Part 1 of our March 2018 return to Patagonia to explore and hike the Aysén region between Coyhaique and Cochrane in Chile. This part covers the rugged drive along the Carretera Austral (Route 7) from Balmaceda to Cochrane, and multiple days of hiking in the picturesque Valle Chacabuco and newly formed Patagonia National Park.
- Overview: March Hiking in the Aysén Region of Patagonia
- Aysén Region of Patagonia: Part 2 – Cerro Castillo
Driving the Carratera Austral to Cochrane
Driving the Carratera Austral to Cochrane
Day 1 – 18 Mar
The drive from Balmaceda airport (BBA) into Villa Cerro Castillo is straightforward along the only paved section of Route 7 south of Coyhaique. Views of the mountains surround the highway as you enter Cerro Castillo Natural Reserve (now Cerro Castillo National Park) and as you approach Laguna Chiguay — a nice place to stop for a moment and admire the scenery. You then continue until reaching the roadside viewpoint overlooking Villa Cerro Castillo. The town itself is quite small and afterward you pass through it very quickly.
We encountered a brief road construction delay just after leaving Villa Cerro Castillo, where crews had reduced the number of lanes to one in what appeared to be preparation for paving. A brief delay later, the route continued as is well-documented on various other blog posts and countless YouTube videos. We enjoyed roadside views of Río Ibáñez and then Río Murta…
… until reaching the picturesque blue waters of Lago General Carrera at Bahía Murta. Just past this expansive lake lies Lago Bertrand, with the mountains of Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael on its other side (and looking particularly moody on this afternoon).
We made several stops while passing by these lakes, but knowing that we still had several hours ahead of us to Cochrane, we soon continued the drive. At some point we stopped again briefly for construction, but the delay was no more than 15 minutes.
As we passed by the trailhead for La Confluencia de Rio Baker y Neff, I incorrectly thought it was something else and expected it to be further along, near the turnoff to Valle Chacabuco (I very soon realized that there are two major confluences and they are often misquoted in reviews). We instead stopped at La Confluencia de Rio Cochrane y Chacabuco for sunset views back up the river valley. This latter confluence supposedly has a trail if you hop over the roadside fence, but we didn’t investigate this in the fading light.
The section of Route 7 from here into Cochrane was riddled with potholes and washboarding, markedly worse than the previous sections. Unfortunately for us, we would make daily round-trips as we traveled into Valle Chacabuco for dayhikes.
We booked three nights at Hotel Último Paraíso (Booking.com) for the convenience of reserving in advance (online), but with a clear understanding that I could pay in USD to avoid VAT. Other options I found online had deceptive billing policies and bad reviews of trying to charge VAT even in cases where they legally should not. The owners were very friendly and the room was rustically comfortable, with a wood-burning furnace for warmth during the cool evenings. Breakfast at the hotel was surprisingly good, consisting of coffee, juice, breads, fruit, something homemade that changed each day, and your choice of made-to-order eggs.
After quickly dropping our bags in the room, we walked several blocks to find out which of the top-rated restaurants were actually open. Without knowing it at the time, our first choice appeared closed for the season, but we were simply 30 minutes too early. We then ended up at La Taberna Tehuelche, only to be told that the kitchen was closed and to try next door at Ada’s Cafe Restaurant.
Confusingly, the front door had a cerrado sign hanging on it (but with people clearly dining inside). We hesitated briefly until another tourist more assertive than I entered to inquire about dinner. Our impression was that they had actually closed for the night, but decided to serve the other party of three and my party of two when we all entered at the same time. We were thankful to have food at this point, and enjoyed the ceviche and local beers to start. Our lamb entrees were simply prepared and adequate.
Valle Chacabuco and Patagonia National Park
Valle Chacabuco and Patagonia National Park
Day 2 – 19 Mar
Our first day in Cochrane began with a disappointing weather forecast, calling for scattered clouds and rain in the valley (turning to snow at the higher altitudes). We decided to drive into the valley and check out the visitor’s center for trail information before making any decisions about short hikes. The initial drive into the valley was stunning, as expected, with plenty of grazing guanacos dotting the landscape.
Unfortunately, the actual visitor center was closed, and the “admin office” was closing only moments after we arrived. They had no hiking maps or trail information, and dismissively directed us to the restaurant building (after watching us both remove our boots to enter). The employee’s attitude was not very welcoming, especially given that they had posted absolutely no signage to help direct visitors.
