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To the south of Coyhaique, continue your journey along the 1,200 km long Carretera Austral.
Your road trip will take you this time to Puerto Tranquilo, where you’ll be able to visit the Marble Chapels on General Carrera Lake, close to the giant Mont San Valentin. You’ll then discover Cochrane, the Gauchos village, at the foot of Mont San Lorenzo, followed by Tortel, an out-of-the-ordinary village built on a labyrinth of walkways. Next comes Villa O´Higgins, the final stage as here the route comes to an end…The last day to set out for the gigantic O´Higgins Glacier, before driving or flying back to Coyhaique.
Arrival in Santiago de Chile, having crossed the last foothills of the Andes.
From the airport, you will go to your hotel.
Free time to allow you to discover the historic centre of Santiago and its most emblematic sites, such as the Plaza de Armas, the Central Post Office building, the Municipal theatre and the la Moneda Palace. You can also wander the shaded alleyways of the Cerro Santa Lucia, visit San Francisco, the oldest church, or talk a walk around the Bellavista quarter, with its ample variety of restaurants and souvenir shops, just below the Cerro San Cristobal, from where you can take the cable car to get a bird’s eye view of the capital.
Transfer to the airport and domestic flight to reach Coyhaique. From the Balmaceda airport, our rote will take us through a backdrop of pampas, the lowlands of the South American steppe. After about an hour, a natural castle – Cerro Castillo (2675 m) – will loom into view. This mountain also gives its name to the neighbouring village and is a protected park. There are a few paths that keen hikers can follow to reach a glacial plain– lagoon, glacier and moraine – and experience its endemic Antarctic beech forest. We continue down the road to discover the Rio Ibanez valley. Very quickly, this immense and strange valley opens onto a huge sandy grey plain, littered with dead trunks that have remained upright. These are the ashes of the 1991 eruption of the Hudson volcano, which is about ten kilometres to the west. From there we reach Puerto Tranquilo, a small pioneer village, having followed the contours of General Carrera lake, the second largest lake in Latin America. Settle in at hostel. Late afternoon free.
Puerto Tranquilo does indeed offer a tranquil start to the day, on the edge of a turquoise-blue lake. The inhabitants of the village make their living from livestock and especially from tourism. Just a few kilometres away, you will find your way to marble chapels, which are enormous rocks that seems to float on the water. They have been painstakingly sculpted by the passing of the waves, leaving columns, inner rooms and little cavities where you hear the water lapping. The way the light dances and reflects off the sparkling rock is a real sight to behold.
At the start of the afternoon, you will continue down the southern road that follows the General Carrera lake shoreline. It is a completely rural scene and it is not unusual to come across baqueanos – Chilian cowboys – on horseback, gathering their flocks or on a trek of several days to return to their little isolated plot of land. We will pass through the village of Puerto Bertrand, at the mouth of the tumultuous Rio Baker, which is a haven for fly fishers. Before long, the turquoise waters of the Rio Baker combine with the grey of the Rio Neff, two rivers that descend from the northern Patagonian ice field, a glacial mass of 4000 km2 that we can make out in the distance. We arrive in the town of Cochrane in late afternoon. Settle in at hostel.
Option: From Puerto Tranquilo, you can take a day trip to the lagoon and imposing wall of ice at Glacier San Rafael, one of the best-known glaciers on the northern Patagonian ice field. For this, you will need to stay a second night in Puerto Tranquilo.
This is a place imbibed in “gaucho” culture, thrusting us into a Western film decor. Open the door the Melero General Store just as the pinoeros would do on returning from their fundo for a few days in town to buy supplies, visit their family and run a few errands. Whether you need a kilo of apples or shoes for the horse, from a box of nails to packs of coffee or wine, here you can find anything and people take their time – it’s the Patagonian way. On the Plaza de Armas, you’ll definitely come across “gauchos” and you may be lucky enough to see the annual branding and shearing or even take part in a rodeo, which is THE national sport. Cochrane nestles close to a site of outstanding natural beauty, the Tamango reserve. The clear, blue waters of the Rio Cochrane run alongside the superb beech forest. At bends in the path, it is not unusual to get a glimpse of the placid huemul. The deer is native to the region and protected in Chile and Argentina – it is an endangered species due to its forest habitat having been massively damaged, particularly by fires and deforestation.
We continue along the southern road and cross landscapes where humans become a rare sight, as does firm ground. We are getting closer to the fjords and the vegetation becomes denser. Here, it rains almost every day, which has given rise to a magnificent temperate rainforest. Our destination is Tortel which, just a few short years ago, was a village that was only connected to the rest of the world by motor boat. Settle in at hostel.
Option: By the sea and close to many fjords, Tortel is a privileged location for those wanting to explore the surrounding area. Situated between the north and south ice fields, you could take advantage of this stop to discover these glaciers and descend down to the sea, either visiting glacier Steffen or glacier Jorge Montt. For this, you will need to stay a second night in Tortel.
In this green oasis with the occasional mist, there are delicious odours of damp wood from the coloured houses that are built on stilts, with their little alleyways made from bridges and ladders. This isolated village is nothing if not picturesque. People have been living a self-sufficient life here for decades, and they have had to find ingenious solutions to make the area habitable in this tight strip between ocean and bog. This caleta was built in 1955 to develop cypress wood groves in Patagonia on the neighbouring islands. The imperturbable peacefulness of the inhabitants defies the heady rhythm of the tourists trekking through. Upon leaving Tortel, we are on the last leg of the southern road, the only inroad into this tough terrain that is so inhospitable to man, between glaciers, through impenetrable forest and with a cold wet climate – some 3000 m of precipitation per year! A bus takes on a winding few hours along the road that has had to adapt to the perilous terrain. Beyond that, the south of Chile is nothing but a labyrinth of fjords, canals and glaciers. We will get a glimpse when crossing fjord Mitchell by ferry, the only connection possible to Villa O’Higgins, the last village on the southern road.
This grid-based little city was founded in 1966 by the families of foresters, cattle farmers and civil servants and was limit of Chilean sovereignty when the southern territory was still practically terra incognita. We have reached the latitude where the “campo de hielo norte” meets to the “campo de hielo sur” – 12000 km². These two enormous ice fields cover the whole of the Andes mountain range at this point. This is the day we are going to be able to admire a tiny but impressive part of it. From Puerto Bahamondes, the end of the road, we will climb aboard the Quetru to sail across lake O’Higgins – called lake San Martin on the Argentine side – Both countries have chosen to honour one of their “libertadores” who free them from the Spanish yoke in naming the lake. It’s not long before we arrive at glacier O’Higgins, one of the biggest on the Campo de Hielo. Admiring its blue-tinged seracs and majestic frontal columns that can reach up to 80 meters tall, we are able to approach within 250 metres of the ice front on the boat. The return trip takes us to the villa, arriving in late afternoon.
Option: If you would like to go on a hike during your trip, you can reach the border the same day. Spend the night in a colonial house and hike the next day to Laguna del Desierto, before getting a transfer to El Chalten.
Return route or flight to go north and to Coyhaique.