At 10,000 Chilean pesos (US$15) per person, the entrance fee to hike up Cerro Castillo is steeper than the climb itself. It’s possibly the most expensive hike fee in Latin America. It’s a stunning hike, no doubt, but we got to do it for free.
At first, it was CLP2,000, then it jumped to CLP5,000 now it is CLP10,000 per person to walk across a portion of private land to get to the Cerro Castillo National Reserve from the town of Villa Cerro Castillo. As the hike to this gorgeous peak became more popular the landowner has continually increased the fee, sometimes over 50% a year.
The hike up Cerro Castillo has grown in popularity due to the amazing rugged basalt peaks. Glaciers cling to the jagged rocks and feed lagoons hidden in craters above the snow line. This trail meanders and climbs through multiple zones before reaching the lake at the top (Laguna Castillo) across which looms the imposing rock formation that inspired the name.
Villa Cerro Castillo
Villa Cerro Castillo has only a few streets and a population of 163 people according to the 2002 consensus. I don’t think it has grown much since then. It’s a two-hour bus ride from Coyhaique.
There are signs for a few small grocers but most of them looked like they were closed. You have to knock and someone will attend to you. Such is the sparseness of the customer flow of this sleepier-than-drowsy village which is technically a hamlet.
There is a convenience store called Los Pioneros just off the highway that we really liked. The door was closed and locked but a sign suggested that we ring the bell. A woman came to the door and smiling happily let us in. Then she ran to the back to pull out fresh bread out of the oven. Yeah, they were good and we went back for our dinner supplies as well.
Lodging in Villa Cerro Castillo
There were no online listings for lodging in the village but this could change soon. It’s best and fairly easy just to walk around and inquire in person. There are a surprising number of options for such a small settlement. The most inexpensive accommodation (apart from camping) at CLP10,000 per person was the Hospedaje Austral but it seemed a bit too dirty.
The other two budget options were Hospedaje El Canelo and Hostal Rodeo both at CLP12,000 per person. They seemed comparable: private rooms with 2 or 3 beds, kitchen, hot showers, and wifi. We opted for El Canelo because the beds were slightly wider and the placed looked cleaner. After checking in we found out that the internet didn’t work. I’m pretty sure the owner knew but she acted surprised. We negotiated and she gave us a CLP2000 pp discount.
This area is great for camping as well. We found a campground that charges CLP4,500 per person. It includes a kitchen and hot showers. The woman offered to let us stay in the small common room for campers if we had our own sleeping bags. We didn’t and there was no place to rent camping gear.
We walked the village, all seven blocks, and side streets. There was a fierce dog that almost bit the back of my leg, luckily I turned around just in time and the little weasel slinked back under the old car where it was hiding. At the school grounds, there was a group of kids playing with an air-pressure-actuated rocket made out of soda bottles. They used a bike pump to pressurize the launcher.
Near the village square, one walks upon an intricate wood carving of a gaucho drinking mate while his dog looked on. I did not see any signs that explained the artwork. Perhaps it was a depiction of a pionero.
There was a lot of road maintenance work going on and paving of the gravel road going out of the village. The workers who clearly did not live there were friendly and they greeted us on the streets. In contrast, the locals did not seem to mind indifference. When we greeted them they’d greet us back out of courtesy and gave me the feeling that it would all be the same to them whether we acknowledged them or not.
Trail Options for the Cerro Castillo Hike
Option 1: the day-hike trail that you can walk from the village with the CLP10,000 toll booth at the trailhead. It is a 14 km round trip hike with 3,500 feet elevation gain.
Option 2: Continue down the dirt road (requires 4WD) past the trailhead for six kilometers and take a trail from there. This would be a 9 km hike one way, no entrance fee.
We met two guys, Tim and Sam from the USA, who did option 2. They said that the trail head was difficult to find from the dirt road. After speaking to some of the locals they found the trail. The only marker is a sign that says “private property, no entry.”
There is also a 4-day trek option and includes multiple peaks. Some have said this could eventually become the next Torres Del Paine, but right now even during high season there is less than one hiking group a day on the trail and all the camping at this point is wild campsites.
