Coyhaique (coy-I-kay) is the capital of Chile’s 11th region, and its commercial center, with around 55,000 inhabitants (along with many more visitors during the summer). It is one of the few cities in Chile which receives regular icefall and snowfall during the fall and winter. Snow accumulations can be as much as a foot, although locals say there has not been much snow during the last decade. The city is largely clean, although a few sections are run down, and is set in a picturesque environment–reminiscent of Yosemite or Zion National Park for American tourists. It is clearly one of Chile’s most beautiful cities. Its unspoiled surroundings are ideal for world-class fishing, rafting, kayaking, camping, skiing, horseback riding, and hiking.
The surrounding area seems to have far more pine trees than Chile’s tenth region: Ponderosa Pine, Oregon Pine and Pino Radiata, mostly imported from North America many years ago. The entire region is a tax-free zone, with corresponding shopping like Iquique and Punta Arenas, but locals say cars are not as cheap in Coyhaique as in those other places. Nevertheless, the city does have the advantage of being livable year-round, something which s a bit more difficult in windy and frigid Punta Arenas. And cars can be purchased in Punta Arenas and brought to the 11th region without too much difficulty. Unlike relatively isolated (albeit much larger and more developed) Iquique, there are many attractions and things to do in and around Coyhaique. The following photos were taken of the downtown area in mid-February 2009.
Local hospital (I have heard that medical care here leaves a lot to be desired, just as with any province outside of Santiago).
Puerto Aysen is the 11th region’s second largest city with a population of 16,000, located about 90 minutes west of Coyhaique on a good, paved road, lined with waterfalls and conifers. Visitors taking the route pass through a national park called Reserva Nacional Rio Simpson.
Located on a sizable but relatively shallow river, Puerto Aysen is not actually a deep water port. Big ships and cruise liners come into Puerto Chacabuco, about 8 miles to the west. The following (poor) photos were taken at dusk in mid-February 2009. They provide at least some idea of what the city looks like. It is a long city built along the river bank. The plaza is tree-filled. While the city receives little snowfall, it gets much more rain than Coyhaique. But both cities are generally cold and damp, with below-zero temperatures being commonplace during the winter, and wood stoves can be seen running even during the summer months.
The main commercial area of Puerto Aysen. Fishing for salmon and catching king crab (centolla) is the main occupation of the inhabitants here.
Chile Chico (population 3,800) is one of the few cities in the region (besides Coyhaique, Cochrane and Puerto Aysen) with cell phone service. Cell phones simply do not work anywhere else. And if the main fiber optic internet line goes down in Coyhaique, nowhere in the region will have internet service.
Chile Chico is an agricultural town situated on the Chile-Argentina border along Lake General Carrera (Lake Buenos Aires to the Argentines). It is one of the few Chilean cities which is actually east of the Andes, and it is certainly the only one of any significant size. (The only other cities that qualify, I believe, are the small 12th Region towns of Cerro Castillo, Punta Delgada, and Cerro Sombrero, along with Balmaceda in the 11th Region. I do not think that the high plateau border towns of Colchane in the 1st Region or Ollagüe in the 2nd Region qualify as east of the Andes, but I may be mistaken.)
Chile Chico is located 396 kilometers (245 miles) southeast of Coyhaique and requires a six-hour drive to get there. The journey features 300 kilometers of gravel roads which offer (without exaggeration) some of the most impressive lake and glacial-mountain scenery in the world. A car-toting ferry runs across the lake from Chile Chico to Puerto Ingeniero Ibañez once or twice a day (more often during the week than on the weekend but reservations are required either way). The ferry trip takes 2 1/2 hours and then another 2 1/2 hours by car on a paved road to get to Coyhaique. The city of Chile Chico is fairly clean, although not particularly beautiful, and would be reminiscent of Turlock, California if it did not rest along the shore of a gorgeous turquoise and emerald lake.
Chile Chico’s microclimate for the 11th region provides an amazing amount of sunny days and excellent crop-growing potential. Livestock raising is also an important economic activity. The following photo is of the city’s main drag.
At the border station (opens at 8 a.m.): Chileans and Argentines freely cross without passports (using only their national ID cards). The Argentine city of Los Antiguos is a favorite destination for Chileans to get great steak dinners and do some inexpensive shopping. The roads are also better in Argentina, reducing the land journey to Coyhaique by an hour or two.
A typical mini-ranch in Chile Chico that is reminiscent of Wyoming and commonplace in Patagonia and Las Pampas in southern Argentina and Chile.
It had rained so much lately that the lake’s waterline had risen about a meter and had submerged some of Chile Chico’s waterfront trees on this natural lake.
Puerto Guadal is a village located 290 kilometers southwest of Coyhaique, 105 kilometers west of Chile Chico, and 78 kilometers north of Cochrane. While the villiage itself is not impressive, it does have the only gas station on the 396 kilometer trek from Coyhaique to Chile Chico. And the nearby views of Lago General Carrera and its backdrop of the ice-capped Andean peaks provide the most impressive scenery I have experienced anywhere in the world–matched only by that of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine to the south. The owner of a plot of land in this district would be a happy camper!
This gas station owner told me that many Europeans and Canadians had filled up their cars there and had told him that the scenery was better than the best of the Alps, in their opinion. Gasoline costs about 100 pesos (17 cents) more per liter in Puerto Guadal than in larger Chilean cities.
Getting here is not easy but it is worth it. Plan on a 4 hour drive straight from Balmaceda airport (40 mins. east of Coyhaique) in a rental car that costs $100 to $200 per day. There are many places developed for camping but no hotels are to be seen. Make sure to get all your food and supplies before you start the trip. Also, be sure to get a vehicle with clearance and at least two-wheel traction (like the one pictured above).