The northern gateway to Chilean Patagonia, Pumalin Park is an outdoor lovers playground.
With as many as 3 ferry journeys needed to reach it’s northern limits, just getting here can be quite an adventure. With some of Patagonia’s most beautiful hikes, trails and even a smouldering volcano, it’s unlikely to lose popularity anytime soon.
Here’s our guide on things to do in and around Pumalin Park – the hiking capital of northern Patagonia, Chile – including transport and accommodation recommendations.
History in brief
In 1991 Douglas Tomkins bought 42000 acres of land in what is now Pumalin Park.
After years running major corporations – Doug founded North Face and Espirit clothing companies, he decided to escape the rat race. But Doug didn’t just buy a camper van and go off to travel the world like us.
Oh no. With the millions of dollars he’d made when he was in business, Doug began to buy up land in Patagonia at risk of logging. Not to develop it, as many in the corporate world might, but to conserve it.
Despite initial hostility from locals, sceptical of Doug’s intentions, he continued buying adjoining plots of land. The tide of support for his efforts began to switch when the Chilean government proposed to dam the Rio Baker.
Under their proposals, the Patagonian landscape would acquire a new feature. A 1500 mile row of electricity pylons.
To encourage Chileans and visitors from around the world to experience the unique and spectacular landscape in Pumalin Park, Doug’s foundation developed a network of cabins, campgrounds and trails.
In 2005, the Chilean president designated Pumalín Park a Nature Sanctuary. Doug later donated the protected lands back to Chile.
For avid hikers, Pumalin Park must be on your Carretera Austral itinerary. If you’re not a serious hiker but want to try out a few Patagonian trails, it’s the perfect place for you too.
Most, if not all the trails are manageable as 1 day hikes.
While some hikes like Ventisquero El Amarillo are upto 20 kilometres treks, others are much shorter such as 2 kilometre Cascadas Escondidas.
Pumalin Park covers almost a million acres filled with granite peaks, crystal clear rivers and lush, dense forest, home to some of the oldest trees on earth.
Chiloe Island is a 4 hour ferry ride away from Chaiten. The island is quite unique, unlike anywhere else in Chilean Patagonia.
Rolling hills, lush fields bursting with corn and potato harvests and remote, deserted beaches.
Chiloe is the largest island with the Chiloe archipelago so perfect as a base for exploring some of the smaller island, complete with their history, witch tales and umpteen UNESCO wooden churches.
Drive the Carretera Austral
One of the most epic road trips on the planet, the Carretera Austral really feels like it begins here in Pumalin Park.
The road narrows, the volcanic dust kicks up when its dry, or has you sliding around if its wet.
Pot holes are deep, giant rhubarb lines the route and around every corner is another completely stunning view.
Make Pumalin Park the start of your driving adventure along the Carretera Austral.
The dark volcanic sands of the beach at Santa Barbara serve to remind visitors of the recent eruption of the once thought dormant volcano, Chaiten.
The find sandy beach is a perfect place to unwind after hiking up said volcano. We enjoyed it so much here we stayed a couple of days watching seals and dolphins patrol the shallows.
If you’re really lucky, you may even spot Blue Whales, Humpbacks, Pilots or Sperm Whales right from the beach.
When you walk northwards along the beach make sure to keep one eye on the tide. It comes in here quite fast and you’ll get trapped at the edge of the forest if you don’t get back in time.
The best time to visit Pumalin Park
The weather in northern Patagonia, Chile is less extreme than in the south so Pumalin Park is accessible all year round.
Summer temperatures hover around 20°c, dropping to a little over 0°c in the winter months.
We visited in December, so early in the season. The weather was mostly pleasant, a little cool and we had occasional rain. Much like a British summer really so we felt quite at home!
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How to get to Pumalin Park
Now getting to Pumalin Park is easy, even a mini adventure. There’s 3 routes into the park:
From the north
The most boring and uncomfortable route is on the overnight ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaiten.
Navier Austral operates the ferry. The 12 hour crossing costs around 17000 CLP | $25 | £19 | €20 per person one way plus 147000 CLP | $216 | £173 | €176 for a camper van.
The more adventurous route is to:
- take the road from Puerto Montt to Caleta Arena,
- take a 20 minute ferry to Puelche,
- drive 60 kilometres to Hornopiren,
- take the 5 hour ferry to Caleta Gonzalo – this includes disembarking at Leptepu where all onboard vehicles drive in convoy to Fiordo Largo for the final ferry crossing.
