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Northern Patagonia: One of the world's most gorgeous hidden gems

  • Cerro Castillo: Trekking paradise

    You'll find some of the best trekking, hiking and outdoor adventure opportunities in the Americas – if not the planet –in Aysén, the region that makes up the bulk of Northern Patagonia in South America. Backpacks outnumber suitcases 90-1 here, and even five-star travelers often find themselves camping out and even hitchhiking (the preferred mode of travel in Patagonia, given the limited number of buses and connections with public transport) while here. It's all part of this great outdoor nature escape, which features clean water, clean air, uncut forests and a real chance to commune with the wilderness.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Lago Castillo in Cerro Castillo National Reserve

    The Cerro Castillo National Reserve, about an hour south of Northern Patagonia's biggest town, Coyhaique, is billed to be the next Torres del Paine. Home to the beautiful alpine Lake Castillo, jagged peaks, glaciers and a four-day trekking circuit around the range, it's a wilderness lover's delight, and if you time it right, you might just have it all to yourself. 

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • The Carretera Austral: 1,240 kilometers of paradise

    To travel to the Aysén region that makes up much of Northern Patagonia, you need to travel down the Carretera Austral. This 1,240-kilometer route is not a "highway" as the name implies, but more of an adventuresome route through some of Chile's most remote areas. It was started by former strongman Augusto Pinochet, who employed over 10,000 soldiers to build a route that would connect Patagonia to the mainland, and took more than 20 years to complete. These days, it still isn't entirely paved, nor does it have a vehicle outlet on the southern end, as it terminates in Villa O'Higgins surrounded by glaciers and fjords. It is one of the last great road trips in the world.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Driving into the wilderness in Patagonia

    Further south, you'll find some great swaths of empty and captivating landscapes, where you will often have the road completely to yourself...

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Herd of wild guanaco, Parque Patagonia

    Well, almost. Herds of wild guanacos can outnumber humans, especially in places like Parque Patagonia, one of the newest national parks in Chile. Other common wildlife sightings include Andean foxes, southern crested caracara, and Magellanic woodpeckers, along with the harder-to-see pudú, the world's smallest deer, and pumas, which often come out at night.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Capilla de Mármol​, the marble caves

    In the village of Rio Tranquilo, one of Patagonia's most wonderful sights is the Capilla de Mármol, or the "marble chapel," a series of caves and caverns set on General Carrera Lake. They're made of monoliths of marble that have been sculpted and eroded by waves over thousands of years and they feature surreal patterns and colors.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Kayaking in the Capilla de Mármol​

    You can take a boat tour or even kayak up close to the caves and natural cathedrals. Especially when the sunlight hits the surrounding water, everything takes on a surreal and extremely photogenic light, and the caverns are at their most magical.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • The mighty Futaleufú River

    On the Argentina border, accessed by a spur road off the Carretera Austral, you'll find sleepy Futaleufú. Nestled in a verdant and gorgeous valley that's surrounded by high peaks, the big draw here is whitewater rafting. The "Fu," as it's locally known, is renowned for having some of the best stretches of whitewater on the planet. The river also has plenty of calm spots as well, so it's perfect for just about anyone who loves pristine water.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • The hanging glacier, Ventisquero Colgante, in Queulat National Park

    There's plenty of water everywhere in Patagonia, but in Queulat National Park, you can see it in many forms. There's the tranquil Tempanos Lagoon and the park's most famed sight, the Ventisquero Colgante hanging glacier, along with the accompanying rumbling waterfall that pours down below it.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Rainbow over Parque Patagonia

    Parque Patagonia might be the crown jewel of Northern Patagonia. The national park was created by former North Face owner Doug Tompkins and his wife Kris. Basing themselves in Chile for years after falling in love with Patagonia, the couple bought over one million acres of degraded farms and ranch land, restored the flora and fauna, and then turned around and donated them to the Chilean government under the condition that the areas be turned into national parks for public enjoyment. Tompkins tragically passed away in a kayaking accident several years ago, but Kris has continued his legacy, and today Parque Patagonia is the showpiece of a string of phenomenal national parks found throughout Patagonia.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Trekking the Lagunas Altas trail, Parque Patagonia

    There are several varied trails in Parque Patagonia, ranging from a few hours to multi-day, with abundant wildlife, spectacular vistas and challenges for all levels of ability. The park infrastructure is excellent, with campgrounds and lodges modeled after U.S. national parks.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Hiking in a lenga forest, Reserva Tamango

    There are also several natural reserves surrounding Parque Patagonia, which will eventually become part of the national park itself. You can trek through beautiful lenga southern beech forests in Reserva Tamango, with all routes eventually leading down to the small town of Cochrane, overlooking the Rio Baker, one of Patagonia's most beautiful rivers.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Regenerated flora under the Chaitén volcano

    Patagonia is part of the Pacific "Ring of Fire," home to many volcanoes. In 2008, the Chaitén volcano exploded, the largest rhyolite eruption in history. The nearby town of the same name was wiped out, covered in ash and lava. Yet only a decade later, the town has come back, and is one of the top tourist draws along the Carretera Austral. Amazingly, the flora around the mountain has also regenerated, although you'll still see plenty of stripped single tree trunks, evidence of the massive power of the eruption.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Caldera lake under the Chaitén volcano

    Today, you can hike up to the caldera that was formed when Chaitén erupted, and there is now a lake in the middle, along with plenty of surreal and smoldering landscape surrounding it. On clear days, you can see across the sea of Chiloé to Chiloé Island.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Campsite with morning frost burning off, Pumalin Park

    There are fantastic affordable campsites throughout Patagonia, making it an adventure lover's outdoor mecca. Towns have plenty of self-catering camp spots and bunkhouses, and all the national parks feature walk- and drive-up sites for visitors.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Mount Corcovado rises over Chaitén

    Parks like Corcovado (named for the towering Corcovado volanco) have become part of the aptly named Ruta de los Parques (Route of the Parks), a 2,800-kilometer route comprised of 17 national parks and 28 million acres set through southern Chile, which could be the world's largest green space.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa, Patagonia's most pampering stay

    As the Carretera Austral and Northern Patagonia are going to provide a few bumps and dust to go with all the spectacular scenery, you owe it to yourself to enjoy a bit of pampering. Make sure to include a stay somewhere along the line at the wonderful Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa, the region's best place to sleep, as the Bavarian-village look-alike sits in a silent bay in the Ventisquero Sound and is only accessed by the lodge's private boat. 

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Soaking away in Puyuhuapi Hot Springs

    One of the big draws at Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa are its lovely termas (hot springs), perched right on the edge of the fjord, where you can watch dolphins frolic past while you soak away your tired hiking muscles and gaze out at Queulat National Park and the surrounding temperate rainforest.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Magical sunset on the Ventisquero Sound

    Sunsets on the sound are pretty spectacular as well, as they are throughout Patagonia. And should the weather here get you down, just wait a few minutes or days, as Patagonia often guarantees all four seasons several times daily!

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

  • Gaucho riding in Futaleufu

    Taking it slow in Patagonia

    Just remember to take it nice and slow here. A famed local Patagonian proverb states, "Quien se apura en Patagonia, pierde el tiempo," which means, "He who rushes in Patagonia loses time," which perfectly sums up the languid chilled out culture in one of the world's most magical places.

    Photo courtesy of Dave Stamboulis

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