At the south end of Parque Pumalin, Chaitén sits precariously near the base of a devastating volcano. This region and the town itself experienced it’s fury in an unexpected eruption in 2008. It has rebounded, although the signs of the gloomy past are still evident. Chaitén is an old, quiet town seemingly stuck in time and place with a mysterious and eerie air about it. The area is beautiful and lush, veined with valleys of death from the natural disaster. The landscape dramatic, it beckons to those in search of adventure. Here is a list of things to do in Chaitén for a couple days or longer as you may not want to leave.
Things to Do in Chaitén
Chaitén itself has little to offer as a town, but instead acts as the hub of the region. Coated in dense subtropical rain forest, snow capped mountains pierce the horizon, while Volcan Chaitén looms over as a docile, yet threatening entity. The area encapsulates the life of an outdoors man as it has attracted and inspired thousands with its grandeur. Strap on your hiking boots and discover what has lured many in.
Climbing the once considered inactive Volcan Chaitén is the primary draw to Chaitén. The parking lot entrance to the trail is only a short 20 minute drive north of town. Shortly after entering the trail, one of the many ‘tree cemeteries’ quickly crosses the path demonstrating the sheer force of nature’s destructive potential. Giving off an attractive eeriness as new life begins to fill the once destroyed path. The arduous 1.5 – 2 hour climb to the summit begins here.
As elevation increases along the twisting path, rest areas provide epic viewpoints of the surrounding countryside stretching to the sea. Approaching the top is apparent when you exit the thick forest onto a barren slope suddenly void of life. Volcanic gravel underfoot with shards of trees stuck in purgatory, it had me thinking of Dante. It was a ‘stairway to hell’. Gases rose from the volcano mixing with ominous clouds. A stroke of luck as the clouds cleared revealing Volcan Chaitén in it’s glory. Feared and respected.
Total Time: 3-6 hours, this depends greatly on personal pace and time spent at the top.
Distance: 4.4km round trip
Cascadas Escondidas – Waterfalls
Comparatively to climbing Volcan Chaitén, getting to these waterfalls is a leisurely stroll. The path is primarily shaded teasing you with cooler temperatures, but the humidity sorts that out in short order. Flora growing on flora, the trail is a lavish green. Leading the way forward is the thunderous sound of waterfalls echoing through the trees. There are two waterfalls along this section of trail and while the path is meant for all fitness levels, do be cautious. The exposed roots, staircases and wooden platforms tend to be wet and quite slippery.
How to get here: This trail begins 14km south of Caleta Gonzalo at the Cascadas Escondidas campground.
Total Time: 1-3 hours, depending on time spent at the falls.
Termas El Amarillo – Hot Springs
With sore muscles after exploring what Parque Pumalin has to offer, Termas El Amarillo is the perfect place to rejuvenate. Quiet and tranquil, these thermal baths are set among such raw natural beauty. Arriving early, you may even have the place to yourself for a good soak. Away from the pools there are multiple cabanas, so be sure to bring a picnic. Slow down, relax and simply take in where you are for an afternoon.
How to get there: A short drive 30 km south of Chaitén
Price: 7000 CLP (10 USD)
Wander through Town
Walk through the streets of town and experience the ‘Pompeii’ of Southern Chile. While much of the town is rebuilt, many residents left after the 2008 eruption. On the eastern side of town many houses are dilapidated, abandoned and condemned to the elements further.
How to Get There
In my opinion, Chaitén is the starting point of the Carretera Austral. For many this is Puerto Montt, but ultimately, this is just the city where transportation/gear is generally rented. Head south from here along the Carretara Austral boarding a few ferries on route. The third ferry will bring you to Caleta Gonzalo, which is only one hour (58 km) north of Chaitén. This is where the true journey begins of notoriously rough roads although they were in the process of paving this section in January 2018.
My reality was taking the overnight ferry from Quellon, Chiloé. In the dark early hours of the morning, the ferry jerked to a halt in place beside the dock. Pulling off onto the mainland, the port was directly to the north of town.
I suggest booking this in advance along with most ferries in Patagonia to prevent wait times.
Ferry Price: Quellon – Chaitén 96,000 CLP (140 USD), 1 vehicle/2 passengers
Puerto Montt – Chaitén 130,000 CLP (190 USD), 1 vehicle/2 passenger
Check out Navier Austral to book ferry tickets.
Hitchhiking is extremely popular along the Carretera Austral.
Public Transit offers a daily bus from Puerto Montt.
Lastly, there is the option of flying into Chaitén from Puerto Montt.
For more on this, stay posted for my Master Guide to the Carretera Austral coming soon.
Where to Eat
There are a few places around town, but can’t say honestly that I recommend one more than the other. Very similar fare and prices.
Natour is food truck or bus that doubles as a tour company with lots of information and maps. This is a great place to grab a coffee and use some free WiFi.
Cocineria Marita Estrella was a small house more than restaurant, but was open when little else was and offered a hearty bowl of cazuela.
Café Buen Sabor is my personal favourite spot in town. A cute cafe with comfortable couches, WiFi, good coffee, simple sandwiches and great desserts. Perfect for a relaxing afternoon after a hike. Try the Kuchen!
If you feel like a drive, at the port of Caleta Gonzalo there is a small café with a quaint cottage feel to it. Selling artisan honey and other souvenirs, its a nice quiet place to while away a rainy afternoon or wait for the ferry if you are heading north.
The majority of my meals were prepared in camp. There is a couple markets with a good enough selection to prepare a few meals with ease The park is campfire free, so be sure to have a stove if you are going this route. Check out my basic guide to Camp Cooking.
Where to Stay
There are a handful of hostels in town, but as I was camping I will cover the campsites in the area instead. All the campsites throughout Parque Pumalin are privately owned and a touch expensive. That said, the money goes to conservation of this amazing park as well as the up keep of these facilities.
The furthest away from Chaitén, without a car there is no real reason to stay here. That said there is cottage style cabanas in association with the cafe, but are quite expensive starting at 60,000 CLP (85 USD). Nearby is a campsite that is perfect if you have arrived late hitchhiking or awaiting the ferry in the morning heading north. Ample space for many campers, there are cold showers and a few covered cooking shelters.
Located 44 km north of Chaitén, there is basic facilities here and is also the entrance to the trail to explore the waterfalls.
38 km north of Chaitén, there is basic facilities here as well as a short 1.6 km trail leading to a spectacular view at the edge of the lake.
33 km north of Chaitén, this is where I camped for 4 nights. 6 Private, secluded campsites tucked away from the road right at the edge of the lake with cooking shelters. Communal washroom facilities with cold showers are available.
29 km north of Chaitén, this is Parque Pumalin’s second largest campsite. 12 campsites with cooking shelters. Cold showers are available in the many washrooms. A bonus here is access to drinkable water.
Prices: All 16,000 CLP (23 USD) per night for a group of 4.
Hostel prices range from about 20 USD and up.
What could be a ghost town of disrepair, it has remained an important town on Ruta 7 and for exploring Parque Pumalin. It keeps its eerie vibe with a redeveloping lively buzz, but Volcan Chaitén is ever-present in the distance as a reminder of its power. It is not hard to find things to do in Chaitén with a little sense of adventure.