Pumalin National Park: An Unexplored Gem on Carretera Austral
Make a stop on your Carretera Austral adventure and hike in Pumalin National Park, Chile. All you need to know about Parque Nacional Pumalin, when to visit, things to do, places to see, where to stay, how to get there and more.
Carretera Austral alias Southern Road in Chile winds through one of the world's most beautiful and remote landscapes which starts in Puerto Montt and finishes in Villa O'Higgins. It is possible that you've never heard of those two villages or you might not have heard of Carretera Austral either, but the word Patagonia should put you back in the game. One of the world's most sought-after and remote (and also painfully expensive) destinations consists of a large number of national parks. Pumalin National Park in northern Patagonia widened the number of national parks just recently as it gained the status in 2017.
PUMALIN NATIONAL PARK
Carretera Austral boasts with many hiking trails, crystal clear rivers, glaciers, lakes, and dense forests and therefore it was pretty hard to choose the place where to spend our precious and limited time in Patagonia. Because we arrived by ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaiten, our attention was immediately caught by the nearest national park to Chaiten, the Pumalin.
There are many things to do, and you can choose from hiking, biking, canoeing, sports fishing, and many more activities, but this is not the only reason why to visit Pumalin National Park. It is also a place, where you can see with your very eyes that the effort of one single person can lead to conservation of a large area and result in creating a newly protected land which benefits not only people but also flora and fauna within the area.
HISTORY OF PUMALIN NATIONAL PARK
Usually, we are not much into the history of national parks, but we think the story about creating Pumalin National Park is worth mentioning. It all started with the name Douglas Tomkins, a founder of outdoor gear The North Face who fell in love with Patagonia and after several years of visiting, he decided to buy land in northern Patagonia with a vision to protect the area where at that time, at the beginning of the 90s was a high risk of logging.
Although many people discouraged him and although at first, he was not accepted among locals as they saw him as a foreigner who is buying their land, between 1991 and 1998 he was able to acquire more than 700 000 acres. Douglas Tomkins' foundation developed a tourist network in the area to encourage Chileans and foreigners to enjoy and appreciate the beautiful yet fragile nature. When all the hard work was done, Douglas Tomkins donated the area back to the Chilean foundation who started to take care of the land. Nowadays, the official name of the park carries the name of Mr. Tomkins to honor his actions and to remind the act of the largest donation of land to Chilean hands in the country's history.
HOW TO GET TO PUMALIN NATIONAL PARK
The park is divided into two parts, the northern, and the southern. The northern part is best accessible from Caleta Gonzalo while when visiting the southern part, you can have a base in Chaiten town.
By bus | When traveling by public transport, you can buy a ticket in Puerto Montt which includes the combination of bus and ferry. At the time of research, buses were leaving around 7 AM (always make sure before your departure as timetables change often), the ride to Caleta Gonzalo takes 8.5 hours and 9.5 hours to Chaiten. The cost is CLP 14 000.
By ferry | A direct ferry runs only between Puerto Montt and Chaiten. We took the night ferry which takes around 12 hours and has reclining seats, and the trip was quite comfortable. The price is CLP 17 300 per person without a car. It is better to make a reservation in advance via Naviera Austral. Do not forget to plan your travels a bit ahead as the ferry runs only three times a week.
By car | One of the most popular ways how to travel Carretera Austral is renting a car. You can take a ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaiten (you only need to pay an additional fee for a car), or you can drive all the way down which requires a bit of planning. From Puerto Montt, drive to Caleta Arena, where you need to catch a ferry to Puelche harbor. This is a short ferry ride (about 20 minutes long), and you don't need to make a booking in advance. The price is CLP 700. Once you get to the other side, you need to drive 60 kilometers to Hornopiren where you will embark on another ferry to Caleta Gonzalo. First, you will go from Hornopiren to Leptepu, where you will have to get off the ferry, drive for 10 minutes to Fiordo Largo and from here take the final ferry to Caleta Gonzalo. The ferry ride takes about five hours. Book your spot beforehand with Transportes Austral - this company runs ferries daily at 9 AM from Hornopiren, the cost is CLP 5600 per person and CLP 30 000 per car (the driver pays only for a car, not for himself).
We found entrance fees to national parks in Chile pretty steep (usually CLP 5000 to 10 000), so the good news is that Pumalin National Park is an exception as you don't have to pay an entrance fee here. Another reason why to stop by.
