Chilean Patagonia and central Chile itinerary
The several thousand kilometers connecting Tierra de Fuego and Patagonia to the Chilean capital are extraordinary, with landscapes of all types that you can imagine: ice and glaciers, wild coasts, mountains surrounded by lakes, Valdivian jungle, inhospitable highlands, volcanic landscapes and hot springs... And in between some of the most emblematic cities of the country (and the continent). This route is full of amazing places. Here we Will only talk about the ones I visited, but there are many more that are worth it. Just to mention some of the most popular ones: Pucón and Villarrica National Park, Huerquehue National Park, Conguillio National Park, Tolhuaca National Park, Laguna del Laja National Park, Concepción... Let´s go with the ones I know first hand:
King Penguin Park (Porvenir)
Puerto Natales & Torres del Paine National Park
Queulat National Park La Junta
Puyehue National Park
Santiago de Chile
Valparaíso & Viña del Mar
KING PENGUIN PARK
This route through the southernmost Chile has many places that will leave you speechless. Starting with the steppes and plains of the end of the world inhabited by intrepid guanacos... And continuing through the historic Strait of Magellan. However, most of these places are wild and remote... And not easily accesible (not to say imposible). One of the star places to visit in the Chilean Tierra de Fuego is the King Penguin Park.
Chile has the honor of hosting the only reserve of this kind of penguin (the second largest after the emperor penguin) a backpacker can afford to visit (the rest of king penguins are in Antarctica). Apparently, these penguins came here a few years ago as if by accident and decided to settle... They are not stupid, even Tierra de Fuego is a warm place for a native species of Antarctica! It is worth taking a whole day to marvel at these majestic swimming birds in a unique and recondite space. You can come both from Ushuaia (road) and from Punta Arenas (boat to Porvenir plus bus to the penguin colony). Oh, and take some binoculars!
The capital of the province of Magallanes is the most populated (around 120,000 people) and cosmopolitan city of Chilean Patagonia. This is mainly due to its geographical location in the Strait of Magellan (passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans), which makes it a strategic point, both politically, touristy and economically. Some points of interest are: The Plaza de Armas and its handicraft market; Cerro de la Cruz and its views of the city; the Magallanes Ecological Reserve, with its forests of "southern" trees: lenga, coigue de Magallanes and ñirre (all belong to the Nothofagus family).
PUERTO NATALES AND TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK
The star destination of Chilean Patagonia is called Torres del Paine. This Park, accessible from the town of Puerto Natales (interesting city tucked away in a beautiful setting), is an ode to lovers of hiking and adventure. Mountains, valleys, lakes, glaciers, wild and pure rivers from these gigantic and blue blocks of ice, forests, open meadows... All that awaits you in an environment in which the main characters are the peaks of Torres del Paine. In terms of fauna, there are many birds (eagles and condors among them), and guanacos are the easiest to see among mammals. But if you are lucky you might also see armadillos, foxes, huemules (Southern Andean deer) and even pumas. The Park can be visited with a guided day tour (even from El Calafate, Argentina), but this is expensive and it is not the same. The backpacker can go on their own perfectly (by hitchhiking or by bus from Puerto Natales to the entrance) and get into that Patagonian nature by hiking one of the two most popular circuits: the “O” or the “W”.
Differences between circuits:
W: Shorter (80 km) and less vertical (3000 m vertical drop in total), it takes about 4 days on average.
O: Longer (130 km) and more uneven (6000 m vertical drop in total), it takes about 8 days on average.
The W is actually part of the O. I did not do the O, but from what I have heard/read it is worth doing the whole thing, and it is not necessary experience or being super fit. In the O, the variety of landscapes will be even greater, and you will be more time in contact with that wild and incredible nature. The main disadvantage is that you will have to carry more weight (food and clothes). The W is awesome anyways, perfect for those who have no so much time and/or feel like a four-day hiking in the woods is more than enough for them.
