We arrived in Hornopirén for the first time in mid-November 2016, expecting a small village with a pretty river and a night of camping. We checked out Patagonia El Cobre, run by the lively Robert Catalan. Upon arriving, we were immediately enchanted by the misty jungle. Little did we know we would visit two more times during our six-month stay in Chile and had found one of our favorite places of the trip.
Scott and I wandered along mossy boardwalks through a tunnel of native trees while our boys, Finn (8) and Graham (5), raced towards the rocky beach accompanied by some local chucaos, the little flightless birds.
The literary cafe, or “coffee” as it is called, sat at the end of the boardwalk atop a wide deck overlooking the fjord. Inside, a fire crackled in the stone fogón, a three- by four-foot indoor fire pit, warming away the rainy chill. At night, the tiny lanterns made from old bottles lit the boardwalks, guiding our walk to covered platform campsites beneath mammoth trees. We were so taken by this campground, by Robert and by the surrounding dripping trees and domineering peaks, that we returned twice more before leaving Chile.
On December 29, we boarded the ferry across Estuario Reloncaví for the third and final time and drove two hours along the rough gravel of the Carretera Austral, headed for Patagonia el Cobre. Though we planned to camp and take it easy, Robert’s contagious enthusiasm for kayaking grabbed our attention. We decided to kayak along the islands of Fjord Comau to the Termas de Llancahué. We would camp one night on a nearby island and the next day, visit a colony of penguins before kayaking back to the campground.
The following morning, the boys jumped out of their sleeping bags before dawn, eager to suit up and begin paddling. We packed our gear into dry bags along with Robert and a new German friend, Bettina and by eight o’clock we were on the water, just in time to see the sun peer through the morning fog. We paddled through glassy blue waters along the marisco farms and near the rocky shore of Isla Pelada.
Near the south end of the island, we visited a colony of lobos marinos (sea lions) numbering around two hundred. The boys loved watching the pups plunge into the water, and hearing the many varied growls, burps, and hiccups of the jostling colony. They were so enthralled by the towering cliffs, interesting animals, and blue depths, that most of the time they forgot to paddle.
About a half hour from the colony, we stopped for a break at the Termas de Llancahué hot springs. We arrived just as the wind picked up, as it so often does along the fjord in the afternoon. The hotel spread out along the rocky shore, with two large swimming pools of hot thermal water. Unlike the little rocky tubs in the forest we had previously experienced in Chile, these were full-sized swimming pools; a sort of strange combination of hot tub benches, a single jet, and pool noodles.
We hung out for the afternoon, alternately warming ourselves in the sulfur pools and jumping from the dock and rocks into the frigid Pacific waters. Our normally water-fearing boys began to loosen up, floating around on the noodles and even daring to jump off the rocks into waiting arms. After our many months of southern Chile clouds and rain, we relished the sun, sipping sweet pisco sours on the restaurant veranda and hiking the hill to a stunning mirador.
We hung around until early evening when the wind typically dies down, calming the waters for our short paddle to an island campsite. The calm never came. We decided instead to camp near the hot springs in a small cow pasture with the consent of the owner. The boys discovered a nearly brand new suspension bridge spanning a small estuary where they enacted elaborate imaginary games as we set up the small camp. After setting up our tents and starting water to boil, the wind completely disappeared. By that time it was eight o’clock and even though the glassy water was enticing, we stayed put for the night. We ate a meager camp meal, the type that tastes like a feast, topped off with sweet cinnamon rice cooked on a smoky fire. Finn blossomed in his newfound language skills, too tired to have any inhibitions, and chatted away with Robert and Bettina as the fire died down.
As often happens in this region, it began to rain in the night. So the following morning, we packed out and paddled off in the rain. The waters remained calm despite the squall, and we were delighted to spot a pod of dolphins right off shore. The boys forgot to paddle as the dolphins swam near our boats, leaping and dodging through the water. We were off to the penguin colony.
You can hear the braying colony of Magellanic penguins from out on the water. After beaching the boats in a pebbled crevice and walking into the forest, we discovered the little cave dwellings in among the tree roots. The forested island contrasted with the image we held of penguins perched on craggy shores or in the snowy desert of Antarctic icebergs. We found the two-foots tall flightless birds living in this temperate rainforest among ancient trees, burrowing into the rugged roots to build their nests. We watched as the seemingly awkward adults navigated narrow wooded paths to the shore with agility.
We did not stay long on the island as the rain had become a torrential downpour. Everyone and everything was soaked, even under dry jackets. And so we commenced our 3-hour paddle home. After an hour, we made it into the smaller waters of the fjord and stopped at the floating breakroom of the salmon farm to regroup. While we were stopped, a personnel transport for the fishery, captained by a friend of Robert’s, stopped by and offered us a ride. With another 2-3 hours of paddling with soaked kids in the rain looming ahead, we happily took the ride. We arrived back at the campground in time to dry out next to the fogón and celebrate New Year’s Eve in the cozy campground “coffee”.
During our time in Hornopirén, we had the opportunity to explore amazing landscapes, and strengthen our tenacity. We met inspiring people from all over the world, sharing good food and stories by the fire and in the rain. This was not a tourist vacation, but a human and wilderness experience that grew our family in immeasurable ways.
The ROAM Report: The Lake District, Chile
Travelers: Sarah, Scott, Finn (8) and Graham (5)
Date: October 2016 – March 2017
Itinerary: 2 week stay in the Region de los Lagos, at least 1 week driving in the Carretera Austral, and return to Puerto Montt via ferries and the Carretera.
