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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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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.
Arrive in Chile and settle into your hotel to rest after your journey and begin exploring this lively capital. You are collected for the transfer to your comfortable hotel to relax and freshen up. This afternoon is yours to relax and recover from your journey, and see something of the city. Note that international flights are quoted separately for this trip.
Transfer back to Santiago airport this morning for your flight south to Balmaceda, gateway to the Aysén region of Patagonia. On arrival pick up your comfortable 4x4 vehicles and set off to the nearby town of Coyhaique. The drive today is on paved road, approximately 50km until you get to your very comfortable hotel.
From your hotel, you are taken up and away from the lowlands of Coyhaique to 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.
Only a couple of hours north of Coyhaique, the paved road ends and the road north turns to gravel. The landscape changes from the open steppe to dramatic forested mountains and fjords. Stop to hike in one of the loveliest forests along the entire Carretera. A well maintained path leads you through a magical forest with water flowing everywhere before it climbs, eventually coming out at a river with a surprise in the hills above you.
Set off across the Queulat River by zodiac to pick up the trail which leads into the heart of the precious temperate rainforest. This is an ecosystem found in only five places on earth. One of the key characteristics of this type of forest is the large variety of tree species and very rich understory which tends to be full of mosses, ferns and lichens. Your guide will tell you the names of the most important species of flora, as well as helping you identify the various bird species you will undoubtedly spot.
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. For those who don't feel energetic, there is a boat along the lagoon from where you can see the glacier. 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.
Return south to Coyhaique and on 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 before taking the ferry over the remarkably blue waters of Lago General Carrera to the frontier town of Chile Chico.
Chile Chico sits in the rain shadow of the Andes which is what gives it a relatively dry and sunny climate. The nearby mountains of Jeinimeini create a second rain shadow which makes parts of the reserve resemble deserts of the north of Chile. Crossing the spiky grassland of the Patagonian steppe, you reach a rocky gorge leading up to a low mountain pass from where you have lovely views back 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 before strolling through a lunar landscape of strangely shaped white rocks.
The road along the southern shore of Lago General Carrera is also one of the most beautiful stretches in all of Patagonia. Your destination today is what will become the Parque Patagonia, one of the largest private donations of land in the history of conservation. Walk in the company of your private guide along a route which takes you down alongside the beautiful waters of the Baker River.
After a bite to eat for breakfast 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 the town 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. If you are ever to see one, then it would be here in the Tamango Reserve. 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.
The peaks of San Lorenzo are visible from the middle of Cochrane so the drive to get to the mountains takes under an hour along a beautiful valley. The road leads you almost all the way to the glacial lagoon which you cross by boat. Getting crampons on almost straight away, this exciting activity is remarkably accessible. Spend several hours on the glacier, hiking up the slope to find the 'big ice' - the stunning blue ice which you find away from the sides of the flow.
Snorkel along the clear waters of the Cochrane River before you drive to the coastal village of Tortel, passing some of the most beautiful landscapes of your journey. A right turn off the Carretera Austral takes you the final 22km to Tortel. 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.
Full day exploring the waterways of Tortel on your own charming and comfortable small boat, built and captained by your host. Depending on your energy levels and also the weather, there are a couple of choices for your boat trip today. The more adventurous option is to head out across a stretch of more open sea to reach the Jorge Montt Glacier, one of the strands of the Southern Patagonian Icefield. This is an opportunity for you to see a dramatic and remote ice field without anyone else in sight.
Set off north towards the beautiful waters of Lago General Carrera where you spend the next few days exploring or simply relaxing. Retracing your steps north again, past the Baker River, you once again reach the gloriously dramatic Lago General Carrera. Here you stay in very comfortable cabins looking directly out over the lake towards the distinctive peak of San Valentín. If the weather has closed in, stoke up the wood-burning stove and settle in to watch the lake. If the sun is out, sit out on your terrace and watch the lake.
The hills above your lodge are covered in fantastic southern beech forests up to around 1,000m above sea level, the tree line. Today's guided walk leads you up through these beautiful old forests and out into a treeless plateau. The views are incredible as you have 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.
The journey to the ice is itself an adventure with a fast, often bumpy, ride across Lago General Carrera on a jet boat. Turning into the Leones River, you 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 to calve dramatically into the lagoon.
Set off in good time today to give yourself plenty of time to visit the marble caves from Bahia Mansa early in the morning when the light is best. 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 key to the car. 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 flight home. Note that international flights are quoted separately for this holiday. 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 driver will come and find you at your hotel to get you to the airport in time.
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.
As described above, the holiday includes a wide variety of activities, from snorkelling to ice hiking. None require you to have had previous experience to any particular level and all necessary specialist equipment will be provided.
At various stages in the journey, you have private guides who can adjust activities to suit you.
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 (Patagonia) 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.
Note that people here do not commonly speak good English, if any at all. You may well find that communicating with your guides takes a good deal of patience on both sides. When eating out in restaurants you will likely have to rely on whatever Spanish you have or on a translation app.
When driving, you need to be careful because cows quite often wander into the road. 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!
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.
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 2 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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