Aysén Region of Patagonia: Part 2 – Cerro Castillo

Laguna Cerro Castillo and surrounding peaks

Part 2 of our March 2018 return to Patagonia to explore and hike the Aysén region between Coyhaique and Cochrane in Chile. This part covers our brief stop in Puerto Rio Tranquilo, time spent in Villa Cerro Castillo, and an overnight backpacking trip in Cerro Castillo National Park. Follow along as we recount our trek to famous Laguna Cerro Castillo and the beautiful New Zealand camp.

Also see:

Puerto Rio Tranquilo and the Marble Caves

Puerto Rio Tranquilo and the Marble Caves

(Day 4 – continued from Part 1)

We arrived in Puerto Rio Tranquilo to pouring rain, which made locating our hotel more challenging. We found the family-operated Cabaña Valle Exploradores and checked in after some stumbling through my limited Spanish. The office scanner was not working, so they instead took photos of our passports (bringing your own photocopy might save you some time). Our cabin was rustic and basic, yet suitable for a one-night stop. The rain made it feel quite chilly, so I prepped the fireplace before we left for dinner.

With very limited dinner options and little interest in being out in the rain more than necessary, we settled on Restaurante Turístico Pia. I ordered hake and Sean ordered a steak, both of which were adequate.

Day 5 – 22 Mar
The next morning, we slept later than normal to give the Capillas de Mármol tour operators time to open. We checked out of the hotel and then inquired about the day’s tour options at a kiosk by the main road. Given that it was cloudy and windy, we thought it might reduce or cancel the tours altogether, but the operators assured us that it would be fine (chilly, but fine).

Still a bit skeptical, but with no better options for the day, we bought our tickets for the next tour and walked across the street to get some coffee. The gas station has a snack bar and espresso machine if you find yourself waiting for your tour to begin. They also have a public restroom (250 CLP). While we waited for the tour to depart, our guide asked us where we were from and we exchanged some English-to-Spanish translations. He spoke decent English and had a good sense of humor.

We soon had a group large enough to fill a small tour boat and departed from the nearby docks. The water was quite choppy at various points, so we had a rough ride across the lake. I was seated near the middle of the boat and managed to not get as wet as the others. At some point before reaching the marble caves, Sean tells me that the crew had to hastily (and discretely) expel water from the rear of the boat. I must have been engrossed with the scenery to miss that!

Upon reaching the marble caves, the tour guide shared some of the history and legends about the caves and surrounding cliffs. We then gently maneuvered around and into some of the inlets of the main cathedral, close enough to see the marble patterns in great detail.

Eventually we looped around the cathedral again, and headed back to town. The wind shifted somewhat, making our ride back a bit less bumpy than the ride out. Back at our car, a hitchhiker approached to ask for a ride to Villa Cerro Castillo. We said yes, at which point he then asked about bringing his friend. This was fine with us, but if you plan to hitchhike, please just be upfront about your intentions when asking for a ride. Ironically, we got behind the public bus as we departed town. There was a large group of hitchhikers by the bus stop, but none of them seemed interested in taking the bus. The guys in our backseat admitted that they simply didn’t want to pay for the tickets.

Our drive to Villa Cerro Castillo was uneventful and at times rainy. We had two brief stops for road construction at the same locations as on our drive south. The rain stopped by the time we arrived in town. After dropping off the hitchhikers, we considered having lunch at La Cocina de Sole (the colorful cafe-in-a-bus), but they were cash-only and I was running low on CLP.

Instead, we opted for Puesto Huemul, which was conveniently located along the road to our hotel and the Reserve entrance. Here, we enjoyed tasty local beers while soaking in the fantastic views of Cordillera Castillo from the dining room. I ordered an absolutely delicious lamb sandwich, and Sean ordered a steak sandwich. We both agreed that the lamb was so delicious as to warrant another visit for dinner on Saturday!

For our time in Villa Cerro Castillo, which would include 1 night of camping in the park, I booked us at Refugio Cerro Castillo (Booking.com). This required that I reserve our two nights separately, and figure out where to leave our rental car between them. I emailed the hotel before booking and the owner responded very quickly to confirm that we could remain parked at the hotel while backpacking. The hotel is small, but well-equipped with a modern-yet-rustic feel. The rooms and breakfast areas both have speculator views of Cordillera Castillo.

Check-in was simple and I paid for our first night in cash. As a tip for anyone trying to pay with US dollars: double-check your bills before you depart to make sure they are in pristine condition! Chilean banks (and thereby businesses, too) will not accept even slightly blemished USD bills. We then spent some time relaxing in our room and enjoying our view (and okay, maybe digesting that huge lunch, too!). Breakfast the next morning included an assortment of pre-set cereal, milk, juice, and instant coffee or tea. This was followed by a serving of breakfast pastry or cake, some meat, and made-to-order eggs.

Cerro Castillo National Park

Cerro Castillo National Park

Days 6-8 – 23-25 Mar

With only a single overnight and at most two days of hiking available in our schedule for Cerro Castillo National Park (formerly a National Reserve until October 2, 2017), we settled on a loop hike that allowed us to see the famous Laguna Cerro Castillo and camp at the beautiful New Zealand camp, before returning to the village and our hotel. Total distance: 10 miles, total elevation gain: 5524 feet.

