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North Carretera Austral and Chiloé

April 8, 2021

Along the North Carretera Austral and on Chiloé Island, there are natural wonders, unique wildlife, and intriguing cultures to explore and discover. South of the Lake District where the Carretera Austral begins, Chile tapers to a bejewelled meander of glacier-carved valleys, hidden lakes, and tumbling waterfalls. While the biggest Patagonian island, Chiloé, is collaged with swamps, forests, cultivated fields, wave-beaten coastlines, channels, and peninsulas. And, just like Charles Darwin, nature lovers who are willing to go the extra mile are justly rewarded.

One of the world’s most scenic road trips, the sinuous Carretera Austral into Chile’s southern wilderness is breathtaking but challenging. Ancient yet volatile, this is frontier country with looming misty mountains, thousand-year-old conifers, and occasional volcanic mud and ash. Near El Chaiten, along the Carretera Austral, there are also fishing lodges, hiking trails, white-water adventures, and steamy hot springs. 

“Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests, undefaced by the hand of man …” – Charles Darwin.

Towering and ancient, the beautiful Patagonian cypresses grow in the cool rainforests of the Alerce Andino and Hornopiren National Parks. These UNESCO Biosphere Reserves are home to some peculiar wildlife. From primitive marsupials, Americas’ smallest cats, to semiaquatic rodents all live here. Further south, the deep forests of Pumalin Douglas Tompkins National Park reach all the way to the fjords. They create spectacular coastlines with hundreds of waterfalls cascading down over steep granite walls from mountain glaciers. From the Carretera Austral, there are also many hiking trails to explore this remarkable area of Southern Chile.

Straddling the Carretera Austral, Queulat National Park remains mostly untouched. These wild jagged lands of falling glacial waters are also the ancestral territory of the nomadic Chono people. For thousands of years, they had navigated the islands and channels in their canoes between Chiloé and Taitao Peninsula. Today, self-guided trails meander through the park’s Patagonian forests and into its rugged mountains. Especially beautiful, the 3.2km ‘Hanging Glacier Trail’ to the moraine has panoramic view of its famous hanging glacier. Then, for an immersive experience, let Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa spoil you with misty stillness, log fires, and hot springs.

In contrast to Carretera Austral, across the Gulf of Corcovado, there is the enchanting archipelago of Chiloé. Stormy seas, sheltered inlets, and rolling hills characterise this picturesque landscape and its fiercely independent seafaring folk. Their mythology, architecture, and gastronomy all reflect their indigenous origins, ingenuity, and hospitality. Above all, it is Chiloé’s wild nature that has endowed the local inhabitants with their legendary sturdiness and quirks.

For the Incas, what lay beyond the southernmost edge of their Empire was a land of mystery and darkness. Here the Pacific’s waters chilled and turned from blue to black and where indigenous peoples endured lonely hardship. It was also where the witches, trolls, mermaids, and ghost ships dwelled, and evil ascended. At its haunted heart lies the archipelago of Chiloé. With its shadowy forests, misty seas, and derelict buildings; you can easily imagine such bizarre and curious folklores. Centuries-old tales are colourfully retold by locals of half-marine and half-human like creatures who reign over this magical island.

“The day was beautiful, and the number of trees which were in full flower perfumed the air; yet even this could hardly dissipate the effect of the gloomy dampness of the forest. Moreover, the many dead trunks that stand like skeletons, never fail to give to these primeval woods a character of solemnity, absent in those of countries long civilized.” – Charles Darwin

If this sounds ideal, then Tantauco Park, in the farthest and wildest part of Chiloé, awaits. Rain-soaked, rainbow-strewn, and matted with untamed virgin forest, it is Patagonia’s most rewarding far-flung destination for hiking, camping, and wildlife-watching. Its biodiversity is bewildering from the world’s largest mammal to its smallest marsupial. On the Pacific side, Chiloé National Park’s stretch of hidden coastline is also one of the most beautiful in Chile. Vast and desolate, it teems with marine, terrestrial, and avian wildlife. Here at low tide, you can also catch the locals digging for shellfish out of the sand.

“We saw … a pair of the beautiful black-necked swans and several small sea-otters. … In returning, we were again amused by the impetuous manner in which the heap of seals, old and young, tumbled into the water as the boat passed. They did not remain long under water, but rising, followed us without-stretched necks, expressing great wonder and curiosity.” – Charles Darwin

Like Carretera Austral, Chiloé’s other marine life includes numerous species of dolphins and whales. It’s also a haven for seabirds. Pelicans, albatrosses, petrels, cormorants, shags, ducks, skuas, terns, gannets, and countless seagull species all thrive here. The vulnerable Humboldt and the cheeky Magellanic penguins also nest here together at the Islotes de Puñihuil Natural Monument. Around the secluded coastline of Chiloé, you can explore these rich waters by boat or kayak. Also, discover the other surrounding smaller islands. They are a treasure trove of wildlife and cultural heritage. Mechuque in the Chauques Isles is one of the loveliest, especially the portside village of Tenaún with its wooden church.  

In the land of shellfish, potatoes and boatbuilders, the ardent people of Chiloé insist they are uniquely Chilote, not Chilean. And nothing says ‘Chilote’ more than their hearty cuisine and their UNESCO-recognised architecture. For example, Curanto is the best way to enjoy Chiloé’s fresh bounty, making it a genuine culinary destination.  Layers of seafood, meat, potatoes, and vegetables fire-cooked with hot rocks covered with wild rhubarb and soil. The wooden churches of Chiloé also embody the intangible richness of the island, a fusion of indigenous and European cultures. They integrate the demands of the environment with the spiritual values of the farmers and fishermen who skillfully built them.

Along the waterfront in Castro, there are also the quaint palafitos, shingled houses extending over the sea on long stilts. Rustic and unmistakably Chilote, they are an architectural relic before roads when seafarers returned by boat directly to their dwellings. When staying here in the capital of the archipelago, consider Patio Palafito; it’s wooden, creaky and oozing charm. Similarly, for all-inclusive luxury with a focus on the indigenous culture, Tierra Chiloé laps up against a bucolic coastline. It also connects guests with this surreal archipelago on excursions by land, sea, and horseback. With locally inspired and homegrown food with Chilean wines, cosy island life awaits.

So, why not go the extra mile and explore North Carretera Austral and Chiloé? Talk to our travel specialists today about a tailor-made itinerary.

Highlights of North Carretera Austral and Chiloé:

– Alerce Andino & Hornopiren National Parks is home to ancient forests and many endemic species.
– Pumalin Douglas Tompkins National Park has trails exploring landscapes from rainforests to glaciers.
– Queulat National Park protects waterfalls, fjords, jagged rock walls, and its famous hanging glacier.
– Tantauco Park is a great off-the-beaten-track destination for hiking, camping, and watching wildlife.
– Chiloé National Park has an abundance of unique wildlife, even the pudú, the world’s smallest deer.
– Marine life, seabirds & surrounding islands display a biologically rich heritage.
– UNESCO-listed wooden churches exhibit Chiloé’s integrated Indigenous-European architecture.
– Chilote cuisine & colourful mythology embraces an ethnically rich past.

Lastly, stay at one of the following all-inclusive properties along North Carretera Austral and on Chiloe:

Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa is a first-class lodge for adventure, massage, and relaxation.
Tierra Chiloe Hotel & Spa is an all-inclusive lodge with daily excursions, authentic cuisine, and an open bar.
Ocio Territorial is an all-inclusive lodge, run by locals with daily excursions, authentic cuisine.