After more than a month in Chile we finally arrived at Patagonia! If you ask me to describe this faraway and mysterious region it will be difficult, Patagonia is unpredictable like its weather, expensive because of its remote location and absolutely beautiful, maybe the most beautiful region we’ve ever been! The fact that we, big fans of hot weather and warm water, spent more than two months there proves how gorgeous and stunning it is! Chilean Patagonia is quite a big area with many national parks and protected areas, so we decided to split it into several parts and write separate article on each.
Famous Carretera Austral (southern road) that starts at Puerto Montt and ends at Villa O’Higgins. From time to time it interrupts and you continue on ferries or boats till the roads starts again. This hop on/off complicates transport situation for bus/car travelers and hitch-hikers. You entirely depend on the ferry timetable. Our advice if you like meeting local people and want to save some money – hitchhike (a dedo in Spanish) in Patagonia, it’s absolutely safe and a lot of fun!!! And it always works, even if there are 10 backpackers on the road by the end everybody will get a ride. Chileans are extremely friendly and helpful especially with foreigners. Check our Guide to Hitchhiking Carretera Austral.
If you plan to visit Torres del Paine, Perito Moreno or El Chalten and you have time – explore the Carretera Austral and Chilean Patagonia (Argentinian side is mostly pampa) you won’t regret!
How to get to Pumalin park?
We started in Puerto Montt and hitched to La Arena, from there you catch a ferry (short ride, 10-15min.). If you go by bus ferry is included in your ticket, if you walk in you pay 700pesos/1$. You can just jump in someone’s car, the price is per car doesn’t matter how many passengers in it. After the ferry you arrive at Puelche harbor. From there 1,5 hours more to the nearest town, Hualaihue (still don’t understand how it’s pronounced!). Again you can hitch or catch a bus, bus from Puelche to Hualaihue – 2000pesos/3$, from Puerto Montt to Hualaihue – 4000pesos/6$.
From Hualaihue you continue by ferry to Caleta Gonzalo, this time it’s a long ride, about 5 hours. Here they charge per person not per car, doesn’t matter if you walk in or drive in (only driver doesn’t pay), price 5000pesos/7$. It’s a very big and comfortable ferry. You can buy some food; sandwiches, pastry, instant noodles, tea/coffee but everything is very expensive. Tip, buy some snacks or make sandwiches to take with. Once you’re on the ferry check for seats with outlets, don’t miss the chance to charge your devices there is no electricity in the park. Ferry timetable changes depending on the season, it’s better to find out beforehand in the town. In January 2016 there were two morning ferries at 9.30am and 10.30am and one afternoon at 3.00pm.
There are buses from Puerto Montt (bus terminal) that offer a combintation bus+ferry and will deliver you right to Caleta Gonzalo or Chaiten, departure time 7am (it can change we’d suggest to arrive a day earlier and find out), 14000pesos.
Hualaihue is a small town with hotels, campings, one supermarket and one ATM on the main square (actually two but one doesn’t accept Visa or Master), I’d recommend to draw money in Puerto Montt, just in case ATM doesn’t work. It’s always a problem in Patagonia, every time you see a working one just draw money! We stayed in the nearest to the ferry terminal camping, for 2000pesos/person (no name), ask locals.
Caleta Gonzalo. Pumalin park hiking and camping in Patagonia
Ferries arrive right at the park, at Caleta Gonzalo. There is an information office at the pier where you can get a map and some info about the park and campings (they speak English). Entrance was free. It can change next year (2017) because Pumalin park is not private anymore now it belongs to the government. The park is not very famous outside Chile, for us it was a nice surprise and one of the best experiences in Patagonia.
What is Pumalin park?
In fact it’s private property, the biggest private park in the world. Unfortunately its owner passed away recently and now Chilean government controls the park, hopefully it won’t become worse and more expensive. You ask who was the owner? A certain Douglas Tompkins, co-founder of North Face and Esprit, companies-producers of clothes, sport, trekking and camping gear. Pumalin has a very good website in English and Spanish.
Where to stay in Pumalin?
