Aysén from north to south
The community of La Junta got its name from its being the point of confluence of the Rosselot and Palena Rivers and of ancient trails. Settlers arrived to the valleys of the north of Aysén by boat along the Palena River from the coast and by horse from Argentina. The Palena River dominates the geography of the area. From La Junta one can take the road that follows the course of the Palena River to the coast where the town of Raúl Marín Balmaceda is located at the river delta, surrounded by white sand beaches and forests that reach to the sea. The main activity of the town is fishing and gathering shellfish, although because of the beautiful location, tourism is being developed, with observing whales and wildlife, sports fishing and hot springs as attractions in a setting of exuberant nature.

To the south of La Junta we find Queulat National Park, a wonder of nature that features the famous Ventisquero Colgante or Hanging Glacier, a true Patagonian whim, with a mass of ice hanging in the cornice of a mountain, giving rise to elegant waterfalls. There is a steep rise in the Southern Highway in this area, which represents a major obstacle for those visiting by bicycle. As compensation, bicyclists can go down effortlessly for several kilometers to the valleys to the north or south of the rise. There is a lookout in the park with a view of the ice fields. There is also a one-kilometer path with a footbridge over the Témpanos River and leads to a lagoon of the same name. From there one can make a more demanding walk of three kilometers to a lookout with a view of the ice fields and the lagoon at its feet. To the south of the park is the Padre José García trail, named after the Jesuit priest who searched for the mythic city of Césares in 1766. The trail is very short and can be completed in ten minutes and from it one can exuberant vegetation like giant helechos, nalcas and a beautiful waterfall at the end.

The next community is Puyuhuapi, which enjoys a privileged location at the end of a fjord, which could easily be confused for a lake except for the dolphins that sometimes swim very near the coast. There spas available on both sides of the fjord. Continuing south, there is the village of Villa Amengual established in 1983 as a service center for the workers building the highway and local settlers. From this sector one can head to all Los Cisnes, that is to say, the towns that curiously share the name “Cisnes”. After passing through a dense forest, cliffs and the Andean range, one arrives to Puerto Cisnes on the coast. Puerto Cisnes serves as a supply center for small fishing ports and towns in this area of the coast. The channels in this area were originally traveled by the Chonos, while in the interior there are cave paintings of Tehuelche origin. This contact, made possible by the fjord, has led some authors to speculate about the level of exchange among these peoples, although there is no evidence in this respect. Heading toward the border one can visit the towns of Cisne Medio and then La Tapera. The road, which is very rough, follows the course of the Cisnes River that in some parts runs into deep cliffs amid dense forests that give way to the landscape of the pampas upon arrived to the Upper Cisnes River. There is a small museum in La Tapera with archeological displays, the majority of which were found in the sector, which includes arrowheads and bolos.

To the south of Villa Amengual is Lake Las Torres, which is surrounded by a permanently green forest of coigüe, mañío and lenga trees. There is abundant fauna, such as the pudu (a miniature deer), the coypu (an aquatic rodent), otters and a great variety of bird. Beyond is the village of Mañihuales, which offers basic services, accommodations and a gas station. The river of the same name runs through the valley, surrounded by hills and cliffs that make up Mañihuales National Park, which features condors and huemules. The park has picnic areas in the middle of a forest to the south of the village.

 

 

 

A paved road continues from Mañihuales to Puerto Aysén, from which one can take a branching road at Cruce Viviana to Coyhaique. It is also possible to take a gravel road from Mañihuales to Villa Ortega and then to Coyhaique. This route offers innumerable charms in a mixture of landscapes where the foothills of the pampas can be seen. A branching road leads to Ñirihuao and Valle de la Luna, places described by many travelers as highlights. They are formed by numerous hills that appear to sprout from the pampas like giant plants, offering an impressive display upward to the open skies of the frontier and toward the mountains that close the way to the interior of Aysén. From this simple place one can take a gravel road that runs parallel to the boarder until reaching Coyhaique Alto (only recommended for summers). Continuing along this road one can see the natural limit between the Pampas and the forests of Aysén, shaped by the small streams that remind us that this was once the hunting grounds of the Tehuelche, which is attested to by their cave paintings. These unfortunately have been very vandalized and are located eight kilometers north of the police station. From the police station, one can take the international road to Coyhaique and note how the pampas gives way gradually nearing the regional capital. Local people say “go down to Coyhaique” by a gravel road in good condition that curve after curve takes one into the heart of Aysén. In reality, only 50 kilometers separate the Coyhaiques, but it is one of the those roads where the yellow and ochre of the pampas give way minute by minute to the blue and green of Aysén.

