Many, many avid hikers and nature lovers come to Chile to visit Patagonia. However, most of the time, their destination is the one and only Torres del Paine National Park. Flights to Punta Arenas are expensive, as are hostels and hotels in the area. And groceries are pretty exorbitantly priced as well – though that’s in large part because of the isolation of the area, not necessarily because it’s a top tourist destination.
To experience the beauty of Patagonia, without spending so much time in the midst of the thousands of tourists who all flock to hike The W, you can hop on a short flight from Santiago to Coyhaique. It only takes about two hours to fly down, and from there another 45 minutes via bus or transfer into the town.
On the outskirts of the city, coming in, you’ll pass by many fly fishing lodges and exclusive resorts. But once you’re into the main populated area, you’ll find many cheaper accommodations like hostels and rooms for rent.
In and around Coyhaique there is much to do. Though tour operators will tell you you need an official guide to reach nearby places, you can do most of it on your own. There is a national park that’s right outside the city and it’s within bike riding distance. The bike ride is scenic and mildly strenuous on the way there, as it’s all uphill, but it’s doable, even for a beginner.
You can also easily reach the infamous statue of the Indian (see his profile in the photo below?) right past the Simpson Bridge. That’s even within walking distance from the city center.
Locals enjoy delicious and hearty meals at the Casino de los Bomberos (Firemen’s Cafeteria).
And the city in and of itself is picturesque enough to enjoy strolling around and shopping the quaint little arts and crafts markets along the way.
At the main plaza in the center of town there is a tourist information kiosk. Inside there are employees paid by the government of Chile, and there are also independent tour operators. None of them are overly pushy, however, they will try to convince you that you need them in order to do any major expeditions.
You do not.
You can rent a car and drive as far as the Capillas de Marmol, one of the area’s main attractions, all for less than it would cost you to go in a cramped van on a tour operator’s schedule.
The drive from Coyhaique down the Carretera Austral towards the Capillas de Marmol is absolutely stunning. If you rent your own vehicle, you can pack a lunch, stop and have a picnic and pull over to take photos whenever you’d like.
On your way down, you’ll pass the well known landmark, Cerro Castillo. This is a sharpy mountain peak in the shape of a castle. It’s quite far away, so I recommend bringing binoculars or a camera with a great zoom lens in order to get a better view.
About four hours from Coyhaique, you’ll arrive at a tiny little town called Puerto Tranquilo right on the lake General Carrera. The lake is filled with melted glacier water, which is an amazing, icy green color. Within this body of water is where the Capillas de Marmol lie.
In town, find a cozy cabin to stay at, fill up on a yummy homemade empanada, and then head to the port to find a boat to take you out to the Capillas.
There are small business all along the lakeshore offering to take tourists out. They all cost about the same price. You can wait until the boat fills up and then divide the cost between all the passengers, or you can pay for the full boat and go out solo.
A boat captain will then steer through choppy waters until you arrive at the Capillas de Marmol. This is basically a giant structure made completely of marble jutting out of the lake. It’s 100% natural, and over the course of the time the waves have smoothed out the stone and carved natural caves and nooks and crannies that small boats can navigate through. In Puerto Tranquilo, they gave these formations the Marble Chapels because the shape resembles the inside of most churches.
Stay another day so you’ll have time to venture out to see a glacier, up close and personal. The drive to the glacier is another hour outside of town, but it’s worth the extra effort to get there. On your way you can stop and see a “dead” forest, which is a lake filled with dead trees sticking up out of the water. It’s very creepy looking. You’ll also pass typical South of Chile style cemeteries. Tiny little houses are built for the dead and the doors of them all face wherever the scenery is prettiest so that those who have passed have great views to look at while they rest.
Finally, you’ll come to a tiny little house with a small parking lot outside. The path to the glacier lies on private property, so some enterprising Chilean has set up shop there, collecting a small entrance fee from those who come to see the ice. Once you’ve paid, you are ushered into a forest where you walk on a well-maintained path up a rocky climb to a look-out point. From there you can see the glacier, and you can see how much it has been receding due to global warming.
Kyle Hepp is an international wedding photographer and expat extraordinaire, living with her husband in Santiago. She loves to travel and shoot happy couples. She combined those two things and since starting her business four years ago, has shot in Chile, Argentina, all over the U.S., France, Spain and England. Find out more on her blog.
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