In the often overlooked northern extremes of Patagonia lies Aysén, Chile’s least-populated region, where only 1.2 humans per square mile dwell. While there isn't an abundance of people around, what the area does have in excess is ice. Bold, blue ice – glaciers the likes of which you’ll find in few other parts of our warming planet.
The 1240km Carretera Austral (Southern Highway) is the only way in and out of Aysén by land. It stretches from the fishing hub of Puerto Montt in the north all the way down until it peters out in the frontier gaucho town of Villa O’Higgins in the south. Bumbling down the Carretera Austral’s bumpy terrain past rainforested hills and foggy fjords has become one of the most iconic road trips in South America. But it’s a journey you’ll want to do sooner rather than later.
Now is the time to visit the glaciers that shaped this dramatic landscape before they disappear. Sandwiched between the Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Fields (collectively the world’s third-largest source of fresh water), Aysén is rightfully known as the epicenter of Chilean glacier country. Half of its land is protected in public and private parks (including the newly opened Patagonia Park, created by the late North Face founder Doug Tompkins), and the region is home to a fair chunk of Chile’s 24,133 glaciers.
Many of these magnificent cascades of fast-flowing ice are receding at alarming rates of up to 15 meters per year. But there is a bit of good news: It’s never been easier to see them thanks to new routes developed by local tour operators in recent years to help increase awareness of what we stand to lose.
Here’s how you can explore five of the most impressive glaciers within Chile’s little-visited Aysén region using the Carretera Austral as an artery through Northern Patagonia.
On the northern edge of Aysén within the evergreen forests of Parque Nacional Queulat, you’ll find one of Chile’s most recognizable glaciers: Ventisquero Colgante. This so-called “hanging glacier” has receded so far from the ground below that it’s now perched atop a cliff, spewing its meltwater over the edge into the powder blue Laguna Tempanos. Pack a picnic lunch and hike the 6km out-and-back Moraine Trail to get the best up-close views. You can also arrange a trip with Experiencia Austral to kayak on Laguna Tempanos right up toward the base of the glacier. If you’re feeling a bit sore after either journey, you can rest your weary bones in Termas del Ventisquero, a series of hot springs near the park entrance. Its four pools are on the shores of the Puyuhuapi Fjord, whose glacier-fed waters will be noticeably cooler for those daring enough to take a dip.
Take a slight detour from the Carretera Austral at Puerto Rio Tranquilo (the location of the mesmerizing marble caves of Lago General Carrera) to dip into Valle Exploradores and check out its namesake glacier. This new road leads to the river crossing for the San Rafael Lagoon and is a stunner with sweeping valley views, raging river rapids and human-sized nalca leaves fighting for attention. However, the real showstopper lies 52km in at the Glacier Exploradores Overlook, which offers not only a wide-open panorama of the glacier, but also a peek at the vast white abyss that is the Northern Patagonian Ice Field. Exploradores is but one of 17 glaciers that call this ice field home, and the short 25-minute hike up to the observation deck is your easiest access point to take it all in.
You’ll need to book a tour back in Puerto Rio Tranquilo to reach the remote San Rafael Lagoon, home of Aysén’s most enigmatic glacier. The journey requires transport on both sides of the milky-green Rio Exploradores, a quick ferry crossing and a boat ride past truck-sized icebergs to approach the shape-shifting face of San Rafael. This massive glacier cuts a 16km path through a virgin Patagonian rainforest before emptying out into a slate-blue lagoon, replenishing its frigid waters every few minutes with roaring cascades of calving ice. The new route to see this glacier from Puerto Rio Tranquilo is less than three years old. It saves both time and money when compared to the overnight catamaran journey from Puerto Chacabuco (further north) and is much more intimate of an experience. Arrange the trip in town with either Destino Patagonia or Turismo Rio Exploradores (exploradores-sanrafael.cl).
The closest glaciers to Aysén’s capital of Coyhaique lie amid the castle-like spires of nearby Cerro Castillo. The four-day circuit trek around this formidable mountain increasingly attracts solitude-seekers put off by the more crowded backpacking trails in Torres Del Paine further south. The 43km journey will take you past three major glaciers, turquoise lagoons and high alpine passes that are favored by Chile’s endangered huemul deer. If you don’t have the time or energy to commit to a long hike, you can always view Cerro Castillo’s glaciers gaucho-style on a half-day horseback tour. Five horse stables in the small service town of Villa Cerro Castillo can set you up, and tours should be booked in person when you arrive.
Once inaccessible Calluqueo, the main glacier atop Patagonia’s second-highest peak, Mount San Lorenzo, has opened up to tourism in recent years thanks to the construction of a new road that will one day provide a shortcut between the regional hub of Cochrane and Villa O’Higgins, the end point of the Carretera Austral. You can reach an overlook of the glacier 33km from Cochrane if you’re traveling with your own wheels, but you’ll need to book a tour back in town if you want to take a Zodiac across the moraine lake and get a closer look at its brooding face. Cochrane-native Jimmy Valdes of Lord Patagonia helped pioneer ice trekking routes on Calluqueo, and he’s your best bet if you want to strap on some crampons and immerse yourself within the crevices of this enormous ice kingdom. Valdes will even bring along some local craft beers brewed with glacial melt water to cap off the experience.