WHERE TO STAY WHEN VISITING PUMALIN NATIONAL PARK
We decided to have a base for exploration of Pumalin park in Chaiten. The small town has everything you might need - small grocery shops, restaurants, bank (it has ATM), gas station, tour companies (we can recommend Chaitur - a local agency with English speaking staff who can help you arrange bus tickets atc.) and hotels.
Budget: Hostel Renace - The cheapest option in the town with good wifi and kitchen.
Mid-range: Paraiso Patagonico - Nice and new rooms with a patio, strong internet service, and private bathroom. The owner is friendly and helpful.
Luxury: Hotel Mi Casa - You won't find a hotel with better panoramic views. The hotel also features wifi, tasty breakfast, heater in the room, sauna and fitness center.
Read our honest review of Hotel Mi Casa.
For those sleeping in a tent, there is a wide network of campsites. Here's a link to the park's official website where you can see all the possibilities where is allowed to spend a night. The price for camping is CLP 6000 per night.
BEST HIKES TO DO IN PUMALIN NATIONAL PARK
We had only two days to explore the trails of Pumalin National Park, that's why we decided to see both, the southern and the northern part. We are going to describe two half-day trips which can be easily done from Chaiten even if you don't have a car. If you are traveling by car, the visit will be much straightforward.
El Mirador Trail | A steep, hour-long climb will take you through dense forest to a worthwhile viewpoint of the glacier. If you are traveling by car, you can park right at the beginning of the trail and walk only 1.5 km long trail to the viewpoint. The glacier is a bit further than the Hanging Glacier we visited in Queulat National Park, but still pretty impressive. Then, you can walk the same way back.
It is a bit more complicated if you travel by public transport, but it should not discourage you from traveling to the park. From Chaiten, take a bus at 12 PM going to Futaleufu (or Palena). The bus leaves from the tourist office on the main road. The ride cost CLP 500, and you need to ask the driver to drop you off at El Amarillo.
Enter the park and follow the dirt road. You will pass two campgrounds: camping Carlo Cuevas and Vuelta del Rio. Carry on further, and you will reach a crossroad (with a sign Sendero El Mirador) where you need to turn left. The road will take you to the beginning of the climb. To get back, you can make a loop and descend the other side of the hill. The only downside is that to get to the start of the official trek, you must walk 8 kilometers (and then 8 kilometers back).
You can try to hitchhike to the beginning of the trail, but there were not many cars in the park in the afternoon. We walked the whole portion from El Amarillo, and back and it took us five hours. When you get back to El Amarillo, you need to hitchhike (or walk 25 kilometers) to Chaiten because there are no buses in the afternoon to the town.
Volcano El Chaiten | The volcano Chaiten erupted ten years ago and destroyed not only the big part of the park (the park was closed for two years) but also severely damaged the town of Chaiten which now stands ten kilometers north from the original location. Until today, you can see that the forest hasn't entirely recovered yet, but still, the trek to the volcano is worth your time. You can see not only the volcano but also lagoons, interesting flora, lakes, mountains, and even the sea. The trail is 2.5 kilometers long one way and takes about three hours to complete.
To get to the start, take a bus from Chaiten at 11 AM going to Puerto Montt and ask the driver to drop you off at the start of Sendero El Chaiten. To get back, you can either hitchhike (there are fewer cars than in the southern part of the park as not many people live here), or you can wait for a bus coming back from Puerto Montt, it should be passing by the trailhead around 3:30 PM - 4 PM (make sure the bus is scheduled at the bus office).
Summer, December to March, is a hiking season in northern Patagonia. Temperatures are milder than in the south the average is 17℃, and it is not that cold during the night. Summer is also dry season, but weather in Patagonia is unpredictable, and it can rain anytime. We had sunny and rainy times every ten minutes during both our hikes! Pack rain ponchos and wear layers for every weather. Also, having mosquito repellent is a good idea, especially in the summer. Winter months are usually cold, rainy or snowy and although hiking is possible, you should be well-experienced. Our trip around Chile begun in the north part at San Pedro de Atacama, where we biked around the Valle de la Luna, then we visited capital Santiago and finally started our Patagonia adventure from Puerto Montt after arriving from Pucon and Puerto Varas. We experienced most of the Chilean climate along the way, though the constant weather changes still caught us by surprise.
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