Pure Patagonia

Even though we’ve hitchhiked while criss-crossing the entire length of Chile and Argentina over the last three months, Stefje and I have rarely run into other hitchhikers. That all changed on the Carretera Austral, where infrequent bus schedules and successful hitchhikers encouraging others have gotten the secret out. Unfortunately this influx has made us much less likely to pick up rides, so we weren’t surprised when four other backpackers were waiting with us to try and grab a ride heading from Puerto Rio Tranquilo to Coyhaique. When a good samaritan with a full car pulled over to let us know the road would be closed for four hours in the afternoon due to construction, I made the impromptu decision to purchase tickets for the bus that was about to leave and we shipped out of the tiny little town. 

What followed was a stunning bus ride over luscious valleys, glistening glacier-adorned mountains, and one of the clearest blue rivers I’ve ever seen. The beautiful landscape had me staring slack-jawed out the window the entire time, wondering where I could purchase some property in this largely untouched expanse of natural beauty. 


In the early afternoon we arrived in Coyahique, quickly shedding layers to equilibrate ourselves with the sweltering summer heat. Walking around the bustling town yielded a severe lack of good deals on accommodation options and a number of hostels that were full for the weekend, but a gregarious gardener paused to talk with us and kindly drew us a map towards a campsite outside of town. By the time we reached Camping Encantado Anomite, only a 5 minute ride from the town center but with an atmosphere a world away, we immediately felt like we were at home. The affable proprietor David walked us around the entire property, showing us the choice campsites, leading us to a mirador with a delightful view of the rural surroundings, and exuding hospitality by offering us some fresh wild raspberry smoothies. 

The following day Stefje and I decided to immediately take advantage of the fantastic weather and location, taking a day to relax on the riverbed in view right below our campsite. Although the official calendar will tell you that summer in the Southern Hemisphere starts on December 22nd, for me it didn’t feel real until this day, January 9th. The sunburn I suffered through for the next few days was completely worth it in exchange for that feeling off being next to water, enjoying the sun beating down on you. 

From our view at the river we could glimpse the Coyhaique National Reserve, and the following day we headed out for an overnight camping trip to the park. The entrance is just 5 kilometers from the city, so we decided to tackle it on foot, which seemed like a great decision until an impossibly steep uphill track stifled our progress with a kilometer and a half to go. Finally we reached the park ranger’s office, registering for a campsite and proceeding forward under the cover of the forest. From here, we were graced with a fantastic view of the town below, graced by a huge mountain face in the distance. 

Yet the forest also brings with it an unwelcome guest in the Patagonian summer: horseflies. Despite a heavy backpack, Stefje practically flew to our campsite in an attempt to rid herself of the incredibly annoying little bugs as fast as possible. It only took us an hour to reach the picturesque laguna where we’d be spending the night, but it felt like an eternity with the flies buzzing circles around our head the entire time. Upon arrival the first order of business was to make a fire, as the smoke kept the flies out of our hair until the weather cooled off a bit and they retreated for the night. 

This was definitely one of the most enjoyable campsites we’d ever slept at, as each tent had access to their own log cabin with a fireplace and picnic table, opening up right onto a laguna surrounding by a rolling hillside of forest. Lamenting the fact that we hadn’t brought any wine on the relatively easy hike, we instead wiled away the afternoon by lounging in our cabin and taking off for a couple of quick sprints around the lake’s boardwalk path. 


The next day we undertook the largest of the hikes that circles the reserve, packing up all our stuff and bidding farewell to the campsite as the morning light twinkled across the surface of the lake, brushed around along the ridges of the waters by soft whispers of wind. 

The path started out flat enough, but then wound up and up and worked us out of breath as we set off for an ascent towards the park’s centerpiece, the rounded peak of Cerro Cinchao. The forest was our primary companion in this section of the trail and it proved to never disappoint, leading us on an enchanting walk through the tall sun-kissed grasses that remind me of summer and trees adorned with moss.

As the elevation changed the forest moved along with it, offering up first big hulking trees with arms as big as trunks protruding in unruly fashion from their sides, then smaller windswept bushes, all of them facing the same direction after years of pounding from intense Patagonian weather. 

In fact once the tree line broke and we were left exposed the weather became a real factor, threatening to throw us off the trail with every step. All around the rough, exposed summit of Cerro Cinchao we were continuously accosted by ferocious winds, threatening at first to knock us backwards and then to send of tumbling forwards as we rounded the back face and prepared to descend. 

