So, I fly into Santiago Chile having spent two unforgetable weeks in Brazil. Check out that post: Why Every Traveler Should Visit Brazil. My journey does not stop there. Even before I started planning my vacation in Brazil, (as in months before) I would tell myself: “Chile is such a big beautiful country that I have to get to know more by backpacking.” But where did I decide to satisfy my wanderlust in Chile this time? In Southern Patagonian Chile, in a region you or any traveler/backpacker has to visit at least once in their lifetime. Let me tell you all about it so that when you visit this area you can go in prepared with your pack! Please note that this a Chilean Patagonian backpacking budget itinerary/guide that can be followed as presented, be changed somewhat, or simply added onto a more extensive Patagonian itinerary.
A little about Chile.
Chile is a very narrow country that sits on the west side of South America alongside the Pacific coast. It’s a very long country that extends (from south to north) for 4,270 km (2,653 miles) yet it’s average width is 177 km (110 miles). It’s a country with some of the most breathtaking nature you will find on this blue and green marble we call home! I’t cultural influence is mainly european (particularly spanish) and indigenous.
My Traveling Goals (Or yours maybe).
Now, before this trip I had already been in Chile. Mostly for shopping purposes, and once on vacation a few years back. But this time it was different. Before embarking on this trip, a close chilean friend of mine had told me about some natural gems in the south of his country. The marble caves, and glaciers of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field! I googled these spots, and what I saw stayed in my mind for good. Even if I wanted to think about something else, I just could not do it for all the good reasons! I’m a big nature guy, so this time I wanted to experience these natural wonders in person. To feel the marble with my bare hands, to step on the glaciers and drink their pure water, to envelop my retinas with some of the prettiest spots on planet Earth. That, my fellow traveler is the attitude I want you to have towards these places. You need to live these experiences as if they were your very last. That being said, the inevitable question appears: How do I get to these places?
Fly into Coyhaique.
Depending on where your flying from, or in other words “your traveling circumstances”, flying into Coyhaique is a must if you want to witness what I have in this region. You could take a bus, but most people don’t have the time, and this is a budget itinerary. We all know that airline travel is much faster (and in this case cheaper), but this bus ride would be extra longer. Why so? Because if you take a bus from northern Chile to Coyhaique, your going to have to go through Argentina and then back into Chile because of the unforgiving terrain of southern Chile. The Carretera Austral is Chile’s route 66, and its not finished completely. This is because of the deep and wide fjords that span across this area of Chilean Patagonia. Tall mountains and glaciers provide other natural barriers. So, until that route is complete, buses going from northern Chile to these extremely isolated parts of southern Chile will have to pass through big old Argentina.
The usual “traveling by air is more expensive fact” does not apply here, at least if your flying in from Puerto Montt. Flying to Coyhaique from Puerto Montt only cost me around 80 dollars because I used a budget airline known as Sky Airlines, and it’s a recommendable travel option. I picked them, and their service was not perfect, but not bad either. I was surprised at what a budget airline can offer these days. Where should you fly from? It depends on your overall plan. I flew from Puerto Montt because I didn’t have a choice, and I reached Coyhaique in less than two hours. There are also flights from Santiago and other chilean cities. If you decide to take a bus because of the scenery, then you would have a lot to look at especially if you get a window seat. But for most people, getting on that Boeing is cheaper, faster, and much less of a hastle.
Take a transfer.
Don’t forget that the airport is not in Coyhaique but in Balmaceda about an hour outside Coyhaique to the south, and the transfer from Balmaceda airport to Coyhaique costs $5.000 chilean pesos ($8.00 USD) one way. You’ll need to take another one of these transfers to get back to the airport (unless you take a taxi which would be costly). The transfer company I recommend is Transfers Valencia. This is their number: +56 67 223 30 30
I managed with my pack.
Since my flight was national, my “checked baggage” was my whole 85LT backpack. I had no additional luggage. It was with me at all times and did not have to spend any unsupervised time in the cargo area. I managed to fit everything I needed for two backpacking weeks into that one pack. And surprisingly, it met the needed requirements. Well, I did have to take some things off like my tent and sleeping pad in order for the backpack to fit in that dreaded purple box they force you to put your backpack in when they check to see if it has the needed dimensions. Oh, and make sure you don’t bring to much weight in order to avoid an ugly fee! The luggage restrictions are on the Sky Airlines website in Spanish only, but if you have any questions I’ll be glad to answer them!
