Parque Pumalin and Argentinian Camping Loop
We really wanted to experience Patagonia with our children while we are in Chile and we wanted to see it from the vast expanse of inter-connected national parks Chile has created. We are really spoiled in Chile as there are 36 national parks! When our children were 9, 7 and 5 we decided to camp through one of the Tompkins parks, Parque Pumalin, and then head a bit further south and loop back north to Santiago through Argentina.
The Douglas Tompkins story is truly fascinating. The owner of North Face and Esprit, he became a conservationist in his later years, protecting vast tracts of land in Chile. He bought the land where Parque Pumalin is now in 1991. They ripped up ranching fences and invasive plant species and preserved the Valdivian forest. We have visited two of his parks (Pumalin and Patagonia) and they are well-maintained and absolutely stunning. You know you are in a Tompkins park because the roads, design and infrastructure are really good! They were gifted to the country of Chile in 2018.
So, what is the best way to camp in Chile when you only have a short holiday time? Other than the packing, it is actually quite simple in Chile. You can’t book campsites ahead of time and if you go in January it is still pretty quiet. We pre-booked a night’s accommodation en route, the ferry and two nights in cabins on the way home. We decided to camp through Argentina on the way back so we did book those camping sites as you could pre-book in Argentina. We knew that they might be more full as Argentinians typically take January off (and the Chileans typically take February off). Otherwise we just decided to wing it.
It can be a crazy camping with children but we have camped every year we have been married — we have car camped, canoe-camped, back country hiking camped and campervan-camped. It is possible! You just have to lower expectations and plan accordingly. Our children all love camping and we have had some lovely (and not so lovely! let’s be honest!) times camping as a family.
Here is how we did our two-week camping trip in Northern Patagonia.
We left on a Saturday morning at 5 a.m. and drove pretty much straight to Frutillar. Frutillar is a quiet town on the gorgeous Llanquihue Lake with views of Osorno Volcano. It has many German-style buildings with tin and scalloped carved wooden trim. We arrived around 4 p.m. and headed straight to the lake to have an early supper lakeside at Tropera 121. It was casual and great for the children and it’s also a brew pub. Then we headed to Casona Santa Marta for the night. It can be tricky to find places to sleep families of five but Kristina has a lovely family room in her family’s home that she has lovingly restored. She also has the Lavanda Casa de Te (lavander tea room) across the road which has views of the lake and volcano. It turns out Kristina is also Canadian!
After breakfast we drove to Hornopiren (four hour drive) and spent the night at Hosteria Catalina. The cabins are well-located to the ferry (any place would be, really, as the town is quite small). The owner was really nice and the cabins super clean and comfortable, and again it is a place that sleeps five! Swings are on the property and a restaurant. We walked around town and bought some fresh fruit and vegetables for camping meals. It was surprisingly reasonable produce.
The next day we took the 8 a.m. ferry from Hornopiren to Caleta Gonzalo (entrance to Parque Pumalin) which is a four hour tour through the fjords.
You really need to pre-book the ferry, we saw people being turned away who didn’t have reservations. That said, I was trying to book in October for a January trip and nothing was open. The Canadian in me thought everything was already fully booked! But it turns out they just hadn’t opened up that month yet. We were able to pre-book in December for a January 19th trip. It’s a car ferry so there is a cafeteria, washrooms and some nice spots to sit and look out. You can plug your phone in along the wall and they show cartoons on a screen at the far end. We ended up with really nice weather so had views of the fjords the whole way. You pass close enough to the mainland that my entel worked on my phone and you can see Chiloe on a clear day.
There are a few ways to get to the parks. You could drive through Chiloe and take a ferry to Aysen. You could also take the Puerto Montt-Chaiten ferry to enter that way. For us, the simplest was the Hornopiren ferry as it’s a shorter day ferry ride and two of us can get seasick. As well, the ferry to Chaiten is an eight hour overnight ferry without rooms or beds, only seats. We had already been to Chiloe, but if you had more time that would be a nice route as well.
