South America Living

Trip to Cerro Castillo National Park, Chile

Editor´s Note: This is a trip report by Emilie Dannenberg who is traveling through South America and studying Spanish in Bariloche, Argentina to complete her Standford University undergraduate degree.

Beginning the Descent back to Civilization on Day Three


I picked up supplies in Coyhaique, the trading hub of the Carraterra Austral. I picked up food for the walk in a giant supermarket (shelves running and twisting into vanishing points. 80s music blaring over loudspeakers,) and a gas stove and cylinder. Camp fires aren’t permitted in the summer months because of the possibility of forest fire. The wind sweeps out an ember. The ember flares into a blaze that leaves gnarled death in its wake. No one wants to be that tourist.

I asked where are could find a map of the park at Coyhaique information kiosk, located in the central plaza. Without hesitation they issued me with a topographic map that described the walk in detail. Trails marked, distances between campsites, a description of each day of the multi-day walk, and photographs of the landscape. It was easy.

Getting to the Trailhead

No trouble hitchhiking to the trailhead. The hike starts at a dirt road called ´Los Horquetas’ that splits off from the main road. I ran up to the driver’s side of the car and jabbed my finger at the map where the turnoff was marked. The driver knew where it was. There’s not much else along the road. He frowned darkly and told me I’d get lost. But, unfazed, I leapt out at the junction, managing to remember my map and water bottle.

Day 1 in Cerro Castillo National Park

The valley sparkled enticingly, a wide skimming river ran smoothly, and in the distance rocky turrets loomed. It was a beautiful beginning, remote and inviting. It was a flat 13km to the campsite following the course of the river along a dirt road. A couple of times I had to remove my boots for river crossings. I wasn’t yet in the park proper and a huge mob of cows mooed from the fields that alternated with forest.

I reached a cow fence- the end of the dirt road, the beginning of the trail proper. Just inside were the park rangers hut and a first campsite. At the sound of my approaching footsteps the ranger slunk out of his hut, and here I registered and paid the entrance fee.

Note: The registration is for general administration purposes, not helicopter rescue. There’s no ‘checkout’ on the other side.

There was another campsite 40 minutes down the trail and I decided to press on. The woods were splintered and shifty by the ranger hut. There was no water, no river. I didn’t plan to sleep encrusted in sweat. It was a winning decision. Further along the trail converged with a white silver glacial river. It whirled and leaped; it charged down pure from the peaks. Rock faces sliced into the sky at steep angles, sides smooth and mighty. They flashed red pink against the pale clear sky. I splashed myself with water in the river which was icy but fresh, cooked dinner, and went to sleep.

Day 2 in Cerro Castillo National Park

I got up when I woke up. In the summer months in Patagonia, January and February, the days are very long. The sun doesn’t set before 10 p.m. I dedicate the extra hours to sleeping.

No campfire allowed, but the conscientious stacks of wood by the fireplace suggested otherwise. No wind, and I made a very small fire to cook my oatmeal on. Then I set off uphill, climbing through the forest, and soon the forest fell away to a rocks and scree and the climb over the pass. Little glacial streams were delicious. Toward the top of the pass a little, lively waterfall spluttered out of the cliff. The pass cradled a snow field and I trudged through. Either side the peaks were bleak and silent. It was like a vacuum. It was morbidly fascinating. I found a fully intact dragonfly that seemed to have died of cold. Maybe it was flying and just fell out of the air, the life frozen out of it.

The descent was a steep scree slope. I negotiated it not so daintily; I did not feel like a mountain goat, more like an inept surfer, the rocks bunching up and land sliding below me as I cursed. I landed twice on my ass despite intense concentration.

Behind me, a beautiful glacier descended from the ridge. It sagged over the edge. Trickles and streams dripped off it and ran down, forking and spluttering down the rock face like veins. At the bottom of the cliff the network of channels, birthed from the slumping ice mother above, joined into a single river that flowed torrentially down.

The woods received me warmly. I reached the next campsite. I submerged myself in another luscious ice river then sunned and dried off on a conveniently shaped boulder. From my campsite I could see Cerro Castillo, its jagged tooth turrets, its magnificence, not so much a castle as the fortress of an evil sorcerous. I watched the sudden contrast as the sun sunk. The river grew suddenly ghostly and steely. The forest became brooding. The moss on the bark condensed into dark shadow and grew suddenly sinister. I chased the shrinking light along the rocks, played some harmonica, ate and went to sleep. I hadn’t seen anyone all day.

