Chile's extended geography touches scores of latitudes and accompanying ecosystems. Frequently overlooked in favor of more southern destinations (think Torres del Paine ), the Aysen region runs from the eastern border with Argentina westward to the Pacific Coast. Active Junky's team focused on inland exploration given the massive territory stretching north and south from Coyhaique, the regional hub. While a lifetime of rivers, glaciers and forests crowd the region, many activity options quickly thin the crowds. The result: solitary views of extraordinary places—without jet lag and taking weeks off from work. While it's best to assemble a "must see and do" list before departure, allow at least three extra days and celebrate the spontaneous. Add a new activity, cultural interest or ecological environment to expand your appreciation for the region's richness.
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Linked efficiently by LAN Airlines with Puerto Montt and Santiago, Balmecada offers multiple flights daily. Well-maintained runways and an efficient terminal had Active Junky team members rolling into action within minutes of arrival. Elapsed time from landing to jonesing: under 20 minutes. While the plains stretching east are inspiring, the mountains extending west and south proclaim instant visual gratification. The possibilities for exploration begin to spool out by the mile while verdant agricultural valleys along the road mean livelihoods for local families. Insider tip: There’s worthwhile fly-fishing within five miles of the terminal – and immediately off the road.
Coyhaique, an easy shuttle ride from the airport, is a solid basecamp for adventure in northern Patagonia. Here, many have gone before you (traveler-wise, that is), as the town is center point for a vibrant fly-fishing culture. Within two hours in nearly any compass direction, including the coast, browns and rainbows surf wild rapids and prowl tranquil pools, seeking food and shelter. A plethora of spots spreads anglers across hundreds of miles even as Coyhaique calls them back for lodging, dining and convenient shopping for essentials. Supermarkets, pharmacies and outfitters are in abundance. Be advised: More than one Active Junky team member went shopping for land after only a few days in this accessible regional hub.
El Boquez fires up the grill with tender, crisp-edged cuts of beef and lamb. The chef, guarding the precious flame, chops dry logs right in the restaurant to feed the grill. Local beers and plentiful Chilean wines compete to match the roasted, savory intensity of every morsel. Active Junky found this one by sight (flames reflected in the windows) and smell (obvious, really) right along the pedestrian thoroughfare downtown.
Mamma Gaucha is a mash-up name, pulling from Italian and riffing on the name for horse-riding cowboys in the region. Wood-fired and tapping the best in local brews (Cerveza Tropera, bueno), there’s a pizza for every mood including lamb-topped options. Service is relaxed so forget grab-and-go and embrace the place. Make certain to add a salad as anything but tomatoes and onion is hard to find in the region.
Rumba Sur Apart Hotel earned plaudits for their modern décor and clean surroundings only blocks from the center city. For those who want to cook, the kitchens are small but functional while accommodations ranges from single to double bedroom apartments with pullout beds on the main level. Security seems reasonable and a gated entrance helps the cause.
Dreams Patagonia adjoins a casino that you'll rarely hear. Go online early for a deal on rooms complete with spa-like bathrooms and amenities. Breakfast is served in a vista-dominated dining room; cold options trump the hot. A few blocks farther from the center, peaceful surroundings and plenty of parking compensate for an overly formal staff.
Expediciones Keoken was Active Junky's major find in a region rich with amazing places and talented people. Guides and cofounders Richard Mansilla and Ignacio Vergara send tough routes on places like nearby Cerro Mackay. They also coach, encourage and celebrate climbing accomplishments while making smart route selections with their clients. Safety is no afterthought as the team tackled major exposure during mind-boggling crack climbs including Indian Creek.
El Blanco appears to be a sleepy burg, a wide spot on the Austral Highway with little more than a hostel, police station and humble Mate Museum. Informed travelers know this valley and surrounding mountains were hidden from immigrants until the early 20th century. Modern explorers allow their peers to speed by as they veer onto rural roads etched between grazing land and pine forests. While the Rio Blanco experiences early spring fishing blowouts due to high-mineral glacial run-off, the lakes and streams sequestered at higher elevations remain fishable. More importantly, the views possible with four-wheel drive vehicles parallel those of New Zealand and Norway. All 45km southeast of Coyhaique for day trips and unique overnight experiences.
