Lago General Carrera

The section of the Carretera Austral around the north and western sides of Lago General Carrera is reckoned by many people to be the most spectacular stretch of all. Straddling the border with Argentina, this is the largest lake in South America after Lake Titicaca and is now believed to be the deepest lake on the continent; soundings in 1997 established its maximum depth as 590 m.

The lake is a beautiful azure blue, surrounded at its Chilean end by predominantly alpine terrain and at the Argentine end by dry pampa. The region prides itself on having the best climate in southern Chile, with some 300 days of sunshine a year; much fruit is grown as a result, especially around Chile Chico, where rainfall is very low for this area. In general, the climate here is more similar to Argentine Patagonia than to the rest of the Carretera Austral region.

Getting there

The main towns, Puerto Ibáñez on the north shore and Chile Chico on the south, are connected by a ferry,
El Pilchero
. Overland routes between Coyhaique and Chile Chico are much longer, passing either through Argentina, or along the Carretera Austral, which runs west around the lake.

Getting around

Minibuses run along the Carretera Austral in summer and air taxis link the small towns of the region.

Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo and around

Beyond Coyhaique, the Carretera Austral runs through slightly wilder, more rugged land, with the occasional cow or wild horse feeding by the side of the road. Some 40 km south of Coyhaique, the carretera enters the Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo, which extends over 179,550 ha. The park is named after the fabulous
Cerro Castillo
(2675 m), which resembles a fairy-tale castle with rock pinnacles jutting out from a covering of snow. It also includes Cerro Bandera (2040 m) just west of Balmaceda and several other peaks in the northern wall of the valley of the Río Ibáñez. The park offers a number of excellent day treks and some of the best self-contained multi-day trekking in Patagonia. There is a
guardería
at the northeastern end of the park near Laguna Chinguay. At Km 83 the road crosses the
Portezuelo Ibáñez
(1120 m) and drops through the
Cuesta del Diablo
, a series of bends with fine views over the Río Ibáñez.

The principal port on the Chilean section of the lake,
Puerto Ibáñez
(officially Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez) is reached by taking a paved branch road, 31 km long, from La Bajada 97 km south of Coyhaique. You will probably just pass through to reach the ferry. It is, however, a centre for distinctive pottery, leather production and vegetable growing (you can visit potters and buy salad from greenhouses). Local archaeology includes rock art and the largest Tehuelche cemetery in Patagonia. There are some fine waterfalls, including the
Salto Río Ibáñez
, 6 km north.

From the turning to Puerto Ibáñez the Carretera Austral goes through
Villa Cerro Castillo
(Km 8), a quiet village in a spectacular setting beneath the striking, jagged peaks of Cerro Castillo, overlooking the broad valley below. There's a petrol station, public phone, several food shops and a tiny tourist information kiosk by the road side (January- February only), with details of guides offering trekking to the Cerro, and horse rides.

The village is a good place to stop for a few days with two appealing attractions. There's a truly spectacular four-day trek around the fairytale castle peaks of Cerro Castillo, in the Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo. The walk starts at Las Horquetas Grandes, a bend in the river Río Ibáñez, 8 km south of the park entrance, where any bus driver will let you off. It follows Río La Lima to the gorgeous Laguna Cerro Castillo, then follows animal trails around the peak itself, returning to the village (accommodation or bus back to Coyhaique). This is a challenging walk: attempt it only if fit, and ideally, take a guide, as trails are poorly marked (IGM map essential, purchase in advance in Coyhaique).The
guardería
is on the Senda Ibáñez, 50 m to the left of the main road (as you head south), opposite Laguna Chinguay to the right, with access to walks and
campsite
, take equipment - there are no
refugios
.

A few kilometres south of the village is the
Monumento Nacional Manos de Cerro Castillo
. In a shallow cave, a few handprints have been made on the side of vertical rocks high above the Río Ibáñez. There's no clue to their significance, but they're in a beautiful place with panoramic views. This makes a delightful two-hour walk. The site is accessible all year, signposted clearly from the road.

The road climbs out of the valley, passing the emerald-green
Laguna Verde
and the Portezuelo Cofré. It descends to the boggy Manso Valley, with a good campsite at the bridge over the river; watch out for mosquitoes.

The western shore

Some 5 km from the Carretera Austral, at Km 203, is
Bahía Murta
, situated on the northern tip of the central arm of Lago General Carrera. This sleepy, almost forgotten village dates from the 1930s, when it exported timber to Argentina via Chile Chico. There is a tiny tourist information hut, which in theory opens summer 1000-1430, 1500-1930. Back on the carretera, the road follows the lake's western shore. At Km 207 from Coyhaique is a small privately owned forest of ancient and gnarled Arrayanes, worth a visit, US$3.50. Some 20 km further south is
Río Tranquilo
, where the buses stop for lunch and fuel is available. The lake reflects the mountains that surround it and the clouds above. Close to Río Tranquilo is the unusual
Catedral de Mármol
, a peninsula made of marble, with fascinating caves that can be visited by boat. The village also has an unusual cemetery made up of mausolea in the form of miniature Chilote-style houses. A new branch of the Carretera Austral heads northwest from Río Tranquilo to
Puerto Grosse
on the coast at Bahía Exploradores. At Km 52 on this road is a
refugio
from which a well-maintained path (US$5 entry) leads to a lookout opposite the Exploradores glacier.
The hike can be treacherous in bad weather. Book though
El Puesto
in Río Tranquilo.

