From a forested meadow where goats and cattle graze to a whimsical glade where fairies would frolic to windswept mountain desert where life is hard. In just a few short hours the transition here is tremendous and the pay off, well, let’s just say more than worth it. The Cerro Castillo Day Hike is still one of the reasonably hidden gems of Patagonia.
Located in the small town of Cerro Castillo, between Coyhaique and Puerto Rio Tranquilo, it sits in a pastured valley of Patagonia. Driving through this area alone is a spectacle, but hiking through it is indescribable. Approaching town from Coyhaique, the jagged pinnacle calls to you on the right growing in size. While Torres Del Paine and Fitz Roy grab the bulk of attention, the Cerro Castillo Day Hike will take you by surprise. Quiet and underrated for now, I’m sure this will not last long. Hidden gems only stay buried for so long.
Cerro Castillo Day Hike
A few things to know about the Cerro Castillo Day Hike:
- Most sources will tell you the price is 5000 Chilean pesos to access the private property at the beginning of the trail. It has been raised to 10,000, most likely due to an increase of tourism. *This however can be avoided if you felt like being sneaky and hopping the fence. It wouldn’t surprise me to see this be raised further as tourism grows in Chilean Patagonia.
- Opening hours 8-1:30, this is the time frame in which you can enter.
- It takes approximately 3 hours to reach the Laguna viewpoint, 2.5 hours down.
- Horse flies can be relentless in the afternoon. Best avoided by hiking early evading them at least on the way up.
- Wind can be treacherously cold at the top, so bring warm clothes in your bag. You’ll be thankful you carried it up.
- Stop and smell the roses. By this, I mean there are lots of delectable edible berries along the way depending on the season.
- This should be common sense, but bring ample water.
- There is also a four day trek through the area if time permits… next time for me!
How to get there:
It takes about 1 – 1.5 hours to reach Villa Cerro Castillo from Coyhaique. This is the last section of paved road as well, so don’t take it for granted. You’ll miss it soon enough. If you’re heading north it’s about 2.5 hours from Puerto Rio Tranquilo. The entrance to the trail is down a small gravel road on the northern end of town. This brings you across a river and to a parking lot. Here is the little hut where someone will collect the entrance fee and allow you over the fence.
The Trail Begins – Stage 1
The landscape tends to change in stages. One moment it will be forested and then like a line drawn on the mountain side, it changes. The first section is through a small grazing meadow where sheep and goats wander. Floral scents mix with a slight smell of manure and fill the air. Oddly, a homey smell from growing up in the countryside. There is little increase in elevation through this area and it is the only abundantly shaded area of the trail. Warming up the legs, it isn’t long before the ascent begins.
Within 30 minutes, steep hills rise from the path. Climbing out of the forested meadow, the rolling hillside pastures were overrun with shrubbery and flowers. Peppered with trees, it seemed like a magical place as if the dirt path should be the yellow brick road. Pay close attention on the path as it’s laden with edible berries. Hours could be spent foraging for wild strawberries, el calafate and chaura berries. With a few handfuls to snack on, it was time to carry on as Patagonian weather can shift in a heartbeat.
Lost in that land of fairy tale unable to resist chaura berries at my fingertips, I slowly noticed the trees became stunted. Suddenly, like a line drawn in the sand the greenery came to a halt and I emerged onto the true mountainside. Barren, gravely rock and prone to landslide with massive boulders jutting out, it was a long steep haul from here. Gradually growing steeper with switchbacks along the way and some natural ‘staircases’, the journey seem endless. Leaning into the viscous wind, forward was the only option.
Climbing over that last ridge is always a relief. An overwhelming sense of excitement and adrenaline pulses in the veins knowing the viewpoint is near. A brief, well deserved rest of the legs and with the ground comparatively flat I followed the markers forward. Looming over me, the sharp, jagged peaks were within sight as the clouds swirled around them playfully. I knew the lagoon must be near. The wind howled harder and louder trying to keep me from my goal. Biting at my arms and legs, I knew I should have prepared better (hence the warning at the top). Only a bit further…
The piece de resistance of the Cerro Castillo day hike. The glacial blue lagoon and the endless valley that stretched as far as the eye could see. Looking right, down the valley in the direction day trekkers would be approaching from, the lagoon would seem like a shrine. The ‘water of life’ at the end of a pilgrimage. Gazing over its majesty for as long as bearable, the ill-tempered wind, the guardian of this secluded place of beauty inevitably drove me down.
Going up may always seem more strenuous, but ultimately, going down is the kicker. Rough on the knees, be sure to take your time. Sadly, this has become worse with age, so be sure to go at your own pace. Luckily, the view I wasn’t focused on earlier looking out over the tiny town of Cerro Castillo, made the pain in my knees seem minuscule. Unlike more well known hikes in Patagonia, only a few handfuls of hikers made their way up as I worked my way down. I didn’t realize at the time that this would be a rare occurrence throughout the majority of my time hiking in the region. Taking it all in, there was ample time to pick more than our fair share of berries as I couldn’t keep my paws off this new foraged edible.
As expected, ominous clouds rolled in threatening rainfall. Luckily, once back into the shrubbery it became a more leisurely pace without as much strain on the knees. Before long, it was back over the fence and I was looking up at the peaks as they vanished behind the dark clouds. Hiking is always bittersweet. Sad it’s over, it is such a feeling of accomplishment at the same time. I knew I still had hikes a plenty in Patagonia ahead, but sadly, I didn’t know that the best one was behind me. The Cerro Castillo day hike would not be forgotten. In the meantime, Puerto Rio Tranquilo was calling.
For more on foraging this region, check out my post Foraging Patagonia