46km (29 miles) SE of Puerto Montt
The Carretera Austral is also known as Rte. 7, and it begins just outside the city limits of Puerto Montt, following the coast of Reloncaví Sound until it reaches Parque Nacional Alerce Andino, a place to indulge in quiet walks or canoe rides through dense forest. This 39,255-hectare (96,960-acre) park is home to the alerce, which is often compared to the sequoia for its thick diameter and height. These venerable giants can live more than 3,000 years, making them the second-oldest tree, after the American bristlecone pine. Heavy fines are levied against anyone caught harming or cutting one down, though a flourishing black market in the wood still threatens the trees even in some protected areas. Other species in the park include evergreen beech, mañío, canelo, ulmo, and thick crops of ferns. It can get pretty wet here year-round, so bring rain gear just in case.
The park itself is serviced by a rough dirt road that leads to a Conaf guard station in what's known as the Chaica sector, where there is a campground and the trail head for the half-hour round-trip walk to a waterfall and a fenced-off 3,000-year-old alerce tree. The walk to Laguna Chaiquenes is about 5.5km (3.5 miles), and to Lago Triángulo about 10km (6.25 miles) from the campground. Roads, trails, and campgrounds are often washed out or impeded by falling trees. Be sure to check for road conditions before heading out. For more information, contact the Conaf office in Puerto Montt, at Ochagavía 464 (tel. 65/254882; www.conaf.cl).
The park's second sector, Laguna Sargazo, is at Lago Chapo, and it also has campgrounds and two muddy trails for day hikes through the park's rainforest, a section of which has a thick stand of alerce trees. This sector sees fewer visitors as it is more difficult to get to if you do not have your own vehicle; buses go only as far as Correntoso, a 2-hour walk from the park entrance (although it is possible to arrange a tour). At the park ranger station here, it is possible to rent canoes for a paddle across Lago Chapo.