Just south of Coyhaique, the largest city in this region of Chilean Patagonia, sits a national reserve which doesn’t get all the attention it deserves. Said to be like a smaller Torres del Paine (and given my recent crowded experience there) I’d recommend this to almost anyone as a convenient alternative during high season. There’s also a perfect day hike in Cerro Castillo that not many people know about.
On a spur of the moment overnight stop there, I only had one day and night to get the most of it. Unfortunately, the only information online detailed the more popular 4 day hike traversing the length of the reserve.
Still, I knew there was a glacial lagoon at the base of the summit. I was determined to figure out how this day hike in Cerro Castillo was possible.
After talking to a few people working at the reserve, I was given mixed signals about the length and the route to the top. One person was impartial to helping me out and made it sound unfeasible. Another who worked at the ranger station told me it was possible and showed me a route I hadn’t seen on other maps.
I took at photo of the large wall hanging with the route and went back to prepare a large amount of snacks and water. Still confused on if I’d actually make it, I had to try.
With a horrible camera photo of the reserve (you could see my reflection better than the trail), food, sunscreen and a jacket, I set off. I told my dad a very rough time of when I’d be back. Knowing I would have cell service was comforting. I really wasn’t sure on where I was going. I hoped that the signal in some areas would be good enough to send him updates.
The Day Hike in Cerro Castillo
The first part of the hike went through private property. I passed a few farms until heading into the forest. Knowing it could take a long time, I picked up some speed and charged up the sandy trails. Being in such a zone, I must of missed the shorter, correct trial I was told to take. I wouldn’t be aware of this until coming down.
A few more wrong turns happened later on. One time on top of a small hill, I didnt see any trails in any direction. No people, no buildings, nothing in sight. All I saw was Cerro Castillo above me and the vast expanse of rolling hills. For the first time in a while I felt legitemately scared, and completely alone. I checked my phone and there was no signal.
I felt like I was truly experiencing what it must of been like to hike new areas so many years ago.
Retracing my steps was enough to get me back to the right spot eventually.
If not careful, it’s easy to miss the subtle trail turns. If you ever find yourself on a thinly worn path, you should know you aren’t in the right place. The trails are mostly narrow and deep.
Reaching Cerro Castillo itself requires hiking a steep switch back path up the mountain. With determination and ample energy, the worst part for me wasn’t the physical aspect. The worst part was the dreaded horse flies that plagued this area of Patagonia. The huge (sometimes biting) pests would stay with me swarming around my head in never-ending circles. I kept my head phones turned up loud to drown out the incessant buzzing.
Once closer to the top, the path turns more treacherous. Completely exposed, the next 30 minute climb is entirely over lose rocks and boulders. Going slow and carefully it wasn’t a huge problem. One positive of the exposed slope is the wind which keeps the horseflies at bay.
After reaching the top of the rocky trail, you can see the top of Cerro Castillo in all its perfection. From there it’s only a short walk to a viewpoint to the lagoon. I stopped there to enjoy the thrill and adrenaline of making it to the top.
Having arrived at one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen on my own two feet, sometimes completely unsure of way I was going, was a travel experience I’ll cherish for a long time. I could have continued on another 30 minutes to the lagoon itself, but the climb I’d then have back up deterred me.
The descent was much easier than the acsent. Having spent so long on wrong turns and at the top, I booked it on my way down. I jogged down the curving trail, realizing it was almost easier on my body than slowly walking. Soon I noticed the scenery was much different than on my way up and I was on a different trail. One and a half hours later I was nearly at the bottom.
Beautiful, somewhat frightening, challenging and rewarding, this day hike in Cerro Castillo was one of my top experiences while charting the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia.
Hiking info and tips for this day hike in Cerro Castillo:
- Starting point: Once approaching town from the direction of Coyhaique, there is a dirt road on the right just before the beginning of town. If camping, this is where all the camp sites will be. Surprisingly, some even offer Wifi. Towards the end of the dirt road you’ll see a small office. This is where you buy a permit (5,000 Chilean pesos) to enter the reserve. You can also get info on the trail here. Right past the office is the trailhead through a white wooden gate.
- Trail markers: The trail markers are wooden posts pained with the top half white and the bottom half red. There is a number on the top.
- Hiking time: It took me about 6 hours total to do the hike. This is considering a longer trail on the way up and a few wrong turns. At the same time, I came down very fast to make up for lost time.
- What to bring: Bug spray, sunscreen, food, ample water and a bathing suit if you plan on going down the the lagoon for a dip!
- A post hike meal: Want something good after the hike? The only option in Cerro Castillo I found as the Peruvian restaurant visible from the main road toward the end if town. It was aji de gallina was spicy and delicious!