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Walking opportunities around Patagonia's Carretera Austral

Christine Gordon outlines the walking opportunities around the Carretera Austral - a 1240km route running from Puerto Mont to Villa O’Higgins through rural Patagonia.

The Carretera Austral (Chile’s Route 7) runs for about 1240km from Puerto Mont to Villa O’Higgins through rural Patagonia, offering access to one of its most remote areas and some incredible walking.

Chile is a long, narrow country that boasts majestic mountains, spectacular coastlines, rural and urban landscapes and Patagonia. Patagonia is the southern area of both Chile and Argentina, with the Andes separating the countries, and it offers both tourists and locals fantastic opportunities to explore and enjoy the great outdoors among dramatic scenery.

I had the privilege of joining a group of 14 clients and two guides on a trip along part of the Carretera Austral. The trip was organised by Pura Aventura and involved a circular drive in 4x4s from Balmacaan airport to the small town of Cochrane, stopping along the way to engage in various walks and other activities.

Our trip included a very early morning start to watch a group of condor as they used the thermals to gain the height they needed to depart from their ‘home’ on a cliff face for a day spent hunting food.

We were also given an opportunity to fly across a glacier, visit the fantastic Marble Caves, see some pre-historic hand art and participate in white-water rafting, among other activities. However, the major focus of the experience was to explore the area by foot.

Walker’s paradise

Patagonia and the area around the Carretera Austral are a walker’s paradise. There are hiking opportunities to suit every skill level, from short, flat walks along the many lakes in the area, to more challenging walks to miradors (lookouts), where you can view spectacular scenery from vantage points. It is possible to combine several walking routes to provide multi-day hiking opportunities, perhaps involving camping in remote and isolated environments.

You can walk in rain forests and on snow-capped mountains; indeed, I went on one walk that combined both walking in a rain forest with walking in the snow and building a snowman!

There are three national parks in the area. These parks are patrolled by wardens who are responsible for protecting the area and collecting the entrance fee to the park. For this fee you not only have amazing walking opportunities amid spectacular scenery, but are offered support and information about what you can expect on your walk from people who are both knowledgeable about the park and keen to share this knowledge. The wardens are also responsible for ensuring that paths are maintained; the fees being a crucial aspect of making sure that their work continues.

One of our first walks was in the Parque Nacional Queulat, where you can either walk to a mirador to view the Ventisquero Colgante or ‘hanging glacier’ from above or take a boat trip to view it from below. While the glacier is receding due to global warming, it is well worth visiting and this is a walk that I would recommend if you are in the area around Puyuhuapi.

Another walk in the same area is the Puma Walk. This is not a walk in search of puma and, indeed, you are not likely to encounter any puma at all in Patagonia. Instead, it is a lovely walk through a rain forest to the Laguna Los Pumas. This is the walk I previously mentioned, which involved walking in the snow in a rain forest and was one we thoroughly enjoyed. While you can certainly undertake this walk independently, it was helpful to have a guide who could point out the local flora and fauna and share his knowledge of the environment.

I prepared a film of our trip:

Parque Nacional Jeinimeni

The first national park we visited was the Parque Nacional Queulat and the second was the Parque Nacional Jeinimeni, where we undertook several walks. This part of Patagonia abounds with lakes and fjords and our walk in the Jeinimeni Park was along the banks of a lake and up to a mirador.

What really surprised me was how clear the water is, and I was also amazed by its colour. This is because many of the lakes and rivers are fed by ice melt.

It also means that the water is very pure and you can, therefore, drink straight from the streams. The view from the mirador to the lake and the surrounding mountains was superb. You can walk for several days in a multi-day trip in this area. There are good paths in the area and, although not marked, they are easy to follow.

La Confluencia is only a short walk from the Carretera Austral, but it is well worth doing. This is the point where the Neff river meets the Baker river. The Baker is Chile’s most powerful river and is, like so many other Chilean rivers, crystal clear. I spent time simply admiring its power as it cascaded in torrents over the rocks and enjoyed being splashed by the spray. The Neff is very different. It is fed by a glacier and is therefore milky. Standing at La Confluencia you can identify the exact point at which the two rivers meet.

Parque Patagonia

Parque Patagonia was once cattle and sheep ranches. It was bought by the billionaire Doug Tompkins and his wife Kristine in 2004 and they planned to re-wild the area. They closed the ranches, moved cattle and sheep and removed all the fencing so that the land could return to its previous natural state. The land is wilderness once again, apart from a few areas of the park where one or two ranchers refused to sell to Tompkins.

For walkers, the prospect of returning Parque Patagonia to its natural state might be attractive, however there is a tension between this and the needs of local farmers and ranchers, who feel that their livelihoods are being compromised by an over-emphasis on re-wilding land that could be used for agricultural purposes.

There is also a bit of an anomaly with the Tompkins’ aims in that there is a very expensive hotel at the entrance to the park, which does not sit comfortably with their aim of a natural and wild environment.

Alongside the plan to return Parque Patagonia to its natural state is an ambitious plan to unite the land they had bought with the neighbouring Jeinimeni and Tamango national reserves, to create a 650,000-acre public access park. They are also hoping to gain national park status for Parque Patagonia.

Doug Tompkins died in 2015 and his grave is in a small cemetery near the hotel. The plan for re-wilding continues, as does the plan to unite the land with the neighbouring national parks and it is possible to undertake a long walk from the hotel in Parque Patagonia to the town of Cochrane, via Parque Tamango.

We had a lovely walk in the area and spent some time admiring the guanaco who live there.

Parque Tamango

The third national park in the area is Parque Tamango. It is reached from the town of Cochrane and is bounded by the River Cochrane. Like the other national parks, there are a variety of walks in the area. We took a short boat ride to a mirador and from there went on one of the walks in the park. The mirador we visited looked over the River Cochrane and out towards Argentina. Like so many rivers in Patagonia, the water in the river was crystal clear and shone blue in the sunlight. The walk was interesting and allowed us glimpses of the river as we walked.

One recommended walk from near Puerto Guadal is the Fossil Walk. This is an interesting walk through woods to a stony area where you can search for fossils, which is easy as there are a lot to be found. You can then walk on to the summit of the hill.

Alongside the ones that I have described, there are many other walks that can be undertaken and this certainly means that I would be happy to return to this lovely and remote area of Patagonia to walk again. It also means that you should either undertake your own research before visiting the area or employ a company such as Pura Aventura, which will provide you with a bespoke holiday based on your individual interests and needs.

Torres del Paine may be the most popular and well known of Chile’s national parks and it is certainly a remarkable place to visit. However, there is much more to Patagonia than this one park. The area around Carretera Austral may not be so well known but it has much to offer. It allows you to experience the wild and untamed nature of the mountains, while also allowing you to explore the cultural aspects of living in a remote area of Patagonia.

Practical considerations

British Airways flies direct from London Heathrow to Santiago in Chile and from there you can fly directly to Balmacaan. Pura Aventura are experts in the area and will organise a bespoke holiday to meet individual needs (01273 676712 or Details of their Carretera Austral trip can be found here.

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