Even at some of the most exposed wind-swept plateaus where even trees can’t take root, we still encountered those stoic Patagonian bushes. The ones that never seem to quit, no matter how hard survival becomes. 

Thankful to be out of the wind and headed downhill, Stefje and I cruised through the last section of the hike, getting help at first from the easy winding downhill path, and then from two drivers who picked us up and dropped us right back in the city center, only two hours after we had been on the desolate reaches of the uttermost section of the park. We spent the afternoon relaxing and the following day gearing up for another great outdoors adventure. 

Cerro Castillo

It took four rides from friendly Chileans and the entire morning, but eventually a truck driver hauling wood dropped Stefje and I at a nondescript bend in the road that marks the beginning of the Cerro Castillo traverse. It was here that we planned to take off on a 4 day, 60 plus kilometer through hike that might be the most underrated in all of Patagonia. 

Laden down with heavy packs, we started following the primarily unmarked trail alongside a river, passing through private farmland. In the scorching mid-day heat each uphill step was a sweat-producing thigh-blasting experience, making us grateful when we eventually veered off into a shady forest. 

Yet it was here that the horseflies made their vicious return. For the next four hours any hope of enjoying the tranquility of the forest was destroyed by the hundreds of flies that descended on our heads and clothing. Incessantly buzzing in our ears, they made it hard to think, breathe, or do pretty much anything besides walk as fast as we could with our heads down. Through the inability to enjoy our otherwise tranquil surroundings and their constant ability to land on your hair, nose, and ears, I’ve never experienced a more pestering time dealing with insects. 

The wide trail wove through periods of forest and open grassland, the trees covered in moss and the ground exploding in fertility with tall grasses and flowers. Along the way we had to navigate three increasingly precarious river crossings, the last one requiring as to remove our shoes and wade across jagged stones. After four hours of fly-swatting madness the long hike yielded a break at the park ranger office, where we received a map and information on the challenge ahead. Inside a tiny hovel we found a solitary ranger, incommunicado with the world and largely ambivalent towards the hundreds of flies swarming around his house. 

Thankfully it was only another half hour until we came upon our first campsite, ideally placed alongside the wide rocky banks of the roaring Rio Turbio. From here we finally escaped the tree coverage of the forest and could fully appreciate the valley we had worked our way into, with steep cliffs on every side. In front of us lay the austere basalt spires of the beginning of the Castillo range and behind was a chain of deep red domes, their tree line yielding halfway up like a receding hairline. 

We were deeply grateful to trap ourselves in the tent for the first few hours until the flies withdrew from action, then peeked outside at sunset that there was just one other tent at the campsite that night. Compared to the other popular overnight hikes we’ve done over the last month, it definitely felt like this one would feel much more submersed in pure nature. 

In an effort to avoid those ridiculous flies, we were up and out of the campsite before 8AM the following morning, performing a veritable attack on the tough trail. Although outside of the trees we had a panorama of mountaintops, an endless sea of grey cloud cover printed the sun from shining through to warm up our cold bodies. But the hike soon took care of that problem, as the path went straight uphill through a forest on the way to El Penon pass at 1300 meters above sea level. At one of the numerous breaks in the trees where streams cascaded down from the melting snow pack, Stefje spotted the remnants of a glacier packed into a steep crevice. We walked up and could get close enough to touch it, observing with wonder the river gushing below the surface and hollowing out the bottom, creating a huge overhanging sheet of ice. 

Just above the trees began to dissipate, leaving us scrambling over boulders on the constant uphill switchbacks. As we approached the high point all signs of the trail were completely obscured by a thick layer of compressed snow, leaving us to just presumptuously walk straight across. Although devastatingly challenging to walk on, we had a great time slipping and sliding over the thin mountain pass, with sheer vertical rock faces staring down at us on either side and the full view of the green valley now available behind us. 

Just as we crossed the top the weather began to clear, starting a long and beautiful afternoon with plenty of sunshine and beautiful views all around. Oddly enough, heading down the other side turned out to be twice as hard as the ascent. Once the snow petered out, the rocks offered no sense of support or control, leaving us half-sliding half-stepping alongside a forceful river. We triggered more than a few rockslides, as one step on an unstable rock could send a whole cascade down the mountainside. 

Eventually the river turned into a waterfall and it was too steep to follow any further, so we hopped over a ridge and under up with a full frontal view of a tremendous hanging glacier. Just below a scraggly set of peaks was the packed sheet of ice, so wide that it’s run-off was producing a score of waterfalls slowly carving out smooth features in the rock wall. 