Ok, so you got this far, but now where the heck do you go? Well, first of all, Coyhaique as a city has limited options for recreation and the like, I mean, after all it’s a small town with those small town vibes. These small town vibes can be just what one needs, especially for some that spend too much time in the big city. My time in Coyhaique was spent thanks to haphazard planning, but I still managed to enjoy my stay in this calm in the middle of nowhere settlement. Activities I recommend while in Coyhaique are craft beer drinking, artisan fair seeing and buying, and photography strolls. Make the best of where you go!
The specific craft beer joints that I recommend are Mamma Gaucha, Nativo Austral, and Chelenko. They serve the best kind of beer, with a quality that deserves the name “perfection.” But since most beer drinkers today are beer critics, then you’re going to have to come to your own conclusion of whether this beer deserves the “perfect” or “near perfect” attributions.
Rent A Bike! And…
Another activity that I did here in Chile, and that I really enjoyed, was biking around the city of Coyhaique. There a few bike rental spots around the dowtown area such as “Clan X”, “Una Velocidad”, and “Patagonia Cycles.” I rented mine from neither one of these since it was a gift shop that happend to rent three average quality mountain bikes. So, I had to leave my DNI (identification card) in exchange for a bike, (a reasonable proposal once you really think about it) in the hands of a girl that had her little shop closed when I came back from my approximately hour and a half bike ride. There wasn’t even a “I’ll be back in five minutes” sign! So I clap my hands next door (a general south american way of ringing the doorbell) and I encounter this nice woman who says that the girl who has my DNI should be back in about half an hour! Uh, what? So, I try not to lose my composure, and decide to continue biking around the blocks near the shop, and when I come back she’s still not there. Seriously? When you experience something like this, you even start wondering if your going to make it back to your country without that extremely important document that might as well be a bar of gold. She appears a short while later, and as nervous as ever, the girl opens up the shop and gives me my DNI back. I didn’t complain that much since I took advantage to bike some more, and got to do some cool stuff in the meantime. But hey, who wants to go through an experience like that? Anyone? I spent like 7.000 chilean pesos for like a two hour bike ride, which translated into american dollars is $11.00 USD.
Other Stuff To Do!
Now, other things I recommend doing in Coyhaique Chile have to do with hanging around the cute parks, and visiting the city fair, which is fully open on weekends. I went on a weekday, yet still managed to see and buy some neat stuff, like a cool wool magnet.
As you can tell, and even more so if you spend time in this region, wool is the main crop and money making business besides turism. In the fair they sell other wool products that I saw such as wool ponchos. But, they become yours at an expensive price. So if you want them, make sure to bring the extra cash.
Other additional activities you can take part in… You probably guessed it: nature! Their are lovely spots just outside of town. I didn’t leave the city area much because of time and limited means of transportation, but there are some beautiful places to visit outside the city, like the Coyhaique National Reserve. For hikers, there are trails in this very pretty reserve. I did not get to go here, but if you can, then you should!
Where do I stay?
Camp! I recommend camping if you’re the camping type. If not, there are plenty of cheap and good hostels in downtown Coyhaique. If your the hotel type, then I can’t help you, because as I mentioned before, I did budget traveling on this trip. The campsite I stayed at is “El Camping”, and it has showers with hot water, tables, electrical outlets, and even WIFI. Yep, you read it right. Believe it or not, all the campsites I stayed at had WIFI included. Even in middle of nowhere places where you would not expect to even get an internet signal. When I was close enough to the internet router, I even got a pretty good speed. It’s not big city internet speed, but it worked for everything I had to do online. All the chilean campsites I stayed at cost $5.000 chilean pesos per person, which at the current exchange rate, is $7.00USD.
The only hostel I can recommend in Coyhaique is the “El Gaucho Hostel” which is quite good for the price. There’s no free breakfast, but you get your own private room with a TV, WIFI, a comfortable bed. The shared bathroom was quite clean. This place worked for me, and it may work for you.
