Chile 8: Volcano Chaitén,Parque Quelat and glacier San Rafael

The morning at Parque Pumalin was cool and misty and we took our time to get ready.

By 13:00 the fog had lifted and we drove to the foot of Volcan Chaitén which we intended to ascent. Although only about a 2km to reach the point, from where it is possibly to look into the caldera, we underestimated the trail – first 984 steps while ascending and the last few 100m gravel on the steep section. We found it really tough – probably because of the tummy bug we had battled with on our return from Chiloé.

The vistas were absolutely stunning and it was a good example where one could observe the devastion which an errupting volcano created – thousands of trees that died in the pyroclastic wave. The caldera has two little lakes of different colouring and there is still a lot of smoke emanating from the mountain. Some advice: start early ( we did not), take sufficient water, the walk is tough on the knees –especially coming down. By 18:30 we were back at our vehicle.

Since this took up our day we decided to spend another night inside Parque Pumalin.

As we were about to leave next morning, we discovered a small 40-50cm antelope – the Pudu, which we had not yet been able to observe before. Going south we again passed the village Amarillo, along Lago Yelcho and enjoyed the views of the Andes, mountains still covered in snow, the melt running in clear streams everywhere.

The Carretera Austral (Ruta 7) passed through Villa Santa Lucia (where 2 weeks later on 18th Dec, 12 people were killed here through a landslide, burying part of the town under mud), Villa Vanguardia, we traversed many sections being a rough gravel road, then passed many enthusiastic cyclists (including  family of 5 where the dad towed a kid on his bike – must be extremely exhausting!) and got overtaken by many a motorbiker – this route is extremely popular due to its beauty.

In La Junta we indulged in an ice cream for lunch and decided to buy some Christmas decoration for Tembo Hakahana (our vehicle – meaning fast Elephant). As we continued towards Puyahuapi we could not drive further due to a massive landslide being cleared and had to drive to the waters edge to load the vehicle on a temporary ferry to circumnavigate the section. Landslides seem common on this stretch of road with its sheer cliffs.

We arrived at Parque Quelat at 18:00 – the park closed at 17:00. Nevertheless, we were allowed in (entrance P10000 for two) and we were lucky to find the last open camping spot.

The morning was misty and we started the trail to Ventisquero Colgante (hanging glacier), a trail of just over 3km through rain forest with different ferns and moss, fuchsia magellanes abound as well as a variety of other flowers.

The view of the glacier was most rewarding – a real treat for the eyes and the soul when finally reaching the end of the trail. We spent almost 2 hours at this mirador not wanting to leave this magic spot with its view on the glacier high up and its milky waters flowing into Lago Tempano below.

Arriving back at camp via the hanging bridge we paid our P20000 for two nights camping to Juan Carlos, the friendly caretaker.


Next morning we passed another family on bikes negotiating the loose gravel road, this time 2 kids cycled, the third was drawn in a cart by father Tom.

When we arrived in Mañiuales we felt peckish and while looking around we saw two jogger prams for kids parked in front of a café, each decorated with a South African flag. This we had to investigate and on entering, met Mike Sewell and his friend Roger Cameron from SA.

They were busy jogging down the entire Carretera Austral, some 1300km, at a rate of around 30km per day, except Sundays. They started in Puerto Montt and wanted to finish in Villa O’Higgins as part of their Project Patagonia. We had lunch together and then viewed their three-wheelers with all their belongings (and we thought we had little space!). We would probably meet again along the road.

Lupines everywhere – pity that people spoil nature with illegal dumping.

We managed to get to Coihaique in time to book a catamaran to travel from Puerto Chacabuco to Laguna San Rafael, where we hoped to get close to the glacier of the same name. We booked at Patagonia Blue with Morena Morales (a whacking P 380000 for two!) Since there is only one operator from here, booking is essential – it is also possible to stay in their hotel Loberias del Sur in Chacabuco, however, the US$ 280 was too expensive so we took a cabaña in Puerto Aisén at Ayelèn Cabañas the night before.


Before we left Coihaique we also booked the ferry trip with Marcel (good English) at Austral Broom to travel from Puerto Yungay to Puerto Natales. The ferry runs only once a week on Saturdays taking about 42 hours.

In Coihaique we stayed at El Camping where we met Rob Rowley and Valerie Lobe,who were also exploring the area. Rob is a merchant sailor, mussel farmer and boat builder in New Zealand and Valerie an Ocean Biologist who has visited Antarctica many times.

We explored the Valle Simpson and Lago Elizalde, the road ending at Lago Caro, saw Cerro Castillo from a different side.


En route we met our South African runners again, negotiating the somewhat uneven roads.

Next day we moved to Puerto Aysén, enjoyed a walk through the little village and felt cosy in the heated cabaña before driving to Chacabuco next day for the San Rafael glacier trip. In the fjord fish farms for Salmon were passed at regular intervals.

San Rafael Glacier was stunning, although it was a very overcast and partially rainy day. The glacier is 2.5km wide, 35km long and Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael is 1,742million hectares in size and the glacier is part of the Northern Ice Field in Patagonia. The water temperature is around 2-4 degrees and we made sure not fall overboard during the trip to the glacier face by zodiac.

Floating black ice was tricky to photograph and fascinated us like previously in the Antarctic.

The catamaran travelled at 22-30 knots and covered the 222km in 5-6 hours one way.

We were happy to return to our heated cabaña in Puerto Aysén for the evening, but not before enjoying a free glass of whiskey on glaciar ice.

We had heard that visiting the hand paintings was worthwhile so we drove to Villa Cerro Castillo to explore this historical sight. Along the way we had hoped to see the rare Huemul deer – we were not lucky to find one.

The drive to the town was a scenic one, passing the prominent mountain silhouette. The manos paintings were just outside the town and can only be visited with a local guide.

Not as spectacular as we had imagined and the visit to the first school in the area (Museo Escuela Antigua) near the site rounded off the trip (built 1930, closed 1975) and gave us insight into how late education came to this remote area of Chile and Patagonia in general.

In Villa Cerro Castillo we camped at Camping Araucaria after we found Camping Sanderos Patagonia being closed (due to renovations). A communal kitchen made the supper in the cold wind bearable before we crept into our roof tent and warmed ourselves under the double set of duvets. This camping site also offers extensive trails on horseback ( cabalgatas).

This post covers 4th to 12th December 2017