We arrived at Caleta Gonzalo, and parked to go into the park ranger cabin but it was closed. All the maps and necessary information are further in the park so I wouldn’t stop, but I would put the pedal to the metal and try to snag a great campsite! (note; there are also absolutely beautiful cabins you can rent too!) We are so used to Canadian camping and having to book provincial parks 6 months in advance that we felt a bit panicky on where to go and what to choose. The rangers will come around and charge you on-site per day so just find an empty site and set up camp!
Parque Pumalin has hiking only access up north and road access from Caleta Gonzalo south. From Caleta Gonzalo south the camp has an upper, northern section (where we camped) you have the following campsites: Cascadas Escondidas, Lago Negro, Lago Blanco, El Volcan. In the south past Chaiten you have El Amarillo. We camped in the north as we were entering from the top and there are multiple short hikes we thought we could do with the children.
Cascadas Escondidas had sites rather close together. You could get full sun or do the loop and have ones more in the woods or partial shade.
Lago Negro was where we camped for the first night. It only has three sites so we picked it for the quiet (or maybe because we might be the noisy ones with kids?) It has a washroom and cold showers. You park in the gravel parking lot and then we walked over the wooden bridge and camped on one of the sites in the woods. All the sites have a wooden dining hut shelter with picnic table, benches and built-in shelves. It’s like you are eight-years old again and playing house in the woods! We really liked this site and we did the 1.6 km walk to the lake with children. It’s along a boardwalk and the views of the lake are stunning! Lots of horseflies when the sun was out at the lake.
The next day we found what we thought was a better site so even though we dreaded the thought of packing up we moved sites again. Crazy, I know. But the next day we moved to Lago Blanco. It has six very secluded sites right on the lake all with wooden dining huts. You park in parking areas and walk your things down to the sites. The first night we camped at Tepa and found it had the most amazing natural vine rope swing! We had so much fun!
While we were there my husband got talking to our neighbours and they showed us their site. It’s the last site in Lago Blanco on the right. It was gorgeous. They said they have done the Carrera Austral every summer for three years with their daughter and they race for this site. It has a long boardwalk above the marsh (about a two to three foot drop) and at the end your site is on a wooden platform with dining hut. Fortunately they were leaving the next day so we moved (again!) and took their site for two nights. It was perfect. You do have to tie your tent down to wooden decking so bring lots of rope. You have access to the spring and the lake from here. Lago Blanco has washrooms, cold showers and sinks to do washing up.
Here is my annotated map of the hikes we thought we could do with the children and how long they were. We all really enjoyed the walking trail at Lago Negro and Alerces. Super easy and with boardwalks. The Cascadas Escondidas was nice but a lot of up and down and wooden ladders. Our middle son with Down syndrome was quite scared in parts. In the end he and I didn’t seen the hidden waterfalls, but waited on the path. Our daughter with hydrocephalus has splints and mobility is tricky for her but she managed a good part of the walk and we also had the ergo carrier. We did the Mirador and it was a challenge (all up and up and up!) but the children did it and it was great.
It isn’t easy hiking with our younger two but here are some strategies that work to get them hiking. First of all they have good hiking boots, and sometimes they even use hiking sticks. We have a lot of snacks. When they start to get moany I set my phone to eight minutes and they get a chocolate every eight minutes they walk. We also put stories from Spotify on the the phone and put it in my back pocket. I feel like the pied piper but they forget they are walking and want to hear the story. Of course lots of cheering for them, playing tag on the path and encouragement!
We drove down to the El Volcan camping sites (it’s where the park rangers have a store and maps too, photos below). It was a large open field with a looping road with secluded campsites off the road. On clear days you have a stunning view of the volcano. Lots of running around room for the children and the washroom/shower blocks are throughout the campsite. They have wooden dining huts as well.
When we did the Mirador hike you drive through El Amarillo campsite which is the same set up as El Volcan but more rolling and has a gorgeous drive into the site. The Ventisquiero site in Amarillo is beautiful and most private.