What could be next?
Now, you’re probably wondering about how to get to those spectacular marble caves. Well, first of all, it’s not the only WOW spot to visit farther south, but it is one of the main attractions that keeps Puerto Rio Tranquilo alive. Puerto Rio Tranquilo is the town you will have to go into to visit the marble caves, and take part in other awesome activities in the area. In order to get to this small peaceful town, I took a bus from Coyhaique. Buses from Coyhaique to Puerto Rio Tranquilo cost $10.000 chilean pesos, ($15 USD). Yet, I recommend that in between you stop at Cerro Villa Castillo, a tiny town surrounded by jaw dropping natural beauty. It costs $5.000 chilean pesos to get here, either from Cohayque or Puerto Rio Tranquilo. I stopped here for almost two days on the way back, so more on this area farther down in the post. The bus ride from Coyhaique to Puerto Rio Tranquilo should take about five hours, mainly because part of the road is dirt and not paved. Once you get to to Puerto Rio Tranquilo, I suggest that you find a campsite or a hostel in town. I recommend you stay at a campsite since this style of accommodation while backpacking through Chilean Patagonia in the summer is magical. I was camping in this region right before the Southern Hemisphere’s summer even started, during the first two weeks of December. I did get excellent summer weather though, and there’s nothing like camping while surrounded by patagonian nature at its finest. So, ditch the hostels and/or hotels, and pitch your tent in one of Chile’s great quality and excellent priced campgrounds. And don’t forget to actually enjoy nature!
What campground do I recommend? Well, it’s the one everyone recommends here, and it’s called camping Bellavista. It’s located on the outskirts of town. It’s really easy to locate, and if you’re still having trouble locating it, ask any local where it is and they’ll direct you right to it. Like other campsites throughout Chile you get commodities like WIFI, and to be honest, it works best near the dining tables which are near the office. There’s bathrooms with hot water, and you should be able to find a spot to pitch your tent unless it’s overcrowded. It costs $5.000 chilean pesos a night to camp here.
What about those caves?
The flabergasting marble caves of patagonian Chile were formed thanks to milenia of water erosion that hit the marble peninsula which used to connect to the marble caves. These wonders should be at the top of anybody’s bucket list. To get there, you still need to book a tour company. It is critical to mention that there are two ways you can experience the gorgeous marble caves: by kayak or on a regular motor boat. I absolutely, strongly, forcefully, totally suggest anyone to opt for the kayaking tour. Kayaking radically changes the way you experience the marble caves. The company that I booked the tour with was 99% Aventura. I do not all 100% (or even 99%) recommend them, but they were the only company I could find that did the kayaking tour, and due to how popular the tour is, I decided to pick them. Now, I was told that there is another secretive tourism company that visits the marble caves by kayaking, but I wasn’t able to locate it. Pricing of the kayak tour with 99% Aventura is $40.000 chilean pesos ($62 USD). I went for a promotion they had at the time which included this tour plus a glacier trek on the Exploradores Glacier. It was around $80.000 ($125 USD approximately). I’m not sure if they still offer this bundle, because their website does not feature it, and they don’t really update their website either.
Important info to keep in mind.
Both the kayak tour to the marble caves, and the glacier trek on the Exploradores Glacier are totally worth it! And I say this, even though 99% Aventura is far from your ideal tourist agency. For example, the kayak tour feels a bit rushed, but this is in part due to the fact that the marble caves are so epic that you just want the tour to last longer. Yet, they could stay longer during some parts of the tour. I was so awe struck by the marble caves that I did the kayak tour twice, and I was still left with a desire to be at/in the marble caves for an extended amount of time. I’m glad I went a second time, since I got to behold the natural beauty for more time, and take better pictures. The 99% Aventura official website (which cannot be translated to english, can you believe it?) says that the tour lasts from four to five hours, but don’t forget that this includes preparation time, transport time, and actually kayaking to the marble caves. Don’t forget that you have to be at the 99% Aventura office at 7:30 in the morning to begin the tour. At least that’s how it was when I was there. This information is not on their website, but once you book the tours online, you should receive all the necessary information. I booked my tour directly at the office and the day before, so they told me everything there. Their located on the shore of Lago General Carrera, and their office is a big orange tent. Make sure to make reservations in advance, although how much time in advance depends on when you plan to be there. When I went, (beginning of December) it was not the extreme high season so booking the day before was not an issue.
