One of the first entirely private initiatives to protect major swathes of forest, pioneered by US conservationist Doug Tompkins, the park has a number of well-marked treks, campgrounds, two volcanoes, millennial alerce trees and is easily accessed from Chaitén.
If ever there was a reason to visit the northern section of the Carretera Austral, it is Parque Pumalín. US conservationist Doug Tompkins acquired the Reñihué farm in 1991 and over the following years the US foundation The Conservation Land Trust added substantial land to create the park.
In 2005 the park was declared a nature sanctuary and was managed by the Chilean Fundación Pumalín, until 2017, when it was donated in its entirety to the Chilean state and converted to a national park, affording it the highest level of environmental protection in Chile. As a result, it is entirely prohibited to fish, even with a permit. The park is now under the management of CONAF, and covers an area of approximately 300,000ha.
What to see and do in Parque Pumalín
There are two main sections to the park. Pumalín Norte is actually the more difficult to access, as visitors need to hire a boat from Hornopirén. Information on this section of the park is available at the Puerto Varas information centre. Pumalín Sur is more accessible. This part of the park is broadly divided into two sub-regions: the various trails and campsites located between Caleta Gonzalo and Chaitén; and those accessed from the extreme south of the park at El Amarillo – there are CONAF offices in all three locations.
The first park ranger station is located just north of the (old) landing strip approximately 10km north of Chaitén. South of Chaitén the Carretera is paved, and touches the park once more, at the southern extremity of Pumalín. This southern entrance is called ‘El Amarillo’, and located in the village of the same name, 24km south of Chaitén. The village of El Amarillo has undergone a major urban beautification scheme, sponsored by Conservacíon Patagónica (CP).
Where the Carretera Austral buckles south towards Lago Yelcho at the exit of El Amarillo, continue straight ahead into the park. The second park ranger and tourist information kiosk is on the right-hand side, and can provide maps and local information.
The road continues straight to the El Amarillo hot springs, or left into the park and to the trails and four campsites (Puente Carlos Cuevas, Vuelta del Río, Grande and Ventisquero El Amarillo). The Ventisquero campground, at the foot of Volcán Michinmahuida, is considered one of the most dramatic and spectacular settings for camping in Chilean Patagonia.
Hot springs are dotted along the length of the Carretera Austral, with perhaps the most famous being the Puyuhuapi Lodge and Spa. The El Amarillo hot springs (ask in El Amarillo for opening times; $7,000 pp/day), about 5km northeast of the park’s southern entrance, are worth visiting.
There are various pools filled with thermal water originating from Volcán Michinmahuida, said to possess healing properties, and undoubtedly containing sulphur. The springs are located among lush vegetation, well beyond the reach of mobile-phone coverage, and with ample picnic areas, a quincho and five barbecues. On 16 May 2020 a landslide destroyed the neighbouring lodge, and the springs were closed for some months.
The village of El Amarillo underwent a ‘beautification’ project supported by Tompkins Conservation shortly after the eruption in 2008. Almost all the local residents participated in upgrading both the public use areas, and private residences in the village, and constructing new facilities such as a supermarket. Pumalín’s landscape architects and builders painted houses, planted trees and flowers, and transformed the village in a very visible manner.
Here are eight trails in the park between Caleta Gonzalo and Chaitén. Seek up-to-date information from the park rangers or information centres at entrances to the park, as new trails may open and existing trails may close, or be undergoing temporary maintenance. Although maps are available from the tourist information kiosk, the trails are very well marked and it is easy to do them independently. The main ones along this section (listed from north to south) include:
Caleta Gonzalo–Cascadas trail – 6km round trip; 2–3hrs; easy – A loop following a river to the waterfalls. Well-maintained path with frequent boardwalks spanning wet sections.
Tronador trail – 5km; round trip; 4hrs; difficult – An initial ascent along a gorge, views over snow-capped Volcán Michinmahuida, arriving at the amphitheatre Lago Tronador.
Alerce trail – Under 1hr loop; easy – A short trail through a section of forest housing a number of impressive alerce trees approaching 3,000 years of age. The alerce has been cut to near extinction over the previous 2 centuries for its valuable wood. The path is well maintained & contains occasional explanatory boards.
Cascadas Escondidas trail – 4km round trip; 2hrs; medium – A fantastic trail alongside a river, to a series of increasingly impressive waterfalls. Wooden boardwalks are well maintained, but take care when climbing the wooden ladders which may be slippery. A small detour on the way down goes via approximately half a dozen alerce trees of impressive size.
Volcán Michinmahuida trail – 24km round trip; 10hrs; difficult – Probably the most physically demanding of all the trails in this section of the park, traversing forest, volcanic basalt & an unnamed glacier.
Volcán Chaitén trail – 4km round trip; 3hrs; medium – This trail heads to the edge of the Chaitén crater, where steam emerges from the ground on the far side. One of the most accessible volcano hikes on the entire Carretera Austral, & well worth the effort. Having lain dormant for nearly 10,000 years, in May 2008 this volcano erupted, causing massive devastation to the nearby town.
Darwin’s Frog trail – 2.5km round trip; easy – An informative loop explaining how forests grow following logging or fire. Pick up the interpretive guide in the tourist information centre at the
entrance to the park. Darwin’s frog is endangered & rather small, but can be seen along this trail, although perhaps only by those with a trained eye.
Ventisquero El Amarillo trail – 20km round trip; 6hrs; easy – An excellent trail to the base of a glacier protruding from the south side of Volcán Michinmahuida.