Coyhaique has a life of its own and inhabitants that appear to move about the streets with clear objectives, but at a paused rhythm that gives the impression that time does not reign over the community. Coyhaique is tradition, local life and modernity, with a view to all the different Patagonias in the region. The Patagonian theme does not leave its inhabitants indifferent. They declare themselves Patagonian as a definition of identity that implies a lifestyle that values the feeling of freedom that the territory seems to give all its inhabitants. The city offers all the services and has a good number of restaurants and cafes, a perfect refuge when the weather is inclement.

From Coyhaique it is possible to travel in any direction and also serves as meeting point for the inhabitants of Aysén. One can find tourist information and it recommended that those interested in having closer contact with local life should visit the public library and review the files that announce typical local social activities such as concerts, sports events, rodeos, a traditional festival with music, dances, food and displays of horsemanship. Social groups often hold fiestas with spit barbecues of sheep, traditional seafood plates and dancing. It is also recommended to read the two local papers about social life for information about activities in the region that can be of interest to tourists.

The road to Puerto Aysén, following the route that runs alongside the Simpson River, is named after Captain Enrique Simpson who explored the river in 1871. The Simpson River runs down the middle of the valley where Coyhaique is located. Here nature appears to outdo itself in waterfalls that fall from black stone hills, polished like natural cathedrals and moutains coverd in imprenitrable forests. The road is paved and yet it gives the impression of being an untamed areas and that at any moment the trip could be interrupted, which makes one value even more the efforts of Simpson’s expedition that had to cross the canyon amid virgin and savage vegetation to unite the coast for the first time with the valleys in the interior.

The water, the green and the blue and are the main actors in this beautiful area knows as the Cascada de la Novia (Bride’s Falls), where the water falls like an aquatic veil and the Cascada de La Virgen (Virgin’s Falls), whose flow divides evenly into two streams. Further on the Simpson and Mañihuales Rivers join and give rise to the Aysén River, a natural barrier that impeded access by land until 1961 when the President Ibáñez Bridge was opened, an architectural landmark of the city of Puerto Aysén and a necessary passage on the way to Puerto Chacabuco.

Puerto Aysén is the second most important city in the region and offers all types of services, with a river port featuring fishing and tour boats. The hydroelectric center Los Palos located close to the city in an attractive setting is partly constructed of thick logs. Toward the south is the private park Aiken del Sur that features well-marked trails and displays of regional flora and fauna, as well as offering a restaurant that serves typical dishes like the Patagonian barbecue. Close to Puerto are several lakes surrounded by abundant vegetation, such as Lake Riesco, Portales and Zenteno. Continuing our journey we arrive to Puerto Chacabuco, which became very important with the boom in tourism and salmon production, which turned it into a point of arrival to the region and embark for the coastal islands. From Chacabuco we can board a ship to Laguna San Rafael, with a range of prices, from ships designed to for tourism to fishing boats reconditioned to accommodate passengers. The trip to the lagoon is in itself beautiful, passing islands and channels that at some points come close, allowing one to observe the coastline in detail. Laguna San Rafael is part of the national park of the same name. There, icebergs fall from neighboring ice fields to float in generally calm waters. The lagoon was part the Chono canoe route. They dragged their canoes over the Ofqui Strait and then crossed the lagoon and paddled north, avoiding the danger of the open waters around Taitao Peninsula, which like a horn that divides the Aysén coast.

To the south of Coyhaique is the imposing Mount MacKay, with vertical walls that give it the look of a medieval organ. The wind produces disconcerting sounds with a certain musical character. Just beyond Mount MacKay lies Foitzick Lagoon. Children are told the lagoon is bottomless, which may be the reason there are no swimmers there. A little to the south we find the Wall of China, an extraordinary formation of rocks that at first sight seems to have been sculpted by human beings and not by nature. At this point is the route to El Fraile Skiing Center and Lakes Frío and Póllux, typical Patagonian lakes, surrounded hills with by sparse vegetation, or to Lakes Elizalde and La Paloma, Andean lakes boxed in by mountains with exuberant vegetation.

Continuing the journey, we come to Balmaceda, the first community officially established in Aysén in 1917, where the regional airport is located. After Balmaceda, the road goes toward the interior and Portezuelo Ibáñez; where there are impressive hills with whimsical shapes and beautiful colors that, when lit by the afternoon sun, change to tones of orange, yellow and ochre. This is one of the most beautiful places in the region where every bend, stream, waterfall or lagoon is a world of shapes and colors all its own. While it is difficult to say which place is the most beautiful, the route down to the valley, with the unexpected appearance of the impressive Mount Castillo, offers a view of the most beautiful mountain in Aysén. Beyond the village of the same name, one can visit a site with cave paintings and enjoy the surroundings of Ibáñez River as it flows to Lake General Carrera.

