A Travellerspoint blog

Chile

Chile’s Southern Patagonia

Isla Magdalena and Torres del Paine


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We spent two nights in Punta Arenas, the largest city in the South of Chile. The day after arriving from Tierra del Fuego, we went straight back out into the Strait of Magellan on a tour to Isla Magdalena. The uninhabited island is a protected nature reserve, nesting ground for countless birds and home to around 100’000 Magellanic penguins. Of course the penguins is what we came for. What made this visit stand out from our other penguin sightings is that we could walk among the penguins here and get within arms length of the small creatures.

Magellanic penguins on Isla Magdalena

Magellanic penguins on Isla Magdalena

Magellanic penguin

Magellanic penguin

Magellanic penguin

Magellanic penguin

Birds on Isla Magdalena

Birds on Isla Magdalena

From Punta Arenas, we drove North to one of South Americas most famous national parks, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. Since the weather forecast showed great weather for the next morning, we chose to start hiking already in the afternoon and spend the night at Refugio Chileno on the way to the Torres del Paine peaks. Reserving accommodations in this national park is a difficult process and often has to be done months in advance. Luckily, we managed to reserve a fully equipped 2-person tent for us just two days before going there.

Paine massif and Lago Sarmiento with a condor soaring above

Paine massif and Lago Sarmiento with a condor soaring above

Guanacos in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

Guanacos in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

Sun setting behind Torre Norte, seen from Refugio Chileno

Sun setting behind Torre Norte, seen from Refugio Chileno

We started hiking at 6 in the morning, about one and a half hours before sunrise, hoping to arrive to the Torres del Paine peaks before the crowds. However, as we got closer to our destination, lots of hikers were already coming back down. It seems we had underestimated the other hikers and many actually went even earlier to watch the sunrise from the top. Ironically, when we arrived there about 45 minutes after sunrise, we were almost alone. We had found the sweet spot between the crowds who went there for sunrise and the crowds who took it slow and enjoyed breakfast before starting the day. We spent around half an hour at the top, savoring the almost surreal view of the three granite peaks and the perfect mirror surface of Lago Torres.

Torres del Paine peaks and Lago Torres

Torres del Paine peaks and Lago Torres

Sam in front of the Torres del Paine peaks and Lago Torres

Sam in front of the Torres del Paine peaks and Lago Torres

Río Ascencio near Refugio Chileno

Río Ascencio near Refugio Chileno

Marta hiking back down after visiting the Torres del Paine peaks

Marta hiking back down after visiting the Torres del Paine peaks

Since accommodations in and near the park are extremely expensive, we drove two hours to Puerto Natales to spend the night after returning from our long hike. The next morning we returned for a third day in the national park. The first half of the day we spent hiking to a lookout for another iconic mountain view. Los Cuernos are a group of mountains that show three very distinctly colored layers.

Los Cuernos reflecting in Lago Nordenskjöld

Los Cuernos reflecting in Lago Nordenskjöld

Lone guanaco in front of Los Cuernos

Lone guanaco in front of Los Cuernos

Los Cuernos and Lago Pehoe

Los Cuernos and Lago Pehoe

View back to Los Cuernos from the gravel road out of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

View back to Los Cuernos from the gravel road out of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

The second half of the day we did a boat tour on Lago Grey to the Grey Glacier. Many icebergs that have fallen off the glacier could be seen on the way there. The huge mass of ice is an impressive sight from close up. The glacier is almost 30 meters tall where it meets the lake and it has a deep blue hue.

Iceberg on Lago Grey with part of Los Cuernos visible in the background

Iceberg on Lago Grey with part of Los Cuernos visible in the background

Grey Glacier

Grey Glacier

Close-up of Grey Glacier

Close-up of Grey Glacier

Sam on Lago Grey with icebergs in the background

Sam on Lago Grey with icebergs in the background

There are no roads in Chile that connect the North and the South of Patagonia, since the area in between consists mainly of large fjords and glaciers. The only connection is by ferries from Puerto Natales that take three to four days and you need to book it months in advance. For us, it was time to return to Argentina, where the area east of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine offers plenty to see too.

Posted by samandmarta 12:17 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

The Carretera Austral - Part 2

Our road trip down Chile’s Northern Patagonia from Coyhaique to Chile Chico


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Moving South from Coyhaique, the scenery started to become really breath-taking. The mountains got higher, the valleys got deeper and the road got curvier. Our first stop was in Villa Cerro Castillo, a town named after the spectacular peak that can be seen from it. We hiked a steep path, about one vertical kilometer up, to a viewpoint from where Cerro Castillo could be seen even closer, with a blue lagoon in front of it. Not just the sight of the mountain was fantastic, but also the view of the untamed valleys, rivers and lakes below.

