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.
For prime river vistas, walk west on JM Carrera to this viewpoint.
Draped in lenga, ñire and coigue, the 21.5-sq-km Reserva Nacional Coyhaique has small lakes and Cerro Cinchao (1361m). The park is 5km from Coyhaique (about 1½ hours on foot), with views of town and Cerro Mackay's enormous basalt columns in the distance. Take Av General Baquedano north, across the bridge, then go right at the gravel road, a steep climb best accessed by 4WD. From the park entrance, it's 2.5km to the Casa Bruja sector, where you'll find campsites (CH$5000 per site) with fire pits, hot water, showers and bathrooms. Hike 4km through coigue and lenga forests to Laguna Verde, with picnic sites and camping with basic facilities. Hiking trails also lead to Laguna Los Sapos and Laguna Venus.
Near Paso Alto Coyhaique on the Argentine border, this 181-hectare wetland reserve hosts diverse birdlife, including black-neck swans, coots and grebes. It's an ecological transition zone from southern beech forest to semiarid steppe. Orchids abound. A short hiking trail goes to Laguna El Toro while a longer loop flanks the northern edge of Laguna Escondida. Near the entrance there's a self-guided nature trail (1km) and picnic area. While the park lacks regular public transportation, Coyhaique's branch of Conaf may be able to offer suggestions for getting there.
One of many serene mountain lakes surrounding Coyhaique and great for trout fishing, kayaking or simply time at the beach. It's just 33km from Coyhaique. Buses depart from the bus terminal.