Why your next road-trip should be in undiscovered Aysen
Vast, untamed and jaw-droppingly picturesque (jagged peaks, turquoise rivers, snowmelt lakes, pristine glaciers, forested fjords), the Aysen region in Southern Chile is one of South America’s last frontiers. We get the low-down from two of our Destination Experts who’ve visited recently.
Located more than a thousand miles to the south of Santiago, Región Aysén del General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo (Aysen for short!) is about the same size as the state of Tennessee but home to only 100,000 hardy souls (half of whom live Coyhaique!). While it’s not Chile’s most geographically remote region, it was the last region to be incorporated into the Chilean state and the last to be settled by Europeans. Aysen had to wait until the 1980s and the construction of the Carretera Austral (Southern Road) for a proper link to the outside world.
Meet the experts
Two of our Destination Experts recently visited Aysen on separate trips and under their own steam. Jeanie O’Halloran (pictured below), originally from Sligo, Ireland but based predominantly in Latin America since 2012, and Sara Hensel, a South America veteran who was born and raised in McDonough, Georgia. Read on to find out more about their Aysen experiences…
What makes Aysen special?
JOH: For me, Aysen is special due to the ruggedness, the untouched natural beauty, friendly people, and quaint towns. What I loved is that I didn’t see one tour bus during my visit.
SH: The drastic scenery and something new to look at around every bend. It’s the best road trip I have ever been on!
What’s the best way of getting to and exploring Aysen?
JOH: Fly to Puerto Montt [a few hundred miles North of Aysen] or Balmaceda [adjoining Coyhaique] and then self-drive along the Carretera Austral. I flew into Balmaceda and drove south to Tortel and then back again. The road is mostly unpaved (a lot of potholes!) but it is totally manageable for tourists, as long as you drive at a careful speed. The scenery along the road is fantastic and allows you to travel at your own pace, stopping at small towns, national parks or interesting sights along the way.
SH: Fly into Puerto Montt if you have several weeks or Balmaceda if you have less time. You can rent a car, book with an all-inclusive lodge, or hire a private guide.
When’s the best time to visit?
JOH: It’s best to visit between October and March [Winters in Aysen are brutal and most properties close during this period]. December, January and February are high season: apparently it can be hard to find accommodation and you will encounter quite a bit of traffic. I traveled at the end of March and loved it – few other cars on the road and the trees showed plenty of color given it was autumn.
SH: Early December was perfect with less traffic on the narrow, dirt road that is the Carretera Austral. The early months of the year tend to attract more traffic on the roads, so things can be much slower going.
What’s the one thing you absolutely have to do in Aysen?
JOH: I honestly couldn’t pick. The Marble caves and Caleta Tortel are both great for photographers. I didn’t do it, but rafting on Rio Baker seemed lovely – the color of the water was amazing. My partner’s highlight was a 7-hour round trip hike to Exploradores Glacier where we put on crampons and actually crawled in and out of caves in the glacier!
SH: Take lots of unplanned stops. Pull over and take pictures. Give yourself extra time for random hikes, stops in the small villages and simply soaking in the scenery that locals get to see every day.
Is there any place/activity that didn’t live up to expectations?
JOH: Tortel was interesting to look at as it’s a town built around a network of wooden walkways however I didn’t find the people that friendly or interested in tourism. We did a visit to Glacier Jorge Montt from Tortel and it didn’t compare at all to Glacier Exploradores – Jorge Montt is interesting as it has receded a lot, however it’s very far from the viewpoint now. We also hit a bit of a storm on the way back which was scary for everyone on board.
SH: No way, I was in a constant state of yelling “IT’S SO PRETTY!”
Did you find any hidden gems?
JOH: I consider myself a bit of a foodie so Restaurant Casa Bruja in Puerto Rio Tranquilo was a gem for me. It doesn’t look like much from the outside (or inside), but the service was good and the food was fantastic! I had the lamb ribs and rustic potatoes and my partner went for the local hake with creamed corn. I’m literally drooling!
SH: I enjoyed my time at Valle Chacabuco very much – the luxury lodge is quite the surprise for such a rural area and makes a great base for hiking and explorations of Parque Patagonia.
What kind of traveler will love/hate Aysen?
JOH: Adventure travelers will love Aysen or those who like to avoid large crowds. People who expect full-on luxury or who don’t like long drives would not enjoy Aysen.
SH: Folks who don’t enjoy long car rides will likely not enjoy the Aysen region.
What was the best thing you ate in Aysen?
JOH: Patagonian Lamb. In every form possible!
SOH: The lamb at Valle Chacabuco was incredible.
Where would you recommend staying?
JOH: Sara will probably have more to say on this topic as my trip was rather last-minute. Entre Hielos in Tortel is apparently one of the nicest properties in the area (unfortunately it was full when I wanted to stay). I stayed in Hotel Dreams in Coyhaique which was nice and central to the town – only downside I suppose is that it has a casino which isn’t usually our clients’ style.
SH: As I said before, The Lodge at Valle Chacabuco in the Parque Patagonia (Doug Tompkins’ project and the place where he’s buried) was a real highlight of my trip. Other hotels and lodges worth checking out are Patagonia House and Nomades Boutique Hotel in Coyhaique, El Mirador de Guadal in Puerto Guadal and Puyuhuapi Lodge and Spa in Puyuhuapi.
Got Aysen on your mind?
Speak to Sara or Jeanie about combing an Aysen road-trip adventure with one of our Chile, Patagonia or Easter Island itineraries. We’d advise hitting the dirt roads of Aysen now, because the rest of the world will surely cotton on soon.
The cover image for this blog was sourced from Johann Campos on Unsplash and the picture of Caleta Tortel from Gonzalo Rodriguez on Wikimedia. All other images provided by Sara Hensel and Jeanie O'Halloran/Daniel Pizzaro.