In all, I believe you spend around an hour at the marble caves. I found this disappointing, although for some people it may be enough. My second tour guide was definitely a lot less rigid with time than the first, and let me spend more time in and around the magnificent geological formations. I was practically always separated from my groups, especially the second time. But I’m glad I had this rebellious spirit since I was able to get into nooks and crannies that most ignored.
Glacier trek on the Exploradores Glacier.
The Exploradores Glacier is a breathtaking retreating glacier (sad face) that extends from the Northern Patagonian Icefield of Chilean Patagonia. Glacier trekking on the Exploradores Glacier can also be done with 99% Aventura. There are other companies in Puerto Rio Tranquilo that offer the same tour, but since I grabbed the 2×1 bundle mentioned before, I did the tour with them. The individual tour price is $70.000 chilean pesos (around $109 USD).
The van that transports you to the glacier trek starting point goes through an amazing glacier formed valley, where you get to observe outstanding hanging glaciers among other natural wonders. Then you go through an enchanting Patagonian forest were you have the chance to observe the local flora and fauna. Once you go through the incredible moraine, and reach the actual beginning of the glacier, you’ll put on your crampons! Now, I feel very compelled to mention something that I hated about 99% Aventura. They never gave me the right crampons! I mean they were not hurting my feet, but they were destroying my boots without me realizing, and the tour guides who are supposed to have more experience with noticing that, waited until the end of the glacier trek to give me a more adequate pair of crampons that wouldn’t ruin my good hiking boots! So, make sure that the crampons aren’t too tight on the footwear, so that you don’t ruin a good pair of shoes/boots. Another option is to bring and old pair of shoes or boots just for this glacier trek. Also, remember to bring your own food on this tour since it is a full day tour and your stomach will go wild if you don’t keep it in check. They give you a small sandwich, an apple, and a little carton of juice, but that is not enough for a full day. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Make sure you take lots of pictures on this tour because you get to actually walk on a glacier, get into glacial caves, and you will be presented with tons of other photographic opportunities! Don’t forget that you’ll be walking on ice that’s thousands of years old, among other things! The beauty is the definition of EPIC!
Important info about Puerto Rio Tranquilo, Chile.
Puerto Rio Tranquilo is a very peaceful town that has its charm, but it is not for every type of traveler. This a place for the true backpacker, the type of person who knows how to deal with certain incommodities, the improvising individual. To begin with, there are no ATM machines in this town, so make sure to bring in enough cash with you for food, accommodation, tours, and anything else. Also, the ONLY cellular signal company that has signal here is ENTEL. So don’t even think of getting a Claro or Wom chilean celular chip. The ENTEL chip costs 9.990 chilean pesos ($16USD). It’s a great way to keep in touch with friends and family! Not to mention that it can be used in emergency situations. Make sure to get it in Coyhaique or in some other moderately sized chilean city, because I can’t guarantee you’ll be able to buy one Puerto Rio Tranquilo.
Now, another thing to keep in mind is food. Food has to travel long distances to this town so it’s not as cheap as you may want it to be, and there aren’t many places to buy food either. The almacen (grocery store) I would go to was called Campo de Hielo, (ice field) and it had everything I needed.
Next stop: Villa Cerro Castillo
Ok, so after feasting my eyes and sense of adventure, I needed some more eye feasts and adventure because kayaking through narrow colored marble caves, and trekking/exploring a glacier wasn’t enough. So, my next stop was Villa Cerro Castillo. My main reason for going here was to trek the now well known “Laguna Cerro Castillo hike.” It was a goal of mine to do so! (my next post will be about how to do this hike) But first of all, I had to arrive in Villa Cerro Castillo, a very small town of around 600 people. I took a bus from Puerto Rio Tranquilo which left at 9:00 in the morning, (the same bus route that goes to Coyhaique) and it took me around three hours to get to Villa Cerro Castillo. The company is “Aguilas Patagonicas” and that was the only bus that left to Villa Cerro Castillo, so make sure to find out all necessary schedules beforehand. My bus ride planning was a little rushed so I was in no need of a detailed schedule.
