March Hiking in the Aysén Region of Patagonia

In March 2018, we returned to Patagonia to explore and hike the Aysén region between Coyhaique and Cochrane in Chile. We spent a week in Bariloche last year and thoroughly enjoyed it, but wanted to explore more on the Chilean side this time around. Our trip included the rugged drive along the Carretera Austral (Route 7) and hiking in the Cerro Castillo and Patagonia National Parks.

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This post covers our planning resources, logistics, arrival at Balmaceda, and our first day in Coyhaique, Chile.

Why did we choose the Aysén region?

After our 2017 visit to Bariloche for a week of exceptional hiking, and Sean’s 2014 trip to Torres del Paine, we began plotting our next Patagonia adventures. With Argentina still fresh on our minds, we decided to focus more on our Chilean side options. Sean had already hiked the W-route, and I hope to try for the longer O-route eventually — so that ruled out a visit to Torres del Paine this year.

Another destination high on our list is the Cochamó Valley, but the timing did not work out this year — lodging there was already closed! As I searched for other options that could fit into our single-week schedule, I found lots of buzz around the (then) newly-formed national parks in the Aysén region. Trip reports for both Cerro Castillo National Reserve and Patagonia Park looked enticing, and this inevitably led to reading about the Carretera Austral. Fortunately for us, rental car prices were reasonable for a week, something we had not expected based on our experience in Bariloche.

Combining these two parks into a week-long adventure seemed like a fit. From there, it took some careful planning to make sure the drive times fit while maximizing our days at each park. Ultimately, we enjoyed Valle Chacabuco but were very happy that we ended the trip at Cerro Castillo. Our overnight backpack into the park was definitely the highlight of the trip, and has left us wanting to visit again in the future.

Resources we found helpful for planning our trip

Where we stayed

  • Hotel Tehuelche Natura, Coyhaique (Booking.com) – Conveniently located near the bus station in Coyhaique with rustic, but comfortable rooms. The owners are friendly, welcoming, and provide a generous breakfast spread.
  • Hotel Último Paraíso, Cochrane (Booking.com) – Spacious rooms with rustic features and a wood-burning fireplace. The owners are Spanish ex-pats, very friendly and welcoming, and speak some English. We especially enjoyed our homemade breakfasts and conversation about Valle Chacabuco.
  • Cabaña Valle Exploradores, Puerto Rio Tranquilo (Booking.com) – Our room was spacious and well-equipped for a multi-day stop in Puerto Rio Tranquilo. Unfortunately, we only had one night here and many of the benefits were lost upon us. We still think this is a perfectly acceptable hotel if you want to spend some time in PRT exploring the marble caves, the Exploradores Glacier, and perhaps Laguna San Rafael National Park.
  • Refugio Cerro Castillo, Villa Cerro Castillo (Booking.com) – A relatively newer hotel, conveniently located steps from the park entrance. The rooms and breakfast areas both have spectacular views of Cordillera Castillo. We especially enjoyed the breakfast spread with made-to-order eggs. The owner also allowed us to park our rental car while backpacking in the park.

Balmaceda and Coyhaique

Balmaceda and Coyhaique

Arrival at BBA was a unique experience, as this was the smallest commercial airport into which either of us had flown. It has a rugged backcountry aesthetic and only two gates. After deplaning, one of the highlights was watching the employees load the luggage carts pulled by farm tractors.

In my trip planning, some trip reports recommended that we ignore the kiosks trying to aggressively sell airport transfers to Coyhaique inside the baggage claim area. This advice turned out to be quite helpful, as you can purchase a ticket with any of the other shuttle companies after you collect your bags and exit into the public area of the airport. We paid only 2500 CLP each with Buses Suray instead of 5000 CLP with the other mini-transfer companies. I recommend having exact change, as the Suray employee could not change my 10000 note (luckily we had a 5000 note from our last Patagonia visit). The bus was efficient and comfortable. We left after a short wait for another arriving flight.

The shuttle bus terminated at the Suray bus station, conveniently located only a couple blocks from our hotel for the night. I booked us at Hotel Tehuelche Natura for simplicity, correctly assuming that we would be a little tired by this point. The owner was friendly and welcoming, but spoke minimal English, so it was at times amusing to stumble through the conversation with my broken Spanish (made worse by jetlag). We quickly settled in and set out toward the Plaza de Armas to purchase camp stove fuel before the retailers closed for the day.

Our next stop was the UNIMARC supermercado to pick up some fruits and snacks to sustain us for the next week. On the way back to our hotel, we detoured to the two known tourist offices on our list (Oficina de Turismo Rural and Sernatur). The first was closed but fortunately Sernatur was open. We needed to ask about scheduling a return transfer to the airport the next day (Sunday), since the public bus schedules indicated minimal service.

After a short wait, the Sernatur rep recommended we walk across the square to the Transfer y Turismo office, which would be closing soon for the evening. Speaking with the T&T employees was challenging because I initially confused them with my request. After indicating that I wanted to go to the airport but did not have a flight number, I realized they time all transfers with the day’s flights. After several stumbles, I managed to explain that we were returning to the airport solely to rent a car, and they showed me a written schedule for the next day. We ultimately had to arrive an hour later than we intended, but it allowed sufficient time to have a good breakfast at the hotel before departing.

Back at the hotel, we found that Ruibarbo is the highest-rated restaurant in Coyhaique. We tried to figure out their dinner hours and phone number to make a reservation. As it turned out, the info listed on TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Google maps were all incorrect. With no luck calling ahead, we walked the short distance and showed up without a reservation. Fortunately, they had plenty of unreserved tables and we were able to thoroughly enjoy some pisco sours while perusing (and debating) the menu. The ceviche starter was one of the best I have ever tasted, followed by an entree of hake (for me) and steak (for Sean).

Day 1 – 18 Mar

Breakfast at the hotel was a pleasant spread of ham, cheese, bread, yogurt, cereal, granola, juices, milk, and freshly brewed coffee (no Nescafé!). I finished with a generous slice of cake that looked too good to pass up. T&T picked us up slightly behind schedule, and the trip took about an hour with some additional stops.

At BBA, the arrivals side of the airport was quiet. We reserved a 2018 Ford Escape 4×4 with an automatic transmission, surprisingly for the same price as a manual when reserved months in advance. We retrieved the rental from Europcar without incident, and the employee was efficient in collecting our information and inspecting the vehicle.

Continue the trek in Aysén Region of Patagonia: Part 1 – Valle Chacabuco

Or, skip ahead to Aysén Region of Patagonia: Part 2 – Cerro Castillo

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