Campfire at Night in Cerro Castillo National Park

Day 3 in Cerro Castillo National Park

This was the hardest day. It was marked as a paltry 5 km on the map but it took me a very long time. The path climbed up alongside the mountain peak. Soon the forest gave up its hold, then the shrubs, too, and the landscape became rocky. Tiny wily flowers poked out from between stones; mosses crept amongst the rocks. I searched for a long while for a way to cross a river without having to long jump. Then the path swerved right to the base of Cerro Castillo and the rock face soared up imposingly.

Presently I reached a mountain lake. It was a glassy white-blue, and calm, but it was cold there. I drank hot soup. The clouds twisted and tumbled over Cerro Castillo, none too menacing, but enough to add turbulence to the day.

I scrambled up boulders to join the trail. I spidered up, hand over foot, and then a precarious tiptoe over loose boulders to join the ridge.

I saw misty figures on the ridge. They presided over, looking down at me. I wondered how they vanished so fast. Maybe it was the keeper of the mountains. He dispersed into cloud; he scuttled into rocks. Later I discovered there is a steep trail from the village (itself called Cerro Castillo) straight up to the ridge. Day hikers can stretch and heave and poke their heads over the mighty mountain ridges, and then retreat back to the village.

I ascended over the peak. The mountaintop was covered in flat shards of stone, a scree wasteland. From there you could see all of Patagonia it seemed. Patagonia stretching out endlessly: the storm clouds of distant valleys, other weather patterns, the frail line of dirt road Carraterra Austral, and the tiny Villa Cerro Castillo huddled in the wilderness. This Patagonia was scoured, bony and knobbly. It looked like it had had glaciers dragged through it. It was an incredible view, comprehensive, like the view from an airplane.

From there on I played where’s wally (or waldo) to find the trail.

I followed the red and white sticks amongst the fog and boulders. The descent was steep; the scree loose. The wind battered and buffeted me, as if trying to blow me off the mountain. But I followed the sticks faithfully, scanning ahead, honing in, and made it down to the refuge of the forest. If a storm strikes up on the mountain you would not be able to keep track of the already mirage-like sticks. You would stagger blindly on the treacherous mountaintop and it could be disaster.

On the zig-zag down I lost the trail for a while. After fighting through brush, falling in thorns and getting generally beat up (but footprints in the dust suggested others had done the same) I arrived at the campsite. At the campsite there were 3 boys from Chile and they shared mate (national drink of Chile, similar to green tea).

Day 4 in Cerro Castillo National Park

I left my camp intact and walked up to another glacial lake. This one can be reached as a day trek from the village. The waterwas emerald andstirred under white snow and flashing ice. It was beautiful and terrible. The place bristled with angry powerful sweeps of wind and rain, defiant, it will never be tamed.

On my return it began to rain. I got in my sleeping bag under my tarp and made myself warm food. But the campsite was cleared of trees; the bald dirt couldn’t absorb the water. A river began to flow across my camp. I mopped up the mess and tried to dam the river with logs.

It was nearly dark, and I was saved by a man who showed me how to prop up a little dirt wall to divert the flow of the river down the slope. So I learnt that it is more effective to divert a river by coaxing and persuading rather than blockading it outright. Also, to camp at the top of a slope where the earth has been stripped bare.

I think the problem would have been the same with a tent. The water would have built up against the wall and eventually seeped through. Otherwise, plastic duct-taped Wal-Mart tarp suited me fine this trip and was effective against water from above. But I’m not sure how it would have fared if the Patagonia wind really picked up, throwing punches from all directions, though the campsites were always sheltered in the forest.

The next morning I descended to town and checked into a hospedaje where I had a shower.

Trip Summary

It was a beautiful walk. It was well-marked, and hardly anyone on the trail. But I had been lucky with the weather. The next days in town wind raged and rain sleeted down. When finally the clouds alighted from the tops of mountains the peaks were blanketed thickly with white, as if baptized or kissed by the great snow monster in the sky.

Photographs by Emilie Dannenberg, all rights reserved.

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