In Chile's northern Patagonia, where the Andes meet the Pacific, there’s no escaping the wonders of nature, writes Nick Elvin.

AT the small community of Caleta La Arena, the Carretera Austral, Chile’s legendary Southern Highway meets its first obstacle, a narrow stretch of water known as Reloncavi Estuary.

This is one of countless inlets that give the southern Chilean coastline its distinctive fragmented shape, and from hereon down to Cape Horn, boat travel becomes increasingly important.

I await the arrival of the ferry inside a cafeteria, its tables and wooden beams decorated by the graffiti and baseball caps of the sports teams, school groups, truck drivers and backpackers who have passed this way. I tuck into a late breakfast of beef empanadas and a cup of tea, and watch as the red-hulled boat appears round the coast and eases up to the concrete ramp on the seafront.

Once several cars and trucks have disembarked, it’s time for my tour group to board. Our route passes forest-covered mountains that plunge steeply into the water, while towering above everything is Yate Volcano, its white summit a contrast to the blue sky and Pacific Ocean. Out on deck, the southern spring sun is no match for the chill sea breeze, but I’ve no intention of seeking shelter and missing views like these.

Thirty minutes later we are back on the road. It's a slow, bumpy drive south along an unmetalled stretch of highway that passes remote homesteads. We glimpse alerce trees, which appear to be young, yet some of the mature alerces in this area are as old as 4,000 years. Because they grow very slowly, they barely reach a few metres in height during the course of a human life, so the emphasis here is on preserving them rather than planting new ones.

We reach Hornopirén, where once again the road meets the sea. Hemmed in between a volcano of the same name and the ocean, the town is - and feels like it is - on the edge of a wild frontier. The Hornopirén and Pumalin national parks are close by.

We head down to the jetty where, among the fishing boats so important to the local economy, we board a launch. Our trip takes us along the Cholgo Channel, past salmon hatcheries, and out to Isla Llancahue for an evening dip in the island’s thermal pools.

As the sun falls towards the mountains, I sip a beer, watch the steam rise into the cool air around me and let the warm water do its magic. It is a chance to catch my breath after an almost non-stop journey down from London, via São Paulo, Santiago and Puerto Montt - a journey that has transplanted me into astoundingly beautiful northern Patagonia.

Back at Hosteria Catalina in Hornopirén there’s a nice fire going, which helps to create a homely atmosphere that you won’t find in big hotels. In fact there are no big hotels in Hornopirén, and tonight we’re sleeping in shared dorms.

Well rested, next morning we board speedboats and head back out on to the water. South of Isla Llancahue we navigate into Quintupeu Fjord. A sea lion bobs up and down in the water, guarding the entrance to this tiny piece of the world's biggest ocean, and we head along the narrow fjord under its snowy peaks. Waterfalls plunge almost vertically down rock faces that have been thrust up by unimaginable tectonic forces.

Surprisingly, World War One reached this unlikely place when the German warship Dresden hid in the fjord. Today only a few small fishing boats are anchored here.

Further round the coast, we encounter a large, noisy colony of sea lions. As we drift closer to the rocks the cacophony rises as these cute, but certainly not approachable creatures warn us away from their territory. Photos taken, we retreat.

Later, in Hornopirén, a twin-propeller plane is parked on a small grass airstrip. It will take us an hour to fly the scenic route back to Puerto Montt, a journey that took us three hours by road.

We take off over the sea and climb to an altitude from where the mountains don’t look so high. It’s a clear day, and the small fishing communities that dot the coast are bathed in the afternoon sun. Each inlet we pass brings with it a buffeting wind. Snowy Andean peaks come into view to the east, of which Tronador is the tallest – its jagged, glacier-laden mass marking the border between Chile and Argentina. Its proximity to us demonstrates how narrow this country is in places.

We then pass close to a series of volcanoes, part of Chile’s contribution of the Pacific “Ring of Fire”. One of them, Osorno, is well known for its conical shape and, despite risking mild snow blindness, I’m compelled to stare at its mesmerising form.

Next day we head to Rio Maullín, where we board a small ferry and head out on to the choppy estuary for a spot of bird watching. We see several varieties of cormorants, as well as pelicans, boobies and flamingos, but the wildlife is one of two attractions.

Food is provided on board, and it’s a pretty comprehensive guide to Chilean coastal cuisine. Dishes include ceviche made from local sea bass and hake, abalone (called locos, locally), sea urchin, barnacles and razor clams - as a lover of seafood I’m in my element. As I eat I notice the estuary’s characteristic little yellow fishing boats, crewed by divers, are busy collecting another harvest.

In the nearby town of Maullín, outside the yellow church in the main square, local children perform the cueca, Chile’s national dance. In 1960 the strongest earthquake ever recorded, measuring 9.5 on the Richter scale, struck this area, setting off a tsunami. Before that event, this was an important economic centre, but the earth sank eight feet and the tidal wave turned much valuable agricultural land into swamp.

We leave Maullin and I’m excited about that. Not because it isn’t a pleasant little town, but because I’m on my way to realising a long-held dream - to experience a curanto, a unique Chilean tradition. First, we have to take a ferry across the narrow Chacao Strait to the island of Chiloe.

Chiloe is famous for its rain, which begins almost as soon as we land. Undeterred, we head over to the small community of Chepu. There, in a round, dark outhouse next to a farm, our host Maria Luisa, her family and friends busy themselves. They unfold plastic sheets from the top of a steaming pit to reveal layers of chapaleles (a type of potato cake), ridiculously large mussels, pork, chorizo, potatoes and chicken. All of this has stewed among layers of rhubarb leaves for 90 minutes, cooked by the hot stones at the bottom of the pit.

A curanto is more than a meal, it’s a get together traditional on the island among the close-knit communities.

Inside the farmhouse we sit at a long table, enjoying a convivial atmosphere, delicious fare, excellent Chilean wine, and songs belted out by a duo on guitar and accordion. As the rain gets heavier, we remain warm and cosy indoors, behind the steamed-up windows. In fact, there are few places I’d rather be on such a day. My visit to a curanto certainly is a dream come true, and not only because the mountain of food on the table.

Charles Darwin visited Chiloe in the 1830s. He wrote of the friendliness of its inhabitants, something he’d be pleased to know remains to this day. He also commented that without the ceaseless precipitation Chiloe “might pass for a charming island”.

But I think the rain adds to its charm.


Sernatur (Chilean national tourism board):
Tour organised by Alsur Expeditions:
Flights to Puerto Montt with LAN Chile:


Termas Puyehue Wellness & Spa Resort: A vast spa resort with plenty to amuse the whole family, including thermal pools of various temperatures.

Anticura Cultural Village: Learn about the traditions of the indigenous population, such as the blessing of the canelo tree, and eat traditional foods. Walk the trail through magical forests to a stunning, powerful waterfall.

Moncopulli Motor Museum: Bernardo Eggers founded this museum, near Osorno, in 1995, and today it displays some 80 vehicles, mostly classic Studebakers.


Casa Molino guesthouse, near Puerto Varas:

Hotel Cumbres, Puerto Varas:

Hosteria Catalina, Hornopirén:

Hotel Gran Pacifico, Puerto Montt: