This extremely diverse South American country stretches around 4.000 km top to bottom spanning a mere 200 km from west to east. Especially outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers will be rewarded with tropical deserts, endless coastline, temperate lush forests, countless lakes and islands, impressing glaciers, fjords, mountains, rivers as well as active volcanoes. As border crossings with Argentina are uncomplicated, it is very easy to explore the whole of one of the world's most famous trekking destinations called "Patagonia".
• San Pedro de Atacama and Norte Grande: This desert region offers breathtaking landscapes (literally in some parts because of the high altitude) consisting of snowcapped volcanoes, bizarre rock formations, colorful lagoons, salt flats and geysers. The little village of San Pedro de Atacama is usually the gateway to this part of Chile.
• Pucon and the Lakes District: Beautiful set on Lago Villarica, Pucon is a must for outdoor lovers and adrenaline junkies. Although it is a touristy place, I enjoyed my stay here very much. I definitely recommend climbing the volcano Villarica and relaxing in one of the numerous thermal pools afterwards. Mountain biking, rafting, kayaking and hiking are also popular. One of the most challenging but also rewarding day hikes is “El Cani”. The trailhead is about 20 km east of Pucon at 39°15’19.48’’S, 71°46’00.03’’W and easily reached by local bus or Uber. Chili Kiwi is a nice place to stay at right on the lakefront in Pucon. Upon arrival they give you a comprehensive briefing about all activities in the area.
• Carretera Austral:
This incredibly beautiful road leads for about 1.200 km all the way south from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins. If you ask me, travelling along the Carretera Austral is one of the world's most scenic road trips!
My personal highlights along the way (besides the road itself) are from north to south:
• Futaleufu (Rafting & Hiking)
• Queulat's "Hanging Glacier"
• Cerro Castillo (Hiking/Trekking)
• Exploradores Glacier (Glacier Hiking)
For more information on these spots as well as tips on how to get around, see the boxed text below.
• Torres del Paine National Park: Is this world famous mountain range beautiful? Yes - In good weather, it is fantastic!Is it a budget travel destination? Unfortunately, not anymore!
Because of its huge and still growing popularity, the park administration is more and more trying to control the number of visitors by increasing the entrance and camping costs. To do the 4 day/3 night "W"-Trek which I usually recommend to interested people, you need to pay a minimum of around 35 US-Dollars park entrance fee, 30 US-Dollars for the bus transfer from and back to Puerto Natales, 35 US-Dollars for the ferry to Paine Grande Campground and at least 20 US-Dollars for the three recommended nights at the campgrounds if you bring everything by yourself (tent, mattress, sleeping bag, food). If you want to save money and only do a day hike from Puerto Natales, you still have to pay at least 60 US-Dollars (entrance and transport) so I would definitely go for the "W"-Trek and the camping experience inside the park. In the box below I provide a map to clearly show the itinerary of my 4 day/3 night version of the “W”- Trek.
Keep in mind that especially during the high season from December to February, you need to book your overnight stays months in advance! The fact that all the campgrounds in this national park are run by three different companies, makes the booking process quite annoying. If you are still interested in visiting Torres del Paine National Park, then also check out the following website, which is great on this subject:
20.01.2020 - Chris
The Carretera Austral is an incredibly beautiful and diverse road that passes different-sized valleys, glaciers, waterfalls, fjords, rivers, lakes, forests, farmland and villages. Although most of the road is paved nowadays, there are still some gravel parts to master. The best time to drive along and be able to enjoy many of the highlights/activities is from November till March even though January and February are the summer peak season, when most tourists visit. There is public transport to almost every inhabited community but the frequency and reliability is subject to wide variation. It is possible and adventurous to hitchhike which can also mean long waiting times and getting wet in the rain. By far the most convenient way to travel the Carretera Austral is by rental car. Try to share it with three other friends or meet other travelers along the way that need a lift to cut costs down. It is much (!) cheaper to return the car at the same place where you picked it up, so you may need to think about a useful way back to the point of departure. This could either be along the western, Argentinian side of the Andes or the same way you came from. Last version makes it possible to skip an activity on the way for which you really depend on good weather and do it on the way back instead. Also keep in mind that a permit for border crossings with a rental car costs around 200 US-Dollars.
The town of Futaleufu lies in a side valley close to the Argentinian border and can function as a starting point for the Carretera Austral if you enter Chile here. The beautiful, mountainous region, which reminds me of Bavaria in Germany, is home to some of the best rafting and kayaking on the planet.
You will easily run into numerous rafting operators once you approach the town. The rafting offers differ in length, time and price. In my opinion rafting the “Azul to Bridge”-part on Rio Futaleufu, which includes three class V rapids, is good value. A fantastic viewpoint called “Piedra del Aguila” is found about 5 km northwest of the town and well worth a visit.
About 25 km south of Puyuhuapi you can find the entrance to the Queulat National Park. Pay your park fees here and continue to the parking spot from where you start your 3 hours hike (one way) to the viewpoint of the spectacular “Hanging Glacier”. Start early to avoid the tourist masses.
For amazing trekking (four day trek or day hike) you should definitely stop in Villa Cerro Castillo, some 100 km south of Coyhaique. The alpine peaks of nearby Cerro Castillo in combination with its beautiful laguna are an insider tip and can compete with world class treks such as Torres del Paine!
If you want to hike on a glacier, then the Exploradores Glacier near Puerto Rio Tranquilo is a great budget option. A day trip including transport (2 hours one way), a small lunch box and ice hiking equipment costs around 90 US-Dollars and can easily be booked at the lakefront in Puerto Rio Tranquilo.
20.01.2020 - Chris
The map below shows the trail sections of the „W“-Trek including the responsibilities for the different campsites. Only the campsites marked with a black circle are relevant for my „W“-suggestion. As you can see, they are all managed by different operators (Vertice, CONAF and Fantástico Sur) and you have to book your stay separately through their
websites. My recommendations on how to do the trek are quite ambitious but doable if you are healthy and in good physical condition:
• 1.: Catch the 6.40 am bus (Bus Sur - direction “Podeto Catamaran”) at the main bus terminal in Puerto Natales. You should purchase the ticket a day in advance to make sure you get a seat.
• 2.: Take the catamaran ferry near Cafeteria Podeto at 9.00 am (payable in cash only) direction Paine Grande campground (managed by Vertice).
• 3.: Set up your tent at Paine Grande campground, leave your heavy bags there and start the day hike to Glaciar Grey. Try to make it as far as the second bridge after the Refugio Glaciar Grey before you head back to Paine Grande campground and spend the night there.
• 4.: Start early and hike to Italiano campground (managed by CONAF – this one is the most important to be booked ahead!) where you set up your tent and leave your heavy bag. Continue to beautiful Mirador Britanico before you head back and spend the night at Italiano campground.
• 5.: On this relatively relaxed day you just hike to the campground “Camping Torres” (managed by Fantástico Sur) which lies 250 m away from Refugio Torre Central. Set up your tent here and sleep early.
• 6.: Start early, only take a light daypack and hike up to the Mirador “Base de las Torres” to avoid the crowds and take postcard pictures. Return to the campsite, pack your stuff and take the bus back to Puerto Natales.