"In parks…we recontact both certainty and uncertainty, the permeant and the changing, the stable and the spontaneous, the predictable and the novel. More philosophically put: we confront order and chaos. We go wild; we go where the Earth is still wild." – Holmes Rolston II
When you hear Patagonia, what do you think of? Most people will say the spires of Torres del Paine or calving hunks of ice falling from the Perito Moreno glacier into the icy blue waters below. Patagonia is that - and so much more. The geographic area of Patagonia covers some 400,000 square miles – roughly one and a half times the size of the UK. Established tourism is found in and around Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina and Torres del Paine National Park in Chile but outside of these highly visited areas wilderness still rules. I just returned from 2 weeks in the Aysen region of Chile and am excited to share the wealth of options this part of the world has to offer. The Aysen is where nature goes to play.
The Aysen Region: With hanging glaciers, mazelike fjords, shimmering blue caverns, steaming rainforests and guanaco-filled steppes, the Aysen region of Chile has much to offer. Its only access is by the Carretera Austral – as famous for its beauty as it is notorious for its difficulty of access. Sandwiched between Chile's Lake District and the Magallanes region, Aysen was just named as one of Lonely Planet's top spots to visit in 2017 in the latest edition of their popular "Best in Travel" guides. The least populated of Chile's 15 regions, it promises ample opportunity for solitude and reflection and an end-of-the-world adventure where the only path available is the unbeaten one.
What To Do?
Drive the Carratera Austral
The 1,200km road from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins is mainly gravel and considered to be one of the most beautiful roads in the world. Its serpentine form winds past snow capped mountains, through sleepy Patagonia towns, and along the impressive Baker river - It's the sole lifeline to forgotten Patagonian lands linking the disparate towns and growing park lands of Patagonia's last frontier.
It's hard not to fall in love with Tortel as soon as you see it – a community of 500 people who live in a scattering of houses in emerald forests on the banks of a glacial bay. The town is linked be an intricate system of boardwalks made of Cyprus, linked to their rich logging history and focus on environmental conservation. Located near the terminus of the Carratera Austral you can experience a community that has existed for hundreds of years but only been connected to the outside world as of four years ago.
Glaciers – by foot, boat, and plane
Aysen is surrounded by ice, with both the Northern and Southern Patagonia Icefields being found here, and there are plenty of ways and places to get involved. You can cruise by, walk on, or soar above these impressive hunks of ice – and you'll often be the only ones there.
The lovely village of Tortel is perfectly placed for boat trips to glaciers. You can get a boat to the Steffen Glacier in the Northern Patagonian Icefield, or you can go south and visit Jorge Montt Glacier in the Southern icefield.
At the very end of the road (literally) is Villa O"Higgins. From here you take the boat along the deepest lagoon in the Americas as far as the Great O'Higgins Glacier. Herons, black-necked swans, wandering albatross, coots, steamer ducks and even penguins are denizens of this area.
Terra Luna in Puerto Guadal offers helicopter tours to the San Rafael glacier. Fly across the magnificent General Carrera Lake and land on the ice beyond, spending the afternoon exploring this rarely visited glacier. You can also approach the glacier by jet boat.
If you're short on time or just not keen about actually touching glacial ice, scenic fly overs of the impressive ice fields can be done from the hub of Coyhaique. The ice field is the second largest continuous mass of ice outside of the polar regions making for a truly awe inspiring flight.
Streaming out of General Carrera Lake, the Baker River carries glacial sediments from the lake, creating a brilliant aquamarine ribbon that cuts and slithers through the landscape. The largest river in Chile, the Baker has constantly come under threat from damming projects, but the preservation efforts of the communities who live close to the river and visitors who enjoy the river's tranquil waters - ideal for fishing, kayaking, boating, and more - have made it one of the only rivers of its kind in the world to be undammed.
These celestial caves are like something out of an Impressionist painting. The Marble Caves of General Carrera Lake are one of the region's main draws...and for good reason. The waves have worked their magic on the calcium carbonate rock formations in the lake and along the shoreline, producing swirling rock eddies of cerulean, teal, cobalt, and azure. Add sunlight and the clear, blue glacial water, and a dazzling light show is created as colors shift depending on time of day, season, and water level.
The latest addition to the Patagonian hiking scene, Parque Patagonia is just one more step towards the creation of one of the world's largest protected nature reserves. Covering an area of more than 2,600 square kilometres, Parque Patagonia was purchased by Doug and Kristine Tompkins (of Patagonia Inc, North Face and Esprit fame) and has since been turned into a public park. Head out with a naturalist guide to discover herds of guanacos, flamingos, and perhaps even a puma sighting. There are miles of hiking trails (including a suspension bridge) and alpine pools nestled in some of the most impressive mountains in the world.
Queulat National Park
This hidden gem of a national park is home to one of Chile's few examples of a temperate rainforest, which can be experienced whilst driving or cycling down the Carretera Austral which snakes through the park. Trekking paths take guests through humid, evergreen forests, past clear streams and trees almost dripping in soft mosses. The main attraction is the park's hanging glacier - between two mountain peaks, a glacier sits poised on the edge of a cliff as twin waterfalls cascade down the face of the mountain.
Want To Go Even Deeper?Talk to us about linking the southern tip of the Aysen with El Chalten , home to Fitz Roy & Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina.