in a hotel near the heart of Coyhaique, Aysén's only city, so you can wander out to enjoy dinner and a drink.
From your hotel, you are taken up and away from the lowlands of Coyhaique to an estancia on the higher lands next to the Argentine border. Watch the sun rise over the vast, dry Patagonian steppe and then see the condors gradually come to life as the air warms and they take to the skies. The crags on this particular ranch are a favourite rookery for the Andean condor so it is unusual not to be treated to a close encounter. Return to the farmstead in time for an asado lunch, the most traditional of Patagonian feasts: lamb roast over an open wood fire.
Drive south past the airport to come to the beautiful national reserve of Cerro Castillo. In total today's drive is around four hours. The landscape gets increasingly dramatic as the day goes on and you approach your destination. The village of Cerro Castillo is a very modest place, but with an anything but modest mountain range towering over it. See ancient cave paintings and, if you are feeling energetic, you can hike up to the viewpoint over the Cerro Castillo lagoon and Ibañez river valley. Stay overnight in a more basic but welcoming hotel in Cerro Castillo.
Enjoy a private guided day walk in the newly created Cerro Castillo National Park. There are different options for your walk today, including the steep hike up and back to the lagoon underneath the main peaks of Cerro Castillo. Our favourite route leads you along an old estancia path, through the lush Southern beech forests, rich in birdlife, and into a circus of dramatic high peaks. At 20km it is a long but relatively comfortable walk, affording some truly spectacular views to reward your efforts. Return to the village of Cerro Castillo for dinner in one of the welcoming small restaurants.
Today you cross to the south side of Lago General Carrera, Chile's largest lake. Because the ferry leaves from a village just half an hour away, you can have a very relaxed start to your day. Perhaps take some time to explore the beautiful and remote Levican Peninsula - as well as pretty walks along very quiet backroads, there are simply beautiful views. This afternoon take a ferry over the remarkably blue waters of Lago General Carrera to the frontier town of Chile Chico. Spend the next couple of nights in this lakeside town with a sunny, and windy, microclimate.
Chile Chico sits in the rain shadow of the Andes which gives it a relatively dry and sunny climate. The mountains of Jeinimeini create a second rain shadow which makes parts of the reserve resemble deserts of Northern Chile. The 7km loop is a truly wonderful hike, one of the most varied and unexpected you'll do. A rocky gorge leads up to a low mountain pass from where you have lovely views towards the blue waters of the lake. On the far side of the pass, you find some of the oldest cave paintings in the region. This is an unmissable day of walking - take a picnic, and enjoy the peace and quiet.
The road along the southern shore of Lago General Carrera is one of the most beautiful stretches in all of Patagonia. It is also one of the quietest of your drives, so take time to stop and enjoy the views along the way. At the Confluencia Waterfalls, the heavily sedimented Neff River joins the Baker to create a spectacular colour of water. This afternoon you continue to the charming small town of Cochrane.
You will be joined by your guide for the day to go for a walk in the Tamango Reserve, which sits just on the edge of Cochrane. It has a series of well-marked trails for you to explore and hopefully spot a Huemul - Chile's seriously endangered dwarf deer. The reserve is also home to the Cochrane River, one of the clearest in the world. You'll take a boat upriver to enjoy the extraordinary clarity of the waters before hopping out to walk a pretty trail back to the park entrance.
Your destination today is Parque Patagonia, one of the largest private donations of land in the history of conservation. You will be treated to beautiful views over the whole Chacabuco Valley with the Andes beyond. Pass through native forests full of birdlife. The walk is punctuated by a series of beautiful high lakes. You have a decent change to see condors and will certainly see lots of guanacos. Less common are puma, though there is a lot of evidence of their presence.
Set off south as you follow the Baker River to the coastal village of Tortel. This road has only existed for the last 10 years – prior to then, the village was only accessible by river or sea. The vegetation becomes incredibly green as you pass through temperate rainforest, the scenery is reminiscent of the Amazon at times. Since the road only reaches the edge of the village, leave your car and follow the maze of wooden walkways to your charming small hotel. A pathway leads to a beautiful viewpoint over the surrounding fjords and mountains.
Full day exploring the waterways of Tortel on your own private boat, built and captained by your host. The boat itself is very comfortable, it even has a stove inside so the navigation is very much part of the fun of the day! There are several choices for today's route - perhaps explore the virgin islands in front of the village of Tortel and head upstream into the Baker River to visit the Isla de los Muertos – the strangely moving cemetery for the original pioneer colonisers. A more adventurous option is to reach the Jorge Montt Glacier, a strand of the Southern Icefield.
Today's drive is fairly long at over four hours, but with lots of opportunity to stop en route. You pass Parque Patagonia again so if you want to walk for a few more hours in the park, you can. If you missed Confluencia on the way down then that is something you should see. Equally, your lodge overlooking Lago General Carrera is wonderfully welcoming, so there's no shame in simply making your way straight there.
The hills above your lodge are covered in fantastic Southern beech forests up to around 1,000m above sea level. Today's walk leads you up through these beautiful old forests and out into a treeless plateau. The views are incredible, with the icy Andes to one side, Lago Carrera ahead of you and the peaks of Jeinimeini off to the east. However, it is underfoot that things are surprisingly interesting - the entire area is a fossil bed. Return downhill for a relaxed afternoon, or you might like to have a go at riding horses, or take a helicopter ride over the ice fields!
