Arriving into to Rio Tranquilo from Los Antigos, we made the choice to travel the Carretera Austral north.This way, our route would pass through the towns of Villa Cerro Castillo, known as the base camp of an alternative hike to Torres del Paine, and Coyhaique, the biggest city in the area. From here we would then take a ferry to the island of Chiloe. Therefore, this meant leaving behind Pumalin and Chalten. If you want to know more about each of these places and the route we took, continue reading.
Villa Cerro Castillo
Surprisingly easy, we hitch-hiked to Cerro Castillo from Rio Tranquilo. Expecting more, it only took about 3 hours. This part of the Carretera Austral is known to be quite rough. The whole way, we thought we were lucky to be picked up in a brand new 4WD. Our driver loved talking about Chilean gastronomy, which we were more than happy to learn about. It really made the journey short, interesting and safe.
As we reached Villa Cerro Castillo we discovered a sleepy tiny town surrounded by farms and snowy peaks. It was probably the most remote place we had been so far. Here, visitors use the village as a base to go multi-day hiking, climbing or visiting the nearby prehistoric cave paintings. 3 great things we had planed on doing the next couple of days.
That afternoon, we walked to the local caves to see the cave paintings. These handprint paintings can easily be visited for free. Technically, visitors are supposed to pay an entrance fee and be accompanied by a local guide. We chose to pay the entrance fee and take a moment to visit the oldest school (1953) of the area as part of the tour. It has been converted into a museum and it took us through the history of the Rio Ibanez region from its prehistoric inhabitants to the modern population.
The caves are maintained by the municipality of Cerro Castillo. Even if the entrance is quite easy to find without paying, we think that everyone should be respectful of the work done here and pay the small entrance fee (€2.80).
After the school tour, a young guide led us to the caves so we could see the hand paintings. Event though pretty similar, these caves don’t have much connection with similar caves found in Argentina. The Cuevas de las manos, are so remote that it takes a very expensive tour to get to. We were pretty happy to visit one of the (around) 100 other caves in the region where hand paintings can be seen and are the proof of an important prehistoric life.
That night we went early to bed. The next day we would go watch a climbing competition organised by Mammot. Then prepare ourselves for a 1 day hike to the Cerro Castillo Laguna. With no tent, we were unable to do the 4 day hike that many had told us good things about. But as always, plans are not reliable. The night turned out to be our coldest in South America. the next morning we realised why. We woke up to a thick layer of snow.
Finding a good place to stay in Villa Cerro Castillo
Accommodation in Villa Cerro Castillo consists on a few hospedajes and hostals, two type of guesthouse. We knocked into all of them and chose the one that had a kitchen and that looked like the cleanest. The place had obviously been repaired more than once with whatever was lying around. Our room was freezing cold upon our arrival and there was no hot water for us to shower with. We spent the night playing cards and drinking tea as close as possible to the only wood stove. For some crazy reason it was situated in the common area right next to the door, on the opposite side of the building to our room. Let’s be honest, that night, we slept in our sleeping bags under a mountain of blankets.
Finding a good place to stay isn’t easy in Villa Cerro Castillo, except if you can spare more than €15 each a night. We tried our best not to. We had heard of a very cheap, cosy and fun refuge a bit outside of the town but never found it. It turned out we had gone the wrong way. This place is a camping and refuge for 7000 CLP, a bargain for Patagonia. It’s called Camping Sendero Patagonia and our friends who stayed there really enjoyed their stay. For the price and the need of using a sleeping bag (they don’t provide bed sheets), we would have preferred staying there.
Nature is unpredictable. The next morning, the snow had ruined our plans. The entire town was covered in a thick layer of white powder. This meant that the climbing competition was forced to move to another site and the hike to the Laguna was now compromised as we didn’t want to take the risk of injuring ourselves (it was a good things we didn’t go as we met a week later someone who broke his shoulder that day and heard another person had to spend the night up there with a broken ankle waiting for help…).
We instead decided to hitch hike to the next town, Coyhaique, and spend a couple of days eating fresh food, something we had not really seen since we started our journey in Patagonia. As we were hitch hiking on the side of the Carretera Austral, close to a bus stop, a local empty bus stopped and offered us a ride. At first, we refused as we were not waiting for the bus… However, the driver told us he was not in service and that he had to go back to Coyhaique after dropping off the climbers at the climbing festival.
Two buses were following each other, and both drivers were talking over their radio. They were as amazed as us by the autumn colours of the trees covered by this beautiful white layer of fresh snow. They eventually stopped at a pass to take pictures of this uncommon landscape. We did the same which led us at some point to a fun snow battle.
This place is by far the biggest city we had been in over a month with its 50 000 habitants. This meant for us a lot of walking to find a descent place to stay and endless queues at the local supermarket!
It also meant a large choice of food, street markets and the chance to find electronics like batteries. We really enjoyed the place and it had a lot to do with the hostel we stayed at. Despite the lack of kitchen, this place is by far the best hostel we have been in over 7 months traveling in South America. It was really warm and cosy. The beds were the largest, most comfortable and useful, with lights and drawers. The price was quite high, way above our budget but we decided to treat ourselves ended up staying 3 nights there, drinking beer, working on the blog and making friends.
What to do in coyhaique and around ?
In the city there was not much to do except if the budget allows oneself to do some shopping. That was not our case so we mainly walked around, found a great artisanal market where we bought craft beer and Chilean food specialities like: Pastel de Choclo and Empanadas. We also made friends with a couple from The Netherlands whom we visited the national reserve of Coyhaique with.
Situated about 20 min from the city center, the park offers gentle walks to great viewpoints of the town and the surroundings.
To Continue or not?
From Coyhaique we took the hard decision to not travel further along the Carretera Austral. Sadly, as we didn’t have a tent it was becoming harder and harder to accommodation and transport. Even though we really wanted to visit National Park Pumalin and check out the volcano ash buried town of Chalten, we couldn’t take the risk to sleep outside if we couldn’t catch a ride or reach a town before sunset. So, we booked a 30 hour ferry from Puerto Chacabuco to Quellon on the island of Chiloe.
Costs and useful information for the Carretera Austral **
Currency (average) :€1 = 714.20 CLP
Hospedaje Villa Cerro Castillo – twin beds : 10,000 pp/pn (€14)
Hostel Patagonia – 15,000 CLP pp/pn (€21)
Entrance fee – Old school and hand painting caves : 2,000 CLP (€2.80)
Entrance fee – Coyhaique National Reserve : 3,000 CLP (€4.20)
Bus from Coyhaique to Puerto Aysen : 2,200 CLP (€3)
Shuttle bus from Puerto Aysen to Pto Chacabuco : 500 CLP (€0.70)
Boat to Quellon w/ Navira australe : 17,500 CLP (€25)
** note that all the links we add are FYI. We are not remunerated by either the companies/organisations nor per click.
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