It was a spectacular sight and the perfect spot to rest our weary feet, checking on the integrity of our knee and ankle joints before tackling the last section of the steep descent. The waterfalls eventually merged to form a river, which we followed over the flat yet rocky valley floor for the next hour until arriving at Campamento El Bosque around noon. 

There we let our weary feet take a much-deserved respite and enjoyed a hearty lunch, but as the onset of the afternoon heat brought the first sign of flies, we set off. Again it was uphill, each step tearing at our already sore muscles as we walked alongside another idyllic stream cutting through the forest. But the long uphill climb proved completely worth its while, as an hour in we camp upon the first mirador for the park’s namesake mountain. 

Cerro Castillo truly does resemble a castle, with a series of basalt turrets lined up like an impenetrable fortification and a deep black hue providing an imposing vibe. On one of the rock shelves near the peak rested a thick glacier, the run-off forming an awesome waterfall that gushed straight down just a stone’s throw from the trail. 

Just 10 minutes further on was where we made camp for the night, well in sight of the mighty chain of mountains, their respective glaciers, and an accessible stream of icy fresh water. 

Over the last month and a half I’ve completed three excruciating through-hikes, each with their own crown jewel sunrise view. At Torres del Paine we punished ourselves with a 4AM wakeup and a steep 75 minute rock scramble to see nothing but a blizzard; at Fitz Roy low clouds on the horizon diminished the much-hyped brightly colored view; but finally at Cerro Castillo the weather cooperated to give us a pure majestic sunrise striking the mountaintop. 

The irony of it was we didn’t even wake up early to try and glimpse the amber hues gracing the castle’s facade; our alarm was actually set so early to try and cover the majority of the day’s hike before those pesky flies began to strike again. So I stuck my head out of the tent flaps and before even slipping my shoes on I had snapped this photo of those first rays of light turning the castle from its usual tough black to a more inviting golden orange. 

It was just the opening scene of a day full of sights, both glorious and immensely frightening, that I won’t soon forget. 

Just 20 minutes after leaving the campsite the slow uphill climb led to a wondrously beautiful lookout. A mirage of blue, the clearest lake you’ve ever seen, lay just beyond our field of view. Slowly we clamored diagonally over a rift left behind by the once dominant glacier, gradually revealing the extent of the 2300meter high lake.

Feeding the water from above was a thick coating of ice clamored on to the West face of Cerro Castillo; it received some angled rays of light as a low layer of clouds rolled in over the castle’s uppermost towers. 

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It was tough capturing the entire extent of our view in one shot. As we gained a little more elevation, the entire back valley came into view, whereas right in front of us the vertical shot was overwhelming: steep ridges down to the surface of the lake, then a straight wall of rock flattened out by a series of ferocious waterfalls, with finally the mighty peaks of Cerro Castillo behind us. 

Our deep breaths taking in the surroundings at the top of the climb were just in time. Within minutes, clouds began appearing out of nowhere to begin obscuring portions of the view. First it was a low wisp that picked up out of the forests, gaining traction as it sped up the hills. 

For the next half hour, the clouds moved around like people filling up a party, moving this way and that, obscuring our views at different angles or leaving us mysteriously undisturbed. Meanwhile, Stefje and I moved along to the second highest pass of the trek, progressing slowly over slippery stones which are often sighted in this area of the world, but not usually used for walking. At exactly the point the trail disintegrated into a series of red poles hammered into the ground, the clouds decided to pick up stream and absolutely engulfed us. 

The hiking got seriously more intense and adventurous at this point, as we now had to pause every five minutes to recalibrate that we were headed in the right direction and keep moving into a headwind all while trying to stay dry. At the precipice where we began to head downhill visibility was reduced to zero. All throughout the steep, slippery, and unsecured descent we kept our eyes intensely focused on both the next step in front of us and the location of the following pole, marking our way to safety. 

Proceeding at a cautious pace, the downhill section ended up amounting to over three hours of consecutive hiking with the vast majority into an ever-changing cloud pattern, but the last half hour cleared at times and we made sure to enjoy the view whenever given the opportunity. 

More than four hours of almost constant hiking since encountering the laguna, we came upon the intersection with a river and made camp. Even though town was only a few kilometers farther along, we decided to rest our weary legs for the afternoon and sit tight while an evening rainstorm passed through. 

Day four of the hike only took a few hours, as we were mentally and physically worn out but able to stumble back to Villa Cerro Castillo while it was still quite early. We found a hitchhiker waiting for a ride and ended up waiting with her; two rides later we were back in Coyhaique, eager to enjoy some fresh-picked raspberries and recover from the grueling yet immensely rewarding hike. 


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