Throughout the Park there are campsites (and shelters for those without a tent). Some campsites are free (at least back in March 2014), so if your budget is tight try to organize your route to camp in those free of charge. What you will not get rid of is the cost of the ticket (entrance to the Park), which is quite expensive (21000 Chilean pesos; 6000 for nationals). Along the way you will also find a couple of hostels/restaurants where they serve food and hot drinks to recover your energies and forget a little about the packet soups.
As for the best time to visit, according to the weather it would be between December and February, but in those dates it is also overcrowded. Maybe the perfect moment is the beginning of March (April is already very cold). Two final tips. 1) Try to carry only the essentials, leaving the rest of the luggage in a hostel in Puerto Natales. 2) To leave the Park in the W (in the O you return to the starting point) there is a stretch of about 15 additional km that you can do on foot instead of taking the boat (very expensive).
Chilean Patagonia is immense, but not all of it is accessible. In the more than 600 km between Puerto Natales/Torres del Paine and Villa O'Higgins (end of the southern highway) there are no routes. If you are in the south zone, Puerto Natales/Punta Arenas, you can choose to take route 40 in Argentine territory to the town of Perito Moreno (not the glacier), then enter Chile through the Los Antiguos - Chile Chico pass. Another alternative is flying to Coyhaique, the largest population in this middle section of Patagonia. Anyway, it's time for adventures on the Austral Road (the southern highway)!
Coyhaique is not a must for the traveler but it is nice to visit. South of Coyhaique I know nothing (there must be spectacular, virgin and unexplored places though), but going north these are some of the places I suggest to the visitor.
QUEULAT NATIONAL PARK
This National Park in the region of Aysén has an ecosystem halfway between the forest and the jungle (plants that look like giant lettuces are everywhere). Its main attraction is the Ventisquero Colgante: a glacier that ends in a hanging waterfall. At the entrance to the Park there is a campsite where you can sleep with your tent or in a very cool bus that looks like the Magic Bus of "Into the Wild".
Bathed by the Palena River, I will always remember La Junta because my brother and I were stuck in it for several days having to camp, literally, under a bridge. But this town of Aysén also has beautiful places in the surroundings. For example, you can visit the Rosselot Lake National Reserve (gravel road).
A town that has it all, sea, forest and mountains, for the enjoyment of everyone. To the south lies the Corcovado National Park (difficult access) and to the north the Pumalín Park (55 km) and the Hornopirén National Park (145 km, and the route includes a ferry). However, it is not necessary to go so far to enjoy beautiful landscapes. Right there, within reach of those who do not have a vehicle, there are beautiful beaches and trails.
On the other hand, Chaitén is a port from which you can go to the beginning of the austral road (ferries almost daily to Puerto Montt) and, better yet, to the wonderful island of Chiloé (ferries once or twice a week to Castro)..
Note: While heading north can be continued by the austral road (Highway 7), in this itinerary we focus on this other way because Chiloé is one of the most diverse and beautiful places in the whole country.
In this archipelago you will find misty marine landscapes, coastal fauna (penguins, sea lions, sea otters), delicious gastronomy and mysticism. The locals will surprise you with their legends and stories of sorcerers and ghost ships. You can get here from Puerto Montt (taking the ferry in Pargua to the north of the island, near Ancud) or from Chaitén (ferry to Castro). The archipelago is formed by the Big Chiloé Island (180 km long x 50 km wide) and a cluster of small islands off the east side. On the eastern side of the island is where most of the populations are also concentrated; the west face (Pacific Ocean), on the other hand, is virgin and wild. Besides chatting with the nice chilotas, these are some of the things that you can do in your visit to Chiloé:
Around Ancud (north). Although the city does not have much, it enjoys a wild and beautiful coastal area a few kilometers to the west. Enjoy its penguins, its cliffs and its spectacular sunsets. You can also go in search of whales and other cetaceans.
Castro. The bustle of the capital of the island contrasts with the tranquility of the rest of Chiloé. Food and crafts markets, chilotas and travelers from different places enliven this small metropolis. The church of San Francisco de Castro (Plaza de Armas) is, to say the least, striking.
