The main service town for Parque Nacional Pumalín, Chaitén is also the major transport hub for the northern Carretera Austral. Flights and ferries from Puerto Montt and Chiloé arrive here, and it's the starting point for many bus routes south. When an unknown volcano decided to wake up on May 2, 2008, this quiet village underwent a total siege.
The wild, frosty-mint waters of the Río Futaleufú have made this modest mountain town famous. Not just a mecca for kayaking and rafting, it also boasts fly-fishing, hiking and horseback riding. Improved roads and growing numbers of package-tour visitors mean it isn't off the map anymore – just note the ratio of down puffer jackets to woolen mantas (ponchos).
Bordering Argentina, this pint-sized orchard town occupies the windy southern shore of Lago General Carrera. A sunny microclimate makes it a pleasant oasis on the steppe. It is linked to Chile by ferry or a roller-coaster road. Locals who traditionally earned their living from raising livestock and farming turned to gold and silver mining.
Parque Nacional Pumalín
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 attracts international visitors in great numbers.
The last stop heading south on the Carretera Austral, this mythic village is alluring in its isolation. First settled by the English (1914–16), the outpost attracted few Chileans – the road didn't arrive until 1999. The spectacular surroundings can be explored on horseback or foot, and there's world-class fishing and boat access to Glaciar O'Higgins.
Tucked into the Jurassic scenery of overgrown ferns and nalca plants, this quaint seaside village is the gateway to Parque Nacional Queulat and Termas de Puyuhuapi, a prestigious hot-springs resort. In 1935 four German immigrants settled here, inspired by explorer Hans Steffen's adventures.
Puerto Río Tranquilo
A village of shingled houses on the windy western shores of Lago General Carrera, Puerto Río Tranquilo is a humble pit stop facing a whopping growth spurt. Once just a fuel stop, its growing outdoor opportunities have put it on the map. It's the closest access point to the cool marble caves of Capilla de Mármol.
Few take advantage of the lush surroundings of this salmon-farming and transport hub. If the ferry is full, you may spend more time here than originally planned. The Ruta Bi-Modal ferry links the roadless northern section of Parque Nacional Pumalín to Caleta Gonzalo, where the road continues south. The road between the Puelche ferry landing and Hornopirén is paved.
Parque Nacional Patagonia
Patagonian steppe, forests, mountains, lakes and lagoons comprise the 690-sq-km Parque Nacional Patagonia, where travelers will find world-class trekking and wildlife-watching opportunities. Located 18km north of Cochrane, this new national park was until recently an overgrazed estancia. Tompkins Conservation (www.tompkinsconservation.org) began its restoration in 2004.
With the slow feel of a Rocky Mountain backwater, La Junta is a former estancia (grazing ranch) that formed a crossroads for ranchers headed to market. Midway between Chaitén and Coyhaique, it's also an important transfer point for north–south connections, with solid lodging options.
Puerto Bertrand & Río Baker
On the bank of the ultramarine-blue Lago Bertrand below the snow-covered San Valentín and Campo de Hielo Norte, Puerto Bertrand is a show of contrasts. Weathered shingle homes overgrown with rose blossoms and high-end fishing lodges share the space of this humble stop. Bertrand occupies the southeast shore of the lake, situated 11km south of Cruce el Maitén.
A quiet mountain town on its namesake turquoise river, Palena's draw is exploring its verdant valleys on foot or horseback, where you'll find remnants of pioneer lifestyle and real hospitality. The rodeo, held on the last weekend in January, and the week-long Semana Palena, in late February, feature cowboy festivities and live music.