Patagonia: the legend of the indomitable
Eternal rebel of complicated and challenging geography, Chilean Patagonia escapes everything and remains a vast territory in which the words "natural" and "wild" remain small. It only has a seam that makes it accessible: the Austral road. Here we go through it.
Name Patagonia in Chile is to name spaces without limits, infinite forests, pure nature. Patagonia is a sound and beautiful place name that encourages us to think about the last frontiers, in the distance, in untouchable realities for a citizen of old Europe, where every square centimeter of the territory is used, populated, domesticated. In Patagonia, on the other hand, man is still a stranger and not even with all his strength and power has he yet managed, well into the 21st century, to tame and much less populate some sites of disproportionate measures with young mountains, which are still in formation.
I think about it while I see the first frames of the great south of Chile appear through the window of the plane. The aircraft departed very early from Santiago and leaves me when the morning is still clear in Temuco, the capital of the IX Region, about 670 kilometers south of the Chilean capital. From there a van takes me to Pucón (see Araucanía), an old timber village at the foot of the Villarrica volcano. Pucon It is one of the most famous resorts in the Chilean Andes and the most touristic place in the Araucanía region, the prelude to Patagonia.
The silhouette of Villarrica volcano fills the entire horizon of Pucón and its surroundings. It is a powerful, perfect volcano. A book volcano, or drawing of a small child: with a truncated shape, lonely and isolated in the middle of the plain, with a smoking crater from which many nights flash of fire from the incandescent lava and a glacier of perpetual snow that shelters the summit like an ice scarf. And below, a gigantic blue water lake bordered by black volcanic ash beaches where you can bathe or fish. A paradise for environmental lovers.
The Villarrica volcano, powerful and perfect © Corbis
From Pucón I continue on the road to the south, always south. This is a country of extremes and the further you move away from the center, the more wild the scenario becomes: desert in the extreme north; with forests, lakes and then glaciers in the extreme south. I pass by the Geometric Baths of Coñairipe, one of the many thermal centers that take advantage of the emanations of hot waters that sprout on the slopes of the volcano, and after many hours of curves and crossings of endless forests, I arrive in time to see sunset in Puerto Varas , on the shores of Lake Llanquihue, with another colossus of fire putting the perfect finishing touch to the scenery: the Osorno volcano.
The road and the Osorno volcano © Corbis
I'm in the Lakes region, where the immense territory of Chilean Patagonia officially begins. Puerto Varas is the beginning of one of the best nature excursions that can be done through the Andean mountain range. For centuries, the Andes were an almost impassable border between Chile and Argentina.
Until the first roads were built the only way to cross it was to look for natural steps. One of the most frequented historically was the route that connects Puerto Montt and neighboring Puerto Varas, in Chile, with San Carlos de Bariloche, in Argentina, through the Todos los Santos and Frías lakes. It's what is called the Crossing of the Lakes, one of the most beautiful tourist routes (and busy, especially in high season) of the Andes. But I do not turn to Argentina. Return to Puerto Montt to continue south through Chile. And to verify that if up to this point the Chilean geography was complex but predictable, beyond Puerto Montt, in the heart of Patagonia, everything becomes more wild.
Tectonic movements and the weight of the glaciers sank the earth's crust of this area; when the glaciers withdrew the sea took its place. What was left was a very complex and intricate panorama of fjords, islands, sea inlets, canals and an inland sea that make progression overland very difficult. The typical image of Patagonia as a gigantic eternity of empty spaces in which the hooting of the wind can drive men crazy or catch them forever becomes a reality south of Puerto Montt.
A group of bathers on Lake Llanquihue, Puerto Varas © Corbis
The highest mountains were turned into islands. Of them the largest is that of Chiloé, the second largest island in the Americas and one of the essential destinations in every visit to southern Chile. From Puerto Montt I follow the Pan-American Highway for 59 kilometers to Pargua, where a ferry helps to cross the channel that separates the island from the mainland. Then I continue to Ancud, a fortified port founded by the Spanish in 1767.
During the colony, Chiloé was the tallow and wood pantry of the Viceroyalty of Peru, but the remoteness of Lima kept the settlers always in a precarious situation and in extreme poverty. The north coast of the island that faces the Pacific around the Lacuy peninsula is covered with dense forests that grow thanks to the wet currents that come from the ocean. Is an area of spectacular nature where there are many places of interest, among them the penguin peninsula of Puñihuil islets, the only one in Chile where Humboldt and Magellan penguins nest together.