Lodge de Montaña Lago Monreal takes rustic to a new level, going off the grid with generator power and propane cooking. The team was stoked to find a nearly private lake awaited them below the lodge with fishing on a reef less than 15ft out. Night winds challenged the stove-heated structure to stay warm but stacks of gingerly placed firewood prevailed. Our host was truly exceptional, cooking satisfying regional specialties served from a well-equipped kitchen. Ideal for small groups like ours, the break from cell service and WiFi added up to times of contemplation and wood-chopping exhilaration.
Lago la Paloma, a short-but-grinding drive from Lodge de Montana, sent us into a parallel universe (only a minor overstatement). Soaring summits above, dark waters below, frenzied winds all around and stark overlooks ahead painted an otherworldly picture. One team member christened it “Mordor” – but without the gloom or Orcs. Navigate slowly to stay clear of shepherds and their shaggy flocks, shuffling their way home to roasted lamb and hot bread. Side note: This and other lakes are prime for inflatable kayaks and kite boards in the hands of competent athletes.
Villa Cerro Castillo would be at a crossroads – except there’s only one major road: Ruta 7, the Austral Highway. Small and humble, the village is a gathering spot for travelers and trekkers, long-distance cyclists and mountaineers. The scale of the region is hard to fathom, with valleys going on for miles and a rock-and-ice skyline that won’t back down. Even below the severe alpine landscape, huge, rounded boulders mimic a caveman’s furniture at 10,000 times the size. Services are minimal and open limited hours; fueling up in Coyhaique (to the north) or Puerto Tranquilo (to the south) is imperative. Ongoing construction of the highway requires diligent planning along with vigilant navigation even as the government tackles a long-term “straighten and widen” mission.
La Cocina De Sole is a standout stop, composed of two Chilean buses converted to a sandwich restaurant. The two vehicles appear to jockey for the lead though they’ve long since been attached and secured less than 20ft from the road. With peaks looming above to the west, the immense hamburgers (“hamburguesas”) don’t look over-generous until attempted. A family show, the Active Junky team shared the off-street bus half with a healthy baby atop the world’s largest high chair (a little help here, Guinness folks). Put away your Clif Bar for once and wrestle one of these juicy patties into submission.
Cerro Castillo National Reserve packs more vertical inspiration into its borders than other parks many times its 693 square miles. For the hiker, trails spiral into remote backcountry environs between 16 and nearly 50kms (a multi-day trip). Alpinists get supercharged over mixed climbing up gullies and technical climbing routes around (or up) a ceaseless series of arêtes. While less than 75km south of Coyhaique, the Reserve’s inspired collection of peaks, waterfalls and escarpments is enough to occupy an Active Junky for three days – without taking on an enchainment of peaks. Experienced guides are mandatory as navigation and weather both discourage spontaneous exploration beyond the highway’s shoulder.
Puerto Guadal endures the punishing winds and winters of Patagonia. Founded in the 1920s, the population grew in the 60s as a result of French lead, zinc and silver mining operations. With multiple small markets, a simple gas station and a few casual restaurants, the intrepid southbound traveler is rewarded for serious mileage on the Austral Highway. While not the only red bridge on the road, the striking towers of the span north of town float above powerful outflow from Lake General Carrera. Pushing past Rio Tranquilo and the hidden turn-off to cloistered Puerto Sanchez, Active Junky found vistas that put Lake Tahoe to shame. Turbulent clouds above the mountains alternately brought vertical spears of light and early spring jets of mist. With each twist and turn, the independent spirit of the region became more evident: people are here because amenities are infrequent – and nature looms large. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Terra Luna Patagonia is precisely the basecamp Active Junky envisioned for this extended foray south from Coyahaique and Villa Cerro Castillo. Tucked into the hill above Lake General Carrera’s southern shore, Terra Luna cloaks sublime hospitality in the guise of well-built, rustic cabins. Split level with a sturdy wood-fired stove in each, rooms promoted tireless views of the lake and mountains while feeling off the grid despite reliable cell and WiFi connections. The food? Not to be missed. Hearty soups and carefully prepared entrees score high for creativity, quality and value. Guides and activities pepper the schedule to propel guests into the singular place that is Patagonia.