After putting our boots on again, we walked over to the restaurant building to ask about trail conditions. This employee was friendly, and exceedingly patient as she answered the same questions for each person who entered. To our disappointment, the Furioso trail was not open at all, despite the park’s website clearly indicating that it was. She also pointed out which campgrounds were closed, which further reinforced our previous decision to not attempt camping in the park. Regarding road conditions, she noted that the access road for the Los Gatos and Lago Chico trailheads was suited for 4×4 vehicles only (which we expected based on our research).
Now armed with information about trail conditions, we noted that the weather was not improving and settled on driving X-83 toward Camping Los West Winds (approximately 45km) to see what we could of the valley. Depending on the weather further up the valley, we would then decide if we wanted to drive toward the Los Gatos and Lago Chico trailheads on that questionable access road. As we slowly worked our way up the valley, we stopped often (but briefly) to snap some photos in the strong wind and clouds. By the time we reached West Winds, it was snowing enough to dust the ground white.
Not sure what to expect, we started up the gravel single-lane road toward Los Gatos and Lago Chico in our 4×4 rental, content to stop and turn around if the snow increased or we felt uncomfortable with the road conditions. Unfortunately, the snow steadily progressed into thick, heavy white flakes that significantly reduced visibility. We eventually turned around before reaching the trailheads, at a steeply inclined section of the road that would have been okay in better conditions.
Disappointed, we slowly made our way back down the valley along X-83, stopping for more photos each time the clouds changed or the sun broke through and dramatically changed the landscape. At a closed picnic area, we stopped for a brief walk while the sun was shining and encountered our first guanacos up-close. Despite his best efforts, they were not in the mood to cooperate and let Sean take their photos. (We had much better luck another day, though!)
The weather rapidly improved as we continued to drive out of the valley, but it was too late in the afternoon at that point to fit in a dayhike. After exiting the park, we made another stop at La Confluencia de Rio Cochrane y Chacabuco for a sunnier view than the previous evening.
Back in Cochrane, we walked to La Taberna Tehuelche for dinner (the tavern with the closed kitchen the previous night) and ordered a pizza, salmon sandwich, local beers. The sandwich was surprisingly large so it worked perfectly for sharing alongside the pizza. Back at the hotel, I built a small fire in the fireplace while we double-checked the next day’s weather forecast on meteoblue. Fortunately, it looked much better than today.
Day 3 – 20 Mar
Lagunas Altas Trail (23km | 1268m)
We prepared for an early breakfast at around 8am and conferred briefly with the hotel owners to confirm that the valley should have clearer skies today. I also asked about restaurant recommendations, and they happily marked their favorites on a map for us. One of these was the well-reviewed restaurant that we failed to locate the first night, and would enjoy upon our return today.
We began our hike at the trailhead parking area near Camping Los West Winds, just before you descend toward the campground. There were only 3-4 other vehicles in the parking area, and a handful of tents at the campground. As promised, the trail ascends steadily to climb 850m in the first 7km, as you near Tamanguito Peak. Just before reaching the first unnamed lake, we took a side trail toward Tamanguito for some panoramic views. While we stopped short of submitting Tamanguito, its adjoining ridgeline (at approximately 1340m) provided stunning views of the surrounding valley and mountains.
While making our way back down to the main trail, we passed by a few grazing guanacos that paid us very little attention. The first unnamed lake is nestled in a very beautiful and serene spot, and it was here that stopped for a lunch snack. Shortly after sitting down near the trail, a herd of five more guanacos slowly grazed their way around us. Afterward, we walked partially around the lake where the interaction between the shallow water and the colorful submerged rocks combined for a mesmerizing effect.
The trail then descends about 40m, presenting a views back toward the visitor’s center and restaurant and eastward toward the Argentina border. (If you skip our earlier detour to the ridge, this is a great spot to pause for photos.) Afterward, the trail winds across the plateau toward a smaller unnamed lagoon and then the larger Laguna Norita. These were less grand than the first, but the smattering of beech forest and fall colors kept things interesting. Up next was an assortment of six lagoons of varying sizes, the largest of which is Laguna Meche. (Note: the trail skirts around Meche, but does not actually take you to its shore. We did not spot an easy off-trail path to it, but if motivated you could probably find one.)
The unnamed lake preceding the official trail map’s viewpoint at 13.8km was especially interesting because of its multiple tiny islands and mirror-like surface reflecting the peak behind it. At the viewpoint, we got another look at the expansive valley below and a better sense of this plateau’s scale.