The most direct route to Laguna Cerro Castillo from the park entrance is a former emergency trail that is now very popular with dayhikers due to its relatively short, yet steep length of 4.38 miles. The first section passes through private land, but the entrance fee is the same as the published CONAF prices for day use and camping. We paid the expected fee of 5000 CLP/person to the friendly trailhead attendant, and he asked about our final destination. I managed to convey that we intended to hike up to the lake and then across the ridge toward the New Zealand camp. He suggested that we be mindful of bad weather approaching from the east, and avoid crossing the ridge if it looks bad.

Our first detour was to the signed Cascada del Rey, where we passed some grazing horses before reaching the waterfall. Back on the trail, the approach to Laguna Cerro Castillo remained steep, yet manageable, despite the increasingly strong winds.

At the top, the lake appeared, shimmering beneath the behemoth Cerro Castillo and angrily rippling in the icy winds. We paused for a few minutes to take shelter by some rocks and enjoy the view of the lake and the Cordillera Castillo — hoping in vane for a break in the clouds or a brief respite from the unrelenting winds. Despite my discomfort and chill (even through all of my layers), this was a truly magical spot that I would love to see again in the future — although I hope in better conditions!

From here, the distance to the New Zealand camp is just over 6 miles. While admiring the lake, we worried about crossing the ridge into the strong winds and ominous clouds. The ridge is fully exposed and suffered the full onslaught of high-speed wind gusts, making this one of our most difficult crossings together. At one point, we had to crouch and nearly sit down to maintain footing and balance with our backpacks. As a result, neither of us captured any photos from the ridge.

During the final descent to the trail junction toward the New Zealand camp, we encountered some familiar faces — a group of backpackers headed in the opposite direction, including the French hitchhikers from yesterday. Once in the valley, the wind abated and we had a relatively pleasant hike through a forest toward the camp. We were a bit surprised to find ourselves the sole campers on this evening, so we had a wide range of campsites from which to select. Before the sun sank behind the peaks, we wandered into the valley and meadow beyond the campsites for a few photos, and then returned to setup our tent and start dinner.

While the wind was much less severe at the campsite, the temperature dropped rapidly and we were thoroughly cold by the time we ate and put everything away. The next morning, we awoke to frigid temperatures and frost. I stayed in my sleeping bag for a bit while Sean ventured just north of map to capture the morning light.

We hastily made breakfast to warm ourselves up a bit, and then we set our sights on exploring the picturesque valley north of the camp. Our first goal was to reach Laguna Duff, for which we followed a decent trail along the eastern side of the meadow that eventually ascends to the lake. We then climbed the glacial moraine beside the lake for the best photo vantage point, complete with stunning reflections from Cerro Palo and other surrounding peaks. After a quick snack, we backtracked a bit and detoured west toward the two unnamed tarns nearby (you will see these on a satellite map view). The wind picked up here, so there were no reflections in the tarns, but we did get a better view of the jagged peaks behind them.

Despite the tranquility and beauty of this area, we knew we had a long hike back to our hotel and reluctantly headed back toward camp. As we arrived at the campsite, we met two of the three other hikers that we would see today. After leaving the park boundary, the trail continues through pastureland along farm roads. There are several viewpoints along the way with views of the sprawling Ibáñez River and the mountains to the southwest.

Eventually, we reached the estancia and powered through the last 6km along the gravel road to Refugio Cerro Castillo. While this section may seem boring and mundane, we saw many different birds of prey. The trailhead attendant had closed up for the day, so we slipped our receipt under the door to signify that we made it out safely.

After a quick turnaround at the hotel, we walked back down the road for dinner at Puesto Huemul. We were both very interested in having more of their delicious lamb, so we ordered two lamb sandwiches. They were just as good as my previous lunch sandwich! Additionally, we had delicious ceviche as a starter, local beers, and dessert. This was the perfect nightcap for a very fulfilling day.

On our last morning, we checked out of RCC immediately after breakfast to allow for a leisurely drive back to the Balmaceda airport. We dropped the keys at the Europcar counter and then got in line to check-in for our LATAM flight to Santiago. The line moved so slowly that we didn’t receive our boarding passes until after the boarding gate opened. Because the airport is so small, you pass through a security screen as you enter the separate gate area. This part was efficient, at least, and we were soon onboard. We both had window seats and thoroughly enjoyed the views as we flew over Puerto Montt. We got to see Cerro Tronador and many of the sights from our previous Bariloche trip.

Closing Thoughts

Closing Thoughts

Valle Chacabuco was beautiful and remote, but the (then) Patagonia Park as a whole underwhelmed. We look forward to seeing what the Chilean government accomplishes as they transition it from private operation to a national park. This will probably result in more established trails and basic facilities, which should improve the overall experience even if it brings more visitors to the park.

We also hope that relations between the park and local residents in the surrounding areas improve. Unfortunately, the Tompkins Foundation has been poorly received by some in the community for reasons that are out of scope for this blog post. This is not meant to discount the incredible value of their work in the region, but rather to recognize that there are still groups with legitimate grievances around how the valley was acquired and transitioned to a privately-held park.

We definitely concluded our trip on a high note with our brief, but visually stunning visit to Cerro Castillo National Park. For a future visit, we would love to return and attempt a classic 4-5 day trek from the Horquetas Grandes section to Villa Cerro Castillo. The Carretera Austral will likely have more pavement by then, and the villages it passes through may look dramatically different.

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