A Sightseeing Excursion Around Lago Elizalde
The Seis Lagunas (Six Lagoons) and Lago Elizalde region just south of Coyhaique offers a sightseeing loop that passes through fertile, rolling farmland and forest, and past several picturesque lakes, all of which are known for outstanding fly-fishing. Because few people visit, this is a great place to escape the crowds. If you're tempted to stay and fish for a few days here, there are lodges that cater to this sport. If you rent your own car, pick up a good map because many of these roads have no signs.
Leaving Coyhaique via the bridge near the Piedra del Indio (a rock outcrop that resembles the profile of an Indian), head first to Lago Atravesado, about 20km (12 miles) outside town. The road continues around the shore and across a bridge, and enters the Valle Laguna. From here, you'll want to turn back and drive the way you came until you spy a road to the right that heads through country fields, eventually passing the "six lagoons." Take the next right turn toward Lago Elizalde. This pretty, narrow lake set amid a thick forest of deciduous and evergreen beech is a great spot for picnicking and fishing. There is often a boat-rental concession here in the summer. There's a lodge here, but it's open only occasionally, usually when it books a large group. From here you'll need to turn back to return to Coyhaique; follow the sign for Villa Frei, which will lead you onto the paved road to Coyhaique instead of backtracking the entire route. Keep an eye open for El Salto, a crashing waterfall that freezes solid in the winter.
Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo & Lago General
At a moderate 57km (35 miles) south of Coyhaique, this nature preserve protects a rough Andean scenery almost rivaling that of Torres del Paine. On a sunny day, you'll marvel at the 2,318m (7,603-ft.) Cerro Castillo or Castle Peak, named for the many granite needles that crown the summit, reminiscent of a medieval European fortress. The 179,550-hectare (443,678-acre) park holds glaciers, lagoons, and wildlife, including the rare huemul deer, along with several hiking trails. The Carretera Austral crosses the park, and tour operators from Coyhaique and around Lake General Carrera offer excursions. A great place to stop for a bite is La Cocina de Sole, where a young lady named Soledad whips up good sandwiches and simple lunches in a bus-turned-diner along the highway as it passes Villa Cerro Castillo. Don't miss the nearby Manos de Cerro Castillo national monument (admission $2/£1.30; daily 10am-6pm), about 5km/8 miles from town. Under a rocky ledge in view of the summit, it preserves some of the oldest artistic remains yet discovered in the Americas -- some 10,000 years old. Here, Tehuelche tribespeople, including children, left red, black, and brown positive and negative handprints on the walls. It's a very touching, human spot.
Another 30km (19 miles) south by the most direct route, Chile shares its largest lake, the huge Lago General Carrera, with Argentina (where it is called Lago Buenos Aires). The landscape once again is gorgeous, with the water mostly a robin's-egg blue, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Under mushroom-shaped islands, the lake features a series of marble caves polished and sculpted by centuries of wind and water, known as the marble "cathedrals" or "chapels." Their gray, yellow, or black-and-white swirls are a magnificent contrast to the blue water below. The best known is the Capilla de Mármol, which is best visited by hiring a boatman in Puerto Río Tranquilo. There is a trailer just across from the gas station that sets up 1 1/2-hour tours ($40/£27 per boat; up to 8 people), though they are highly dependent on the weather. Also consider visiting the less popular but larger islands from Puerto Sánchez; to get there, take the dirt road past Bahía Murta.
If the trip to the San Rafael glacier will bust your budget, head for the spectacular Glaciar Los Leones -- like the former, part of the San Valentín Ice Field -- which juts into the lake and river of the same name west of Puerto Río Tranquilo. Hire a guide as the trail to the Leones lakeshore is poorly marked, and you can hire a small boat to take you close to the glacier's face. It's a marvelous excursion, but it can be frigid in inclement weather. Other excursions include the Exploradores Glacier, easy to walk on, up Río Tranquilo. Those with a rental car might consider returning to Coyhaique by rounding the lake to Chile Chico on the Argentine border. From here, travelers must put their vehicle on a ferry, which crosses the lake and lands in Puerto Ibañez, from where drivers continue north to Coyhaique (reservations for cars are a good idea; contact Motonave Pilchero at tel. 67/233466; $4/£2.70 passengers, $35/£23 vehicles; one round-trip service Mon-Wed and Fri only from Puerto Ibáñez). This journey is for independent travelers with a fair amount of time.
Where to Stay -- While good food other than hearty Patagonian barbecue is an issue in Aysén, quite a number of places to stay have sprung up recently in this area, from lakeshore cabañas to basic residences and some real gems. In Puerto Ibañez on the north shore, you can stay at the Hostería Shehen Aike (tel. 67/423284; www.aike.cl). In Puerto Río Tranquilo (www.riotranquiloaysen.cl), two lakefront hosterías form bookends to the village. The first (from the north), Hostería Costanera (tel. 2/196-0072), has better rooms with private bathrooms and lake views, but also a rudimentary gas station; the friendlier Carretera Austral (tel. 67/419500) has better shared rooms with cleaner baths and a fine cabaña. On the south shore of the lake, on the road toward Chile Chico, consider the upscale Mallín Colorado Eco-Lodge (tel./fax 2/234-1843; www.mallincolorado.cl). In Chile Chico on the south shore, try the charming Hostería de la Patagonia (tel. 67/411337), just outside town on the Camino Internacional; there are cheap, basic residenciales in the village.
To the south, on the shore of the lake of the same name, Puerto Bertrand holds several residenciales and the high-quality Cabañas Campo Baker (tel. 67/411447; firstname.lastname@example.org), with fine views of the lake from most of the two-story bungalows and owned and run by fun and charming Italian Orlando Scarito; full board and multiday programs are available. The similar Green Baker Lodge (tel. 9/179116; www.greenbakerlodge.cl) is a few kilometers away on the shore of the Baker River, "next door" to the Patagonia Baker Lodge (tel. 67/411913; www.pbl.cl) and Cabañas Rapidos del Rio Baker (tel. 67/441-330).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.