From your lodge you look out towards the Northern Icefield. Today is your chance to get up close. The journey to the ice is itself an adventure with a fast, often bumpy, ride across Lago General Carrera on a jet boat. Shoot upriver as far as possible getting closer and closer to the huge mountains and glaciers. A gentle 45 minute walk through dwarf beech forest takes you up to the edge of a 10km long glacial lagoon. Your second small boat takes you all the way to the face of the glacier which spills beautifully down the face of the surrounding mountains. Better yet, you'll probably have the whole place to yourself.
Set off in good time to visit the Marble Caves from Bahia Mansa early in the morning. The caves are beautiful marble formations eroded by the wind and water of the vast lake. The light in the morning, when combined with the colour of the water and the rocks, makes it really very beautiful. Continue north towards the airport in Coyhaique where you hand in the keys. You should be back in Santiago this afternoon in time for a last bit of shopping or celebratory glass of wine.
Today is yours to relax and explore Santiago before your evening flight home. The Fine Arts Museum is a short stroll away, as is the Cerro Santa Lucia. Of course, a long lunch in Lastarria is no bad thing either after a couple of active weeks in Patagonia. Our Pura guide is full of suggestions for restaurants, based on our personal experiences and opinions.
Every time we thought things couldn't get more wonderful, they did, culminating in the exceptional privilege of being guided to what must be one of the best places in the world for watching condors.
Patagonia is one of the most diverse and spectacular parts of the world with towering mountains, deep blue lakes, dense forests and twisting glaciers. In return for your adventurous spirit, you will experience vast swathes of untouched wilderness of rare beauty and incredible variety.
And yet, driving distances are not huge, the lodges we use are eminently comfortable, your hosts warm and welcoming. This is a Chilean road trip adventure without the hair-shirt.
If you appreciate going to a place where most people don’t speak English, where wi-fi works only sometimes, where roads are unpaved, where you might be delayed by an ox drawn cart, or guanacos in the road then you should love it as much as we do.
As a tailor made holiday we can adjust things to suit you prior to your depature. There is also much of this trip where it is up to you to set the pace. There is plenty of opportunity to get out walking on this holiday but equally, if all you wanted to do is sit and stare at the landscapes, it would remain a great trip.
At various stages in the journey, you have private guides who can adjust activities to suit you. For example, the walk in Patagonia Park can be set to suit you. If you are able to manage the 21km of the Lagunas Altas route then we would highly recommend that you do this. However, there are other shorter routes available which your guide can discuss with you once there.
For specific hotels we use on this trip, please see summary section, below. These are the best small hotels and lodges in each place. This holiday is comfortable throughout, starting and ending in particular style in Santiago.
The hotels and lodges in Aysén have reached a great moment whereby we have a wonderful selection of very high quality small hotels for you to stay in. These are not luxury properties but rather very clean and comfortable owner run places where the welcome is as warm as you’ll find anywhere in the world. You should expect 3-4* standard, but given how remote all of these places are, that generally feels very comfortable indeed.
The driving on this trip is largely on unpaved roads but surfaces are treated. We include the largest available 4x4 vehicles, which are substantial and comfortable. Distances covered are not large - anywhere from 75km - 200km in any one go. However, you should expect to travel at around 50km/h on average for a safe and comfortable trip.
Everywhere you go you will see evidence of very simple rural living. Small brightly painted houses in the most incredible surroundings – often with the windows facing the road rather than the million dollar view out back. People carry unfeasibly large loads of wood up the walkways of Tortel. Maté is the daytime drink of choice.
This is Patagonia. It is unvarnished but for those of us who like tour travels to ignite the exploring spirit in us – there can be few better places in the world. It is a source of great pride that we have such close relationships with a wonderful group of partners down here, who we entrust to introduce you to the Patagonian way of life, as well as the amazing scenery.
Gauchos ride their horses along the road, usually with their dog trotting behind. Hitchhiking is common here, locals getting from one village to another will wait patiently for a bus to pass but if you stop, they’ll be delighted. They may offer you money, that’s normal etiquette – you don’t have to take it!
The holiday price is a guideline based on two people sharing, and includes accommodation, days of private excursions or shared guides as described in our detailed itinerary. It also includes full size 4x4 vehicle rental with comprehensive insurance for two drivers, internal flights, private transfers, and local information. Naturally, on each and every one of our holidays, we include Pura’s expertise, local contacts, support and advice throughout, along with the reassurance of our financial protection and safety auditing.
For a more detailed description of the holiday, please contact us and we can send you our detailed pdf itinerary.
Whilst domestic flights between Santiago and Patagonia are included in the price, international flights are quoted separately. Best flight routings are to fly in and out of Santiago (airport code: SCL). Expect to pay between £600 – £800pp for flights, except in peak periods.
Departs any day to suit you, between October and April
Contact us today to start planning your own personal adventure
The described itinerary is just a taster of what this trip could involve. We would work with you to tailor your personal trip.
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