After leaving the viewpoint, we reached the final lagoon and one last glimpse of the surrounding plateau. From there, the trail begins its descent back toward the park headquarters. We enjoyed the continuous views and scattered herds of guanacos.
The final section of this “loop” follows the road between the lower and upper parking areas, but you can at least walk among the grass beside it. Save some energy for the last bit of uphill just before the upper parking area! Out of habit, we again stopped at La Confluencia de Rio Cochrane y Chacabuco to admire the view before returning to Cochrane.
Dinner this night was at Ñirrantal Patagonia, which was the restaurant we mistakenly thought closed our first night in Cochrane. Turns out, they open around 8pm but the covered windows and lack of outside lighting make it seem deceptively shuttered. There is something both surprising and charming when the owner is server and chef. Confident that ceviche would probably be just as good here, we ordered that to start, along with a bottle of local wine. For entrees, I again had hake and Sean had a steak. (Note: This restaurant is cash-only, but I had no problem walking to the nearby ATM after our meal to get additional cash.)
Day 4 – 21 Mar
Avilés Loop Trail (16km | 635m)
To start our last day in the valley, we first enjoyed an early hotel breakfast before checking out and leaving Cochrane. We planned this day so that we could fit in the drive from Cochrane back into the park, the Avilés Loop trail, and the drive from the park to Puerto Rio Tranquilo. It was a full day, but we ultimately had enough time for stops at both river confluences along the way and to arrive in Tranquilo just before dusk.
The Avilés Loop trailhead is located behind the Casa Piedra campground, which was already closed for the season (including the restrooms). We arrived at the small parking area just after 10am. We paused momentarily on the Berkley Footbridge across the Chacabuco River to admire the morning light on the surrounding valley and mountain peaks. We then followed the footpath through the camping area and around Casa Piedra, where the trail officially begins. This first stretch is a straight 2km across the valley floor toward the swinging bridge across the Avilés River. You have a choice of completing this loop trail in either direction. We chose counter-clockwise so that we could remain in sunlight for most of our hike.
This valley toward the Jeinimeni Reserve is incredibly scenic! During the first half of our loop, we had constant views of the plateaus and mountains across the valley on our left, as well as the mountains behind us (between Valle Chacabuco and Lago Cochrane). As we gradually ascended, the snow-dusted peak of Co. Pintura loomed to the left with a few of the closest peaks in Jeinimeni Reserve at the head of the valley.
After 7.4km, we reached the impressive hanging bridge across the river and paused to photograph a herd of guanacos. We both really wanted to see more of the Jeinimeni Reserve, based on photos and trip reports, so it was difficult to be so close to it at that point, yet have to turn around. We have, however, added backpacking in Jeinimeni to our list of future Patagonia trips!
The other (western) side of the valley, at least for me, was the highlight of this hike. For awhile, you have impressive views of the cliff walls surrounding the river. The trail then transitions to the massive plateaus that lead you gently toward the final descent at the foot of the valley. In March, the grasslands on these plateaus were a beautiful golden color that glowed in the sunlight. These contrasted starkly with the ominous, dark clouds over the surrounding mountain peaks — an effect not easily captured in our photos.
Soon enough, the trail led us off the plateaus and back down to the second footbridge across the Avilés River. As forecasted, dark storm clouds began to roll north and eastward over the mountains from Lago Cochrane. We quickly powered through the final 2km back to the campground as the wind gusted strongly and threatened rain. As to be expected, many herds of guanacos lingered by the trail near the campground.
After driving out of the park for the last time, we made one final stop at La Confluencia de Rio Cochrane y Chacabuco. It was overcast and moody with the storm clouds rolling by. The Carretera Austral follows Rio Cochrane closely for the next kilometers. We recommend pulling over near La Peninsula for a convenient viewpoint.
Our next stop was at the trailhead to La Confluencia de Rio Baker y Neff (we made sure not to miss it this time). We passed through the small gap in the roadside fence and followed the gravel road down to the rivers. I think this was one of Sean’s favorite viewpoints of this trip. We were lucky that the sun broke through the clouds while we were there, illuminating the brilliant aqua and blue waters in the confluence.
For the rest of our drive back to Puerto Rio Tranquilo, we managed to mostly stay ahead of the rain. We stopped briefly at several points to admire the river and the General Carrera Bridge between Bertrand and General Carrera Lakes.
Continue the trek in Aysén Region of Patagonia: Part 2 – Cerro Castillo