The Carretera Austral curving through a beautiful landscape

The Carretera Austral curving through a beautiful landscape

Cerro Castillo and the moon seen from Villa Cerro Castillo

Cerro Castillo and the moon seen from Villa Cerro Castillo

Cows on the way up to Cerro Castillo

Cows on the way up to Cerro Castillo

Cerro Castillo behind a lagoon

Cerro Castillo behind a lagoon

Villa Cerro Castillo and surroundings from the hike to Cerro Castillo

Villa Cerro Castillo and surroundings from the hike to Cerro Castillo

Mountain landscape from the hike to Cerro Castillo

Mountain landscape from the hike to Cerro Castillo

We were very positively surprised by the condition of the Carretera Austral so far. Between 80 and 90 percent of the road between Puerto Montt and Villa Cerro Castillo was paved. This was about to end now. South of Villa Cerro Castillo the highway is entirely unpaved. After zig-zagging through valleys for a while, the road reaches Lago General Carrera, South America’s second largest lake after Lake Titicaca.

Río Ibáñez

Río Ibáñez

Our car on the Carretera Austral, approaching Lago General Carrera

Our car on the Carretera Austral, approaching Lago General Carrera

The next night we spent in Puerto Río Tranquilo, a small village at the lake, clearly unprepared for the amount of tourists that visit it. We tried at first to find a campground, but every place was so hopelessly overcrowded that we gave up on that idea. Locals were making a business of letting backpackers camp in their backyard and those backyards often already had 20 or more tents pitched back to back. Not exactly our idea of camping as a way to be close to nature. After many unsuccessful requests, we eventually found a guesthouse that still had a room with a bunk bed left. The reason so many people come to Puerto Río Tranquilo is the Marble Caves, which we visited on a boat tour. The caves have been formed by erosion from the lake over hundreds of years and are a stunning sight.

Landscape on Lago General Carrera

Landscape on Lago General Carrera

View from inside a Marble Cave

View from inside a Marble Cave

Marble Cave formation resembling a dog

Marble Cave formation resembling a dog

Close-up of marble structure

Close-up of marble structure

Marble Cave formation called “The Cathedral”

Marble Cave formation called “The Cathedral”

The Carretera Austral officially ends in Villa O’Higgins, but we saved ourselves the last 300 kilometers of it. From Villa O’Higgins, there is no way of crossing into Argentina by car, so we would have had to drive the entire gravel road back up again. Therefore, after following the bumpy highway along the lake for a while, we took a turn towards Chile Chico, from where it is easy to cross into Argentina. The 115 kilometers to the small border town were sometimes difficult to drive, but very scenic. Almost the entire time we had views over Lago General Carrera from high above.

Carretera Austral with views over Lago General Carrera

Carretera Austral with views over Lago General Carrera

The intersection where we left the Carretera Austral towards Chile Chico

The intersection where we left the Carretera Austral towards Chile Chico

Marta looking out over Lago General Carrera from the roadside

Marta looking out over Lago General Carrera from the roadside

Marta looking out over Laguna Verde

Marta looking out over Laguna Verde

Before leaving Chile, we spent one day exploring Reserva Nacional Lago Jeinimeni, which is close to Chile Chico. Since the access road sounded too difficult for our small rental car, we hired a guide to bring us there in a 4 wheel drive. Along the way, we stopped at a lagoon that had hundreds of flamingos in it. It was very interesting to watch those exotic birds in the wild. Although we could see them with the naked eye, our guide also provided binoculars to watch them even closer. After that we arrived at Lago Jeinimeni and did a hike around the lake to a beautiful lookout. Probably due to the difficult road, there were very few other visitors there, which made our time at the stunning lake even more enjoyable.

Lagoon with many flamingos

Lagoon with many flamingos

Start of our hike around Lago Jeinimeni

Start of our hike around Lago Jeinimeni

Sam in front of Lago Jeinimeni

Sam in front of Lago Jeinimeni

Landscape on the way from Reserva Nacional Lago Jeinimeni

Landscape on the way from Reserva Nacional Lago Jeinimeni

In the evening of the 15th of February, we drove to the border to leave Chile for Argentina. Interestingly, after hundreds of kilometers of unpaved roads, the last few kilometers to the border where very nicely paved. It almost seems like Chile wants to make a good impression on visitors entering from Argentina.

