Cochrane and further south

Travelling by bus along the final 224-km stretch of the Carretera Austral from Cochrane to Villa O'Higgins can be frustrating, as you will undoubtedly want to stop every 15 minutes to marvel at the views. This is a beautiful trip through thick forest, with vistas of snow-capped mountains and waterfalls.

Getting there

Cochrane can be reached by air taxi or bus from Coyhaique, or on a poor unpaved road from Perito Moreno in Argentina. The southern tip of the Carretera at Villa O'Higgins is linked in summer by a ferry service to Calendario Mansilla, from where it is a day long journey to/from El Chaltén in Argentina.

Getting around

Public transport is scarce. Only two weekly buses ply the route from Cochrane to Villa O'Higgins. Hitching is a possibility in summer (be prepared for long waits), but a pick-up or 4WD vehicle will make getting around much easier. Better still, travel by mountain bike.

Cochrane and around

Sitting in a hollow on the northern banks of the Río Cochrane, 343 km south of Coyhaique, Cochrane is a simple, somewhat godforsaken place. However with its pleasant summer climate it is a good base for walking and fishing in the nearby countryside. There is a small
museum
,
with displays on local history. On the same street is an odd,
mate
-shaped house. Fuel is available.

Just 4 km northeast of Cochrane is the entrance to the
Reserva Nacional
 Tamango
. The reserve covers 6925 ha of lenga forest and is home to one of the largest colonies of the rare huemul as well as guanaco, foxes and lots of species of bird, including woodpecker and hummingbird. There are marked paths for walks between 45 minutes and five hours, up to
Cerro Tamango
(1722 m) and
Cerro Temanguito
(1485 m). Take water and food, and windproof clothing if climbing the Cerros. The views from the reserve are superb, over the town, the nearby lakes and to the Campo de Hielo Norte to the west. Tourist facilities, however, are rudimentary. Excursions can be made to
Lago Cochrane
, which straddles the frontier with Argentina (the Argentine section is called
Lago Puerredón
).

Some 17 km north of Cochrane, a road runs east through Villa Chacabuco to enter Argentina at
Paso Roballos
, before continuing on to Bajo Caracoles. There isn't any public transport along this route and, although the
road is passable in summer, it is generally in a poor state, and often flooded in spring.

Tortel and Puerto Yungay

Built on a hill at the mouth of the river 135 km from Cochrane, Tortel has no streets, the village being connected by 7 km of stairs and walkways made of cypress wood. There are a couple of beaches and two plazas built on stilts, roofed for protection from the almost constant drizzle. Its main industries are wood, for trade with Punta Arenas, shellfish, and now tourism. At the entrance to the village is a small tourist information office with information on the dozen or so
residenciales
and a useful map. A branch of the Carretera Austral, beginning 2 km south of Vagabundo and reaching south 23 km to Tortel, was completed in early 2003, making the village accessible by road. From Tortel, you can hire a boat to visit two spectacular glaciers:
Ventisquero Jorge Montt
, five hours southwest by boat, or
Ventisquero Steffens
, north on the edge of the Parque Nacional San Rafael, 2½ hours by boat and then a three-hour trek on a very wet, but well-signed trail including a river crossing by rowing boat to a viewing point from which the glacier can be seen across the lake. Trips can also be made to the nearby
Isla de los Muertos
, where some 100 Chilote workers died in mysterious circumstances early in the 20th century.

The main spine of the Carretera continues southwards to
Puerto Yungay
(allow 1¼ hours by car from Tortel under normal conditions), a tiny village with a military post and a pretty church. This section of the road is hilly and in places very bad; it is not advisable to drive along here at night. From Puerto Yungay, there is a
ferry
crossing
, to Río Bravo, run by the army If you miss the last boat the
carabineros
will help you find accommodation. After the ferry crossing, the road continues south. After 9 km there is a turn-off marked 'Ventisquero Montt'. This road is still under construction and at the time of writing is a dead end. Carry on through more spectacular scenery - lakes, moors, dense forest, swamps, rivers and waterfalls, often shrouded in mist - before arriving at the Carretera's final destination, Villa O'Higgins.

Villa O'Higgins

Villa O'Higgins lies 2 km from the northeastern end of an arm of
Lago O'Higgins
, which straddles the Argentine border (it's known as
Lago San Martín
in Argentina). With a population of around 500, the people are friendly, and there is something of a frontier feel about the town.
There is a good guide to the town at www.villaohiggins.com.

On rare sunny days, Villa O'Higgins' pleasant setting can be fully appreciated. Half way up a wooded hill behind the town, a mirador affords spectacular views of nearby mountains, lakes and glaciers. There are large numbers of icebergs in Lago O'Higgins, which have split off the glaciers of the Campo de Hielo Sur to the west. There is a tiny museum, the
Museo de la Patagonia Padre Antonio Ronchi
, on the plaza. Fuel is available from the ECA store (Monday to Saturday). A six-hour trek from the town goes through native forest to the
Mosco Glacier
. Allow two days for a return trip. Fresh water is plentiful and there is a
refugio
on the way, but the route is difficult after heavy rain. From Villa O'Higgins, the road continues 7 km south to
Bahía Bahamóndez
on the shores of Lago O'Higgins.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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