Fossil Mound Trekking, independently or guided by Terra Luna’s team, sounded lame to Active Junky’s intrepid travelers. Wrong as winding through native high lenga beech trees landed hikers in high meadows. A worthy destination offered a vista of the lake, Northern Ice Field and peaks. All standing on an eternity’s worth of fossil records piled on each other, reaching over 100meters in depth at points. Snowfields are to be expected early and late, with water in abundant supply below the tree line. We even spotted puma tracks in the fast-melting snow. Consider adding a parallel journey to Cascadas Rios Los Maquis, only 5km from Puerto Guadal, revealing multiple falls over steep cliffs.
Marble Caves populate both the extreme western and southern shores of Lake General Carrera. Renowned for their beguiling curvature and enthralling blue color (much of which is the pristine water reflected on the stone), the Caves range from tiny nooks to caverns big enough for boats. Active Junky’s team discovered them from three locations and by different means: guided scow from Puerto Sanchez, kayak from Terra Luna and power launch from nearby Rio Tranquilo. While calm mornings are the best bet, we took our shot at a night visit, doing battle with growing whitecaps borne on a north wind. Indeed, adventure is where – and how – you find it.
Patagonia Jet Tours put remote, rugged destinations within reach because of low-draft hulls and engines. Our destination: the Leones Glacier’s terminal face. Here, three branches of the glacier calve into the lake, the only warning being the rifle-shot crack before the thunderous collapse. Depending upon river levels, extended hiking or a Tyrolean Traverse is necessary. These variables make for a spirited outing, as does the thrill of open-water jet boating with a competent pilot at the wheel. Other excursions are offered, as is custom guiding to reach remote fishing inlets and shoreline features.
Villa Manihuales doesn’t shout out from regional maps. Nor does the town trumpet its strategic access to fishing on billboards. Instead, this micro hub lands in the center of vibrant rivers, secluded streams and surging waterfalls. While at less than 500ft elevation, V.M. is ringed with worthy hiking objectives, many of which appeared to be infrequently explored; Cerro Castillo and other noteworthy formations south of Coyhaique are more widely known. Instead, Cordon Transversal and Morro del Pulpito range to the north while Cordon Ferruginoso and Cerro Colorado are encountered to the south. The trustworthy Copec gas and convenience store is balanced by local cafes and artisan shops in a well-watered valley – on a straight road – which brings relief to the dramatic, rollercoaster Austral Highway about 90 minutes north of Coyhaique.
Ruta 7 Waterfalls pour out their power only a short distance north of Coyhaique. Despite traveling on a rainy day, the Active Junky team kept pulling over to count and measure the plunges on both sides of the road. Standing in the spray of several of those crashing down near the road, the feeling was of restoration and wellbeing; as with the rest of the world, water means life. Irrepressible vines and trees popped from rocks while the encroaching forest magnified the sound of native bird species.
Reserva Forestal Manihuales commanded Active Junky’s attention. Below one of the sloping vineyards, the barrel aging room echoed the operation’s quirky-but-premium approach. Capturing the best of multiple microclimates on Loma Largo’s property (another former dairy farm), the 100% Cabernet Franc won the day. Reached by touring bike with the Upscale Travel guide, a tree-lined road led the way to scenic orchards, buzzing bees and some of the best wine values our testers (tasters?) found in Chile. LL’s Sonoma County warehouse puts their wines within easy reach back home.
Rio Manihuales is populated by formidable trout (16”-20”) that are far more abundant than the huemul. Dropping in less than 5km north of town, Active Junky couldn’t get in the water fast enough with a buffet of features and formations to hold – and grow – large fish. When action slowed and hunger called, a simple picnic got team members to unrivet their Polarized sunglasses from the captivating river; the surrounding forests and mountains alone filled a stringer of memories. As in other places in the Aysen region, guides and float trips up the odds for success.