Posted by samandmarta 11:18 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

The Carretera Austral - Part 1

Our road trip down Chile’s Northern Patagonia from Puerto Montt to Coyhaique


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We started driving the Carretera Austral, known officially as Ruta 7 in Chile, from its start in Puerto Montt. The highway was the brainchild of dictator Augusto Pinochet, who wanted to unite the nation by connecting even its most remote parts. It cuts through the Aisén region, Chile’s most sparsely populated one. While originally just a gravel road, many parts have been paved now and paving is ongoing. Two sections near the start of the highway are interrupted by large fjords which require a car ferry crossing. The first crossing takes only 30 minutes and the ferries run regularly throughout the day. The second one, however, takes 4½ hours, runs only twice a day and requires a reservation about a week in advance. We procrastinated this reservation a bit too long and ended up having to go three days later than we would have liked to. We spent two extra days in Chiloé, which were worthwhile, and two instead of one night in the sleepy town of Hornopirén from where the second ferry departs and where there is not much to do otherwise. About half of the highway between the first ferry and Hornopirén was under construction, which meant that we had to wait for long times at stoplights and drive on rough dirt and gravel roads, a glimpse into the conditions we would encounter further south on the Carretera Austral.

Car ferry approaching Caleta La Arena

Car ferry approaching Caleta La Arena

Car ferry between Hornopirén and Caleta Gonzalo

Car ferry between Hornopirén and Caleta Gonzalo

After the long ferry ride, the road was again unpaved for a while. We tried to find a space in one of the official campsites around Volcán Chaitén, but were surprised the find all the decent spots already booked. Despite the difficulty accessing this region, it seemed a lot of people still went there. We finally decided for a wild camping location at the beach of the small hamlet Santa Barbara. The next morning we hiked to Volcán Chaitén, an active volcano that last erupted in 2008. The day was quite cloudy but we could still see a lot of smoke coming out of the ground around the volcanoes peak.

Sunset at the beach in Santa Barbara

Sunset at the beach in Santa Barbara

Marta, our car and our tent at the beach in Santa Barbara

Marta, our car and our tent at the beach in Santa Barbara

Smoke coming out of Volcán Chaitén

Smoke coming out of Volcán Chaitén

Valley around Volcán Chaitén

Valley around Volcán Chaitén

Forest burnt by the heat of Volcán Chaitén

Forest burnt by the heat of Volcán Chaitén

From Santa Barbara onwards, the highway was nicely paved and we were able to cover a lot of distance. Again, we were struggling a bit with finding a suitable campground for the night. When we passed a nice looking fishing lodge near Lago Yelcho and asked if we can pitch our tent on their grounds, they offered us a room for a good price instead. Of course we took the offer and were happy to have a hot shower and a nutritious breakfast.

Lago Yelcho

Lago Yelcho

The next day the road followed a nice river all the way to the town of La Junta where we spent the night in a small bungalow. Nights were getting colder now and we were glad to have a wood-fire oven near the bed. Our guidebook mentioned that the only interesting thing about La Junta is that they still have a statue of Pinochet on the Carretera Austral. Some say people in the Aisén region have a rather positive view of the dictator, since he connected them to civilization. However, just on the day we were there, we saw workers take down the dictators monument, pack it in a large black garbage bag and paint over his name.

South of La Junta, we stopped for a while at Parque Nacional Queulat to see the Ventisquero hanging glacier and the large waterfalls emerging from its bottom. We spent another night in our tent a short stretch before Coyhaique. We were lucky to have a sheltered spot as there were strong winds and it was raining throughout most of the night. This would be our last night in the tent for a while, as temperatures continued to drop on the way South.

Carretera Austral running along a fjord near Puyuhuapi

Carretera Austral running along a fjord near Puyuhuapi

Ventisquero hanging glacier

Ventisquero hanging glacier

Unpaved segment of the Carretera Austral south of Parque Nacional Queulat

Unpaved segment of the Carretera Austral south of Parque Nacional Queulat

Coyhaique is the largest town in the Aisén region, with more than 50 thousand inhabitants. We spent two nights there and were able to stay with Paola, a friend from Marta’s studies. We used our time there to run some errands like getting a new hair cut for Sam and picking up our permits to cross to Argentina with our rental car. We also did a hike with Paola near the town, which is surrounded by beautiful nature.

Mountain around Coyhaique

Mountain around Coyhaique

Coyhaique with mountains behind

Coyhaique with mountains behind

Posted by samandmarta 12:37 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Churching in Chiloé

Visiting wooden churches on Chile’s second largest island


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Before entering Patagonia, we spent four nights in Isla Grande de Chiloé, Chile’s second largest island (after Tierra del Fuego, which belongs in parts to Argentina). To get to Chiloé, we had to take a short car ferry south of Puerto Montt. For the first three nights, we based ourselves in Dalcahue, which was a convenient location to explore the sights of Chiloé.