Budget: Cost of a full meal for a family of 4 was $30-$60 USD, the cost of a cabaña per night was $45-$67 USD, and the cost of camping was $7.50 USD per night.
The Good Stuff
Kayaking: The cost of a 2-day guided kayak trip is 65000 CLP or $96 pp with Patagonia el Cobre. People typically bring their own food, and pay for the hot springs separately. All equipment is provided. There are opportunities for work trade and 20% discount for families with young children. Robert does not have consistent internet access so contact in advance.
Puerto Montt Markets: Meli Pulli is a quaint and safe, small artisan shop area directly on the costanera. The artisans mostly sell what they make, not goods bought in from Peru or elsewhere. Another area is Angelmó which houses a fish market, fresh fish and seafood restaurants and artisan crafts. While this area is larger and a little pushier, it’s also a great place to catch sea lions hanging around the docks.
Hiking: Las Cascadas is a hiking trail at the north end of Lago Llanquihue. The trail is a little rough however is well worth it once you reach the magical falls. Outside of Hornopirén, the Lago Cabrera hike is 8.5 km that leads to a glacial lake, rewarding those with a view of the glacier and interesting history of the area. And the Cascadas Escondidas campground trail in Parque Pumalín gives you a close-up look at the ancient alerce trees – it feels like you have entered the elven forests of The Lord of the Rings.
Empanadas: El Bolche Empanadas, in Caleta La Arena on the left before getting on the first ferry from Puerto Montt to Hornopirén, you can find the best empanadas in the south. Try the ave/pollo (chicken) – best empanadas in the south.
- Kayaking with dolphins.
- Eating popcorn in our van in the rain.
- When we discovered what a picoroco actually is! The great mystery creature turned out to be a giant barnacle, and tasted great!
- Midnight asado from the fogon at Patagonia el Cobre.
- Secret penguin island in Fjordo Comau!
- Eating pichanga after hiking 17 km to Lago Cabrera and back.
- Giant alerces.
- Magical waterfall hikes.
The Not So Good
Roads: The Careterra Austral is mostly unpaved and can be rough to rugged. Although four-wheel drive is not necessary, it can give you access to more remote hikes and views that we were unable to see.
Accommodation: While the lakes district around Llanquihue has high end stays, as you head south along the Carreta be prepared for cold campground showers, rustic sites, dirt, and BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper.) If this is not your thing, this trip might not be for you.
Good To Know
Weather: Bring rain gear, even rain pants, and warm layers as it can be very wet.
Food: I will start by saying that Chile has some amazing food offerings, asados, seafood and empanadas to name a few. However, much of what you find at restaurants and at street food vendors is more in the line of hot dogs and hamburgers. For more traditional foods your best shot is to seek out the small, hidden market and street-type vendors.
Coffee: Oh coffee! If you like your coffee dark and flavored, be warned. This is not a coffee drinking country. Grocery store coffee often tastes like sawdust and cafe coffee can easily be Nescafe.
Cabañas: Cabañas are everywhere. No need for a reservation. When we were ready for a hot shower, we often just stopped by and asked the owner what they had to offer and for what price. Ask to take a look before committing but in general, they have friendly owners and are your best shot at wifi and a hot shower.
Wifi: Once leaving Puerto Montt, there is limited access to wifi and sometimes even cell signals. We bought a SIM card from Entel, and had spotty coverage. You can try Movistar- we heard it may be better.
Two Weeks in the Lake District Our six months allowed us to explore at our leisure but if you’ve got two weeks, here is what I would recommend as a “Best of Region de Los Lagos” (Region X):
- Fly into Puerto Montt, staying at Hospedaje y Cabañas Myriam (one of many options) for 2-3 nights. Explore the port and artisan shops here.
- Rent a car or a camper through Wicked South America or Holiday Rent
- Llanquihue: 1-2 day circle tour around Chile’s second largest lake. Stop in Frutillar to see the Teatro del Lago and walk along the lake. Puerto Octay has a sweet plaza reminiscent of a European village. Be sure to hike Las Cascadas, a 30-minute trek through a jungle-like rainforest to a powerful falls. Drive up the road to Volcan Osorno, stopping at the miradors and ultimately the ski center. The telesilla (chairlift) is open all year or you can hike the trails from here.
- Drive the Carretera Austral. Give at least 1 week to the stops below.
- Hornopirén: 3-5 nights. If you are willing to camp or rent a camper, stay at Patagonia el Cobre. If you prefer a cabaña, visit Cabañas Central Plaza. Once in Hornopirén, visit Robert at Patagonia el Cobre. He can suggest quick hikes to waterfalls, day hikes to nearby lakes, etc. He has a vast knowledge of innumerable options for outdoor activities. He offers a literary café with book and map resources, a fabulous view, cafe cafe (or whole bean coffee), and a friendly, outgoing personality.
- Patagonia El Cobre: I cannot recommend his kayak tours enough. He provides guided or outfitted one or multi-day adult or family-friendly kayak trips.
- Parque Pumalín: 2-4 nights. From Hornopirén, a two ferry trip runs 2x per day. The first ferry takes approx. 3 hours with a 20-30 minute drive to the next ferry. The second ferry is about 45-60 minutes. Once off the second ferry in Caleta Gonzalo, you can stay in the cabañas immediately off the ferry, continue on into the park for camping or drive all the way to Chaitén for lodging. Many family friendly hikes throughout the park with clearly marked trails, clean facilities and visitor centers in peak season.
- Return to Puerto Montt via ferries and the Carretera.
by Sarah Wilson, June 2017
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