It is essential you book your ferries in advance if you want to take this route.
From the west
If like us you’ve spent a few days exploring Chiloe Island, you can hop across to Pumalin Park on the 4 hour car ferry from Quellon direct to Chaiten.
Navier Austral operates the ferry too. The 4 hour crossing costs around 15000 CLP | $22 | £17 | €18 per person one way plus 111000 CLP | $160 | £126 | €141 for a camper van.
There’s only around 2 ferries each week, even in the height of the season so you must book ahead, especially if you have a vehicle.
From the south
If you’re driving the Carretera Austral from south to north, you’ll leave either Futaleufú or La Junta before reaching Chaiten. Just keep following Ruta 7.
How to get around Pumalin Park
We travel in our self-build camper van Baloo so have the flexibility to not only sleep wherever we like but to travel around independently too.
If you’re travelling in your own vehicle or rental, the unpaved roads in Pumalin Park are in reasonable condition so a 4×4 isn’t essential, especially when dry.
Public transport is limited to one bus running between Chaiten and Caleta Gonzalo once a day. You can pick it up and get dropped off anywhere along the route. But there’s no guarantee there’ll be space or even that it’ll run every day.
Without your own transport, hitchhiking it the most practical way to get around. Park rangers, passing tour buses and even especially kind people in camper vans will make sure you’re not left out in the cold.
We recommend you arrange a rental vehicle from Puerto Montt for the most flexible way to travel around the park.
All this incredible beauty, well maintained trails and jaw dropping views must cost a packet right? Nope. Completely free!
Where to get supplies
Towns (or rather villages) are few and far between in Pumalin Park so come prepared. If you arrive in from Puerto Montt in the north, you’ll reach Hornopiren first.
While there’s a few local stores and even an ATM and restaurant or 2, we recommend you get all the cash and supplies you might need from Puerto Montt.
If you’ve arrived in Pumalin Park from further south on the Carretera Austral or from Chiloe Island to the west, you’ll reach Chaiten first. There’s a few shops in town but no ATM and credit cards are rarely accepted.
If you do manage to pay by card, make sure to check your receipt carefully before you leave. Some overlanders have experienced double charging in some of the shops. I’m sure this was an honest mistake but take care anyway.
ATMs often don’t work in Patagonia and supplies of fresh food is limited too. Unless you’re following the weekly vegetable delivery truck. So stock up on supplies wherever and whenever you can.
Camping in Pumalin Park
Rangers maintain more than half a dozen campsites within Pumalin Park. They were some of the most stunning campsites we found on the whole of the Carretera Austral.
Most of the campsites (but importantly not all), are accessible in your car or camper van.
Car camping is on the increase in Patagonia as well as everywhere else in the world it seems. So make sure you pack these car camping essentials to make the most of the fabulous opportunities in this part of the world.
Facilities are spotlessly clean, albeit the cold water showers are positively glacial. Don’t expect wifi or electricity though. This is rural Patagonian Chile at its finest.
The manicured grounds, located at the start of most hiking trails and with enviable views make these campsites especially popular.
Spaces are allocated on a first come for serve basis so try to arrive mid afternoon to increase your chances of getting a pitch.
Camping in Pumalin Park costs around $6000 CLP per person. There are some exceptions to this. For example a private pitch with covered cooking area at Camping Ventisquero is $16000 CLP for the pitch.
The rangers only collect camp fees during the high season – about mid December until February so they’re free the rest of the year. Those cold showers won’t be so welcoming outside of the height of summer though.
You can find full details of the campsites in Pumalin Park on the park’s website here.
Other accommodation in Pumalin Park
Campsites are the most accessible places to stay in Pumalin Park but there are a few places to stay near the few towns along the route too. Here’s just a couple of examples.
Located right on the beach near Chaiten on the edge of a forest filled with birds, a roaring fire welcomes your arrival. Spend the late summer evenings after a long hike relaxing with a glass of wine watching the dolphins playing in the shallows.
An excellent location in Hornopiren this little country cabana is idyllic. Basic facilities near rivers and native forest. Bring supplies so you can use the kitchen. The owner will even bring you fresh home baked bread each morning.
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