Around Chiloé, there are countless smaller islands and we actually spent our first day on Isla Quinchao, which is another short car ferry ride away from Dalcahue. From the hills of this small island we had beautiful views of the Chiloé Archipelago and even the snowy peaks of Northern Patagonia were visible in the distance. In Achao, the largest town on the island, we visited the oldest remaining church of Chiloé (built in 1740), Iglesia Santa Maria de Loreto.

Dalcahue from the car ferry to Isla Quinchao

Dalcahue from the car ferry to Isla Quinchao

Car ferry to Isla Quinchao

Car ferry to Isla Quinchao

Achao on Isla Quinchao with mountains of Northern Patagonia in the background

Achao on Isla Quinchao with mountains of Northern Patagonia in the background

Iglesia Santa Maria de Loreto in Achao

Iglesia Santa Maria de Loreto in Achao

Inside of Iglesia Santa Maria de Loreto in Achao

Inside of Iglesia Santa Maria de Loreto in Achao

Churches are in fact the main reason tourists come to Chiloé. During the 17th and 18th century, Jesuit missionaries have built hundreds of wooden churches around the island, it seems at least one in every tiny village. Today, 16 of the remaining churches are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. We spent most of our time around Dalcahue visiting these churches, which have quite a special architecture. The main tower is always in the front, above the entrance. They are made entirely out of wood and painted in interesting colors.

Iglesia de Nuestre Señora del Patrocinio in Tenaún

Iglesia de Nuestre Señora del Patrocinio in Tenaún

Iglesia San Francisco in Castro

Iglesia San Francisco in Castro

Inside of Iglesia San Francisco in Castro

Inside of Iglesia San Francisco in Castro

Palafito houses in Castro

Palafito houses in Castro

Coast of Vilupulli

Coast of Vilupulli

Iglesia Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Chonchi

Iglesia Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Chonchi

Inside of Iglesia Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Chonchi

Inside of Iglesia Nuestra Señora del Rosario in Chonchi

Iglesia Santa Maria in Rilán

Iglesia Santa Maria in Rilán

Inside of Iglesia Santa Maria in Rilán

Inside of Iglesia Santa Maria in Rilán

For our last day on Chiloé, we moved north to the Monumento Natural Islotes de Puñihuil, a protected area where penguins live year-round. We did a very enjoyable boat tour around the islands were Magellanic penguins were breeding. Walking on the islands was not allowed, but our boat came within 10 meters of the penguins and it was very interesting to see them so close in the wild. We spent our last night on Chiloé in nearby Ancud, where we had beautiful sunset views from our lodge.

Magellanic penguins at Monumento Natural Islotes de Puñihuil

Magellanic penguins at Monumento Natural Islotes de Puñihuil

Magellanic penguins at Monumento Natural Islotes de Puñihuil

Magellanic penguins at Monumento Natural Islotes de Puñihuil

Sunset from our lodge near Ancud

Sunset from our lodge near Ancud

Posted by samandmarta 18:14 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Volcanoes of Chile

Exploring the awesome volcanoes of Sur Chico


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As we left the fertile wine valleys behind on our way south, we entered an area of Chile that is dominated by its volcanoes. We saw more than a dozen of them in just one week. Chile’s volcanoes are extremely active and a few of them had major eruptions within the last decade.

Our first stop was at the waterfalls Salto del Laja. We were a bit surprised with the amount of Chilean tourists that were also visiting the falls. It seems they are a popular family vacation destination. For the night we drove to the Parque Nacional Laguna del Laja, which was blissfully uncrowded. Back in Santiago we had decided to buy a tent for our road trip, in order to be more flexible with accommodations. Here in the national park, we used it for the first time. We stayed at an official campground which was almost empty. For dinner, we wanted to open a bottle of wine we had bought at one of our wine tastings, but we lacked a bottle opener. Fortunately, the elderly inhabitants of a nearby campervan helped us out. As it was the case surprisingly often in Chile, they turned out to be Swiss (with a Swiss campervan they had shipped from Antwerp, Belgium to Montevideo, Uruguay). The next day we did a short hike in the park with great views of a hanging glacier and the dark and imposing Volcán Antuco (2979m).

