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O’Higgins Glacier trek – a hidden gem of Patagonia

If you like to explore off-the-beaten-path destinations, hike in the areas with no other people the hike to O’Higgins glacier is a great option for you. Prepare yourself for amazing views of the turquoise O’Higgins and El Chico lake, massive glaciers, snow peak mountains, and indigenous forest. Just imagine having all these for yourself and being able to camp, walk, and stop wherever you want.

El Chico glacier with a rainbow after a heavy snowfall
El Chico glacier on the O’Higgins Glacier hike in Patagonia

Hiking to O’Higgins Glacier is a perfect way to start or finish (depending on where you come from) your adventure on the Carretera AustralThe O’Higgins Glacier trail is one of the lesser-known long-distance treks in Patagonia that we’ve done. It’s a good alternative to hiking in El Chalten or backpacking in Torres del Paine.

Both trails are quite demanding due to difficult weather conditions, badly marked the path and remote location. They can be easily combined (as we did it) with a walk from O’Higgins to El Chalten, just bring enough food – there is nowhere to buy food along the route.

How to get to the starting point of the hike?

Hike to both glaciers O’Higgins and El Chico is a return route you go to and back the same way.

From Villa O’Higgins, Chile

From Villa O’Higgins take a bus to Bahamondez pier – 7 km.

There take one of the boats to Candelario Mancilla.

Once at the Candelario go to the Carabineros (Chilean immigration office), register for the hike, it’s compulsory – the hike is very remote, in case you’re not back on the expected day rangers can start looking for you. If you have some extra luggage you can leave it at the rangers’ office. 

Start walking on the road towards Laguna del Desierto, about  7 km till you see a sign marking the starting point.

From El Chalten, Argentina

Take a bus El Chalten – Laguna del Desierto.

From the Laguna take a ferry to Punta Norte de Laguna del Desierto, as an option you can walk – 12 km along the lake.

Once there go to the Argentinian immigration office and get an exit stamp from Argentina.

Then walk to Candelario Mancilla (Chilean immigration office) – 22 km, get a Chile entry stamp and register for the hike. If you have some extra lugger you can leave it there for the period of the hike. Chilean rangers will explain to you how to get to the starting point. To get there you’ll have to walk back a little bit.

A wooden sign indicating the start of the O'Higgins hike
O’Higgins glacier hike route marker at the turn off from the gravel road towards the peninsula

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The cost of hiking to the glacier O’Higgins and El Chico 

Transport; from Villa O’Higgins – bus Villa O’Higgins to Bahamondez pier –  CLP 2500/$4;  boat Bahamondez  – Candelario Mancilla – CLP 34000/US$54. From El Chalten bus El Chalten – Punta Sur de Laguna del Desierto – ARS 850/US$25; ferry to Punta Norte de Laguna del Desierto – ARS 1360/US$40. For O’Higgins glacier hike add CLP 20 000/US$30 – it includes a return boat trip across the lake and one night of camping on the island.

Food; from CLP 15000/US$22 pp. 

Camping; on the hike to El Chico glacier is free, on O’Higgins glacier hike – one night on the private land, included in the boat crossing price. Before/after the hike – at Candelario Mancilla – CLP 3000/US$4 pp., at Argentinian immigration – free.

Where to stay in Villa O’Higgins?

Villa O’Higgins is a tiny town with a few restaurants, shops and a couple of hotels and campsites. What can you find in Villa O’Higgins;

  • Hotels
  • Hostels
  • Campsites
  • Restaurants
  • Shops
  • Pharmacy

Note! There is no ATM in the town – make sure to bring enough cash, some shops and hotels accept credit cards.

There are several places to stay in Villa O’Higgins for different budget;

Budget optionRuedas de la Patagonia – cozy chalets in Villa O’Higgins with private bathroom, wi-fi, heating, flat-screen TV, satellite channels, small kitchenette.

Middle price rangeCabañas San Gabriel – private chalets a bit bigger than the previous place with a bathroom, heating, TV, satellite channels, small kitchen, wi-fi. Located in the town, close to the shops and restaurants.

If you’re looking for more of a comfortable stayRobinson Crusoe Deep Patagonia is the best place in the town; spacious rooms with big windows, comfortable beds, a private bathroom, a cozy common area/restaurant with a fireplace, big continental breakfast.

Campbell at O'Higgins Lake
Campbell on the O’Higgins Glacier hike

What to pack for the trek?

Good tent, during the hike we had all seasons weather: pouring rain, stormy wind, hail, sun, and snow, so be sure your tent won’t fall apart or leak. Drinking water is not a problem, you can find it everywhere. For more details on hiking and camping gear check our post Patagonia packing list.

If you like hiking you might enjoy hiking and camping in Pumalin Park or trekking in Cerro Castillo National Park.

O’Higgins Glacier hike itinerary

Treks to both glaciers; O’Higgins and El Chico start at the same place and for the first two days following the same route. The split is at the Peninsula; for El Chico glacier you keep walking on the same side along Chico lake. For O’Higgins glacier, you go to the tip of the peninsula and cross the lake by boat. Both routes require 4 days to complete.

The O’Higgins glacier viewpoint is more impressive than the El Chico one but it’s more expensive to get there. You have to pay for a boat to cross the lake (both ways+camping) – CLP 20 000/US$30. If you have enough time you can combine both treks; go first to O’Higgins glacier viewpoint and on the way back to El Chico.

The area is stunning turquoise color lakes, pine forest, massive glaciers, and beautiful waterfalls. Only here in the extreme south of Patagonia, you start understanding the incredible diversity of the Chilean landscape from the arid Atacama desert in the north to the water kingdom in the south of the country.

