Visiting Patagonia in the winter is as gratifying as it is cold. Here you'll find an account of what it feels like to traverse its landscapes with no other tourists around
Km zero in Coyhaique
We should make it clear that no plane or train trip has Patagonia as its final destination. It's a historical, cultural, and geographical concept, shared by southern Argentina and Chile. An image that makes it so these countries have more in common with one another than with their respective capitals. The region of Aysén, on the Chilean side, has as many reasons to be visited as it does protected territory: that's a total of 5 million hectares that form five national parks, two national monuments, and 121 reservations. These numbers translate into a thrilling landscape, where tourists have no control over anything. After landing in Balmaceda, a 31-mile [50-km] trip to Coyhaique – the regional capital of Aysén – sets the tone for what it's like to visit in the winter: no set itinerary. You may well plan and calculate one in great detail, but it's likely that nature will decide the course.
Though it is possible to rent a car at the airport, the most highly recommended option is to hire transportation. The Carretera Austral (the main road in the south of the country) alternates between ripio, a stone that's quite treacherous, with stretches of dirt road. And driving in this scenario requires some extra talent when the road's covered in ice and snow. Let's make things crystal clear: only elevated pickup trucks and four-wheel drive vehicles can handle long trips without any problems. Once in Coyhaique, the best thing is to head straight for the city center and have lunch at the restaurant Mamma Gaucha, which has long business hours and fills up quickly. As its name suggests, the house specializes in Italian Patagonian cuisine, and the ravioli de la estancia, made with lamb meat, mushrooms, and caramelized onion filling, served with red wine sauce and walnuts, is diplomacy in meal form. This dish combines typical Patagonian meat, pasta that tastes like it was made by an authentic Italian nonna, and sauce that returns heat to the body.
Before leaving for Puerto Ibáñez and catching a boat to Chile Chico (nobody said this trip would be restful), you'll have to stop by the commercial neighborhood of Coyhaique to stock up on all the supplies necessary for the upcoming days. From there, the math is simple: two hours on land to Puerto Ibáñez and another two to cross General Carrera Lake. The boat runs at set times, but it's always good to confirm them and purchase tickets online at barcaza.cl. The boat cabin has heating, seats and tables with electrical outlets, but it's worth trading these creature comforts for the cold outside to appreciate, even if just for a few minutes, a sky that looks as if it couldn't fit even one more star.
Mamma Gaucha: Horn, 47, Coyhaique
The secret of Chile Chico
The recommendation to stock up in Coyhaique is serious. In the winter, after 10 p.m., food options in Chile Chico are limited, but there are apartment hotels with well-equipped kitchens. Making your base here isn't a random decision: being by the border with Argentina, far from the ocean, the locale has a warmer, dryer climate, ideal for the winter. It's no coincidence that the people of Aysén call it “sun city.”
The main attraction here is the Jeinimeni National Reserve, just 40 miles [65 km] from the settlement, which offers fun for people with varying degrees of physical preparedness. You can get there by car and, after a 20-minute walk among lengas (native trees), you'll spot the lake for which the reservation is named, without getting winded. Appreciate the calm of the water and listen attentively: nothing. Not even the sound of the wind: here, silence dominates.
Hiking lovers can return to the Km 25 mark on the road where a sign announces the Piedra Clavada and Cueva de las Manos. From there, on a hike into the mountains, the normally elusive fauna comes out of hiding: in the snow, you can spot the tracks of guanacos that graze calmly in the higher regions and it's common to see condors flying over rock walls and perched among them. The more you venture on, the more evident the cold is. Add gaiters and gloves to your outfit. Though you'll warm up soon enough thanks to the exertion, every break you take reminds you it's winter. On the mountain. And in Patagonia.
Following the same trail, after an hour you come to Piedra Clavada, eroded by the wind and capable of making anyone who draws near feel nervous: its 131-foot [40-m] height and tilted position make you want to take a quick picture and walk away. Why tempt fate, right?
An hour later, if you still have energy, you'll come to the hidden version of a classic tourist attraction in the region: the Cueva de Las Manos. The most visited one is located in Cerro Castillo, nearby Balmaceda, but the Jeinimeni cave has the highest concentration of rock paintings in the world in any outdoor location. To wrap up your day, back in the city, Emporio Güenta has cheese and kale empanadas prepared by the owner, Andrea Berrocal, as well as a variety of vegan and vegetarian snacks.