The whole time we were in Pumalin we were keeping an eye on the weather. We only had one night of rain (shocking!) but then we could see it was starting to roll in. Our original plan had been to head further south to Parque Queulat, but it was calling for a lot of rain.
Through friends we had heard of a small island called Raul Marine Balmaceda. Incredibly, it was calling for sun so we decided to head there and we booked accommodation for two nights at Cabanas Isla del Palena on the way there. The owners are very helpful and have a nice restaurant across the street. We booked a boat tour and the owner of the chalet came with us, he is working hard to help protect the area and we had a great time on the boat learning about and seeing birds, sea lions, penguins, dolphins and otters. We even tried a chew of the seaweed (cochayuyo). We had a stunning day.
The chalet is rustic but has a nice wood stove and sleeps five. There is not much choice in Raul Marine Balmaceda but after we got there we did see one campground. With only a couple hundred people it is a small, quiet place and with sandy roads and wonderful views of the fjords and on a clear day volcano Melimoyu. We loved hanging out on the beaches and having picnics. Other than the boat tour we didn’t do much other than play on the beach. We had unusually sunny and glorious weather! The ferryman said we were really fortunate as it rains a lot. Note! The ferry doesn’t run over lunch hour so we had a long wait to get to the island. The hours are 8:30 to 1 pm and then again between 4 and 9 p.m. The drive between La Junta and RMB is beautiful but it is over three hours driving, 75 km long and it’s dirt and gravel with no amenities.
After RMB the forecast was rain-rain-rain so we headed to Argentina to find sun and warmth! We drove back to La Junta, said goodbye to Chile and crossed at Futaleufu to Argentina. It was a wonderful drive but took about six hours.
We stopped in Trevelin and decided we didn’t have the heart to camp. There were cabins everywhere and a lot of availability. We had trouble getting out Argentinian pesos with our ATM card so we ended up actually paying in Chilean pesos at the lovely cabins we stayed in. We stayed at Estancia Rio Abajo. The family was very sweet and the had a great view and walk out the back of their property. They have direct access to the river and beach. They have local products for sale and do fly fishing trips too. The cabin was super clean, very new and comfortable. Trevelin is in the area settled by Welsh immigrants and they still speak and teach Welsh in the school.
We drove towards Esquel and camped in Parque Nacional los Alerces. The campground was Camping Rio Arrayanes and we prebooked. The camping sites were not as spacious or as wild as where we had been on the Chilean side, and not as much privacy. There were a lot of families camping here and our children joined in games of soccer and made up running around games. Many families make a tradition of coming to this campground and you get the sites on a first-come first-served basis. Sites along the river are more secluded, but harder to get. We liked it, but when we did the math of the park entrance and the camping cost it wasn’t much cheaper per night as getting a cabin as we found on the Argentinian side camping was more expensive than Chile, but the cabins were a lot cheaper. The park was really pretty and we enjoyed the Lago Futalaufquen hike (picnic lunch).
Then we drove a few hours north to El Bolson. It reminded us of a real hippy town. It was fine, there are a lot of cabins and places to stay. With children we didn’t find it the prettiest town. But we did stay at Cabanas Ailin-Co, really nice cabins and the host was wonderful! My husband ended up having to work the next morning and the owner set him up on his own terrace with espressos and wifi and the children explored and played all morning in a wooden tree house, playground and trout streams. He has a new cabin that looked gorgeous. We were in the original one as it slept five. It was rustic but clean and fully equipped and the wood stove was great. The property was really easy with kids to just let them run.
After that we headed for Villa la Angostura. We had heard it was a cute town and we really liked it. The main street is lined with artesenal chocolate shops and ice cream parlours — what is not to love!? The drive there was also very picturesque. We decided to skip Bariloche as it’s quite built up and we just wanted to camp.