The picturesque palafitos of Chiloé © Álex del Río
All that coastal area that faces the Pacific is protected under the figure of the Chiloé National Park, a green and fascinating territory covered by a jungle of larches, coigües and olivillos. It is worth staying in one of the accommodations that the Huiliches communities, the original town of the island, offer in Chaquín or Huentemó and go from there through the park's paths to discover wild Patagonian places where the force of nature feels in every corner of its wet folds.
The continental zone that faces the island of Chiloé runs the Austral highway, the great feat of Chilean engineering. Touring it to Villa O'Higgins, its southern tip, is one of the great traveling adventures that can be done today in the Southern Cone. The first section crosses the so-called continental Chiloé, the most populated and domesticated area by humans. Even so it houses some of the most spectacular primary forest areas in southern Chile, such as those in the park Pumalin, between Caleta Gonzalo and Chaitén. Pumalín is famous not only for housing more than 300,000 hectares of genuine temperate humid forest that covers old glacial valleys.
Its celebrity is also that it is the largest private natural park in the world. In 1991 the American millionaire and philanthropist Douglas Tompkins bought 17,000 hectares of forest in this area just to leave them as they were and avoid its use or destruction. Little by little it was acquiring more land for the same purposes: conserve it. In 2005 this private preserve of territory was declared a Sanctuary of Humanity. Tompkins ceded the land to a Chilean foundation that is the one that now manages them. The entrance to the park is free but you can only travel along the marked and authorized trails. The Austral road moves south, avoiding all kinds of obstacles. Whoever ventures through it will find dozens of nature reserves and protected areas where the hand of man has not yet modified anything.
Wild Patagonia © Corbis
Once past Chaitén, which is the capital of this province, we can turn inland, towards the mountains, in search of Palena Lake, declared a national reserve. A semi-wild place, where extreme rainfall (4,000 mm per year) maintains a dense forest of lengas and a humid and somewhat gloomy environment which makes us think about the titanic task of the first explorers of these areas just 100 years ago.
On the way back to the Austral highway, you pass through La Junta, a town at the confluence of the Palena and Rosselot rivers. Almost 30 kilometers further south of La Junta appears the access to Queulat National Park, another inexcusable milestone. In Queulat, which unfolds around the Ventisquero sine, the temperate rain forest reappears in all its splendor, the primary jungle that man has not yet spotted. The star of the park is the Ventisquero Colgante, a glacier that rises on the Alto Nevado hill, at 2,225 meters altitude, and whose front now forms a wall of ice hanging from a cliff through which a beautiful waterfall precipitates.
It is highly recommended the 3.5 kilometer trail that goes from the camping area to the glacier moraine. There are many kilometers of the Southern Longitudinal Road, not always paved, and many more privileged natural spaces on both sides: the national reserve of the lake Carlota, the San Rafael lagoon, the Corcovado national park, the Castillo hill national reserve ... the road comes to an end - for now - in Villa O'Higgins, a settlement and border town that with its grid planimetry and its colorful houses it is the last human presence of considerable size before the great Southern Ice Field and the Magellan region XII begins, the southern border of Chile, a hieroglyph of islands, canals and fjords inaccessible by land.
The San Rafael lagoon, which gives its name to a national park in the Aysén region © Sernatur
The few towns in this region, such as Puerto Natales or the capital, Punta Arenas, can only be accessed from Chile by ship or plane. To do it by land you have to cross into Argentina. Punta Arenas It is the Chilean population that controls the north bank of the Strait of Magellan. In spite of its 130,000 inhabitants, it has some place of colonization, a border city in which light and air already portend southern solitudes.
Remember a point to Valparaíso, with those hilly hills covered with low houses of bright colors that hang down to the shore of the Strait of Magellan. The local newspaper is called The Penguin, reason more than enough to come to know a place as unique as this. Punta Arenas is the starting point for excursions to see nearby penguins and native forest areas in the Strait of Magellan, as well as cruises that reach Ushuaia through the Patagonian canals. Patagonia is one of the wildest, most complex and beautiful territories in the Americas. A territory still open to true adventure.
The O'Higgins Glacier © Corbis