We hit the open road of the Aysén Region of Chile to hike Cerro Castillo, take a boat ride through the Marble Caves, day hike in Parque Patagonia, and marvel and wander through Caleta Tortel as we headed south on the Carretera Austral.
The Carretera Austral (Ruta 7) is 1,240 kilometres stretching along the southern backbone of Chile connecting the port city of Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. The Carretera is a draw to avid cyclists, motorcyclists, campers and trekkers. When we went on our week-long trip (without the children this time) we drove over 500 km (one way) of the Carretera Austral from Balmeceda to Caleta Tortel — and it took days of driving to achieve even this portion. Our priorities were to do some hiking, camping, see the Marble Caves (Capilla de Marmol) and visit the little village of Caleta Tortel.
We began our trip with a three day, 45 km camping and hiking trek through Cerro Castillo. We flew into Balmeceda where we rented a car for the whole week. To read details about that portion of the trip, check out my Cerro Castillo post.
After our hike, we spent one night in Villa Cerro Castillo in a cabin we organized with Clara at Cerro Castillo Aysen, and then we started the non-camping portion of the trip. We got up early and left Villa Cerro Castillo and drove the four hours to Puerto Tranquilo. This pretty much took all day! We stopped for photos and took little detours.
We had two full days booked for Puerto Tranquilo, one day to go on the San Rafael glacier (a full day excursion) and another day to tour the Marble Caves/Capilla de Marmol. When we got into town we were looking for a tour company recommended to us, but they were closed for the day. We really wanted to kayak the Marble Caves but I had fallen on our hike and really bruised my tailbone. I could only sit in our car on my husband’s blown up neck pillow for the plane. It was going to be impossible for me to sit at a 90 degree angle for that amount of time without being able to shift around. So we ended up looking for a boat tour instead, booking with Turismo Patagonia (located on the left as you walk towards the lake, closer the end of the row of tourism operators, they are all clustered together in town). When we booked, they said everyone goes out every day and all day, but the best times are in the morning and on a sunny day. Our second full day was calling for sun, so we pre-booked a morning tour for that day. The glacier expeditions were all closed due to issues with access and the road to the glacier so unfortunately we had to cross that off the list.
I had booked a cabin at Lodge el Mirador de Guadal. It was about an hour around the lake (towards Cochrane) from Puerto Tranquilo. It was a gorgeous drive and I was really happy with our choice as it was quiet and beautiful with wonderful views of the mountains across the lake. The included breakfast was plentiful. You can eat in their restaurant for supper as well, which we did two nights and one night we just had cheese and bread in our room. Our room was so cozy and comfortable with a wonderful wood stove, great bathroom, little kitchenette and views of the lake from the deck.
There was quite a variety of guests staying there in terms of ages and interests. It is a family-run lodge and the owners and their adult daughter really listened to their guests, sitting down at supper or breakfast for a few minutes with each of us and asking about our day, what we wanted to do the next day and providing advice and options. They suggested for our rainy day that we do a hike in Parque Patagonia, they said often on rainy days in Puerto Tranquilo, it is clear in the park.
So the next day we followed their advice and drove the hour south to Parque Patagonia, stopping at La Confluencia on the way and did a quick little walk down to see the emerald green water up close. It was really beautiful to see the blue and green waters merging against snow-capped mountains and creamy rock gorge. If you don’t have time to to stop and run down to see it up close, if you continue driving you will see a parking area on the right (like a pull over for buses) and you can stop there and walk a few metres to get some nice photos of the confluence.
We followed the Carrera Austral to Parque Patagonia and as we were driving into the park we saw families of guanaco. We really loved this park and it is immediately apparent you are in a Tompkins park (though recently this park now belongs to Chile). The roads are good, plenty of wide open space, and the natural landscape is breathtaking. Tompkins had wonderful foresight when we bought the former cattle and sheep over-grazed pastures in 2004. They ripped out fencing and invasive plant species to let nature come back to the land. When you enter the park, you will also pass Doug Tompkins house high up on the right. Sadly, Tompkins died in a kayaking accident in 2015. The history of the park and his legacy is fascinating.
