Beginning in the XVI century, long before technical apparel, GPS, motor boats or portable generators, there were dozens of brave and capable explorers who ventured into the challenging and unpredictable lands and seas in this part of the world looking for the mythical City of the Caesars. According to legend, this mythical city was filled with the gold of indigenous groups and Spanish shipwrecks. Jesuit priest, Fr. José García Alsué, was one such explorer, and in 1776, he conducted an exploratory mission in the area that comprises Queulat National Park. He traveled deep within in his search for the mythical city, exploring the basin of the Queulat River until he reached a beautiful waterfall that is named in his honor.
With the exception of hanging glaciers that reached all the way to the sea during Padre Garcia’s era, the early explorers saw scenery very similar to what you will encounter today: giant pangues, o nalcas, ferns, mosses, impenetrable forests and abundant lakes and rivers. The 154,093 hectares that comprise Queulat National Park are divided into three areas: (1) Sector Angostura, which includes Risopatrón lake and Los Pumas Lagoon, north of Puyuhuapi, and the glacial area toward the south of town; 2) Sector Ventisquero (Km 200 of the Austral Road), where you will find several trails leading to spectacular views of the Hanging Glacier and its Lagoon and 3) Sector Portezuelo, where there are trails to the Padre Garcia Cascade and the glacial lagoons of the Enchanted Forest.
The park, established by the Chilean Government in 1983, is located 165 km north of Coyhaique and is a favorite for both nature photographers and hikers, thanks to its accessibility, scenic beauty and the added plus that the great majority of this territory still remains pristine and largely unexplored.
Discover the biodiversity of the Angostura Sector in the climb to Los Pumas Lagoon.
The path up to the Los Pumas Lagoon begins alongside the Carretera Austral, where there is a small parking area across from the Conaf campsites. The campsites offer 4 roofed tent sites with fire pits, drinking water and bathrooms with cold water showers. This area is one of the only documented habitats for the Darwin’s frog, an endangered species, barely 3 cm in length, which sings during the day and loves sunbathing.
The Hike (Distance- 5.6 miles round trip; Activity Duration - Approximately 4 - 5 hours):
The first 2,500 m of the trail are the hardest part of this trek, as you climb a seemingly never-ending rustic stairway through the forest. In this sector there are a lot of chilcos, a native understory bush that is one of the favorite foods of the pudu, the smallest deer in the world. If you are quiet and very lucky, they might just make an appearance! As you climb, you’ll pass two overlooks where you will have excellent views of the valley and the Risopatrón Lake. With patience and perseverance, you’ll reach the top of the climb, where things will level off somewhat and you will enter a mature forest of giant coigües, mañío, canelo and chauras, among other species. Subsequently, you’ll approach the tree line and the forest cover will change yet again, this time being dominated by shrubby lengas and ñires, as you approach the lake. The lake has a surface area of approximately 25 hectares and is the habitat for many different species of migratory birds, especially in spring. You can also find the tiny 3 cm tall carnivorous plant called the swamp violet (drosera uniflora). Ask the park rangers for help finding it!
Approach the ice in the Sector of the Hanging Queulat Glacier
The entrance to the Hanging Queulat Glacier Sector of the park is approximately 20 km south of Puyuhuapi alongside the Carretera Austral. Follow the entrance road to its end and park in designated areas in front of the Environmental Interpretation Visitor Center. From here you can access the trail-head for the Moraine Trail, the most famous hike within the Park and a definite highlight.
The Hike (Distance - 6 Kilometers out and back; Duration: Approximately 2 - 3 hours):
Leaving the Visitor Center you’ll cross the footbridge over the outflow of the Témpanos Lagoon, which forms a beautiful river with large rocks and stunning rapids. The views are spellbinding, and the movement of the bridge creates a sense of dizzy adventure! On the other side you’ll see signs indicating two trails; the one to the right takes you to the Témpanos Lagoon and the one to the left, the Moraine Trail, which is the one to choose. It winds upward for a length of approximately 3 km, through forests and moraine with panoramic views of the Puyuhuapi Fjord, the Témpanos Lagoon, and the grand finale: the Hanging Glacier.
The start of the trail is flat, gently winding between the trees, lichens and ferns characteristic of these humid forests. The second section begins to climb with series of rustic steps taking you upward between giant tree trunks covered in vines. There are benches along the way if you need a break, strategically set amongst the forest in places where you can obtain great views of the Puyuhuapi Fjord with the Pacific Ocean in the background. Imagine! A little over a hundred years ago, the glacier reached all the way through the valley to touch the sea.
Rest up and have a snack, because the last stretch of the trail is the most challenging, with a steep climb to an overlook of the Témpanos Lagoon and shortly thereafter, the Hanging Glacier, swathed by massive rocks and surrounded by waterfalls. The volume of the water from the waterfalls varies during the year; in the summer months you will likely be treated to more icebergs and calving. Shortly before reaching this final overlook you can fill your water bottle from a small waterfall at the side of the trail.
The average annual rainfall in this area ranges from 3,500 to 4,000 millimeters, so there’s a good chance that you will not have visibility of the glacier through the clouds and rain. While disappointing, it is precisely all this water that enables the growth of the lush vegetation that surrounds you in Queulat, filling the whole environment with hues of green and the smell of fresh, humid soil. Our advice is to plan your visit with ample time so that you can take advantage of the breaks in the rain to capture all of the amazing details and sights.
The Padre Garcia and Enchanted Forest Trails of the Portezuelo Sector
In Queulat National Park, the towering Andes Cordillera drops abruptly to the shores of the Puyuhuapi Fjord and Queulat Estuary, forming steep and dramatic slopes with climbs of 500 meters over the course of a few kilometers in the Sector of the Portezuelo. The relieve is the product of large tectonic, glacial and volcanic movements, producing a rugged topography filled with rocky slopes, summits, glaciers and waterfalls pouring from ice fields just out of sight in the tops of the mountains.
The Padre Garcia Trail is located at the beginning of the northern side of the Queulat pass from a trail-head alongside the Carretera Austral. This short trail drops 150 meters, where you’ll be accompanied by increasingly strong sounds of water, until you reach a small opening in the middle of a lush green forest and a beautiful waterfall of about 30 m.
After a series of switchback in the pass and driving through the Portezuelo, you’ll find the parking area for the start of the Bosque Encantado Trail, one of the most beautiful and unknown of the park, in the first few kilometers of the descent.
The Hike (Distance - 4.5 Kilometers, out and back; Duration - Approximately 2-3 hours):
The initial 2 km of the trail winds through a lush and seemingly enchanted forest gradually climbing up a steep slope up to a panoramic overlook of the sector. Afterwards, in order to access the Lagoon of the Gnomes, the hike leaves the forests and proceeds along the sometimes slippery edge of the Cascada River which winds through the moraine before finally leading up to the lagoon. The Lagoon of the Gnomes is surrounded by rocky walls, on which the Glacier is perched, just out of view; nevertheless, you’ll see the huge icebergs that have fallen from its elusive front. Note the tracks left by the glacier in its advances and retreats over these rocky walls. The first 500 meters of this trail are easy, beautiful and suitable for all walkers. Afterwards the hike becomes more challenging, with steep slopes, stairs and rocky moraine.