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The Wonders and Wilderness of Chile

As welcome signs go they don’t come much bigger or more impressive than the Andes Mountains, appearing out of nowhere, rugged and gnarly as though they have been squeezed out of the flat Pampas surrounding them.

Although I have been lucky enough to visit Chile before, the sight of the Andes never fails to excite. Exploring new places is always inspiring; this trip was to bring a mix of the well-known Torres del Paine, to the remote wilderness of the Carretera Austral in the Aysen region.

The Carretera Austral is Chile’s 770 mile Route 7 in northern Patagonia, running from the Chilean Lake district of Puerto Montt, to the small village of Villa O’Higgins at the foot of the southern Patagonian ice fields. From the small town of Balmaceda, which houses the region’s main airport, I travelled south to the stilted coastal village of Tortel, only accessible by air or boat until 2003 when the road was built. The Carretera Austral itself is a gravel road which winds through stunning scenery, small villages and remote settlements. With every turn the scenery changes, from tree shrouded valleys to rocky, snow-capped mountains; from emerald rivers to turquoise glacial fed braided streams. Crystal clear lakes reflect the surrounding mountains, amplifying the magnificence of the scenery. It’s a true adventure driving down the seemingly endless Carretera without a car in sight, just the tell-tale sign of dust in the distance to let you know
that humanity is still out there. The area receives few tourists each year so you will enjoy the stunning scenery pretty much to yourself. Travelling in this area is easy with a hire car, and with one road, the only thing to get lost are your thoughts.

Whilst the scenery is raw and untouched the level of accommodation is far from this. With wonderful lodges all within their own beautiful setting, they offer a dusty and happy traveller a welcome place to stay each night. Not only is the accommodation of a high standard offering great local food and wine, the owners are incredibly friendly and are proud to share their knowledge of the area.

After the remote beauty of northern Patagonia, I was unsure whether the much lauded Torres del Paine would live up to my expectations. Setting off from Punta Arenas on a smoother, straighter and extremely windy road to Torres del Paine National Park, the excitement and anticipation started to build. The scenery changed from the flat open expanse of the Patagonia Steppe, with hills and mountains appearing and then as we rounded the corner and looked to the distance, there was the iconic Torres del Paine Massif, standing alone, mighty and proud.

Not only does the National Park contain the granite massif but also meandering rivers, lakes and glaciers with endless hiking opportunities. There are vantage points from which to photograph and view the varied scenery the park has to offer all linked by a good road network. It doesn’t matter where you are in the park, your eye is always drawn back to the incredible Torres del Paine mountain sculpture, you find yourself staring at them, yet again, in wonderment as your camera shoots off another dozen photos.

If you want to see some of the last true wilderness areas without having to rough it, travelling through Chile on the Carretera has much to offer. Despite being a renowned tourist site, Torres del Paine has maintained its sense of majesty and remoteness and should be on everyone’s ‘places to visit’ list.

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Exploring Secret Patagonia – Tagua Tagua Park

Tagua Tagua Park

Tagua Tagua Park lies just three hours’ drive south east of Puerto Varas, in the Chilean Lake District. It is a Private Protected Area (APP) that opened to the public just three years ago. Last year less than 850 people visited Tagua Tagua Park, so this is virgin tourism territory.

Exploring this wilderness of ancient forest, lagoon, rivers, waterfalls and rugged mountains felt like a real privilege and that I had stumbled upon a secret part of Patagonia. The journey itself to Tagua Tagua Park is spectacular. I drove along the edge of Lake Llanquihue, past cascading waterfalls, snow-capped mountains and forests golden with autumn colours. Near to our destination we followed a bumpy dirt road that trails the Tagua Tagua River, (home to some of the best trout in the world), before reaching the end of the road at the head of Tagua Tagua lake. There are no vehicles in the park itself, the steep sided mountainous terrain does not allow for it, so I left the car and the last trace of civilisation behind and took a short 20 minute boat ride to the entrance of the park.

The entrance to Tagua Tagua Park is dramatically and noisily marked by the Rio el Salto plummeting 60 metres into the lake below. Here I met Diego, the park guide, and we headed off. After a short scramble we reached the official start of the park, the visitors lodge, a simple wooden cabin with the most magnificent views. The trail we walked took us along well maintained wooden walkways and bridges, through thick fern like jungle, under huge native alerce (larch) trees and in forests of lenga (southern beech).

Travelling at the end of the season I virtually had the park to myself and walking with Diego allowed me a unique and personal experience of Tagua Tagua Park. He shared his passion for the park, the wildlife that lives here and the incredible environment that is being protected. It is hoped that Tagua Tagua Park will join with Hornopirien National Park, to create a corridor for wildlife, particularly puma, foxes, huemel deer (national animal of Chile), huillin (river otter) and condors.