We drove up to the park office which is stunning. Flagstone paths, inlaid wood, slate roof, it is just like something out of a movie. The Reading Room makes you want to grab a blanket and hot chocolate and curl up with a good book for a few hours!
We chatted with the staff at the info desk and said we wanted to do a half day hike and they suggested the Las Lagunas Altas trail which is 23 kilometres and marked as a full day hike. But as we had just done Cerro Castillo with full packs we knew it wouldn’t be a full day, in the end it took us five hours. We parked and headed up the escarpment (we saw one person the whole time, right at the beginning and he was trail running down the opposite way). We walked up to the top and then along the plateau and looked at the lakes at the back, then looped through a small forest and back down the backside. The views of the park were beautiful, meandering rivers through the steppe landscape with grey full clouds. As we were walking along the path we saw families (and babies!) of guanaco. I was starting to feel very slow and in pain with my back towards the last five kilometres, I actually said to my husband to go on ahead to the car and he told me not to be silly and no sooner had we had this discussion than we heard a puma! We did pick up the pace after that! If you do the hike bring plenty of layers as we had every bit of weather on the hike, plenty of water and lunch. We found the hiking sticks helpful on the way down.
There is a wonderful campground — Los West Winds — nestled among some trees across from the start of this hike and we are keen to come back to this beautiful park and camp with the family and try the trails of all levels and lengths. There is the Aviles Valley Trail, a 50+ km multi-day multi-park trek where you hike from Parque Patagonia to Jeinemeni Park, which is something we have added to our ever-expanding wish list! If you don’t want to camp at Parque Patagonia, but you do want to stay in the park, you can also stay in the luxurious lodge. We wanted to have a late lunch at the hotel’s restaurant but it didn’t open until 7 p.m. for supper. We had a drink and realized the bartender was the trail runner we had seen in our first few kilometres!
The second day in Puerto Tranquilo we had an early breakfast and left by 8 a.m. for our marble caves tour. The day dawned clear and sunny.
We arrived at 9 a.m. for the boat tour, put on life jackets and walked about 100 metres down the road to the boat launch. They gave us rain slickers to wear. I had a small dry sack for my phone. I had forgotten sunglasses, but a lovely French girl on our boat had two, so she lent me a pair. The tour crossed across the lake and visited different marble caves along the way.
The company we went with is co-owned by another guy who runs the kayak portion and he goes out with a dog on his kayak! The sun was perfect for photos when we went out at 9 am and the guides were great about saying “here is a good spot for pictures.” I was pleasantly surprised that we could get in under the caves in the boat without damaging the caves. I was still disappointed that we weren’t kayaking, but in the end I think we saw more as we went from a launch further away and we did more caves along the way. We also had the chance to see them from afar and close up and the French girl on our boat said she had talked to multiple tour companies and they didn’t go out for as long as ours (which ended up being a three full hours). We paid $20,000 per person.
The first day in Puerto Tranquilo we had lunch at Restaurant Cerveceria Rio Tranquilo , a great little pizza and a wonderful really fresh and interesting salad at a brew pub just across from the main area where all the tours set up. And another day we ate at Casa Bruja which is in more in town in an unassuming house, which is actually a two-storey restaurant. We had a wonderful meal, it was really delicious and we both loved our food.
We really wanted to drive to the end of the Carerra Austral to Villa O’Higgins. But we were running out of time and we were really intrigued by Caleta Tortel. A village on the edge of the River Baker with a population of under 400 people. It is a long 22 km drive off the Carretera Austral, down washboard gravel roads that follows the Cochrane River with stunning views along the way.