Salto del Laja

Salto del Laja

Mountain in Parque Nacional Laguna del Laja

Mountain in Parque Nacional Laguna del Laja

Volcán Antuco (2979m)

Volcán Antuco (2979m)

Hanging glacier in Parque Nacional Laguna del Laja

Hanging glacier in Parque Nacional Laguna del Laja

Later that day we crossed into the region known as Sur Chico. The drive offered spectacular views of three snow-capped volcanoes. We spent the night at a lodge owned by Swiss people, which Sam chose primarily because of the promise of Fondue and Raclette on the menu. Disappointingly, à la carte dinner was not available that day and we had to settle for a set menu which had nothing Swiss about it. On the upside, the lodge had some very cute lamas in the backyard.

Lama

Lama

Lama

Lama

South of the lodge was Parque Nacional Conguillío, which was only accessible by a difficult dirt road that made us fear for our little rental car. Still, we made it into the park and with some difficulty, we managed to secure a campsite for the night. Given the condition of the road, we had assumed that only few people would go to the park but we were wrong. The park and the campings were quite crowded with mostly Chilean vacationers. We enjoyed the beautiful mountain views from Lago Conguillío in the evening, but the giant Volcán Llaima (3125m) at whose foot we were standing could not be seen from there. To get this view, we had to do a hike the next morning. The path led through a beautiful forest of Araucaria trees, which look a bit like trees with cacti on top. At the final lookout, high over the lake, the volcano could be seen in all its glory.

Volcán Llaima (3125m) reflecting in Lago Conguillío with Araucaria trees in the foreground

Volcán Llaima (3125m) reflecting in Lago Conguillío with Araucaria trees in the foreground

Sam in front of Volcán Llaima (3125m)

Sam in front of Volcán Llaima (3125m)

Stratas of different volcanic erruptions visible in Parque Nacional Conguillío

Stratas of different volcanic erruptions visible in Parque Nacional Conguillío

Road to the south of Parque Nacional Conguillío

Road to the south of Parque Nacional Conguillío

The next two nights we spent in Villarrica, from where there are amazing views of the town’s namesake volcano, Volcán Villarrica (2861m). We treated ourselves to a great Asado dinner with perfect volcano views. Asado is a traditional Chilean barbecue. We were served three different cuts of beef, still on the sizzling grill.

Lago Villarrica and Volcán Villarrica (2861m)

Lago Villarrica and Volcán Villarrica (2861m)

Asado and wine, with Volcán Villarrica (2861m) in the background

Asado and wine, with Volcán Villarrica (2861m) in the background

Marta at the shore of Lago Villarrica in Pucón

Marta at the shore of Lago Villarrica in Pucón

Our favorite experience in Sur Chico was the visit to a husky farm south of Villarrica. A German ex-air force instructor founded this place and was by now owning 57 competitive sled dogs. In the summertime he trains his huskies by letting them pull a wheeled cart with tourists as payload, in this case the two of us. It was fascinating to learn about these animals. Through hundreds of years of selective breeding, these dogs now have a stronger will to run than to survive. It was absolute madness when we were starting to take out the dogs to go for the run, as every dog barked and ran around to show how much he wanted to be chosen. As Konrad, the owner, explained, if he did not tell the dogs to stop at some point, they would run until they die of exhaustion. During the run, he controlled the dogs solely with his words, telling them to slow down, speed up or to turn. They were extremely well trained and followed every command. After the training was over, we could play with the incredibly cute puppies.

Huskies in front of the wheeled cart we sat on

Huskies in front of the wheeled cart we sat on

Konrad looking after his huskies

Konrad looking after his huskies

Sam with a husky puppy

Sam with a husky puppy

Along the way south on the Pan-American highway, we stopped for one night at a beautiful remote lodge run by an eccentric Frenchman. There were great views of Volcán Osorno (2652m) and Volcán Puntiagudo (2498m) from the lodge. Many places towards the South of Chile have strong influences from European immigrants. Especially Germans have left their mark on the region, which is why great local craft beers can be found everywhere. The last two nights in the Sur Chico region we spent in Puerto Varas, which is located at a beautiful lake, of course with views of several volcanoes. From there, we also explored Lago Todos Los Santos, a lake surrounded by mountains and forests untouched by human developments.

Volcán Puntiagudo (2498m)

Volcán Puntiagudo (2498m)

Lago Llanquihue and Volcán Osorno (2652m) seen from Frutillar

Lago Llanquihue and Volcán Osorno (2652m) seen from Frutillar

Marta on Lago Todos Los Santos

Marta on Lago Todos Los Santos

Lago Todos Los Santos

Lago Todos Los Santos

Posted by samandmarta 09:55 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

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