Chilean Patagonia: From the Peak to the Sea

Underneath the little marble islands lie the “capillas de marmol” or the marble chapels: the lake has slowly eroded away the underside of the marble islands leaving caves that glow in the sunlight and reflect the blue water.

In the Chilean Patagonia, in the region of Aysen, there is one main road that extends over 1000 kilometers through some of the least touched soil on the earth. The “Carretera Austral,” or Southern Highway, is little more than a two lane road at its best that extends from Chaiten to Villa O’Higgins. Although not the southernmost part of Chile, Aysen is recognized as one of the most isolated regions. The Andes protrude directly from the sea to glacier topped peaks, creating a labyrinth of islands and fjords, mountain ridges and pampas that left the region virtually untouched by Europeans until the early twentieth century.

The route, descending from Cerro Castillo to Laguna San Rafael, roughly 600 miles of remoteness.

The route, descending from Cerro Castillo to Laguna San Rafael, roughly 600 miles of remoteness.

After having spent a semester in Chile, I decided to test my Spanish and hitchhiking skills and give myself six weeks to get to the southern tip of the highway with three goals in mind: Climb a mountain, see a hanging glacier, get to the sea. Let the adventure begin!

After taking a two day ferry and a bus, we headed to the edge of Coyhaique and stuck out our thumbs to catch a ride south towards Lago General Carrera, the largest lake in the country. As we wound around the edge of Cerro Castillo National Park, several spiny peaks appeared tucked behind the trees, 40 kilometers and three days to go on Cerro Castillo! The trail in the woods winds subtly through the forest of the evergreen and ancient Coihue trees, slowly upward skipping across the many creeks. After 13 km we call it a day knowing that the next few days will be a scramble.

The following day we were out of the woods and onto the first scree field by the time there was direct sunlight in the valley. After a few hours of the powerful southern sun and all that altitude gain, I took a well needed repose on a little knoll sprinkled with tundra flowers, drank a big gulp of water from the glacial creek at my feet and was good as new again. Descending a scree field, I found out, is easier said than done. In fact, it seems best done by taking a sledding approach and scooting down on top of all the sliding rocks (lucky to learn that trick early on, I would need it again soon).

Cerro Castillo

Cerro Castillo

Through all the sliding and smashing, I had nearly neglected to notice off to my left the incredible cliff roaring with spring melt. As I turned to look back at my path, I was captured by the sight of it: perched like an eagle in its nest, watching me, a hanging glacier! Well worth the scramble.

Through another forest, across another creek, up another scree field and the gothic shale spires of the castle’s tower appear again. As the spines grow larger the scattered rocks grow into a sprawling tundra field, full of yellow flowers and succulent shrubs. All the while the glacier’s showering us with spring’s latest mist, we find the little lake at the base of the spires. It is blue, no, it is turquoise and perfectly clear, colored only by the glacier’s minerals. Stowed away at the foot of the continent, this mountain seems like some Tolkien fantasy; the shale of the spines above us flake apart like a sun-frozen troll, the glowing blue water like some elven paradise. From the top of the surrounding boulder field, I can see the whole valley: the River Ibañez growing larger then disappearing into the Lake to the south, the sun illuminating every valley and cliff as far as the eye could see.

The last descent was Mordor. Shale is pointed and cuts your shoes. There is no clear path. The sun is so hot and there is no shade. The way down is so steep and seems to last for nearly a kilometer. Lucky for us though, there was only sun (the cornice will often get socked in with fog and can be deadly) and I had mastered my rock sledding technique in the days prior. Between the two of us we were able to locate the trail markers occasionally, although we lost the trail when we finally made it into the shrubs below. Just as the sun was setting we reached the flood plain of the river and were now only in the shadow of the looming titan.

Looking north across Lake General Carrera.

Looking north across Lake General Carrera.

Back on the road, we wind for several hours between ice-capped peaks and broad river basins to reach Lake General Carrera. It has that same glowing turquoise of the lake on the mountain and dominates the horizon. Little marble islands puncture the pure blue and in the backdrop pristine mountains tower endlessly. Underneath the little marble islands lie the capillas de marmol or the marble chapels: the lake has slowly eroded away the underside of the marble islands leaving caves that glow in the sunlight and reflect the blue water.

Leaving Lake General Carrera, the road follows the Baker River, Chile’s most voluminous river which carries the radiant blue water out to the sea. For an entire day the Baker roars in the valley below all the way to a tiny little town called Caleta Tortel, a town with no roads but only boardwalks nestle up against the steep cliffs and Cyprus trees. Tortel is a mermaid’s paradise. The sea is a mirky green ridden with the sand brought by the mighty Baker. Yellow raspberries and wild chilco fruits grow along every path. It always rains, but on the rare day when it doesn’t, the most magnificent rainbow flies above.

So I found my mountain, my hanging glacier and the southern sea. The Carretera Austral stuck with me so much that I ended up moving there, to a town called Coyhaique, where I lived for a year. Aysen become a part of me, where the pristine peaks and blue waters are. Stay tuned for more stories about the Chilean Patagonia here at

1 comment

    • Mike Smith on June 1, 2016 at 12:48 pm


    Thanks for sharing, Kate

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