Our advice that you should hire a guide with a four-wheel drive pickup truck was also serious. In order to get to Aysén's main landmark, the capillas de mármol (marble chapels), you need to skirt along General Carrera Lake all the way to Puerto Tranquilo, which means 102 miles [165 km]. This might sound exhausting, but the colors and scenery add meaning to the cliché that states what's important in life is not the destination, but the journey there.
Throughout the excursion, the lake changes colors from green to blue to gray, with all possible blends of the three. The second biggest lake in Latin America after Titicaca, General Carrera Lake is supplied by a number of water sources which carry different minerals. This accounts for the changes in color and the intensity of its currents.
A good example is the confluence of the Baker and Nef Rivers, 7 miles [12 km] south of Puerto Bertrand via the Carretera Austral. The former is the most massive river in Chile and the latter flows furiously, the fruit of the thaw from the area's glaciers. It hurtles against the rocks, resulting in an immense jet of water which, thanks to the sun, forms a permanent rainbow. Making it to the convergence of the rivers without slipping on the ice is indeed a feat, but it's worth the effort to admire the scene. And to hear the roar of the Nef.
The rest of the way has even more colors: the intense graphite of the rocks, the white of snowy mountains, yellow cliffs covered in coirones (low-lying plant formation typical of the steppe plains), miles of rosa mosqueta (a local plant) which ranges from pallid tones to an intense red. Aysén has much more than just green and blue.
The youth of marble
Though the objective is to get to Puerto Tranquilo, you can also find lodging in the nearby settlements, like Puerto Bertrand and Puerto Guadal. But it's not a good idea to improvise: once you've chosen a place to stay, call to make sure it's open during the off-season.
The guide Lenin Soto never fails. He offers trips by speedboat to the famous capillas de mármol, rock formations that look like caves (and, with some imagination, chapels), all year round. Their contact with the water has eroded the rocks, forming 186 miles [300 km] of grottos, the jewel among them being the catedral de mármol. Soto explains that he christened them as such when a tourist asked what it was called and he didn't know what to say: the rock formation had no name. Enthused, he saw that it was much bigger than most chapels and, thanks to his creativity, 12 people have since gotten married at this symbolic “cathedral.”
Covering this distance in the winter has the obvious advantage of exclusivity, without the other five speedboats and kayaks that would be circulating during the peak season. What many people don't know is that it's possible to include the capillas of Puerto Sánchez in your excursion, practically impossible to visit in the summer. During the hotter months, the “sea is chalako,” explains Rodolfo Zenteno, our tour guide: the tide rises and the winds lift the waves up to 13 feet [4 m] high, making it unmanageable to reach that region. There's no such risk in Puerto Río Tranquilo: when the winds surpass 15 knots, the authorities prohibit boats from setting sail.
Twelve miles [20 km] farther north, always on General Carrera Lake, is Puerto Sánchez. The “chapels” there aren't just circumvented; you can actually go in them. And the marble is not the sort you'd expect: it's rough and grayish, with black veins of magnesium. This is what “young” marble, between 350 and 400 million years old, looks like.
Heading back to Chile Chico, you'll have to take a boat to Puerto Ibáñez at 8 a.m. This way, you can get back to Coyhaique and have lunch early at the only vegetarian restaurant in town, Basilic Bistrot.
The soy burger and cheese fondue are the most popular menu items in the winter, and all meals there end with some complimentary mate tea – ideal for warming up your body before a hike through the Río Simpson National Reserve. Just an hour from the city, its woods filled with coigües and lengas form a parallel universe to that of the semiarid steppe plains of Chile Chico.
Basilic Bistrot: General Parra, 220, Coyhaique
In the winter, it's possible to spot foxes and other animals that are scared away by tourists in the summer. Even if they don't appear, the trip won't be in vain as long as you get to admire a gigantic, 200-year-old coigüe tree after an hour-long hike. This is the only example of the species that survived a fire that took place six decades ago.
As if the natural wonders weren't enough, August is the perfect month to experience a more intimate version of Aysén. The Festival de Cine de la Patagonia (FECIPA) will be held from August 27 to September 2, with movies competing for awards and free workshops open to the public. Last year, the event attracted over 5,000 people and, this year, its slogan is “Las buenas historias no se detienen” (“Good stories don't hold back”). On a visit to Aysén in the winter, you'll see for yourself that Patagonia is open to being discovered all year round, in the intimacy of its films and the immensity of its landscapes.
LATAM has direct flights to Balmaceda from Santiago and Puerto Montt.
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