For a century, Northern Patagonia has been the most rugged and remote part of continental Chile, the place where scant pioneers quietly set forth a Wild West existence. While life here may still be tough for its residents, Northern Patagonia doesn't lack for scenery. Exuberant rainforest, scrubby steppe and unclimbed peaks crowd the horizon, but the essence of this place is water, from the clear cascading rivers to the turquoise lakes, massive glaciers and labyrinthine fjords.
Southbound visitors often bypass Northern Patagonia on a sprint to Torres del Paine, but its backcountry treasures are pay dirt to the adventurous traveler.
The mostly gravel Carretera Austral rumbles from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins, some 745 miles (1200km) south. Ferry connections are required for northerly roadless stretches where mountains meet the sea. Though sections north of Coyhaique are now being paved, the iconic challenge of driving the rest still remains.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Northern Patagonia.
Dubbed as the Serengeti of the Southern Cone, the 690-sq-km Parque Nacional Patagonia features Patagonian steppe, forests, mountains, lakes and lagoons. Located 18km north of Cochrane, this new national park was an overgrazed estancia. Tompkins Conservation (www.tompkinsconservation.org) began its restoration in 2004. Now it's home to flamingo, guanaco, huemul (endangered Andean deer), puma, viscacha and fox. The park stretches from the Río Baker to the Argentine border, which can be crossed in a private vehicle at Paso Roballos.
Awesome and remote, this national park brings visitors face to face with the 30,000-year-old San Valentín glacier in Chile's Campo de Hielo Norte. Established in 1959, the 12,000-sq-km Unesco Biosphere Reserve is a major regional attraction. The park encompasses peaty wetlands, pristine temperate rainforest of southern beech and epiphytes, and 4058m Monte San Valentín, the southern Andes' highest peak. Scientific interest centers on the extreme fluctuation in water level of the glacier-fed lagoon.
Verdant and pristine, this 2889-sq-km park encompasses vast extensions of temperate rainforest, clear rivers and seascapes. A remarkable forest-conservation effort stretching from near Hornopirén to south of Chaitén, Parque Nacional Pumalín was originally created by American philantropist Doug Tompkins. It was one of the largest private parks in the world prior to its donation to Chile in 2017. For Chile it's a model park, with well-maintained roads and trails, extensive infrastructure and minimal impact.
Cerro Castillo's basalt spires are the crowning centerpiece of Parque Nacional Cerro Castillo, a sprawling 1800-sq-km park located 75km south of Coyhaique. It earned national park status only in 2017, though park infrastructure has yet to catch up, and the most-used access points remain private property. The park boasts fine hiking in southern beech forest and open high alpine terrain. Its namesake, the 2700m triple-tier Cerro Castillo, is flanked by three major glaciers on its southern slopes.
The 1540-sq-km Parque Nacional Queulat is a wild realm of rivers winding through forests thick with ferns and southern beech. When the sun is out it’s simply stunning, with steep-sided fjords flanked by creeping glaciers and 2000m volcanic peaks. The park straddles the Carretera Austral for 70km, midway between Chaitén and Coyhaique.
Boasting Chile’s largest population of endangered huemul deer, Reserva Nacional Tamango protects a 70-sq-km transition zone to the Patagonian steppe. Huemul are notoriously shy, but chances of sighting one are better here than anywhere. At the entrance, trails (1.5km to 7km in length) lead to Laguna Elefantina, Laguna Tamanguito and 1722m Cerro Tamango. The reserve is 6km northeast of Cochrane; there is no public transportation to the entrance.
Well worth the detour, these sculpted geological formations are accessible by boat on Lago General Carrera. Trips in small motorized boats or kayaks only go out in calm boating conditions. If you're driving, continue 8km south of Puerto Río Tranquilo to the tour boats at Bahía Manso; it's directly across from the caves and at a shorter boating distance.
In a pioneer house, this adorable cultural museum packs in engaging details, from Patagonian sayings to pioneer relics and molds of animal tracks. It's all in Spanish. For the key, go to the caretaker's house out back. It's located roadside between Puerto Bertrand and the entrance to Valle Chacabuco/Patagonia National Park.
Don't miss this dramatic viewpoint, where Chile's most powerful river, the Baker, froths into a broad, behemoth cascade before merging with the milkier, glacial-fed Río Nef in a swirling contrast of mint and electric blue. It's 12km south of Puerto Bertrand. Park roadside and follow the 800m trail.