Cucao and Chiloe National Park. This small community 60 km from Castro is the only one facing the Pacific and, in addition to some interesting facts (Darwin landed here and carried out studies of flora and fauna), is the gateway to the Chiloé National Park, with some of the most beautiful landscapes of the island. The trails that depart from Cucao will allow you to enjoy forests, dunes, beaches, lakes... The Park is home to native fauna, especially birds and marine mammals, but also some terrestrial ones such as the chilote fox (also known as Darwin’s fox) or the pudú (one of the smallest deer in the world). Wild horses can also be spotted.
Achao. It does not belong to the Big Island of Chiloé, but it is connected to it via a ferry from Dalcahue. It is easy to get there, and it is worth it. The main tourist attraction is the Achao Church, a World Heritage Site as it is the oldest church in the country (1730) built in wood by missionaries. But the best lies in the beautiful coastal landscapes and markets.
Islitas. Visit a small island and penetrate its local culture. Obviously, you cannot visit all the islands, and it is not easy (there are usually no transport services), but it is worth a try. You can talk to the locals in the ports (I did it in Achao) to take you somewhere in the ocean and get to know the most authentic roots.
PUYEHUE NATIONAL PARK
A little-known gem located between the Los Lagos Region and the Los Ríos Region, not far from Osorno (80 km east, near the border with Argentina). It is part of the Temperate Rainforest Biosphere Reserve of the Southern Andes. As in other parks, trekking is the star activity, with dreamlike landscapes to travel with your boots: forests, rivers, lakes… And volcanoes! Climbing the Puyehue volcano is a very recommendable excursion, in which after reaching the top you can see the lava flows of the last eruption (2011) in addition to the sensational views of the valley that you just left behind. There are a couple of shelters where you can spend the night for free: one at the beginning of the route and another right at the foot of the volcano.
But this Park also offers natural spas to relax muscles and mind. When you get to the Hot Springs, you will first see a hotel and a hot spring pool, but the best is waiting outside. In the middle of nature, small ponds (magic puddles!) that sprout from the ground will make you die of pleasure in that oasis. Being immersed in warm waters surrounded by those lush forests is priceless.
University city with a lot of charm, history and culture... And where the sea lions that inhabit the channel stand out. If you want to see sea lions up close, do not go to Patagonia... Come to Valdivia, where you will have them two feet away begging for fish! Things that can be done in Valdivia: admire the handicraft (Mapuche influence) and taste the local gastronomy in the Municipal Market and the Market of Niebla (neighboring town that deserves a visit). Let’s eat seafood!; walk through the center and see the historic buildings; stroll along the along maritime walk (and observe the Valdivian sea lions); partying (great nightlife).
SANTIAGO DE CHILE
The Chilean capital, with the spectacular backdrop of the Andes, is big and cosmopolitan. It is a good stop to "rest" of so much nature (especially if you come from south to north). What can you visit in this great city? Of course, the downtown area: Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Constitución, Palacio de la Moneda, etc; Some of its interesting museums: Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, National Historical Museum (both are in the Plaza de Armas), Museum of Visual Arts...; the Santa Lucia hill or the San Cristóbal hill, from which magnificent panoramic views of the city are obtained; the markets.
VALPARAÍSO AND VIÑA DEL MAR
Valparaíso, a bohemian port city that exudes art and chaos in equal parts. Strolling along the (steep) streets of Valparaíso, sandwiched between the sea and the hills, with graffiti, paintings, statues and sculptures everywhere is a gift. That artistic disorder is what leaves every traveler a mark. If you are interested in alternative ways of life, take the opportunity to visit the Ecovillage Corazón de Agua, on the outskirts of the city..
Viña del Mar, Viña del Mar, on the other hand, is the rich neighbor. The port and buildings with graffiti are replaced by sandy beaches, parks and big houses. However, it is not the best beach destination (too crowded). If you want to go to relax at the beach, look for one sandy spot further north. By the way, near Horcón there is a bay where free camping is allowed.