After hours of steep bushwhacking through spiny Calafate bushes in Chilean Patagonia, I cursed as another thorn impaled my leg. I was tired and hungry, my heavy wet feet squishing in boots that were soggy from crossing multiple bogs. My guide, Fernando, was 30 feet ahead—too far for me to follow his footsteps, which were undoubtedly more graceful than my awkward stumbles. I battled pangs of doubt but then remembered Fernando said he was taking me to the most beautiful place on Earth.
Our plan was to hike to Lake Meliquina above the Valle Leones in Aysén, then pack raft to the foot of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field. I was Fernando’s guinea pig. He had recently purchased land near here and was planning to build a refugio. When I met Fernando four months ago I had jumped at the invitation. Now I alternated between admiring the view and wondering how I had decided to head into the Aysén backcountry with someone I barely knew.
One thousand miles south of Santiago, Aysén is Chile’s most sparsely populated district, roughly the size of Ohio but home to just 100,000 people. The western slice is an interlocking jigsaw of islands and fjords carved by ancient glaciers. To the east, vast ice fields remain, rimmed by the pointy peaks of the Andes Mountains. Laguna San Rafael National Park protects the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, which spills into Lake Meliquina up the valley from Fernando’s land, and also cradles Chilean Patagonia’s highest mountain—13,300-foot San Valentin.
The day before, Fernando had picked me up from the Coyhaique airport and we’d driven four and a half hours south on the Carretera Austral, a 770-mile “highway” that connects Patagonia’s Lakes District in the north to Villa O’Higgins, near Aysén’s southern edge. As we rattled along the bumpy dirt road, swerving around potholes, I decided the term “highway” was optimistic. My cell phone declared “no service,” and I started measuring the distance between houses in hours. Glancing in the back of the car, I was relieved to see an extra fuel can stowed. “Help might be a long time coming around here,” I thought.
We hung a right off the highway and drove up Valle Leones on a petering road. Somewhere past the last power line, as late afternoon faded to night, we pulled up to a small wooden house with a tin roof. A gaucho named Enrique emerged, greeting us warmly. He was going to accompany with us to the lake, carrying our pack raft by horse. Feeling both awkward and excited, I practiced my rudimentary Spanish on him before pitching my tent under a dark sky that sparkled with a billion stars.
The next morning the fluttering calls of ibis roused me from a deep slumber. I wandered into Enrique’s small kitchen and warmed my cold hands by the crackling wood fire while Fernando cooked eggs. After eating, Enrique saddled up and set off on the trail, with us lagging on foot.
The start of the trail was pretty easy, pounded in by equestrian feet. As we hiked, Fernando described how he discovered this valley, from an airplane. “I saw a valley with mountains and glaciers so complex and beautiful, I became so emotional that my heart went boom boom, like a really big heartbeat,” he said.
For years, the valley filled Fernando’s dreams. “I always said it was the most incredible place I had seen but it’s impossible to know which place it was or how to get there again.” Then in 2010, he stumbled upon it again, while scoping locations for the Aysén Tourism Board.
“I got into it [the valley] and again my heart beat like boom, boom. And then I realized I was standing in the same valley that I saw from the plane.”
As we climbed above the Valle Leones, the wide, milky Leones River came into view, lazily meandering through the valley against a backdrop of jagged snow-capped peaks. The landscape morphed from lumpy shrubland to pine-covered hills to eerie leafless lenga trees, whose twisted trunks made me think of of headless horsemen. The Meliquina River bubbled along a rocky bed near the trail. I stopped to fill my water bottle with the pure, turquoise water and started to grasp Fernando’s deep connection to this land.
Eventually the trail petered out and we hit an endless bog. And then the Calafate slope—with its constant pokes. Just when I was at the end of my rope, Lake Meliquina appeared, a gleaming blue pool sunk into a deep pocket of mountains. At the far end, glacial ice twisted and tumbled down to the water’s edge. I gasped and felt and my heart go boom boom. The grandeur of this place was true.
We blew up our pack raft, put on dry suits, and starting paddling. A crisp breeze drained across the lake from the glacier as we explored one finger of the lake, then the other, landing on a tiny rocky beach across from the ice. Glancing around at the small stretch of shore, I realized the only way to approach it was by boat.
“How many people do you think have stood here,” I asked.
“I don’t know, just a few,” Fernando said. I thought about it. The only way to get here was to drive to the end of the road, haul a raft, hike five hours, bushwhack through thorny Calafate, and paddle for an hour. This was a remote finger of a national park, unmarked on many maps. Only local gauchos, Fernando, and a few others knew how to cross the complicated patchwork of private land to get here. I felt like a pioneer.
Gauchos know this land like the back of their hands from roaming the hills on horseback. The next day, I met Prudence, whose wife grew up in the valley. He drove a herd of sheep home before jumping off his horse, coming inside, and kicking off metal-spurred boots. We gathered around the wood stove and shared sips of yerba mate and neighborly chat. The aging couple lives a life of hard labor, with little help. A couple of lambs had gone missing overnight, Prudence said. Fernando talked about his plans to build Refugio Ventisquero down the road. Prudence’s grandson plans to return to the valley to help Fernando run it, and will also lend a hand on his family’s ranch.
To end the trip, we drove south to check out some other Aysén highlights, stopping for the night on the Baker River. This massive waterway, which collects more runoff than any other river in Chile, is world-renowned for fly fishing and rafting. The silky strand of fairytale blue snaked past my window at the Borde Baker Lodge, leaving me to once again marvel at this land.
We followed the Baker River to the Valle Chacabuco, a vast swath of rolling grassland and beech forests that will one day become a national park. Three years ago I wrote about the making of Patagonia National Park, the vision of former Patagonia CEO Kris Tomkins and her late husband, Doug Tomkins, who purchased 200,000 acres to restore and donate to the Chilean government. Checking into the magnificent Lodge at Valle Chacabuco, I felt the Tomkins’ devotion and pure connection to this place.
On the six-hour drive back to the airport, I tried to wrap a neat bow around my time in Aysén. But it felt like something bigger than just a place. Whether under the spell of Fernando’s valley or the Tomkins’ future national park, everyone’s heart is susceptible to a special landscape. My mind wandered back to Meliquina—its wild, remote, superlative beauty. Looking down at my arms, I saw goose bumps among the Calafate scratches, and I felt my heart go boom boom.