At the end of the road (only put in about 20 years ago) you come to the magical village of Caleta Tortel. Built on stilts and walkways it’s perched on the Baker River and looks out onto fjords and estuaries that eventually give way to the Pacific Ocean. Caleta Tortel looks like it has been there forever, but it was only founded in 1955 to create a forestry industry on the cypress de las guaytecas tree. The lumber has been used to build all their homes, stilts, and 7.5 km of walkways. As we wandered along the boardwalks we saw men hauling huge hunks of wood home on their boats to be cut down into usable sections at home.
There aren’t many accommodation options, you can stay in rustic home stays or the more expensive Lodge Bordebaker. We opted for the former and stayed in Cabanas el Pionero Roberto Becerra Tortel. The owner, Gricelda, is a lovely woman who told us she arrived to the area when she married her husband. She is now head of the tourism board for the area and has cabins for rent. If you have two full days here you could also book a boat tour to the islands and especially to the graveyard, Isla de los Muertos, or rent a kayak. Tours also go to Glacier Jorge Montt. You could also do a little hike up to the top of the hill mirador, but my tailbone was causing me so much pain we opted to just wander around the boardwalks and soak in what felt like a hobbit land of houses sprouting out of the hillside here and there, surprising you at every corner as they clung to the woods and looked down into the bay. We left earlish both days (9 a.m?) so we had one night in Caleta Tortel and it gave us plenty of time to stop on the way to and from to take pictures or go into Cochrane. And lots of time to wander around Caleta Tortel, but not enough time for any other excursions.
When we arrived, there was a cruise ship in the port and Gricelda told us they had just started coming more frequently. It does mean more people are coming to the town, but she said sadly they get off the ship and walk around and take photos, but don’t spend money in cafes or shops. And all the extra people means wear and tear on the boardwalks and they are trying hard to keep up on the maintenance. Wandering around is a bit like rabbit warren — you take a boardwalk, climb some stairs passing by someone’s kitchen window, then you hit a dead end and turn around, and find your way back.
We ate at Restaurant Mirador and it had a nice view, the food was good which was great as it was the only restaurant open.
The next morning we drove back via Cochrane. In Cochrane, there is Supermercado Melero which I loved walking around and checking out what was for sale. The shop has everything from wood stoves to school uniforms, enamelware, wine and a deli. It reminded me of Bill’s Store in Mahone Bay, NS where you could get a little bit of everything. They had a pair of spurs I wanted to buy, but they were closed for siesta when we stopped on the way back.
For our last night we stayed on the edge of Laguna General Carrera and just off the Carrera Austral at Mallin Colorado Ecolodge. It has a gorgeous shared sitting room, with two wings and individual guest rooms along the hall. Some rooms could be combined with shared doors so you could stay with family. The rooms were small but comfortable and the food was delicious and the views very beautiful.
There is also a nice campground just on the edge of Puerto Tranquilo as well. Buses run, but not super frequently, and we saw a lot of hitchhikers.
The next day we left by 7 a.m., gassed up in Puerto Tranquilo and returned to Balmeceda for a 3 p.m. flight back to Santiago. We had a wonderful sunny day and really just had to stop and take a few more photos!
We had rented our car from Traeger and didn’t have time to drive the extra two hours round trip to go to Coyahqie to get more gas. So we paid an extra $20,000 for dropping it off not entirely full. When you book with Traeger I would suggest you call ahead to ensure you have a full tank of gas upon pick-up. A friend rented a car from an agency at the Balmeceda Airport and it was so low on fuel she had to drive the opposite direction to Coyhaique to fill up and then double back to continue on to Puerto Tranquilo. With three kids. At night. In the rain. (ok, I made that last bit up!) but still, no fun. We called ahead and Traeger said not to worry it would be full and it was.
Saturday-Monday: fly into Balmaceda and hike/camp through Cerro Castillo.
Tuesday-Thursday: Puerto Tranquilo area
Friday-Saturday: Caleta Tortel
Sunday: fly out to Santiago
You could go all the way to Villa O’Higgins and then walk (you can’t drive) to Argentina.
You could add a few more days to Caleta Tortel
You could add a day or two to drive around General Carrera Lake or take the ferry across and go down by Chile Chico.