23 December 2019
The “Patagonia Steppe” refers to the middle length of Patagonia – where moors, grasslands and more prominent peaks replace Patagonia Verde. Broadly speaking, the steppe is centred around the Aysen region of Chilean Patagonia and ends with the Carretera Austral at O’Higgins. After the township of O’Higgins, ice fields, lakes and fjords make further progress by road impossible, and a detour through Argentine Patagonia is required to reach southern Patagonia, including El Chalten, El Calafate and Torres del Paine.
The Patagonia Steppe saw a transition to different wildlife, most notably the guanaco, puma, flamingoes and many more sightings of Andean condors and the caracara bird of prey. Highlights along the Carretera Austral included the big-sky-country and wide mountain landscapes of Cerro Castillo National Park, Lago General Carrera, the Rio Baker river of cloudy jade, and Patagonia National Park.
Patagonia National Park was exceptional for capturing the qualities of the steppe – blending green open spaces of wide valleys and rocky alpine mountain peaks. Less dramatic perhaps than Torres del Paine, but no less beautiful, an excellent day hike was the “Lagunas Altas” walk that included a chain of mountain lakes in an alpine setting with views across the park. We completed this hike in a mountain blizzard with thrashing rain, high winds and patchy visibility, and it was still a very beautiful and memorable experience, passing through ancient birch forests, alpine moors that resembled tendered gardens and ink-black lakes.
Patagonia National Park is a recent creation that now folds in the Jeinemeni Reserve, which is only accessible by driving back out of the park, near the Rio Baker confluence, and driving north for around five hours along Lago General Carrera.
We camped overnight at Jeinemeni and joined two walks together in an afternoon hike that took us around Lago Jeinemen. The hike required some nimble water crossings and the royal blue lake stretches around the park’s mountains in the shape of a crescent. The mountains are largely bare and lilac-brown in colouring, and we had Magellan Woodpeckers delightfully tapping way along the forest paths up towards the spectacular Lago Jeinemeni three-views lookout.
From the Jeinemeni Reserve it was a short drive back to the frontier town of Chile Chico and the border crossing into Argentina that falls back into the other side of the mountains.
Lago General Carrera
The largest freshwater lake in Chile
Lago General Carrera is named after José Miguel Carrera, a father of Chilean independence and an opponent of Bernardo O’Higgins. The Carretera Austral follows its Western end, including the village of Puerto Rio Tranquilo which is known for its water caves, but it is the road along the southern end of the lake (Ruta 265) between the junction with Ruta 7 and Argentine border at Chili Chico that is a particularly spectacular “coastal” drive that holds its own with anything in Australia or California.
The drive included waterfalls, conical rock formations, grassy buffs and dramatic cliffs, set against a backdrop of high mountains and fog across the lake. In the light rain, the colour palette of pool blues, oily purples, and tufted greens and yellows was captivating.
Patagonia National Park
Clouds rolling over the peak of the Patagonia National Park. Framed from our campsite as the winds picked up giving place to a blizzard later on in the night…