222km (138 miles) S of Puyuhuapi; 774km (480 miles) N of Cochrane
Aysén includes natural preserves whose rivers and lakes draw thousands every year for superb fly-fishing opportunities. Visitors who are not traveling the Carretera Austral can fly into Coyhaique from Santiago or Puerto Montt; travel to southern Patagonia from here requires that you fly again to Punta Arenas, unless you have your own car and plan to take the long and gravelly road through flat Argentine pampa, enter via sea to Chacabuco, or hike in through remote Villa O'Higgins.
South out of Queulat, the scenery provokes oohs and ahhs at every turn. The pinnacle of Cerro Picacho comes into view before you enter Villa Amengual, a service village for farmers. Sadly, however, the scenery is marred at times by the terrible destruction wreaked by settlers who burned much of the area for pastureland. An ill-conceived law in 1937 provoked the ecological disaster as colonists could only receive title to the land if it was cleared of trees. Tall, slender evergreen beech tree trunks bleached silver from fire can still be seen poking out from regrowth forest or littered across grassy pastures in a messy testament to these gigantic fires, whose smoke billowed all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
The road passes through numerous rinky-dink towns before arriving at a paved road that appears like a heaven-sent miracle after hundreds of kilometers of jarring washboard. At a junction south of Villa Mañihuales, drivers can head to Puerto Aysén and Puerto Chacabuco, the departure point for boat trips to Laguna San Rafael and Puerto Montt, and then southeast toward Coyhaique, passing first through the Reserva Nacional Río Simpson.
Founded in 1929, Coyhaique is a town that doesn't quite do justice to its stunning location beneath a towering basalt cliff called Cerro Mackay, surrounded by green rolling hills and pastures. This region of Patagonia takes a back seat to its southern counterpart around Torres del Paine, yet outside Coyhaique, new expeditions to unexplored areas start up every year; because of this, it's easy to get away from the crowds. The city is home to about 44,000 residents, almost half the population of the whole of Aysén. It's the only place in the region you'll find a full range of services; and, though it has a serious litter problem, it has so far managed to avoid most of the architectural sins of other Chilean towns, offering some lovely views if you walk up some of the streets away from the center in the late afternoon. It also sits at the confluence of the Simpson and Coyhaique rivers, both renowned for trout and salmon fishing and a reason so many fly-fishing enthusiasts flock to this area. The other prime attraction here is the Laguna San Rafael Glacier, a colossal ice field that can be visited on a modest ship or a luxury liner from Puerto Chacabuco; there are also flyovers that provide unforgettable memories. Beyond fishing, visitors can choose from a wealth of activities within a short drive of the city.