South to Puerto Bertrand

The road continues along the edge of the azure lake, with snow-covered mountains with pointed peaks visible in the distance. At the southwestern tip of Lago General Carrera, at Km 279, is
El Maitén
, from where a road branches off east along the south shore of the lake towards Chile Chico. South of El Maitén, meanwhile, the Carretera Austral becomes steeper and more winding; in winter this stretch is icy and dangerous. The picturesque tranquil village of
Puerto Bertrand
, 5 km away, is a good place for fishing and the best base in the region for whitewater rafting and kayaking. Day hikes are possible along decent trails. Nearby is a sign showing the
Nacimiento del Río Baker
: the place where the turquoise Río Baker begins. This area is home to the most impressive hydrological system in Chile, with its most voluminous river, its biggest lake to the north and a huge icefield to the west. Beyond Puerto Bertrand, the road climbs up to high moorland, passing the confluence of the ríos Neff and Baker, before winding south along the east bank of the Río Baker. On a sunny day it is hard to imagine more pleasant surroundings. The road is rough but not treacherous and the scenery is splendid all the way to Cochrane. Watch out for cattle and hares on the road (and the occasional huemul) and take blind corners slowly.

The southern shore of Lago General Carrerra

Some 10 km east of El Maitén,
Puerto Guadal
is a friendly, picturesque town that is a centre for fishing. It also has shops, accommodation, restaurants, a post office, petrol and a lovely stretch of lakeside beach. Further east along the shore, just past the nondescript village of
Mallín Grande
, Km 40, the road runs through the
Paso de las Llaves
, a 30-km stretch carved out of the rock face on the edge of the lake. The south side of the lake is much drier than the rest of the Carretera but there are still gorges and waterfalls dotted along the route. The landscape is more open as there is less of an influence from the icefields. The road climbs and drops, narrow and poor in places, offering wonderful views across the lake and the icefields to the west. At Km 74, a turning runs to
Fachinal
. A further 5 km east is the
Garganta del Diablo
, an impressive narrow gorge of 120 m with a fast-flowing stream below. Further on there is an open-cast mine, which produces gold and other metals.

Chile Chico and around

Chile Chico is a quiet, friendly but dusty town situated on the lake shore 122 km east of El Maitén, close to the Argentine border. The town dates from 1909 when settlers crossed from Argentina and occupied the land, leading to conflict with cattle ranchers who had been given settlement rights by the Chilean government. In the showdown that followed (known as the war of Chile Chico) the ranchers were driven out by the settlers, but it was not until 1931 that the Chilean government finally recognized the town's existence.

Now the centre of a fruit-growing region, it has an annual festival at the end of January and a small
museum
(summer only); outside is a boat that carried cargo on the lake before the opening of the road along the southern shore. There are fine views from the
Cerro de las Banderas
at the western end of town. The
tourist office
, on O'Higgins, is helpful.

To the south and west of Chile Chico is good walking terrain, through weird rock formations and dry brush scrub. The northern and higher peak of
Cerro Pico del Sur
(2168 m) can be climbed by the agile from Los Cipres (beware dogs in the farmyard). You will need a long summer's day and the 1:50,000 map. Follow the horse trail until it peters out, then navigate by compass or sense of direction until the volcano-like summit appears. After breaching the cliff ramparts, there is some scrambling and a 3-m pitch to the summit, from where you'll enjoy indescribable views of the lake and the Andes.

About 20 km south of Chile Chico towards Lago Jeinimeni is the
Cueva de las Manos
, a cave full of Tehuelche paintings, the most famous of which are the
manos azules
(blue hands). From the road, climb 500 m and cross the Pedregoso stream. The path is difficult, and partly hidden, so you're recommended to take a guide.

Reserva Nacional Lago Jeinimeni

This park covers 160,000 ha and includes two lakes,
Lago Jeinimeni
and
Lago Verde
, which lie surrounded by forests in the narrow valley of the Río Jeinimeni. Impressive cliffs, waterfalls and small glaciers provide habitat for huemul deer, pumas and condors. Activities include fishing for salmon and rainbow trout, trekking and rowing. Access is via an unpaved road, which branches south off the road to Los Antiguos and crosses five rivers, four of which have to be forded. At Km 42, there is a small lake,
Laguna de los Flamencos
, where large numbers of flamingos can be seen. The park entrance is at Km 53; just beyond is a ranger station, a campsite and fishing area at the eastern end of Lago Jeinimeni. Take all supplies, including a good map.

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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