There are two basic refuges that allow 28 people to sleep within the park itself or across the Tagua Tagua Lake is the Mitico Puelo Lodge, a former fishing lodge. The lodge is surrounded by grass and woodlands, a perfect playground in nature, with swimming pool and wood fed hot tub, the perfect place to relax after a day of adventure.

The opportunity to really be part of nature, get away from any phone signal and enthuse with nature is rare, but Tagua Tagua Park offers that opportunity.

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Journeying to Torres del Paine

Finally arrived in Patagonia after two flight delays and 40 hours! 5 hours after hitting the hay, I woke up to this superb view from my bed. This is why I’m back in Patagonia and it makes the journey totally worthwhile! I’m now aboard the d’Agostini boat to see the remote Serrano and Balmaceda Glaciers before taking a zodiac up river in to the Torres del Paine. A client called me a genius for including this trip in his Chile holiday, let’s hope it’s a good one-first time for me!

This has really turned out to be a very cool trip, seeing the glaciers was fantastic and whilst there were 50 of us it still felt like a very remote experience as we were the only boat to arrive today. Boarding the zodiac was when the real fun began, donning a bright orange knee-length jacket, speeding up the Rio Serrano we went. Each wave thrust us closer to the Torres del Paine, my favourite part of Chile and possibly anywhere on earth. I just love it here.

We got a little wet as we egged on the driver of the zodiac to twist and turn a la James Bond in the Thames! I was delighted to arrive and see the Cuernos or horns of Paine and finally arrive at the new Awasi hotel (their superb sister hotel is based in San Pedro de Atacama). Fine wines, delicious food and stunning rooms await. It sits on a hillside with incredible views of Azure blue Sarmiento Lake and the Torres themselves. Whilst is has been open for only one week there is some landscaping to be done, Awasi is a special spot.

I’m utterly convinced that the whole journey from home to Patagonia was definitely worthwhile despite the delay, and especially so once I had a glass of red and some delicious hare in my belly!

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Drive the spectacular Carretera Austral Highway

I have recently returned from a fantastic week-long holiday to the little visited Aisen Region of Chilean Patagonia, organised by the Aisen Tourist Board. As one of the few areas of Chile that I had not visited, I jumped at the chance and the excitement grew as we finally flew from Santiago to the regional capital, Coyhaique. Passing by the snow-capped peaks and volcanoes of the Andes and landing in Balmaceda, this is where the week-long adventure began!

After a one night stop on the edge of Coyhaique, we set off north to the small town of La Junta, travelling 180 miles along the renowned Carretera Austral Southern Highway, one of the great road journeys on Earth. The camino is partially paved so a 4×4 is a must, and enables travellers to experience the best that this region has to offer. The route north heads all the way up to Puerto Montt in the Lake District and towards the Argentine border close to Esquel.

We continued our journey south again towards the Queulat National Park, which is close to Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa. Reached by boat, the lodge has a privileged location at the edge of a beautiful fjord, surrounded by mountains and forest. Whilst guests should make use of the hot thermal baths, the excursions on offer are excellent, heading off the main highway to hike to glacier viewpoints and through the rainforest. The highlight of my stay here was a lovely hike to view the spectacular Ventisquero Hanging Glacier plunging into a lake-filled ravine.

In trying to fit as much as possible into the week-long trip, we travelled around 1,000 kilometres in total after driving south of Coyhaique to Lake General Carrera for the second half of the trip. Again, the journey was spectacular with glacier covered mountains, waterfalls, vast fjords and huge rivers such as the Baker River. The fact that we must have passed ten cars at most during the day illustrates how few people live in the region, let alone how few tourists there are! We spent a night on the shore of Lake General Carrera, the second largest in South America and it is quite simply one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Visitors will find some great lodges all offering fantastic trout fly-fishing and outdoor activities to make the most of what the region has to offer.

Few people visit Aisen Region and it is important to get the season right, with October – April being the optimum period to experience this beautiful region. Visitors can ski out of season though. It is an area that will suit travellers seeking an off the beaten track experience with hiking, horse riding, white water rafting and world class trout fly-fishing combined with the independence of travelling by 4×4.

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Solar Eclipse on Easter Island

On 11 July a total solar eclipse crossed the Pacific Ocean along an 11,000km arc and Easter Island was one of the few locations from which this spectacular sight could be seen.

The eclipse started in Tonga before crossing the Pacific and ending over the far south of Chile and Argentina. Thousands of travellers made the journey to the remote island to take in the mysterious iconic moai statues and the rare opportunity to view the solar eclipse. Despite forecasts of cloudy weather,

Take a look at a video clip of the lunar eclipse on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10592671

Why not combine a trip to Easter Island with the likes of the Atacama Desert, Patagonia and the Lake District on mainland Chile.

GO TO CHILE! It really is a spectacular country of such contrasting landscapes!