O’Higgins/El Chico glacier trek overview

  • Distance – 82 km
  • Starting/finishing point – Candelario Mancilla
  • Required number of days – 4 days
  • Difficulty – moderate/challenging, depending on weather conditions

Day 1. Candelario Mancilla – Campsite #1, 23km, 7 hours

The starting point of both hikes is 7km away from the Chilean rangers office, it’s easy to follow – every km is marked with a sign. After 7km on your right you’ll see a sign “Peninsula”, it’s the start of the treks. Here you turn off the road and go into the forest. 

Follow the path, after 30min. you’ll get to the river, cross it in the most shallow place, on the other side the path is not very clear, right after crossing go to the right towards the hill, you’ll see the broken bridge, the path goes up to the pass.

The ascend is sometimes quite steep, it takes between 1,5-2 hours to get to the top.

Once at the top we walked about 3 hours more – it was flat all the way with some rivers and creeks to go through. We found a flat hidden from the wind spot for camping, just before the down starts. It gets very windy and cold at night make sure you have proper camping gear.

Our campsite in the wild on the O'Higgins hike
Our first night of camping on the O’Higgins hike

Day 2. Campsite #1 – campsite El Chico, 17km, 6 hours

The day starts with a steep long down to the peninsula, 2km, 1,5-2 hours, once at the bottom you’ll see the split; one path goes to the left (there is a big sign Sendero Glaciar Chico) along the lake and the other one goes straight to the peninsula (O’Higgins glacier hike). Here you must decide where you want to go either way is beautiful. 

We were planning to go to O’Higgins glacier, we walked to the tip of the peninsula where you have to cross a lake. On the other side, there is a house – a local family lives there, here you have to shout till they notice you and someone comes in a boat to pick you up. As I already mentioned it costs CLP 20 000/US$30 to cross the lake (return) and to camp next to the family’s house. 

If you decide to take the offer you camp next to their house right across the lake and next day early go to the viewpoint of O’Higgins glacier. They will explain to you the way. You can buy a cooked meal at the campsite for an additional cost.

We didn’t know that and didn’t have enough cash so we had to turn around. Luckily on the way back across the peninsula, we remembered about El Chico glacier and decided to go there. From the split to a designated camping spot is about 15km, mostly up, sometimes difficult to find the path don’t worry if you lose it just keep going along the lake towards the glacier. The campsite itself is just a flat piece of land with some kind of fence for wind protection, don’t expect too much.

A waterfall in the forest on the O'Higgins hike
One of the many waterfalls on the O’Higgins Glacier hike

Day 3. Campsite El Chico – Glacier El Chico – Campsite #1, 20km, 9 hours

The next morning we left our tent at the campsite (make sure it’s well attached in case of strong wind) and went to the glacier. The whole time we saw nobody around except for cows – no need to worry about your stuff. 

We walked about 1,5-2 hours to the viewpoint – a big standing out rock. If the weather is good and you have time you can go closer to the glacier, there is no path to follow just walk towards the glacier and don’t come too close to the edge.

Unfortunately for us, the weather wasn’t great; strong wind and rain. As a result after the viewpoint, we had to return. We walked to our tent, packed everything and started walking back, towards the peninsula  – about 2,5 hours. From there all the way up to the pass and camped at Campsite #1 – the same spot we camped on the way to. The ascend back to the pass is quite long and steep it took us about 4 hours to get to the top.

El Chico glacier surrounded by mountains and clouds
El Chico glacier, one of the lesser-visited glaciers in Patagonia

Day 4. Campsite #1 – Candelario Mancilla, 22km, 5,5 hours

It was the easiest day – flat at the beginning on the pass, then a little bit downhill back to the river crossing and back to the road. Once back on the road you walk 7km, mostly downhill, to the Candelario Mancilla, about 1,5 hours.

You can camp at Candelario Mancilla to rest a little bit before you start walking to El Chalten. If you’re going to O’Higgins check with the rangers boat departure as often due to strong wind boats get canceled. Camping at Candelario costs CLP 3000/US$4 pp. If you run out of food after the hike you can buy some bread or cooked meal at the campsite.

O'Higgins and El Chico lakes, O'Higgins Glacier hike
Two beautiful lakes on the O’Higgins hike; the turquoise O’Higgins lake and the grey El Chico lake

Accommodation in El Chalten

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Saturday 8th of January 2022

Hi there, thanks again for another awesome post - super helpful information!

Just a few questions for this one: -Is it right to understand that you were able to squeeze in both the O'Higgins glacier and El Chico glacier into the 4 days? Or is it 6 days total?

-Is it possible to squeeze both this and Villa Cerro Castillo trek (3-4 days) in ~10 days? I saw your post on the bus routes and it seems like it takes ~2 days on each side just getting from Coyhaique to O'Higgins (can be less hitchhiking potentially)

Thanks! Danny

Stingy Nomads

Monday 10th of January 2022

Hello, Daniel. Thank you for the comment. We hike only to El Chico Glacier we didn't have enough cash to pay to get to the other side of the lake, it's the only way of getting to the O'Higgins Glacier. The area is private property, you pay for a return boat ride, camping, and food. We didn't know that and didn't bring enough cash. You can squeeze both into 4-5 days depending on how far you walk. Theoretically, you can fit both treks into 10 days if everything goes exactly as it's planned but you might be unlucky with the weather and will have to wait in Villa O'Higgins for a couple of days just to get to Candelario Mancilla to start the hike to the O'Higgins Glacier. I'd suggest doing first the Cerro Castillo trek, getting to Villa O'Higgins, and deciding there if you want to do both glaciers or only one. Good luck

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