We would have considered the multi-day hike but we lacked time, and there was the logistical challenge of procuring camping gear. I suppose we simply didn’t want to. In Patagonia, we have planned ahead because many of the more popular areas sell out. In fact, we made our reservations for the campgrounds in Torres Del Paine back in Aug and they were already starting to fill up pretty quickly.
Day Hike to Laguna Cerro Castillo
Deciding on the day hike we headed out early wanting to reach the toll booth before 8 AM. We were told that if no one was there then it was free for the day. If it happened that there was an attendant at the booth, we were ready to negotiate the price down given that it was still shoulder season.
We crossed a bridge over the clear waters of the glacial river just before the initial toll booth and hoped we would find it empty. It was, and there were no instructions or place to put the fee so we climbed the ladder over to the fence and began our trek.
Climbing to the Tree Line
The path was clear and easy to follow. In a few short sections, the trail split up to multiple paths that ultimately converge. There were trailblazers most of the way and the surroundings were undisturbed.
We crossed a meadow that gradually climbed up from the pristine river where it eventually entered the forest. The predominant tree in this forest is the lenga tree. It has beautiful tiny leaves that are ultra shiny. These trees reach about 30 m (100 feet) in height.
We emerged above the tree line to an alpine tundra. Before us was a gaping canyon that had a river running at its base and a glacier in the mountains beyond. We could still see and hear the raging river in the canyon by this time.
Beautiful spring flowers adorned the tundra. Marshy areas encompassed part of the trail, but trail workers had placed enough logs along the marshy areas to allow passage without getting our feet wet – or lost in deep mud.
Halfway up the trail is a small horse corral. There were no horses when we arrived nor did we see any horses on the trail that day. The horse corral was simple and consisted of a massive rope strung between trees lining three sides of a square for the horses to rest. During high season some trekkers can ride to this point. From here on up the trail is steeper and the scree would be very difficult for the horses.
At the far end of the corral was a tiny outhouse. I decided it was a good idea to use it rather than having to use my PeeWee. Women hikers: this is an awesome device. If you hike a lot it is the best thing. You can pee standing up – no more bare butt scaring off the animals in the woods. I use the Venus to Mars model.
The outhouse as I found out upon approach was only three sided. The front where a door should be was completely open. A short while on the throne here provides an amazing view of the entire valley. No one was around so it was private enough.
The trail got steeper as we climbed. The total ascent for the day would be 3,500 feet. The higher we climbed the looser the rocks under our feet became.
The most difficult section was just before the first snow crossing. The softball size rocks would slide en masse with each step as I tried to navigate up along the snowpack to the worn path through the snow a bit higher up.
Once I reached the path I found large holes where people had stepped on and had gone knee deep. I carefully made my way across but it wasn’t too bad. This was the hardest part of the trail and nowhere near as difficult or scary as the skull and crossbones trail near the Quilotoa loop that we took.
Soon after the first snow crossing, we started to round the mountain and the jagged peaks of Cerro Castilo began to appear again. After seeing the sharp basalt spires we crested a hill that brought a snowy alpine marsh into view. We were giddy with excitement to see the lake that was not yet in sight.
The Mythological Creature
Then a large shadow passed above my head and I looked up. Above me was a creature worshiped by the Andean people and was believed to be part of the sun deity. It was two massive condors, the largest flying birds in the western hemisphere, gliding just off the edge of the cliff.
They peacefully glided in large circles carried on the rising thermals. The silence up in the mountain is different and only the wind spoke as we gazed at these creatures. I could understand why the indigenous people of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia believed that they ruled the upper world.
I have been wanting to see the condors soaring in the wild, up in the sky since Peru. Now, finally, as we were almost to the lake, they greeted us making the summit all that much more special.
Laguna Cerro Castillo
Most of the surface of the lake was still frozen but the ice around the edge furthest from the glacial side was starting to melt. At the edge, we could see down into the crystal clear, turquoise waters. We found a large rock to eat lunch and enjoy the view. The beauty of nature is such a gift, it heals, it calms, it fills me up.
What gives you peace and how often do you seek it out?
Retired from Corporate America at the age of 43 along with her husband Trinity. In 2016 they sold their home to begin a nomadic life of slow travel. Bonnie writes of their experience on the road in each country. Subscribe to follow her stories here.
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