Accommodation is limited of course. I opted to camp at Camping El Mirador, which is a nice campiste on the edge of town. There’s hotwater, a long picnic table, and even WIFI, but in order to use the WIFI with a strong signal, you have to be as close to the home or “office” of the people who run the campsite. I don’t recommend having a fire here, since the Patagonian winds are as strong as ever in this region of Patagonia. Everything tends to be quite dry too, especially during summer. Do you want to pay a huge fine or even be put in jail for burning down a whole forest? I didn’t think so. As with all the other campsites I stayed at in Chile, it was $5.000 chilean pesos for a day and a night.
In order to get to this campsite from where you get off the bus, you walk from the bus stop heading back into the direction of Puerto Rio Tranquilo a little ways until you get to the end of town. At this point, you should see a typical Carretera Austral road sign. Turn left, and walk up to a dark green wooden house with a red roof. This is the office of the campsite. But is a hostel your thing in a town like this? Then maybe El Rodeo Hostel is what you are looking for. The reviews seem to speak for themselves.
Consider the following.
Oh, and if you need any backpacking food, just make sure to stock up at the main grocery store in town. It’s a wooden building with lots of advertising near the bustop that you can’t miss. Opening and closing hours are typical of any grocery stores in Chile. They open around 9:00 am, close around 1:00 pm, reopen around 4:00 or 5:00 pm and close sometime before midnight (beware of random changes in opening/closing hours). I was so hungry after getting off the bus, that I went straight to the adorable roadside bus/restaurant called “Cocina de Sole.” It’s two adjoined buses turned into a restaurant! I bought a pretty good “hamburguesa a lo pobre” that cost $7.000 chilean pesos ($11.00USD). Not the cheapest sandwich in the world, but I had and empty stomach and I hadn’t eaten a decent meal in a few hours. Anyway, make sure to stop here (to at least take pictures) so that you get the whole Villa Cerro Castillo experience!
What Should I Bring?
Ok, so you came all this way to this isolated part of Patagonia. Good preparation will save you unnecessary frustration. First of all, you want to make sure you have a big enough backpack. My 85LT pack suited me just fine! I have partnered with Madera Outdoor. They have amazing products, and a humanitarian initiative, so visit their website! Use the promo code MADERA40 for a 40% discount on their products. Since you’re probably going to camp and/or stay in hostels, here is a great “list of things to bring” to obviously keep in mind:
- Good tent. And if you go in the summer or even the last part of spring, a good summer tent will do. Just make sure to keep extra warm inside!
- Good cold weather sleeping bag. Anything +10 or lower should be fine for summer and late spring camping. A mummy sleeping bag would be great! Don’t have one? Madera Outdoor has some great ones! Use the link and promo code provided above.
- Sleeping Pad. Important to help keep moisture away from your sleeping area, and for insulation to keep you warm at night.
- Pillow. Well, I used extra clothes, and my towel (rough backpacking lifestyle). Some people would rather just bring and inflatable one. I recommend the ones they have at Madera! Use the link and promo code above!
- Trekking poles. I didn’t bring mine since I knew I was not going to use them that much, but if you want to bring a pair for trekking, then that would be fine.
- Portable camping stove. The “must bring” for any real backpacker. I use a portable Doite spider stove. It’s my toy! Make sure to buy the portable gas after getting of the plane.
- Mess Kit. Buy yourself a nice, compact, portable set of camping cookware. I use an excellent Doite mess kit that I’ll never regret buying.
- The right clothes such as a good warm windbreaker, for cool days and nights. At least one good polar sweater, thermal long sleeve shirt, thermal long undies (or long johns), at least one pair of thermal socks, hiking pants, gloves, winter hat, sun hat, scarf, t-shirts (both short sleeve and long sleeve), and extra socks and underwear. Don’t forget to bring at least some extra clothes because you will need them. Especially after having taken a fresh shower. Just make sure not to bring too many clothes and don’t bring what’s unnecessary! Both ladies and gents should be able to have their common sense dictate what clothes and accessories to bring. Make sure to prepare for all seasons though (yes, even in the summer). Patagonian weather can be very unpredictable!
