An introduction to Pumalin
The first thing that strikes you about Pumalin, or Parque Pumalin as it is technically called, is the immense scale. Staggeringly high granite peaks, blanketed in a layer of thick virgin forest that comes cascading down into the fjord, valley after valley - depending on the light, the green mounts are reflected perfectly into the calm waters.
As you move deep into the Comau Fjord you are surrounded by beauty with the Hornopiren and Yates Volcanoes behind, the Michimahuinda Volcano in front with its snow peaks and green forested mountains either side.
Although the Carretera Austral cuts through the middle of Pumalin Sur, the best way to really get a feel for the diversity of scenery, beauty of its forests and sense of scale is to park up and explore on foot.
North and South
Parque Pumalin is split into two sectors - north (norte) and south (sur):
- Pumalin Norte can only be explored by water, either as a 4-10 day kayak trip (sea kayak section below), on a small cruise (see below) or by private boat as a day trip from Hornopiren. The Hornopiren to Caleta Gonzalo ferry passes through Pumalin Norte so, although from afar, you will get to see this section of the park if you are self-driving the Carretera Austral.
- Pumalin Sur is then split into two sections with the little ghost town of Chaiten sitting in the middle. As you head south, the first part of Pumalin Sur that you encounter is between Caleta Gonzalo and Chatien - here you find the hikes to waterfalls and the Michimahuda and Chaiten Volcanoes. The second part of Pumalin Sur that you find is just south of Chaiten called El Amarillo - here you have a stunning hike to a hanging glacier (Ventisquero El Amarillo) and other hikes to viewpoints.
Ways to explore
Road trip - Carretera Austral
Parque Pumalin is where the Carretera Austral feels like it really starts. As the road becomes narrow, wild and pot holed and, as you're only option is to arrive by ferry, you feel you have embarked on a special kind of journey.
Pumalin is the natural first stop (or last stop) on any self-drive journey when driving between Puerto Montt and Coyhaique (or beyond). As the CA drives through the middle of the park it is very easily accessible. If you are keen hikers, it is worth staying for a few nights to enjoy the network of day hiking trails with the clear highlight being the three hour trail to see the smouldering Volcan Chaiten.
A 4x4 is definitely needed and it is certainly worth learning a little spanish as very little English is spoken in this area.
Hike to the crater of a smouldering volcano and stand on petrified magma beds as you gaze at a glistening glacier; hike through lush, verdant rainforest and be mesmerised by cascading waterfalls. From simple 30 minutes hikes to more challenging eight hour ascents, the Caleta Gonzalo section of Pumalin Sur really does offer a huge variety and diversity of scenery assessable from its day hikes.
The day hikes all start and end from various points along the CA, interspersed with camping areas. The best way to access the trailheads is with your own vehicle but it is possible to also be dropped off by a rather infrequent public bus service that services the road.
Combine breathtaking scenery, sea lions colonies and natural thermal pools as you kayak through the northern part of the Parque Pumalin. The kayak trips leave from Puerto Varas with four days as a minimum length of trip, although these only really scrape the surface. With 6-10 days you will really get into the best of this part of the park leaving the more populated areas and mussel farms behind after day two.
The added bonus of kayaking in Pumalin Norte is that you will spend at least one night camping next to natural thermal springs - a lovely way to relax your weary muscles after a day paddling. Many of the kayak trips spend a night at the lovely, rustic Llancahue hot springs.
Kayaking in Pumalin isn't really for beginners, it is best aimed at people with some kayaking experience as some parts are exposed to the open sea. If you are a complete novice, we'd recommend taking on the two day kayaking options on the more protected Reloncavi Fjord just a little further north.
Cruise the fjords
Aboard a small ten person traditional wooden boat, cruise through the fjords of Pumalin Norte and the Archipelago of Chiloe with an experienced wildlife guide to see incredible forests, bird life and marine mammals of this very special part of Chile. You will make stop offs along the way to take in short hikes.
The Alba sleeps ten in five en-suite cabins. She has a lovely lounge and deck area above and seating outside at the bow and stern. The food is freshly cooked, mostly fish and seafood washed down with a few glasses of one of Chile's premium reds or whites. There are kayaks on board so if the weather allows then you will hop off and explore the fjords by paddle. This cruise also allows you the opportunity to get off in the Pumalin Sur part of the park and do a day hike with your guide.
The trip ends in the lovely little fishing village of Dalcahue on the island of Chiloe where the Alba was built. She is essentially a private vessel but the owners offer her for rental a few times in a season. Exploring Pumalin and Chiloe from the comfort of this lovely boat is a real privilege.
The full 400,000 hectares of Parque Pumalin was created by the US organisation The Conservation Land Trust, with land endowed by the environmentalist Douglas Tompkins. It is a fascinating story and worth learning a little about before visiting.
Trips in Parque Pumalin
Where to stay in Pumalin
The style of accommodation that you prefer will dictate where you should base yourself. If you are looking for a comfy place to rest your head, with good food and a lovely setting, then we would recommend spending two nights in Caleta Gonzalo and then a further 2-3 nights in the Lago Yelcho area (this is technically out of Pumalin but has some really great lodge options and doesn't involve much more driving).
There are seven beautifully crafted, quaint shepherds cabins with simple, traditional yet cosy and well designed interiors. The views out onto the fjord are breathtaking with the steep mountain sides in front as a backdrop. Although it will involve a little to-ing and fro-ing, this really is the best place to base yourself to enjoy the trails between Caleta Gonzalo and Chaiten.
Yelcho en la Patagonia
A perfect stop off on the Carretera Austral, this fly-fishing lodge is homely yet very comfortable on the shores of the Lago Yelcho with breathtaking views out across the lake and glaciers beyond. Use as a base to explore the Pumalin Sur El Amarillo trails and the Yelcho hanging glacier trail returning each evening to a delicious meal, a refreshing sunset swim in the lake and a peaceful cosy place to rest your head.
How to get there
Pumalin Norte can only really be accessed on multi-day kayak trips that start from Puerto Varas. The Carretera Austral runs through the middle of Pumalin Sur so you can access the trail heads either with your own vehicle, with a guide or on public transport whether coming from the north (Puerto Montt) or south (Coyhaique)
To be able to complete the main day hike trails of Pumalin, it will involve quite a bit of driving. Don't be surprised by this or put off, I found that the views and experiences are worth it.
Sally Dodge Patagonia Specialist
FAQs about Pumalin
If you come from Puerto Varas with a guide then they will transport you, otherwise it is best to come by rental car either as part of your journey south from Puerto Montt/Puerto Varas or on a trip north from Coyhaique.
Depending on the style of accommodation that you are looking for, this answer will vary. If you are looking for a comfy place to rest your head, with good food and a lovely setting, then we would recommend to spend 2 nights in Caleta Gonzalo and then a further 2-3 nights in the Lago Yelcho area (this is technically out of Pumalin but has some really great lodge options and doesn't involve much more driving).
The trails of Pumalin Sur are well marked and mostly well maintained so it isn't necessary to have a guide. There is however, a lot of diverse bird and plant life so if you really want to make the most of your time, then we would recommend having a guide.
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