There are several campings in the park, price for all campings is the same – 5000pesos/person/7$. All campings have toilets, most have cold showers and shelters with tables and benches where you can hide from the rain, cook or play table games. Campsites in Pumalin park; Rio Gonzalo, Tronador, Cascadas Escondidas, Lago Negro, Lago Blanco, El Volcan, El Amarillo. We stayed at Rio Gonzalo camping, nearest to the ferry, about 200m. It was very nice well maintained camping. It has a small shop where you can buy some food; pasta, soups, cheese, instant noodles, eggs, bread, milk, cookies, tea, snacks and chocolate. Prices are a bit higher than in towns, especially for fresh stuff.
What will you need to stay in the park?
As you can guess camping gear: tent, you’ll need a proper waterproof one, it can really rain; sleeping bag; sleeping pad, stove, pots, cups, utensils. You won’t be able to rent or buy anything here, except for gas.
What to do in Pumalin park?
The main activities are hiking and observing the nature. There are several trails of different lengths and difficulty, all trails start near the campings, just choose which one you want to hike and stay in the closest camping.
Trails of the northern part of the park.
Cascadas (waterfalls) – 4-hour trekking (return), starts near Caleta Gonzalo and Rio Gonzalo camping, there is a sign. The trail is very beautiful and picturesque, the path, sometimes wooden bridges, goes through the dense forest, along the river and ends with an impressive huge waterfall.
When it rains a lot it can be difficult to get there, you need to cross a river and sometimes it can be quite strong and deep, but it’s possible, just find a right spot. The path is very clear and easy to follow, even without seeing the waterfall it’s worth of walking.
Cascads escondidas (hidden waterfalls) – trail and camping, about 14km from Caleta Gonzalo, small waterfalls, nice walk through the forest, takes about 2 hours (return).
Volcano Michinmahuida – 24km trail (return) starts at Carol Urzúa bridge, 28,5 km south of Caleta Gonzalo, takes between 8-10 hours.
Laguna Tronador – 4km (return), starts at Tronador bridge, 11 km south of Caleta Gonzalo. Wooden stairs in the beginning leading to the hanging bridge, 3hours.
Interpretativo de Naturaleza – 3km (loop) starts at El Volcán campground, takes an hour to complete.
Volcano El Chaiten – 5km away from El Volcan camping, go up to the top and down takes about 2,5 hours. There was a big eruption in 2008 and the forest around hasn’t recovered yet, some dry trees and bare land. The scenery here is very different from the other parts of the park. On a clear sunny day you can see the sea and Chiloe island from the top.
Trails of the southern part (El Amarillo)
To get there you can catch a bus from Chaiten (nearest town) to Futalefu and get off at El Amarillo entrance or hitch. Bus leaves everyday at 12.00 and 5.00pm, price 600pesos, it stops near the entrance to the park from there you’ll have to hitch again or walk for 2,5km to the nearest camping Puente Carlos Cuevas. Camping has toilet, tap with drinking water and shelter with big table and benches, no shower.
Darwin’s frog trail – 1,5km from Puente Carlos camping, short hike – 2,5km, some ups and downs, neither steep nor long, through the forest, with small waterfalls, two view points, there you have a chance to spot a shy Darwin’s frog, we didn’t.
El Amarillo Ventisquero (yellow glacier) trail – starts at Ventisquero camping, 10km from the entrance, from the camping to the glacier 10km more, if you don’t have a car, you’ll have to hitch, quite far to walk from Puente Cuevas camping. At the end of the trail you come close to the glacier, can almost touch it.
El Mirador trail – starts 2km away from Puente Carlos camping, very long and steep up to the top of the mountain but it’s worth of effort, you get an amazing view over the park, the glacier and the valley.
The nearest town to Pumalin park, I’d even say a village, very small, with two or three shops, many hotels and hostels and of course campings. It’s time to say a little bit about camping culture in Chile, it’s very big, you can find campings anywhere in Patagonia, every city, town, village has at least one camping, tent is a very good and useful thing to have here, it’ll save you a lot of money!
We stayed at Las Nalcas camping, actually it’s a hotel/camping, they have rooms from 12000pesos/person/17$ and camping for 6000pesos/person/8$, with hot shower, kitchen, wi-fi and computer.
There is one local bus from the park (Caleta Gonzalo) to Chaiten, at 11.00am, for 1000pesos/1,5$, but not every day, ask at your camping. You can use the same bus to move from one camping to the other inside the park. In this part of Chile public transport can be a problem, there are few buses, they don’t go everyday, sometimes they are full, if you short in time, plan your trip beforehand and find out about buses.