“I am glad I will not be young in a future without wilderness.”
― Aldo Leopold
Of all the different landscapes and peoples of Patagonia, the most isolated region on the Chilean side of the Andes is the region of Aysén. There is no direct road from Aysén to the Chilean mainland. Jutting through the middle of its thin belly are several chains of glaciated mountains, to the west lies the sea, to the east lie the pampas or high dry plains that are quite inhospitable. To the north lie steep volcanic shores and to the south the campos de hielo or ice fields. This natural isolation and extreme geography makes Aysén very attractive for extreme sports such as rock climbing, mountaineering, fly fishing, kayaking, mountain biking and hiking.
The famed Carretera Austral or southern highway meanders throughout the region towards the south and reaches its end in the tiny town of Villa O’Higgins on the shore of Lake O’Higgins, the deepest lake in the Americas. Although the region is only about as large as Tennessee, to drive from one extreme to the next must be done over several days. The rough dirt road and steep passes weave through the centenarian forests of coihue (pr: coy-way) ending finally in Villa O’Higgins, where the road is so remote that it is open only in the summer months. This makes Villa O’Higgins arguably one of the most isolated towns in Chile and therefore attractive to those inclined to extremes.
From Villa O’Higgins you can access one of the region’s 4 largest ventisqueros (pr: vent-ees-karos) or hanging glaciers, the aptly named O’Higgins glacier. Only a few kilometers to the south are the towering spires of the infamous Mount Fitz Roy, one of the most difficult technical climbing ascents. This ancient tongue extends from the Campos de Hielo Sur or southern Ice fields below Volcán Lautaro. It is nearly 80 meters tall where it touches the lake and spans 2 km of shoreline.
Getting there- popular routes
Getting to Aysén can be a challenge since there is no direct road from the mainland. The most popular route is by ferry: there are a few different ferries that leave from Puerto Montt as well a few from various places in Chiloé (the small island to the south of Puerto Montt).
- Ferry – The two main companies that run ferries can be found here or here)
- Boats – Many of the boats have sleeping quarters and are often trailed by whales and dolphins as they navigate the meandering fjords of the south Chilean Sea.
- Bus – There are also several buses that travel to and from Coyhaique, the capital of the region, however these busses usually travel for about 24 hours before reaching the destination and can be quite uncomfortable. During the summer they also fill up rather quickly due to a heavy tourist load.
- Planes – It is possible to fly into the Balmaceda airport from either Santiago (the capital) or Puerto Montt via Lan airlines (daily) or Sky Airlines (whose website is catastrophic, just call). In the summer months, however, prices can get very high**.
- Auto – It is possible to rent a car both in Puerto Montt as well as in Coyhaique. In Coyhaique there is a Hertz auto rental (https://www.hertz.com/rentacar/location/chile/coyhaique/GXQC60 ask for Pablo), however you will not find an auto rental for the rest of the Carretera Austral. Be vigilant about gas stations as you will only find a few en route.
** Chile is unlike many South American countries in that it is not much cheaper than the U.S. $3 US is about $2000 chilean pesos. The most common note is the $1000 note and is called a luca.