On my first Patagonia travel vacation, more than three decades ago, I had the good fortune to visit Torres del Paine – long before the Paine Circuit and the “W” were trekking staples. In ten days of hiking, I met only three others on the nascent Circuit, which was longer, less direct and harder to follow than it is now. It was an unforgettable experience that included, among other things, slipping and falling into the Río de los Perros (fortunately, it was shallow at that point and I ended up sitting in the river; unfortunately, I immersed my camera and ruined some irreplaceable photos).
Paine remains a world-class attraction but, for those in search of greater solitude, there’s another option. Along the Carretera Austral in Chile, barely an hour south of the Aisén regional capital of Coyhaique, Monumento Nacional Cerro Castillo offers a four-day trek beneath the castle crags of its namesake peak. Though it’s easily accessible – the Las Horquetas trailhead is only 75 km south of the city on a smooth paved surface, with regular bus and minibus services – it gets only a handful of the hikers that Paine does.
From Las Horquetas, barely a wide spot along the road, the trail covers about 60 km through wooded country with marshes, glacial lakes, glaciers themselves, and rugged mountainsides. It’s not a high altitude hike, though it has a fair number of ups and downs, nor does it have back-country refugios (shelters) – tent camping is the only option – and there are no fees to enter the park. Summer days are long but, in a region with a climate like that of British Columbia, rain is always a possibility.
Among the potential attractions, in additional to the wild landscape, is the huemul, the Andean deer that graces Chile’s coat-of-arms. The trail ends by descending into the town Villa Cerro Castillo, which has modest accommodations and dining options, including a stationary food bus! (The mobile food truck craze hasn’t quite reached here yet).
I’ve driven the road many times, but have never hike the trail. This coming summer, though, is a real possibility.