In Villa la Angosture we really enjoyed our campsite Camping la Estacada. We camped on a larger plot that wasn’t right on the lake (nervous about winds) but had a nice car camping sylte site. Bathrooms are clean and basic. Warm showers. Our campsite was rather underdressed as we loved watching the Argentinians camping with their own asado equipment, lace tablecloths and even a feather duster! Those Argentinian mamas keep a clean campsite! Well jealous!!
We stayed a few nights on the beach and towards the end of it we were all getting tired. My husband and I even said to each other we sort of wished we had one less day. The drive to the Chilean border at Puyehue was really interesting with a varied landscape. The crossing to Chile didn’t take long, we filled out all the paperwork, dated everything and got to Entre Lagos where I had booked a cabin at Lodge El Taique. It can be tricky to not only find places to sleep five people but also ones that only take one night in the summer. But this one fit the bill!
We were early so we drove into town around the lake and had a late lunch. When we got to the lodge she welcomed me saying, “We were expecting you yesterday!” I was slightly surprised as I had booked for Friday to do two leisurely nights on the road back to Santiago. But we had somehow lost a day in Argentina and it was actually Saturday! Thankfully, they had space for us in a cabin that slept five. Sadly we turned down the breakfast for the next morning and I was also very disappointed to cancel the last place we had pre-booked in Chillan at an Italian resturatant/vineyard called La Favola (next time!!) However, you know you have had a great holiday when you emerge from the woods and have lost a day!
We got up the next morning at 5 a.m. armed with the last food we had on us (rice cakes and peanut butter for breakfast anyone?) and we hit the road for Santiago to drive 1,016 km in one day. We got home at 4:30 p.m., to 35C heat, full sun and a mound of laundry. We drove back on February 3 and we had zero traffic or issues heading north to Santiago. But the highway on the other side was very busy and the lineups for the service stations stops were out the exit ramp and onto the road! Very thankful we traveled when we did.
We really enjoyed our two weeks and we would especially love to go back to Parque Pumalin and also take time to explore Parque Quelat. I’m glad we came back via Argentina as it was warmer and cheaper than the southern Chilean side. We do love the wide open pampas of Argentina, you feel like you have space and can stretch your arms, but the Chilean side is very beautiful with hills and forests. I think both sides offer something for families to explore.
Remember, if you are driving back through Argentina you need your passports and all your birth certificates as well. You also need have the following for your car:
- the patron (certificado de inscription) which comes with your car when you buy it. It looks like a small receipt so it can be very easy to misplace;
- RCI Argentinian insurance, which you buy ahead of time online. It’s about $20,000 Chilean pesos and you can buy it through your bank or various web sites;
- fill out a form (either in advance online or in person at the border) called the Salida y Admision de temporal de vehiculos;
- You can’t enter with fruit, vegetables, cheese or meat so eat it all up ahead of time.
What to pack
- Plug in cooler
- flat of milk
- Cooked and then frozen: sausages, chicken
- Lunch items
- condiments/tea/coffee/breakfast items
We had a roof box so when we were headed to a cabin we packed our tent and camping gear in the roof so we had access to our overnight cabin things in the back of the truck.
For camping we brought
- Washing line and clips
- Rain gear
- Fleece/long underwear (remember it’s a lot colder down south than in Santiago!)
- Sun hats/sunscreen/neck buffers
- Camping chairs x 5 (doite makes nice small ones for adults and children! We left our children’s camping chairs en route with another family as our children were just about too big for them)
- Warm sleeping bags (warmer than summer bags if you have them)
- We pack all the clothes in colour coded 12L dry sacks to suck out air and save space and we know whose is whose. We have a 30L sack we use for laundry. We didn’t do laundry en route.
- One six man tent
- Two burner stove and fuel
- Two pots, one pan and one kettle
- Ferry to Chaiten and drive back through Parque Queulat and Parque Pumalin
- Ferry to Caleta Gonzalo and drive back through Parque Pumalin and Cochamo
- Ferry to Chiloe and spend three to four days in Chiloe and then take the ferry to Aysen and drive north from there.