General Carrera Lake is called Chelenko by the people living on its shores in honor of the Tehuelche culture that undoubtedly considered the lake the mother water of its culture. The lake is a perfect display of nature, with deep turquoise waters and a setting surrounded by mountains that appear to be trying to match the beauty of the enormous lake that extends to Argentina. This great mass of water goes from the restlessness of waves that rival those of oceans to the greatest tranquility, becoming a great mirror that reflects the images of Aysén in all its magnificence.

 

Boats sail from Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez to Chile Chico, probably the place with the most incredible contrasts in all of Patagonia, a city of peaches and adobe homes in an environment that is overwhelming in its different landscapes. From the border, which is only a few kilometers away, the Pampas opens wide while in contrast from the opposite shore the one views the rocky peaks of the Patagonian mountains. Toward the coast the ice that perpetually caps the mountains can be made out, hinting at the ice fields some 100 kilometers from this picturesque city, the warm airs from the pampas and waters of the lakes create a microclimate that makes it possible to grow all kinds of fruit in the middle of Patagonia. The Jeinimeni National Reserve lies to the south of Chile Chico. It has few visitors despite the cultural treasures it offers, such as the Tehuelche cave paintings. Visitors are recommended to begin early to best appreciate how the light advances rapidly from the pampas, lighting up the eroded hills to the south of the city, that at times transports the visitor to the landscapes of the northern desert of Chile. Going south one arrives to a dense forest surrounded by beautiful mountain peaks and dotted with several lagoons. From Chile Chico it is possible to return by land by going around the lake, visiting the quaint villages on its shores. The road snakes along following the shoreline of the lake. The road is very narrow, especially when passes over rapidly flowing streams running toward the great lake. It is necessary to have the time to travel the 150-kilometer road between Chile Chico and Tranquilo, which takes several hours in the summer.

 

 

The town of Puerto Tranquilo offers several attractions, including viewing the Northern Ice Fields on the way to Explorers’ Bay or taking a sort road to Lake Los Leones to appreciate the snowfields of the same name. But undoubtedly the major attractions are the natural structures called the Cathedral and the Marble Caverns located near the town.

Cochrane has less then 3,000 inhabitants. However, it has become a meeting point for the southern part of Aysén, in part because of connections provided by the Southern Highway, but also because of the beauty of its diverse landscapes, from forests to wild environments molded by winds. The area is rich in fauna such as huemules (small deer), guanacos, pumas, foxes, condors, and eagles that live in Tamango National Reserve 10 kilometers from the town. The Baker River, the most voluminous river in Chile is near Cochrane. The river is true symbol of the region, but nevertheless divides the sentiments of the inhabitants of Aysén because it is being considered to use the river for generating hydroelectric power to be transmitted north. This megaproject would have environmental, economic and cultural implications. Another point of interest is the Northern Ice Fields, with snowfields fall into lakes like Colonia, which can be seen from the road running alongside the Baker River. Mount San Lorenzo, located near the border, is the second highest peak in Patagonia and represents an icon for climbers who go up its perpetually snowy slopes with the hope of viewing the exuberant geography of Aysén from its peak.

Caleta Tortel is to the south of Cochrane at the mouth of the Baker River, looking toward the islands that make up the southern archipelago. Tortel is considered one of the most unique places in the world, both because of its location and because of the wooden walkways that connect the community. The first impression of a traveler is of an artificial village, however this environment is based on wood, built by hand from the most abundant raw material in the zone, the Guaiteca cypress. The town lies on the side of a mountain that reaches down to the sea and the walkways have been adapted to the shape of the rocks, achieving a balance between the human need to survive a rigorous climate and a natural environment that here has been respected.

The road from Tortel to O´Higgins is a surprising section of the southern highway with a dense forest close to the coast, the crossing of the Mitchell Fjord and the proximity of the Southern Ice Fields. The Mosco Glacier is located close to Villa O’Higgins along the border and from there it is possible to visit the most southern community in Aysén, Candelario Mancilla, which consists of a police border station and a handful of families. To get there one has to take a launch from Puerto Bahamondez and sail along an am of the Lake O’Higgins. Southern Aysén and the area near Villa O’Higgins is very beautiful where the lack of roads and the frontier environment attract many visitors seeking the most profound sense of Patagonian life.