- The right pair of hiking boots/shoes (I use Timberlands). This is essential! And they should be your only pair of shoes. But, if you decide to do a glacier trek, bringing some old/smaller shoes that are easy to shove into your pack would be great. You by no means want your good hiking boot/shoes to get ruined by crampons!
Toiletries and Other Accessories.
There are some things you don’t want to realize you forgot to pack. They may seem like basic things that you would never forget. But how many times have we all forgotten these things? Below is a good list of what not to leave behind when it comes to toiletries/accessories. It’s also a list of essentials that are simply worth mentioning!
- Sunglasses. Apparently, there’s a kind of hole in the Ozone Layer above this region of Patagonia. So expect stronger sun rays. You don’t want to forget a decent pair of sunglasses regardless of where you travel to.
- Sunscreen. Just as important as the sunglasses, this is a must. To avoid re-applying often buy a higher fps sunscreen.
- Thoothbrush and thoothpaste. What can I say? You don’t want to be without these two essentials.
- Shampoo and soap. For when higiene is a priority.
- Medication! You don’t want to go through a horror story because you forgot your ibuprofen, omeprazol, and what not!
- Glasses and/or contacts. If you’re near sighted like me (or far sighted) make sure to double check if you have what you really need. Bringing both (and extras) will keep you covered just in case.
- First Aid Kit. You should always travel with an adequate, compact first aid kit for when you’re presented with any unpleasant surprises.
- At least one flashlight. Need I say more? Having a flashlight (I recommend a headlamp) is extremely important. Don’t learn to always rely on your phone’s flashlight. Having an extra one can be a real help at times.
- Camera. I doubt you would forget this, but I still wanted to include this in the list because it’s one of the most important things to bring! (especially for me since I’m and avid photographer) Again, don’t only rely on your phone to bring back those precious memories that can be seen by generations to come!
- Small tripod. If you have a small tripod that you can somehow put in your pack, then bring it! Is a phone tripod all you have? Bring it anyway, especially if your solo traveling. It can really come in handy!
- Decent outdoor water bottle. Don’t bring that cheap water bottle you bought on sale at some suspicious chinese department store. Invest in a good outdoor water bottle (I use a Nikko one) and bring it on this backpacking trip!
- The MUST BRING chargers! You absolutely don’t want to forget the very important chargers that will supply that very important juice that will keep your very important technology alive! So, double check to see if you have that camera and cellphone charger. And bring extra batteries if you can too!
Ok, that should cover the major things to bring. Of course, some stuff people bring on a backpacking trip (or for any type of travel for that matter) depend on personal preference. And I mean there are other stuff you could live without, but make your whole travel experience more comfortable my packing that lip balm, the nail clippers, and whatever else you think would make life easier while seeing the world. Just make sure not to overdo it with the whole packing process! Having unnecessary weight as a backpacker is a BIG CON!
Chile is an amazing country that has a lot more to offer than the places mentioned in this post. Personally, I still have tons of places that I would love to visit in this incredible nation like Torres del Paine. (Expect a TDP blogpost sometime not in the so distant future) Make the best of the tour agency you pick. The campsites in Chile are pretty nice, (at least the ones I stayed at) and the fixed price for most of them tends to be $5.000 chilean pesos. Yet, because of inflation, the price may have gone up to $6.000 chilean pesos. Not a big or exaggerated difference when you consider how nice the campsites actually are.
Travel within Chile can be fairly cheap taking into account the buses, transfers, and “colectivos” (a public transport car that has fixed routes). Food is probably more expensive in Chilean Patagonia than anywhere else in Chile because of the isolation, thus higher transportation costs. But it is manageable, even for budget backpackers. There’s accommodation, food, transportation, and many other services/needs to fit differing budgets. I took on Chile as a budget backpacker and I’m glad I did. I had the experiences of a lifetime! The natural beauty of the mountains, lakes, glaciers, marble caves, hikes, etc, left me speechless. And I was able to meet very interesting people on the way! These two backpacking weeks left their deep mark in me, and taught me travel and life lessons I will never forget! I hope Patagonian Chile is able to leave it’s mark on you too! Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments section below. Until next time my fellow travelers!