A journey through the untamed wilderness of Aysén
The Aysén region in Chile is one of the last completely untouched patches of earth. It takes some effort to get there via the Carretera Austral, but your eyes will thank you. Paula Christensen, whose family pioneered the area with their eco-lodge Mallin Colorado, invited us to experience the beauty for ourselves. We are still silent about it.
It started so nicely flat, our hike to Laguna Cerro Castillo. It was sometimes a bit of a climb between the fragrant conifers, babbling streams, and idyllic mountain meadows, but it wasn’t too bad. As the trees thinned, the steepness of the mountain’s flanks also went up. Almost eight kilometers uphill with an altitude difference of twelve hundred meters. No mean feat. I am fine-trained, but I am still struggling. I pant harder with every step while my shirt is soaked with sweat.
But the view is brilliant and worth every drop of sweat: endless vistas of the vast valley below and above me, the sharp vertical flanks of the peaks of Cerro Castillo. Castillo means castle in Spanish. Cerro Castillo’s jagged peaks resemble a castle, hence the name. The hard ground under my feet is frozen, but the sun metamorphoses it into mud. My feet slip, yet I push on: ignore that shortness of breath.
My feet slip, yet I push on: ignore that shortness of breath
Once at the top, the Laguna Cerro Castillo smiles at us with its deep turquoise water. The sharp peaks of Cerro Castillo reflect in the lake. And forgotten is the arduous effort to get here.
Cerro Castillo, part of the Cordillera Castillo, is located in the Aysén region of Chilean Patagonia. It is just under 70 kilometers from Balmaceda airport, our starting point for exploring the Aysén region via the Carretera Austral.
“Aysén is probably the most beautiful part of the earth. You will see. The region is one of Chile’s least inhabited, with an average of less than one person living per square kilometer. The Carretera Austral is still a work in progress, with large parts of the road still unpaved”
The Carretera Austral (meaning “southern highway”) refers to the 1,240-kilometre road that runs from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins all the way through northern Chilean Patagonia. This road, also known as Ruta 7 or the Ruta Austral, covers an area separated from Argentina by the Andes mountains to the east and bordered by the narrow channels and fjords of the Pacific Ocean to the west. The Carretera Austral has become one of South America’s most remote – and therefore enchanting – road trips.
Paula Christensen, the owner of Aysén Journeys, which specializes in this area, could not have been more enthusiastic when we discussed our trip with her in Santiago. “Aysén is probably the most beautiful part of the earth. You will see. The Aysén region is one of Chile’s least inhabited, with an average of less than one person living per square kilometer. You will soon notice that this lack of habitation is also reflected in other ways: namely by the state of the road. The Carretera Austral is still a work in progress, with large parts of the road still unpaved.”
Well, we knew that. It’s about a seven-hour drive from Cerro Castillo to Mallin Colorado, the eco-lodge that Paula’s family built and still runs. The road is good asphalt until about three-quarters of an hour’s drive from Cerro Castillo; then, it becomes gravel. As the route is unfamiliar, full of bends and potholes, the speedometer stays around 50. Until we discover that it’s better to drive considerably faster because then you ‘fly’ over the potholes. You get used to everything. Especially a gravel road. On the way back, we are so used to the state of the road that we go well over a hundred while drifting in the corners.
Meanwhile, we don’t forget to look out of the window. Meine gute. Think Switzerland with its rugged mountains, but completely untouched. Dense forests with unique tree species like coigües, ñirres, and lengas, sunken trees, red and golden leaves, and high peaks. Aysén is a feast for the eyes, and the further you penetrate the area, the more beautiful it becomes.
Think Switzerland with its rugged mountains, but completely untouched. Dense forests with unique tree species like coigües, ñirres, and lengas, sunken trees, red and golden leaves, and high peaks
Land of the Fjords
Aysén, also known as the land of fjords, is tucked away in the southern part of Chilean Patagonia and is largely a pristine wilderness. The labyrinth of fjords, towering mountains, and the vast North Patagonian ice field characterizes this region. Aysén is thus one of the least populated regions of Chile (and thus of the world), which has helped preserve these ultra-pristine landscapes.
Aysén’s history is as diverse as its landscapes. The indigenous Tehuelche or Aónikenk have inhabited the region for thousands of years and lived off the land and the sea. Their ancient rock art, found in the Cueva de Las Manos, offers a fascinating insight into the lives and traditions of these early inhabitants.
Lago General Carrera
Suddenly before us, after a sharp turn, a deeper-than-deep turquoise lake looms. Clear blue Lake General Carrera lies on the border with Chile and Argentina. A condor stands out against the blue sky above the blue lake. The deepest and third largest lake in South America is rich in rainbow trout and salmon. Minerals, including limestone, quartz, and iron oxide, give the water of this giant glacial lake its bizarre blue color. The lake’s native name is Chelenko, meaning ‘stormy waters’ in Aónikenk.
