After paying a visit to Cerro Castillo you’ll undoubtedly agree: from afar, this mountain is impressive, but experiencing it up close and personal, touching its glaciers, hiking beneath the needles of rock and swimming in its aquamarine lagoon, leaves you speechless! This Patagonian icon is located within the Cerro Castillo National Reserve, where the hiking trails provide the route for intimate encounters with the mountain and its landscapes, dominated by forests, rivers, hanging glaciers, crystal waterfalls, and native flora and fauna. For now, it’s still fairly uncommon to encounter a lot of other hikers along the way, but this circuit is well on the way to becoming one of the most famous in Patagonia, ranking amongst epic hikes like those in Torres del Paine, El Chaltén and the Dientes del Navarino.
But before hitting the trail, PLEASE consider these useful tips.
At this stage of your trip you’ve probably come to realize that the weather in Patagonia is extremely variable. In the mountains it is even more extreme and should be treated with preparation and respect. In Patagonia, the mountains are the boss, not you, and one can never tell when a snow squall could change your plans. You have to be willing to make unexpected changes in your itinerary, by shortening your route or even having to cancel the hike altogether. No matter the season and time of year, it is very likely that you will experience sun, rain, snow and wind. Sometimes all at the same time! Secondly, please note that this is not a trek for beginners. Walking through this reserve involves river and stream crossings (many), thick forests, and high alpine valleys (including a steep mountain pass) where you'll be exposed to all the risks and furies of the Patagonian climate. Some of the trails are established and well-marked and in other sectors, you won’t see a single trace. If you have trekking experience, good navigational skills, and all the appropriate equipment, you won't have a problem hiking this circuit on your own. Make sure you have a good map, (some of the outfitters in Coyhaique sell topographical maps or you can obtain an official CONAF map of the area), and a few surplus days in case you encounter unexpected weather or need to go slower than you thought.
Don’t worry if you’re new to trekking or wish you were in a bit better physical condition, or lack the proper equipment, (good tents and a camp stove are musts). Simply give one of the local professional guides who work in the area a call.
They are awesome! In fact, no matter who you are, we recommend hitting the trails of this reserve with a guide; you’ll have a more relaxed trip without the need to worry about logistics or carry all the gear, and working with a local guide allows you the chance to discover all the secret details of these landscapes. Each of the guides has their own version of this hike, with special places to show you and preferences on where to stop and where to camp along the way. A lot will depend on your experience and the condition of the terrain. The following four day, three night itinerary is based on the route that we hiked with Cristian Solis, owner of GeoSur Expediciones, (www.geosurexpediciones.com), a regional company with more than 10 years of experience offering guided trekking expeditions in the area.
Day 1 - Las Horquetas – Turbio River Camp (16 km). The trail starts in the sector known as Las Horquetas, along the Carretera Austral (68 km from Coyhaique). The initial trail follows an old logging road still used by local gauchos to herd their animals to the valleys during the summer months, thus make sure you close any gates as you pass through their farms! You’ll alternate between forested areas that were burnt in wildfires that swept the area decades ago, and vibrant lenga forest, all the while bordering a crystal-clear stream that you’ll wade across on three occasions. The crossings are shallow but you should wear sandals so that your hiking boots don’t get soaked. After walking approximately 14 km, you’ll arrive at the Conaf shelter and post, where you will register and pay the National Reserve’s entrance fee. Two kilometers further you’ll find the Turbio River Camp, where you can assemble your tent, cook dinner and appreciate a well-deserved rest.
Day 2 – Turbio River Camp - Bosque Camp (8 km). The second day of this hike starts along the river that flows down from the Turbio Glacier. Little by little you'll climb, first through forests, and then along a steep section of rock scree to cross the saddle of El Peñón (1,460 m). Depending on the time of year, you may be crossing this section on snow, but, one thing is certain, your legs will be ready for a break upon reaching the next campsite! Luckily, the views are incredible, offering a great excuse to stop and catch your breath while photographing the magnificent glaciers of the Cerro Castillo range, which seem just an arm’s reach away. This is also a great spot to view condors drifting and gliding through the peaks. Once you’ve descended from El Peñón, the trail borders the Peñón Glacier Stream for a while, during which you’ll get your first amazing views of the “castle” before climbing a bit more through the woods to your camp.
Day 3 – Bosque Camp - Porteadores Camp (9 Km). You’ll start day three with a strong initial climb along the banks of the river that pours down from the Cerro Castillo Glacial Lagoon, until you reach a small plateau at the base of the “Castle” itself. Once you’ve had a break (and filled your camera’s memory card), you’ll begin to climb the moraine surrounding the lagoon to an overlook so spectacular, we swear you won’t want to leave. The mountain seems so close you can almost touch it and provides a perfect contrast for the turquoise lagoon as you listen to the sound of ice sliding down the mountain and shattering into the water. The trail continues along the rocky terrain to a vantage point that (on a cloudless day), shows the entire Ibañéz Valley, all the way to General Carrera Lake and Argentina. You’ve really got to see it to believe it. Next, you’ll cross the saddle of Cerro Castillo (1,600 m), and begin a slow descent back to the forest and the Porteadores Camp, accompanied by impressive views of Cerro Palo.
Day 4- Porteadores Camp - Villa Cerro Castillo (10 km). The descent to Villa Cerro Castillo begins by bordering the edge of the Parada River Canyon, where you'll have excellent panoramic views of the Ibañéz River and Valley. You’ll exit the reserve walking through a typical Patagonian ranch, amongst grazing sheep and cows, and then hike back to town along a rural road.