Patagonia National Park is 3.000 square kilometers of wilderness with guanacos, pumas, birds, huemul deer, and bizarre rock formations that most resemble melted ice cream
Patagonia National Park
Douglas Tompkins, the puissant wealthy founder of The North Face, also discovered that you lose your heart to this pristine piece of earth quite quickly. To preserve nature, he bought up vast tracts of land in Patagonia. After his death, he died while on a kayaking expedition on Lake General Carrera; some of his land was donated to the Chilean government to turn into national parks. Patagonia National Park, for example, which, at some 3,045 square kilometers, is about 15% larger than Luxembourg. The 74-kilometer route through the park is perhaps the most beautiful road in the world. Here you will find guanacos (llamas), pumas, birds, huemul deer, and bizarre rock formations that most resemble melted ice cream.
In search of dinosaurs
The landscape in Aysén in the Jurassic and Cretaceous period was a swampy area with rivers and volcanoes. Ideal for various dinosaur species. Dinosaurs in South America in the Jurassic era went through their own evolution, different from the rest of the world. It is also choked with fossils. But really. Above all, visit Leonardo San Martin’s estate. It takes some searching, but they know where he lives at Mallin Colorado. Leonardo has a collection of fossils unlike any other: fossilized dinosaur skin and fossilized turtle eggs. You trip over a fossil at every rock.
The arrival of European settlers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries marked a turning point in Aysén’s history. These pioneers braved harsh conditions and isolation, founded small settlements, and introduced sheep farming to the region. Today, their descendants continue this traditional way of life, which has resulted in a unique blend of indigenous and European cultures.
By the way, because of this isolation, you have to be pretty self-reliant if you live here. Score a cup of coffee? Buying clothes? Provisions? Building materials? None of it is easy, and you have to drive far to get everything you want. Flying even. “The internet has made that a little easier,” says Paula, “but still, you must go to considerable lengths for the simplest things.”
Had this lake been in Europe, by now, every free stretch along the water would have been built and exploited. But not here. This is still a pioneer territory. Pioneers like Paula’s parents. More than 20 years ago, on their journey along the Carretera Austral, the Christensen Arteaga family decided to buy a piece of land in the most beautiful spot of the whole trip, on the shores of Lake Carrera. Ever since they have been steadily building their dream, the eco-lodge Mallin Colorado.
From Mallin Colorado, located in perhaps the most beautiful spot around the lake, the views from the warm and beautifully decorated cabins are almost touching. You’ll already be homesick to return here while you’re still here.
The tip of my kayak falls deep into the turquoise waters of General Carrera Lake after the wave. A basin of fresh water waves over me. I steer my kayak into the Cathedral. The Cathedral is one of the grandest marble caves found in the lake. You can see the steep stone islands from the shore, but you can only get there by boat. Carved out by the azure waters of Lake Carrera, these striking marble formations are a testament to the power of nature and time. They form a network of chambers and corridors under the rocks. Just the feeling you experience when you kayak under these smoothly carved marble formations, is reason enough to travel to Aysén. But, my goodness, it’s certainly not the only one.
Mallin Colorado estate is sandwiched between General Carrera Lake and the North Patagonian Icefield
Rafting and horse riding
A cozy fire crackles in the massive stone fireplace in the main building of Mallin Colorado. The perfect location to explore Aysén’s geological and natural wonders or go on an adventure.
Rafting on the equally blue Rio Baker, for example. The Rio Baker is as blue as the lake that feeds it and is perfect for rafting. Not too violent, so you also have time to take in the scenery. And that scenery is as spectacular as the rafting. There are also opportunities for fly-fishing for trout.
I feel like an accomplished horseman as I explore the peaks and valleys of the vast Mallin Colorado estate with my trusty horse. From Mallin, Colorado, you can go on insanely beautiful treks on foot or horseback. And you don’t actually have to leave the ranch to do so, although you can. There is something incredibly primal about braving the steep slopes of the Aysén mountains on horseback while that extreme blue lake is always in the corner of your eye. On horseback, you are truly one with nature.
However you take in this region, the natural beauty is always dazzling. This remote corner of Chile offers an unforgettable journey through untamed wilderness, where the hardened pioneering spirit of the people is matched only by the beauty of the landscapes.
Follow the Carretera Austral to Mallin Colorado
Feeling inspired? Anyone travelling to Patagonia should not miss the Aysén region. Aysén Journeys is the travel agency of Paula Christensen. As a true pioneer in the area, she knows how to find the very best spots for you and is happy to tailor-make your trip. Aysén is an experience of beauty, silence, remoteness and adventure. Aysén Journeys will make it a journey you will never, ever forget.